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Norton Atlas Scrambler

High – Flying Hybrid – Norton Atlas Scrambler

March 2, 2017

Anthony arrived at our meeting point on his glittering Atlas Scrambler surprisingly quietly, considering the open exhaust pipes. Desert scramblers don’t like wet weather; they’re set up for arid conditions, so it was good fortune that we had a lovely sunny English day. He led off, which gave me the joy of listening to the rapturous roar as he pulled away, and the gorgeous ‘wetter’ every time he shut the throttle. Truly it is a fabulous sounding bike.

The Norton Atlas Scrambler is an example of a ‘hybrid’, so called because it is mix of marquees. The hybrids came about in 1963 when Associated Motor Cycles were struggling to survive. AMC had relocated Norton from Birmingham to join AJS and Matchless at the Plum stead works in Woolwich and needed to make inroads into the world’s most important motorcycle market, the USA. They needed success and they needed it fast. That meant racing. And in 1963 in America that meant desert racing!

Unfortunately AMC discovered that their Matchless desert racers had robust cycle parts but continually destroyed their engines. And their Norton desert racers had great engines but continually wrecked their frames. They scratched their heads and decided to rationalize and, in the British bike industry’s fine decision making fashion, they got it bang on. The unburstable Norton Atlas engine in the unbreakable AJS / Matchless frame. Well, actually, the concept machine came from Bob Blair and Steve Zabaro of the USA via Berliner Motor Corporation in New Jersey, but let’s not gets bogged down with technicalities…

A prototype was tested at Hawk stone Park in September 1963 to massive acclaim and production started immediately. The frame was from the Matchless G12CS with Girling 4590 rear units, the complete units containing 4592 dampers and 90lb springs. This cocktail didn’t just make a great bike; it produced arguably one of the best British bikes ever. Competition in the USA was fierce, American racers believed that the runner-up was the first of the losers. They thrashed the bikes hard. Their maxim was ‘Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday’. Podium to showroom.

So, was the new hybrid a winner in the American desert? Hell yes! MCN called it the ‘Fastest Scrambler in the World’. A review in Custom Rodder christened the Atlas Scrambler ‘Hottest of the Hot Cycles’ in 1964. In America it left the competition standing and regularly took the #1 plate. The US wanted so many that AMC couldn’t then make enough to sell them in Britain as well. Allegedly.

Meeting Anthony for the first time is a shock and awe experience. He is a walking encyclopaedia on the AMC hybrids. His knowledge takes you back as it spills out in a continuous flow. Part numbers, specifications, technical details, you name it, if it’s hybrid then it’s in his head. His obvious love for the bikes started in 1967 when he saw an article about them in Motorcycle Mechanics. He bought the magazine and devoured the road test inside. Two years later, while working at Gus Kuhn Motors, he encountered a 1968 Norton N15CS in the metal, a peacock in its candy apple red paintwork. Frustratingly it was not for sale but Gus Kuhn’s salesman gave him brochure which was promptly pinned up on his wall…

In 1970 Anthony was in Coburn and Hughes, and there stood gorgeous Matchless G15CSR. The memories flooded back, and he had to have it. That was his first hybrid and he is still the proud owner of it, one of only 95 G15CSR street scramblers made. In the original logbook, the maker was shown as being Norton Matchless. Ten years later, Anthony found an article in an old American magazine. It was the April 1964 issue and filling the front cover was a gorgeous Norton Atlas 750 scrambler, a G15CS(N). In the desert! It was infatuation all over again. Cycle World were wowed by the bike and Anthony vowed that one day he would have one. He Assistance came from many sources, such as TimSmith of Oregon, who was able to supply pictures and information from his own very original 1963 Norton Atlas Scrambler. Tim was the second owner of his machine, almost from new, and still has it. Dean Nissen in Seattle and Neal Peacock in Colorado were also very helpful with parts and knowledge. The frame and many parts came from Walbridge Motors in Canada. The motor’s bottom half was an incredibly lucky find at an auto jumble, from the stall of a well-known AMC parts dealer. Anthony purchased the correct and genuine rear mudguard from Russell Motors’ extensive stock of original AMC factory parts back in the 1980s.

