My Life and Times with the Yellow Submarine by Steve Thompson
From The Northern California Norton Owner's Club magazine
On May 5th, 2007, the judges in the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours d'Elegance decided that my 1972 Norton Commando Production Racer was worthy of third place in the category "British Competiton/Modified, 1958- 1975." On March 31st the bike had won its concours class - "Heavyweight road-race, 1946-1983" - at the 20th annual BSA Owners' Club's Clubman show in San Jose. And in September 2004, the racing Norton I always called "The Yellow Submarine" garnered a first in class at the inaugural motorcycle event at the prestigious Radnor Hunt Concours in Pennsylvania.
Thinking about the concours laurels this machine has earned in the 21st century inevitably reminds me of what a long journey it's taken from the showroom floor of Gus Kuhn's Clapham, London dealership, where I first saw it in December of 1971.
Picture from The Northern California Norton Owner's Club magazine
I'd found the Yellow Sub after a phone search of British Norton dealers for a factory-built PR, and it seemed that, as Kuhn's Vincent Davey told me, the one in their showroom was probably the last new one available. Consequently, my team mate and I wasted no time in putting money down on the rather expensive racing machine - it cost us some £860. That bike had seemed like the right choice when the USAF surprised me in early 1969 with the news that I'd been assigned to Headquarters Squadron, 513th Combat Support Group at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, England. I'd been told to expect orders to Vietnam, so I could hardly believe my good fortune.
I'd bought a new 250cc Kawasaki A1-R GP bike from Price Sport Cycle in Lubbock, Texas, who sponsored me to race at Austin and Daytona in '69. Stationed at Reese AFB, not far from Lubbock, I'd won at Austin before going to Daytona, but carb problems kept me from placing well there and I was itching to race in England, home not only to Oxford and Cambridge but also to what I called "The University of Brands Hatch." Most of those I'd known in the AFM when I'd started racing in March of '67 wanted to attend that particular school of road-racing, from which such Bay-Area British ex-pat racers as Ron Grant had graduated with honors. I'd finished second to Ron in the 350 Production Class at Cotati on my first race on my Yamaha YR-1, and subsequent podium finishes kept my goal of being a professional road-racer alive, even as I served in the Air Force.
Much to their credit, my squadron and wing commanders at Reese AFB had perceived my racing as good public relations for the USAF, so I raced with their blessing and even at Daytona, with "permissive TDY" - meaning I did not have to take leave to race, and was on temporary duty for the Air Force, much as if I were a tennis pro going to a tournament. When I got to England in May 1969, I was eager to get into racing, but when my A1-R finally arrived at Mildenhall it was too late for the '69 season. Meanwhile, I'd explored British racing and found a motorcycle shop in Cambridge well known for its support of racing; Hallens, which advertised itself as "Winners of Many TT Replicas." There I met John Faben who raced 350cc and 500cc Manxes in club and national events. John and I joined forces in my racing team, called "Thistle Racing Limited," (TRL), a name I'd coined to reflect my Scottish heritage.
Had I not already bought the Kawasaki, I would have preferred to race a Manx, as John did. However, I had watched from the paddock at Daytona in 1969 as Yvon Duhamel had broken the 150-mph lap-speed mark on Fred Deeley's Yamaha 350cc TR2, much to the chagrin of rice-grinder haters everywhere. It was the sign of an era ending and another beginning.
In England, as I studied British racing throughout the rest of the '69 season, I realized that it might well be the end of the Manx Era, not just because Manxes almost never had the speed necessary to overcome professionally tuned and skilfully ridden two-strokes. Rather, it was because paddock wisdom held that until you could extract everything that a Manx could give, you shouldn't go to faster GP bikes. There was more to this than just racing lore; the British tradecraft tradition of a young man working his way up from apprentice to journeyman to master was still widely respected as a necessary experience. Because many British racers worked in the trades, transferring the trajectory from apprentice to master from the trades to racing seemed to be a widely accepted notion. Of course, anyone who won races on anything was respected, but in the paddocks it seemed that everyone knew who had paid his dues the traditional way, and who had not.
As the sole American I knew to be racing at this club and national class level with a Japanese two-stroke GP bike, among the older racers in this group I was on an undeclared but real form of race-craft probation until I proved my mettle the only way it could be proven - on the track.
I finally got my A1-R to a starting grid in March, 1970. My ride was short - it seized a few laps into the race. The seizure problem beset the bike for the next two seasons, despite a major fettling by famed TT racer and tuner Terry Shepherd. Terry rebuilt the engine with Mahle and Yamaha components, upping its displacement to 348cc, and when the bike ran it was fast and tractable for a two-stroke. But it was still infuriatingly unpredictable in its seizing mode and also ate its gearbox on the Isle of Man TT course in the 1970 Manx GP practice, leaving me without a ride there. The next year was more of the same and by the end of the '71 season I'd had it with climbing up through the pack on the track and having the race end with a stuck engine. Although Terry was a superb tuner, he was rarely with me at a race so, as the engine failed in race after race, he couldn't pin down the problem. (Much later, it was discovered that the type had what Shepherd described as a "wandering spark.")
