Road Test: Norton Dominator 99SS

Norton Dominator 99SS

“I didn’t realise what a rare model it was until after I’d bought it,” admits Richard Miller, “but it’s the Super Sports version of the 99 Dominator, and Norton only made it for a year or so.” He’s quite right on both counts, and the reason was probably tied up with the convoluted boardroom politics inside the Woolwich-based AMC corporation that produced Norton, AJS and Matchless motorcycles.

It is a truism that the British motorcycle industry was often its own worst enemy, and of the two major conglomerates, AMC was more accident-prone than its BSA/Triumph/Ariel rivals. The latter manufacturers’ 650cc twins had proved conspicuously successful ever since their introduction around 1950, and yet no real challenger was forthcoming from AJS and Matchless until 1956, when their half-litre twins were cautiously stretched to an intermediate 600cc capacity. Full 650cc twins – including the glamorous CSR variants – were finally produced in 1959 with the market at a peak, but AMC’s feeling of self-satisfaction probably faded quite quickly when it became apparent that they had actually missed many of the potentially profitable years.

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Norton Dominator 99SS headstockBut if AMC was determined to shoot itself in the foot over AJS and Matchless, it seemed even keener to treat its Norton branch – out on a limb at Bracebridge Street in Birmingham – to a stab in the back. Chronically underfunded, Norton was stuck at the 600cc stage even longer, and the sporting variant of the biggest Dominator – the Model 99SS – didn’t appear until 1961. Apparently determined to confirm their misjudgement of the market, AMC finally produced a full 650cc Norton in 1962, just in time to catch the final downward spiral of the industry.

So Richard’s motorcycle is rare on account of its short production span, but it’s probably unique because of its condition. Regular readers will be aware of The Classic Motorcycle's popular ‘Authentic and Unrestored’ series of road tests, and if they’ve wondered why there haven’t been many contributions recently; it’s mainly because very few unrestored-but-rideable machines remain untested.

Well, I didn’t have to look twice at this machine to see that it appeared to be largely unmolested, and that its rather uninspired paintwork was either original or had been applied rather a long time ago. Incidentally, that’s another reason for the shortage of ‘A&U’ articles, it does nothing for a tester’s credibility if a motorcycle he’s billed as totally original turns out to have been fully restored decades earlier. And in this case, when Richard and I try to analyse things, it looks as if the polychromatic grey paint could be original, with the lighter dove grey freshened up more recently. A good indicator of originality is the dealer’s badge on the rear number plate, showing that the Norton was supplied by Beechwood Motors of Newport. Corroborated by the YDW Cardiff registration.

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Norton Dominator 99SS motorcycle engine and carburettorWhatever its originality, this certainly seems to be a genuine example of the model. Evidence of its sports status remains in the optional-extra rev-counter, and in its possibly original siamesed exhaust system (a feature that appears to have been peculiar to the 99SS). One non-standard aspect is that somebody has prudently replaced the normal twin Monobloc carburettors with a single Concentric one, although that’s less obvious on this model than it would be with the downdraught cylinder heads fitted to the 500cc 88SS and 650SS. The original carburettors actually came with the Norton, but Richard reasons that if a previous owner found that it worked better with a newer single one, then there’s no point in reverting to the more impressive, but more troublesome, twin set-up.

Perhaps it was the same practical previous owner who fitted raised touring handlebars instead of the Norton ‘straights’ that were standard on the sports models. Conversely, tourers were supplied with raised bars unless buyers specified the flat ones.

Norton Dominator 99SS owner, Richad MillerNorton didn’t try very hard with the styling of the 99SS, so there are none of the flashy features like the slim chromed mudguards that made the AJS and Matchless CSRs stand out from the crowd. Instead, the deeply valanced roadster guards are retained, and with the twin carburettors removed there’s little to indicate that this is anything other than a normal, and typically good-looking, Dominator. No wonder Richard didn’t realise what he’d got until he studied the engine number.

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There were several special features beneath the surface of an SS, though, and as Richard has not needed to do any work on it since its recent purchase, except for replacing the clutch cable, we’ll have to take them as read. They include higher lobes on the camshaft, and these were supplemented by different cam followers, lightened pushrods and dual rate valve springs. The final drive ratio was raised by one extra tooth on the gearbox sprocket, and there were heavier clutch springs to handle the type of abuse likely to come from riders who exploited the extra power. And while the compression ratio was still nominally the same as on the ordinary 99, the pistons were specially selected to ensure that it was identical in both cylinders, which shows either careful attention to detail in this model, or poor quality control in the others…

All this boosted the power output by an impressive-looking 8-10bhp compared with the standard model 99, although that wasn’t quite as extraordinary as it sounds, since the regular Model 99 was a worthy but rather stolid performer with absolutely no chance of beating the magic ‘ton’. I owned one myself in the late-1960s, and remember being rather disappointed with its reluctance to rev like the 500cc Dominator I’d owned previously. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that it had been deliberately aimed at the mature rider and its characteristics were so much orientated towards torque, rather than speed, that the same engine was slotted into the old brazed lug frame especially for the sidecar boys.