The NOS front mudguard, absolutely unique to the Scrambler, was found still in the factory wrapping at a Kempton Park auto jumble. Why a new mudguard for a USA-only model should be there is a mystery. Anthony certainly has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. People who don’t know him might think he has magic touch to procure such ‘unobtainable’ parts. In truth, although there is an element of luck involved, it is due to his hard work, dedication and determination, but mainly the incredible amount of knowledge and valuable contacts he has spent many years acquiring.

Original and rare Lucas electrical items came from a friend, Gordon Davies, chairman of the British Motorcycle Preservation Society. Rockers made by CR Axtell were supplied by Ron Fratturelli from Arizona. Will Horgan of Stainless Classics made some parts in stainless steel. Metal Magic made the rear mudguard stays and brackets from patterns supplied by Derek Bennett. In addition Derek helped with some of the cylinder head work and also fabricated some special parts in stainless steel. The engine and gearbox were rebuilt by Geoff Myers whose father established the aforementioned Russell Motors, a source for AMC parts from the time the bikes were coming off the production line.

The speedometer and tachometer were special to the 1963-dispatchedAtlas Scramblers. The Speedo was a cross between a magnetic and a chronometric mechanism and the rev counter was a chronometric one. The special Speedo on the Atlas Scrambler was also used on some of the other bikes in the 1963 AMC range as the G15/45 twins carried it too. All the subsequent bikes used the later Smiths magnetic instruments. Amazingly, Ashley People of Speedo Repairs was able to source all new parts to construct the correct new instruments specifically for this machine. From all across the globe Anthony found the elusive items needed to complete the bike you see today.

The bike was dispatched to America on 19th November 1963. It was the third Atlas Scrambler to leave the factory out of 200 made, and is almost certainly the earliest G15CS(N) left in the world as a complete and working bike. It is believed to have been sold at Bob Buds chat’s shop in Seattle, where customers would take new dirt bikes for a test run and tear up and down an abandoned tramline behind the shop. Those were the days! To make sure every bike was sound, they were all road-tested at Plum stead before being semi-dismantled and crated up for export.

Somehow, astonishingly, Anthony has met and is now friends with Alan Jones, the actual AMC road tester who gave his bike its first ever road run. Despite appearing very original, the bike is not quite as it was when Alan gave it its factory test ride. Anthony has added sensible but discreet modifications to make it more usable on modern roads. Commando pistons have been fitted, giving a 9:1 compression ratio. The gearbox has been fitted with a heavy duty roller bearing to cope with the power output, and the collars for the top of the valve springs aremade of titanium.

When the bikes were first used as intended there was a problem with the forks clanging on the rebound, and AMC produced extenders to solve the problem. Even though they are hidden and Anthony is not planning on giving the machine a canyon caning, he had a good friend, the late Malcolm Saggers, make some of these extenders and has fitted them. The bike sports a K2F magneto with competition HT leads. The Zener diode is the original, as are much of the electrics, but for practicality Anthony has fitted a headlamp main beam warning light to the headlight shell.

The bike has a Norton transfer for the 2.2 gallon petrol tank. That and all the tin ware is in Cardinal Red. Cycle Sprays painted the tank (with only one color picture of part of a tank as a guide) and made a superb job. The petrol tank lining consisted of the usual G15CS type lining but in black, with a white outline top and bottom. The rear mudguard had a transfer applied stating ‘Matchless, London’ in black and gold. The Norton Atlas Scrambler seemed to have had a bit of an identity crisis going on with it, though whether this transfer was actually always affixed is in doubt. Anthony knows that just because something is in the parts books, it doesn’t mean that it was consistently fitted. The exhaust pipes were straight-through from the factory.

Atlas Scramblers from that first batch held the off-road #1 plate for 1964 in District 37 (the Mojave Desert) ridden by the extremely talented rider Mike Patrick. Mike won that #1plate three times, on three different bikes. During race Mike would leap canyons ten foot wide, with a very long drop between the edges. Not much room for error there, so he was continually trying new modifications to gain an extra advantage.