At the end of the season John Faben left the team and, with only about half the '72 season available for me to race before I had to rotate back to the States, I looked for other options. Although I'd briefly raced a Yamaha TD1-C lent to me on a trial basis for purchase by fellow MGP racer Brian Coope, in the end I decided that the Yamaha wasn't much better than my A1-R, what with its radical, non-factory porting and resulting on/off powerband. Unable to find a new Yamaha TD2 for sale when I went back to the States on TDY, I decided to race in the production classes. Hence the allure of the Commando Production Racer. It had been conceived and built specifically for the task, with no frills, and would be, I believed, easier to set up and use than any other bike to race - an important consideration for me, with limited mechanical skills and a very demanding Air Force job. In the midst of determining this Air Force staff sergeant Dick Tietjen joined my team. Because Dick was a neophyte racer we planned our season so that, at every venue we attended, I'd compete in the 1972 Shell Production Championship and he'd ride in the "open" classes.
Dick and I picked up the bike we called the Yellow Submarine (because its fairing reminded us of a submarine's bow, and because of the Beatles' song) at Kuhn's on February 3, 1972. We took it from Kuhn's London shop in my 1962 Bedford van back to our "works" near Thetford, Norfolk. The TRL "works" was a standalone one-car garage lent to me by an Air Force friend who lived in the rented house on the property. The garage wasn't much more than a shed, but it was close to Snetterton, had a workbench, a light, a kerosene heater and a window. I'd shared it throughout most of 1971 with TSGT Jim Rohn, who was a technician at Mildenhall and a very fast grass-track and speedway racer, riding a Jawa. Jim, a superb mechanic, helped us prep the Norton for action and set it up for its break-in. Because we didn't register the Sub on the street, we had to break it in elsewhere, and to do this our team manager, Maj. Herb Hester, called in help from his Royal Air Force friends. One was a squadron commander at a nearby deactivated RAF airfield with a very long concrete runway so, after the necessary approvals, in mid-February we ran it, seemingly endlessly, up and down the long runway. We also made several trips to Snetterton on open-practice days (£2 a day) before it was sufficiently broken-in to be raced and we were ready for its first outing on March 5, 1972.
Picture from The Northern California Norton
Owner's Club magazine
Race day was typically cold and rainy for Norfolk in March, but I didn't really mind. We were old hands at British weather and I'd won my first race in the rain anyway. I borrowed a rain suit, rolled the bike out onto the grid and awaited the flag. In British production races then you were required to start your bike after the flag dropped, using whatever method the factory provided.
The Sub finally fired on the fifth kick and I accelerated up the straight in the rain. Five laps later, the engine seemed to tighten a bit just before its guts exploded all over the track approaching the first turn after the pit straight. The corner workers gathered up all the bits as I rolled the dead bike over to the trackside, furious again at a machine failure. We were told that a similar problem had plagued the Norton team at Daytona that very weekend and the cause was the oil line to the rocker box. The engine's heat melted it, and the oil simply pumped from the open end of the line into the windstream which, in the driving rain, I'd not noticed, as the bike was slip-sliding all over the place in the turns anyway. Norton gave us the replacement bits, and we also replaced the stock ignition with a Boyer kit, which was then brand-new technology.
Our next race was again at Snetterton on April 2, Easter Sunday. Dick and I both made it through practice without troubles and the Sub and I were lapping close to the leaders' times. In the race, the bike fired on the first kick, and I was dicing with the leading gaggle when, passing PR-mounted Hartley Kerner in the chicane before the pit straight, my left foot stabbed the brake pedal instead of the shift lever. My brain remembered to shift "down for up," but it shifted the wrong lever, locking the rear brake. This wrong-footing was then an embarrassingly common problem for road racers transitioning from left- to right-shifted bikes, or vice versa, and though I'd thought I'd retrained my mental shift-controller, under the stress of a pass in a tricky chicane, it turned out I had not.
