Engine numberNBP 10 JTORZ/Z 9464 1/1 F.J.W. 1959
The ex-Francis Williams, Ernie Woods
c.1959 Norton-JAP 998cc Sprinter 'Thor'
Frame no. 51456
Engine no. NBP 10 JTORZ/Z 9464 1/1 F.J.W. 1959
Unique, historic British sprinter
Full history from date of construction
Highly competitive in the Vintage/Classic class
'Francis Williams, doyen of British sprinters, made his name on a Cotton powered by one of the fabulous parallel-pushrod 500cc Blackburne engines introduced for the 1930 TT series.' John Griffith, 'Historic Racing Motorcycles'.
This unique motorcycle is the second of three 1,000cc sprinters built by the late Francis Williams of Saltdean during the 1950s. A former Brooklands competitor, and first-rate engineer, known to his contemporaries as the 'Learned Professor of Sprint', Williams built this hybrid to break the outright motorcycle record at the famous 'Brighton Speed Trials'. Shortly after completion, the machine featured in one of John Griffith's 'Built for Speed' columns in Motor Cycling (No. 38, 31st March 1960), which were later published in book form (copy in history file).
Born in 1898, Williams had his first ride on a motorcycle before WWI, and during those hostilities served as a lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, scoring five 'kills'. After the war's end he set up a garage business in Tipton, Staffordshire and, encouraged by Tommy De La Hay, took up competitive riding aboard a Cotton-Blackburne, commencing with local hill climbs and then circuit racing at Brooklands. Impressed by his results, Cotton gave him a special sprint frame, and this Blackburne-engined machine - nicknamed 'The Village Fire Engine' and sold by Bonhams in October 2009 - was soon dominating its class.
Tired of being beaten by the 'big bangers', Williams decided to move up a class with the aim of capturing the outright course record at Brighton, his favourite sprinting venue. In the early 1950s Francis commenced work on his first 1,000cc sprinter, using a Norton Featherbed frame and a JAP 8/80 engine. This machine made its debut in 1955 and was later sold to fellow sprinter Basil Keys. Williams' second attempt - the machine offered here - benefited from the many lessons learned with the first: principally its use of stronger crankcases intended for competition in motor racing's 1,100cc class. The engine top-end comprised Alfin alloy cylinder barrels topped by Speedway JAP cast-iron cylinder heads, while the gearbox was a Norton 'doll's head' unit. Once again the rolling chassis was a Norton Featherbed, on this occasion one that originally formed part of a circa 1953 long-stroke 350cc Manx. Breathing through large-bore Amal GP carburettors and running on methanol fuel, the engine was reputed to produce around 100 horsepower. As well as its JAP serial number, the engine is stamped with Williams' initials - F.J.W. - and the year of build: 1959.
Shortly after completing the third of his 1,000cc sprinters, Francis Williams' health deteriorated and circa 1960 he sold his remaining machines to another sprinting legend: Ernie Woods. The Norton-JAP was ridden by Woods at that year's Brighton Speed Trials and set the fastest solo time on Madeira Drive the following year, although it never did claim the outright record. It was Woods who applied the 'Thor' nickname; and indeed, one can imagine this mighty machine as the two-wheeled embodiment of the hammer-wielding god of Norse mythology. For the record: the third of Williams' 1,000cc sprinters was called 'Wotan' and the fourth machine - a 500cc v-twin - was dubbed 'Woden'. Of the four, Thor was the best and most successful.
Woods continued to develop Thor and used the machine for both hill climbing and sprints. Highlights of its distinguished career include membership of the British team in the Transatlantic Drag Festival and setting the outright fastest time of the day at Brighton - the first time this had been done by a motorcycle. As well as the coveted 'FTD' trophy, Ernie received a silver star, donated by Denis Jenkinson, for averaging over 100mph for the standing-start kilometre (terminal speed 158mph); he was only the third rider to do so.
Woods' other noteworthy achievements with Thor include achieving a speed of 186mph on the Caragrohane Straight in Northern Ireland; and breaking the record at the Ramsey Sprint in the Isle of Man that had been set by the legendary George Brown aboard 'Super Nero'. Woods was equally successful at hill climbs such as Shelsley Walsh, Prescott, Harewood, Wiscombe Park, Woburn, etc.
In 1997, Thor was offered for sale at auction by the Woods family. Failing to sell, it was purchased immediately after the auction by the current vendor, who thus saved it from being broken up for its engine, which was being sought by a group of car-racers. Since its acquisition and thorough re-commissioning, Thor has continued to be campaigned both by the vendor and seasoned sprinting exponent, Chris Illman, seeing action at venues including Honington, North Weald, Santa Pod, the 'Festival of 1,000 Bikes' and Brighton. A comprehensive article on Francis Williams, including a description of what Thor is like to ride, was published in the August 2011 edition of 'The Classic Motorcycle' (copy on file).
Chris' first opportunity to ride Thor came in 2002 at the North Weald 'Classic Bike Sprint'. Although he had not had the chance to familiarise himself with the Norton-JAP, he was amazed not only by the incredible power but also by how easy it was to manage. Careful not to over-stress the motor, Chris took it relatively easy but still posted a very satisfying low-12 seconds ¼-mile with a 113mph terminal speed.
Prior to Chris riding Thor in the 2005 Brighton Speed Trials Centenary event, it was decided that it would be prudent to give the JAP a top-end overhaul. Chris had plenty of experience of riding and tuning Speedway JAPs, so the rebuild proved relatively straightforward. Apart from honing the barrels and fitting some new-old-stock pistons, the rest was just fettling and careful re-assembly. It was evident that Francis Williams was a very talented engineer, as his work on the cylinder heads was perfection. In addition, everything was marked to ensure that re-assembly was exactly as he intended. Chris' efforts were rewarded with a win in the Vintage & Classic Consistency Class with low 12-second runs and almost 115mph terminal speeds over the 440-yard course.
Since that top-end overhaul of 2005, only routine maintenance has been carried out, and although Thor has been used infrequently, a change of the castor-based oil prior to every event has been all that was required. Although Thor had not seen any action for several years, the owner again asked Chris if he would ride the Norton-JAP at the 2015 Ramsgate Revival Meeting, as it had been a regular winner of this event it the 1960s. Sadly, Thor did not get to compete - sidelined by a broken main bevel gear on the end of the camshaft. It had cracked allowing the bevel gear to slip on its taper. A new bevel gear was obtained and fitted, and after re-timing the magnetos, Thor fired up crisply and cleanly again. However, it has since been discovered that the front magneto needs attention as the bearings are slack.
Nevertheless, the engine is in generally good shape but, as with all competition machines, prospective purchasers should consider a thorough overhaul prior to use, especially if they plan using Thor as its maker intended! The machine should only be used with a good castor-based oil (40SAE recommended) and quality methanol fuel.
It should be noted that although the engine is currently fitted with magnetos, Francis Williams originally used his own coil/distributor system to fire the twin-plug ignition. These original coil/distributor components, together with sundry other parts,come with the machine. In addition, an aluminium-alloy 'dustbin' type full fairing, as originally used by Francis Williams, is included in the sale together with a comprehensive history file (perusal recommended).