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The First 'triton' – A Prewar Cafe Racer

Friday, October 21, 2016 14:44
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(Before It's News)

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The world's first Triton, built by Rex McCandless during WW2 – a racing Triumph Tiger 100 motor in a Norton International racing chassis.  Note headlamp mask – required during wartime blackouts. (photo courtesy Dennis Quinlan, via VMCC Library)

Back in 2008, I wrote about the McCandless brothers' invention of the first modern swingarm motorcycle frame in 1944. Norton race chief Joe Craig took note of this radical new chassis, leading Norton to purchased the rights to the McCandless design in 1949. Geoff Duke debuted the McCandless-framed Norton in 1950 housing a factory Grand Prix racer, and sweet-handling design became known as the 'Featherbed'.

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A mid-30's Norton International rigid frame was the gold standard of pre-War handling

Rex McCandless and his brother Cromie were an interesting pair, devoted to motorcycle engineering and racing, and changed the motorcycle industry forever without the need for an engineering degree.  Rex famously wrote,  ”I never had any formal training. I came to believe that it stops people from thinking for themselves. I read many books on technical subjects, but always regarded that as second-hand knowledge. I did my best working in my own way.”  It slipped my attention then, but it seems the McCandless brothers also seem to have invented the most iconic custom motorcycle of the cafe racer era – the Triton, a Norton/Triumph hybrid.

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Rex McCandless (left) and Artie Bell, both on racing Triumph Tiger 100s in 1940.  Note swanky race transport behind them!

Rex McCandless tuned and raced his own motorcycles before WW2, first turning his attention to a new twin-cylinder Triumph Triumph Tiger 100 in 1940.  His home-tuned Tiger was was faster than the factory-tuned bronze-head Tiger 100 of his friend, Artie Bell (future Norton Works racer), and Rex won the Irish 500cc Road Race and Hillclimb championships that year.  While the motor was fast, the Triumph chassis made 'unreasonable demands of its rider'.  The story goes that McCandless began experimenting with weight distribution on the Triumph, and eventually designed his own frame, which became the Featherbed.  But it seems he tried a known better-handling chassis first for his Triumph motor, and installed the Tiger engine in a racing Norton International chassis.  He'd already proven his T100 engine faster than a racing Norton, but their chassis was the gold standard for handling.   Thus the first Triton was born during WW2, as evidenced by photos in the VMCC Library, passed along to me by Dennis Quinlan.

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The 'Benial', McCandless' first chassis of his own design, a full cradle, double-loop, all-welded swingarm frame, with vertical rear dampers from a Citroen car

Thankfully for us, the Norton also didn't live up to McCandless' idea of what a frame could be!  He carried on experimenting;  ”I had noticed that when I removed weight in the shape of a heavy steel mudguard and a headlight, that the bike steered a lot better. It made me think about things which swiveled when steering. I was in an area about which I knew nothing, but set-to to find out. It seemed obvious to me that the rigidity of the frame was of paramount importance. That the wheels would stay in line, in the direction the rider pointed the bicycle, regardless of whether it was cranked over for a corner, and to resist the bumps on the road attempting to deflect it. Of equal importance was that the wheels would stay in contact with the road. That may seem obvious, but fast motor cycles then bounced all over the place. I decided that soft springing, properly and consistently damped, was required.”

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Geoff Duke winning the first of many races on the Norton 'Featherbed' factory Manx racer, in 1950, on a frame hand-built by Rex McCandless

The first test-bed for Rex's ideas, built in 1944, was named the 'Benial' (Irish for 'beast'). It looked much like the double-loop, lugless frame used on the Gilera-Rondine watercooled dohc 4-cyl racer of the 1930's, but it had a proper swingarm at the back with vertical hydraulic shock absorbers (from a Citroen car). “The Benial was the best-handling bicycle I ever made.” Using the ideas garnered from his experiments, McCandless first designed a bolt-on rear suspension kit for rigid-frame motorcycles,  which was tested publicly by the Irish grass-track racing team at Brands Hatch in 1946. Prior to the race, other riders looked askance at the rear suspension kits, but after the race, they clamored for them. Rex had no ambition to go into manufacturing, and sold the rights to the kit to Feridax, a well-known accessory maker.

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A McCandless swingarm conversion on a 1937 Velocette Mk7 KTT – new life for an old racer!

McCandless knew his Benial had the best-handling frame in the industry, and approached Norton with a challenge, and the intention to sell his design. Norton's 'plunger' Garden Gate frame had a tendency to break, and handled like a camel.  Joe Craig made the frames heavier, to stop the breakages, but in McCandless' view, this showed an insufficient understanding of the stresses involved on the chassis, “…all they did was to fix together bits of tube and some lugs..” In 1949, he told Gilbert Smith, the Managing Director of Norton, “You are not Unapproachable, and you are not the World's Best Roadholder. I have a bicycle which is miles better!” The Norton brass set up a test on the Isle of Man, where a relative of Cromie McCandless' wife was Chief of Police. They closed the roads, “Artie Bell was on my bike, ultimately christened the Featherbed by Harold Daniell. Geoff Duke was on a Garden Gate and both had Works engines. Gilbert Smith, Joe Craig and I stood on the outside of the corner at Kate's Cottage. We could hear them coming from about the 33rd [milestone]. When Geoff came through Kate's he was needing all the road. Artie rode around the outside of him on full bore, miles an hour faster, and in total control. That night Gilbert Smith and I had a good skinful.”

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The prototype Featherbed Manx, built in late 1949, still with vertical rear shocks, likely sourced from an automobile

Further testing took place at Montlhery, with four riders (Artie Bell, Geoff Duke, Harold Daniell, and Johnny Lockett) going flat-out for two days. “We went through two engines, then the snow came on. The frame hadn't broken so we all went home.” The debut of the new frame came at Blandford Camp, Dorset, in April 1950, with Geoff Duke aboard (below, winning that race). The string of successes which followed gave a new lease on life to a 20-year-old engine design, and Norton won 1-2-3 in the Senior and Junior TT's that year. Norton didn't have the facility to produce the Featherbed frame themselves, nor could Reynolds (the tubing manufacturer), so Rex brought his own jigs over from Ireland, and personally built the Works Norton frames from 1950-53.  The original jigs still exist – what a historic piece of scrap iron!

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The immortal Rex McCandless

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