In an attempt to improve the handling he fitted Ceriani forks, but the original Road holders were soon refitted. ‘Those Cerianis nearly killed me,’ said Mike. He called the Scrambler his ‘Blunderbuss’ and he also explained that at some times he was merely a scared passenger. The bike was really good from the off and there wasn’t much needed to make it perfect. They were also successfully raced on the USA east coast, where Dan Gore won many races and championships.

Anthony has also assembled a complete toolkit as supplied with the bike when it was first dispatched by AMC at Plum stead, over fifty years ago. This man knows his hybrids… He is in fact so well respected that Clint Eastwood, a rather famous fellow Hybrid rider, has been in touch, even sending a signed picture as a token of his regard Neil Armstrong said that ‘a man has only a finite number of heartbeats allocated in life’. If you ride one of these machines, you should prepare to have your life shortened. Nothing will make your heart beat as fast as a hybrid on full song. As it’s a tall bike you really need to be a six-footer to fully exploit one. When you do, they have excellent handling and a raw power that will scare the pants off most riders. They are most well known for their off-road competence, but with the right tyres they are equally impressive as a street bike. When they were released they set a new standard for dual purpose bikes and still have an aura that wows motorcyclists everywhere. They look gorgeous standing still, but it is when you ride them that you appreciate what an excellent package they are.

Keep the revs low, ‘said Anthony. ‘Remember, with only 400miles on the clock since the rebuild, it’s still running in. ‘This is not an easy instruction to follow. The engine is clearly keen to destroy itself, as it revs likeamulti. Twist the throttle and your breath is left at the start point. It is a phenomenal experience! This is not a motorcycle for the faint of heart. Keep the revs low, ‘said Anthony. ‘Remember, with only 400miles on the clock since the rebuild, it’s still running in. ‘This is not an easy instruction to follow. The engine is clearly keen to destroy itself, as it revs like a multi. Twist the throttle and your breath is left at the start point. It is a phenomenal experience! This is not a motorcycle for the faint of heart.

Despite the fact that the Scrambler is a fairly hefty bike, it feels light and well balanced when you sit on it. Let the clutch out, pull away and any weight disappears. It feels easy to move around, flicky without feeling temperamental. It’s certainly one of the most maneuverable and best handling bikes I have ridden. Sitting close to the tank, as Anthony advised, it feels as though it steers itself. The engine has a deep sonorous growl and loads of grunt. I opened the throttle and the bike leapt forward like a prize fighter. It just begs to be given free rein. The power delivery is only matched by the adrenalin rush. Exhilarating! Standing on the pegs, the bike weaves and dodges around with no effort. It’s clear to see why they left other desert bikes in their wake.

After developing through the Matchless G15, AJS 33 and NortonN15 versions of the 750 hybrids, the Atlas Scrambler eventually metamorphosed into the P11 series, using the bicycle from the Matchless G85CS scrambler instead of the road going G12 frame. The P11 was more of a dedicated street scrambler, but was a weapon of choice for the USA off-road racers back in the 1960’s and early 1970s. They are still raced in American historical off-road events and are still winning.

Anthony owns a collection of AMC hybrids, and just because they glisten don’t think his bikes don’t get the use they were intended for. He’s not averse to hurtling down a potholed lane with a shout of ‘OK, somewhat you can do!’One of his great pleasures has been to pop his good lady Pat onto the pillion of his 1968 P11A Ranger 750 and ride the Ashdown Forest trails, then park the bike, sit on the bench and look at the view. What could be nicer than a hot bike cooling off to one side, a beautiful woman to the other side, and outstanding English countryside around you?

Asked for advice to offer to prospective owners, he says, ‘If you can, get a later model. There were never serious problems and AMC did iron out teething problems fairly quickly, but an early bike will require a little more care and possibly updating to remove some minor niggles’. The P11A Ranger 750 is the one to have if you can find a good one. It had all the later modifications, making it a superb bike both off and on road. Anthony deserves thanks, not only for his invaluable help in writing this piece, but for resurrecting a rare piece of AMC history that otherwise would be still languishing in various auto jumble stalls worldwide.

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At only eighteen years of age David is the most respected mechanic in ERIC & SON’S garage. He demonstrates expertise and the will to work on big machines.

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