After sliding on a locked rear wheel at high speed, the bike wrenched itself from my hands, and the motorcycle and I arced through the air and landed on the far side of a dirt levee across the track from the pits. I came to with the track doctor kneeling on my chest, my Bell Star full of dirt, as the doc strove to restart my heart which had stopped on impact. Sent by ambulance to a hospital in Norwich, I was eventually released after X-rays revealed no broken bones. Amazingly, only one exhaust pipe, the fairing, and the taillight had been damaged. We got all but the fairing within a week, so we trimmed the windscreen and fairing and were ready to race again the next event. However, because I'd taken such a hard hit to the whole body, I couldn't yet walk without a cane and also couldn't kick-start the bike. I was concerned that they'd not let me race. But I had a decent reputation, so they allowed me to start at the back of the grid and, when the flag dropped, our team's "race captain", USAF Capt. Bob Cowan, push-started me successfully. Four laps later, I realized that there was something seriously wrong because, once the engine got hot, whenever I'd open the throttle fully it would balk and stumble. Part-throttle wasn't so bad, but you don't race on part-throttle.
We tried hard to locate the source of the problem, but even a cylinder-head teardown showed us no obvious reasons for it. So we entered more races and hoped for the best as the back-to-the-States clock kept ticking. Dick was slated to rotate back in May and I in July, so I still hoped to be able to compete in the 1972 Production TT, my main reason for buying the Yellow Submarine. The TT Course was in my blood, and my frustrations in the '70 and '71 Manx GPs only left me hungry for racing successfully there.
But I'd not make it to the TT in 1972. Over the next races at Cadwell Park and Brands, the PR would start strong and then begin stuttering under full throttle after a few laps. We sought the advice of a Norton tuner, but his own racing schedule precluded his doing proper troubleshooting on our engine in time for me to compete successfully in the championship series. (It ultimately turned out that a valve guide had developed a hairline crack, which our inspections had failed to spot.)
In early May, we realized that our time racing the Yellow Submarine in Britain was at an end. We decided to sell it, but Vincent Davey urged us to take it back to the States, because, he said, it was a rarity and thereby more highly prized than in the UK where the bike the British press called "The Yellow Peril" was more common on starting grids. Thus early in July 1972, I left England and active duty in the Air Force. The Air Force shipped the PR to California for me. Although Dick Tietjen and I had planned to continue our racing association in the States, he decided he had other priorities, so I bought out his half of the bike. After advertising the Norton in Cycle News, in February, 1973 I sold it to Ron Fratturelli of Ron's Cycle Sales in Leominster, Massachusetts .
But the Yellow Submarine did not so easily let me go. I found that it, alone of the bikes I'd owned and raced, never really left my mind. I kept track of it, and after my first novel sold in 1979, I bought it back. Brian Slark restored it to factory spec for me, and the Sub returned to my garage. I subsequently wrote a piece about it for Cycle Guide, appearing in the February, 1981 issue as "The Life and Times of the Yellow Submarine," and I never expected it to leave my stable again. In the decades that followed, though I did finally manage to go back to the Island and race in the Production TT with a Team Cycle World GSX-R750 Suzuki in 1987 and lap respectably over the ton.
Unexpected events forced me to sell the Sub not once, but several times. Anyone who has been ensnared by a machine that embodies more than its makers built into it will understand that the events leading to my sale of the Sub aren't as important as the spell the bike cast over me. I could never really part with it for long without wanting to have it once again, ready to ride, in my garage, and so, following each sale, I'd eventually buy it back again.
In 2004, while I was living in Annapolis, Maryland, I'd just repurchased the bike for what I hoped would be the last time and was looking forward to showing it and racing it in classic events. But on the rainy night of May 27th, the driver of a 1995 Chevy Monte Carlo and I (aboard a 1995 Triumph Tiger) tried to occupy the same space on a rural two-lane road, less than a mile from my home. The ensuing collision involved a closing speed of about 60mph, each vehicle doing about 30mph when we met, handlebar to grille. The police did not issue citations, and the local newspaper reported that I had lost control of the Triumph. What actually happened was that the new Metzeler Tourance tire I'd mounted up front hadn't been scrubbed-in, though I'd thought it was, so that when I chose a line through the blind, uphill, double-apex corner that necessitated a serious lean angle, the tire slid, triggering a struggle for control that ultimately took the bike across the center line at precisely the wrong time and place. Although the Chevy driver was not injured, I was. Subsequently, I spent nearly six weeks in the ICU of the University of Maryland 's Baltimore Shock Trauma Center, and then another few months in various convalescent homes and a rehab facility. Meanwhile, my friends entered the Yellow Submarine into the inaugural motorcycle event at the Radnor Hunt Concours in Pennsylvania, where, as noted above, it won its class.
Unable to walk or even to move the Production Racer around my shop, I have sent it from my stable to that of a serious racer who will use it as I cannot. My life and time with it might be over, but insofar as any machine has a "life," the PR's is far from ended. More than a quarter-century ago, I wrote that the Production Racer's epitaph would be, "Beautiful, fast, British - and too late." That judgment then seemed justified. But never were less prophetic words written, for the Yellow Sub and all classic Nortons now seem likely to thunder as far into the future as fossil fuels will power us. Somewhere, James Lansdowne Norton must be smiling.