Norton Dominator 99SS rare classic motorcycleThe 99SS was a very different kettle of fish, and Richard Miller’s example behaves just like I’d hoped my standard 99 would. It’s still torquey and acceptably smooth, but with the slightest provocation will whizz up to quite illegal speeds. In fact, I reckon its performance is on a par with the best of the opposition, even the ones with a full 650cc capacity. Vic Willoughby tested one for Motor Cycle magazine, and reported that – provided you were prepared to rev it beyond 4500rpm – it had impressive acceleration. Backing his words with figures he said that it would cruise at 90mph (paradoxically still legal at a time when there was virtually nowhere to actually do it) and had a top speed of 108mph.

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Interestingly, he didn’t like the combination of the standard Norton ‘Straights’ and the conventional footrest position, any more than this machine’s owner evidently did. But with part-time racer Willoughby’s emphasis on speed, his solution would probably have been to fit the optional-extra rear set footrests, rather than change the handlebars. Personally, I’m going nowhere near the speeds he mentioned, and the riding position suits me fine, as it is quite a stretch to reach straight bars over Norton’s man-sized petrol tank.

'Everybody knew that motorcycles could only be regarded as proper sportsters if they had magnetos didn’t they? Well, apparently that was everybody except Norton!'

I’ve already suggested that AMC-Norton was none too clever with its marketing strategy, and another example can be seen in the 99SS’s battery/coil ignition, inherited from the cooking model. Everybody knew that motorcycles could only be regarded as proper sportsters if they had magnetos didn’t they? Well, apparently that was everybody except Norton! Of course, coil ignition gave better sparks at low speeds and much more reliable starting, and it was much cheaper (probably the real reason it was specified), but magnetos were absolutely essential for real street credibility at that time, and Norton was forced to re-introduce them on its 1962 SS models.

Norton Dominator 99SS engineStill there’s none of that macho nonsense here. A mere turn of Lucas’s crude little flat blade key is all I need to produce sufficient sparks to get Richard’s 99SS into life with a lazy kick. And doesn’t it sound sweet? I’m sure that the engine is one aspect of the bike that has received attention, but whoever restored it clearly knew what he was doing, and there are absolutely no untoward rattles or knocks.

Another good sign – and even more unusual – is that there are no significant signs of oil-seepage. That’s excluding Norton’s pressed steel primary chain case, of course. Bracebridge Street persisted with this feeble design for over 30 years, and while it doubtless worked when it was new, it became incontinent as soon as it was distorted by over-tightening of the retaining nut. In this case I was amused to see that somebody had fitted a little flip-top bicycle oiler into the top of the case, so that some lubricant can be regularly dribbled onto the chain without even bothering to undo the filler cap and oil-level screw.

'Wet-sumping is another frequent problem on Nortons – as it potentially is with any motorcycle relying on a gear-type oil pump – and that foible has been attended to with an in-line valve'

Wet-sumping is another frequent problem on Nortons – as it potentially is with any motorcycle relying on a gear-type oil pump – and that foible has been attended to with an in-line valve. Some experts warn against this practice, but I know from experience that, as long the pipe is primed before starting the engine for the first time, it’s a safe and effective way of removing a common irritation.

Naturally the handling is as exemplary as you’d expect from a Slimline Featherbed frame, and, while Richard reckons the front brake hasn’t quite got as much bite as he’d expected, both of the decently-sized single leading shoe units inspire confidence. Even the turning circle seems tighter than usual on Featherbeds – where the front frame construction limits the extent that the forks can pivot – so repeated turns for the camera shots pose no problems.

Norton Dominator 99SSIncidentally, another indication of the machine’s originality can be seen here, in the survival of the steel trim that covers the frame tubes between the tank and forks; it’s one of those things that most restorers forget to refit until it’s too late, and then it gets lost before the next work session. Ironically, the steel pressing that should cover the engine plates above the gearbox is missing, probably because somebody realised too late that the battery/coil lead is best threaded through it at an early stage of re-assembly.

I think you’ll have got the message that I like this bike very much, but more to the point, its owner likes it to the point that he’s changed his mind about twins in general. Now Richard Miller is an interesting chap who graduated in Russian Language and Politics, and he had a spell recruiting foreign students for Southampton University, before taking his present job working in the petrochemical industry on a seismic survey ship. So you can take it that he’s an intelligent guy whose opinion on bikes is worth having, especially as he knows his way around old British bikes. If his name and face seem familiar to those in the south, it’s probably because he has been a regular autojumble stallholder at Shepton Mallet and elsewhere. Those further afield may well have also seen several mentions of him in the classic magazines, on account of various epic trips he’s made on Royal Enfields. A decade ago he went to India and bought a (mainly) Redditch Royal Enfield Bullet there to tour the sub-continent and ride back home. And a couple of years ago, he rode to Cape Town and returned on another Bullet.

Norton Dominator 99SSThat makes Richard a confirmed big-singles man, and it’s an opinion that was fostered by disastrous twins owned early in his riding career. He grimaces as he recalls; “a Triumph 21 with bodges everywhere, and an A65 that was so awful it nearly cost me the friendship of the pal I sold it to!” The Bullets are currently in need of attention, though, and the Velocette he recently bought as a alternative proved so uncomfortable that, after one ride on the back, his wife Sasha said; “never again.”

So when the Dommie came up in a classified advertisement on eBay, Richard felt he had to give it a try. The next day he was down in Gloucestershire – it appears the Dominator hadn’t travelled far from its source – with a pocketful of notes, and returned home with a very genuine Norton that both he and Sasha think is great.

“I’ve always liked big singles,” he says, “but now I realise that a good big twin can be even better. My 99SS Dominator is comfortable, interesting, good looking and goes well. What more could I possibly want?” bike

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