Henry Manney III’s Manx Norton

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The argument over best-loved automotive writer of all time would last far into the night, but among the finalists has to be the late Henry Manney III. No finer wordsmith ever grasped a steering wheel or set of handlebars. For decades his pieces were required reading in Road & Track magazine, especially his “At Large” column, which often signed off with his trademark shorthand coda, Yr Faithfl Srvnt. It was Manney who famously characterized the sexy swoop of a Jaguar E-type as the “greatest crumpet-catcher known to man.” He also wrote for R&T’s sister magazine Cycle World, where his good humor, keen wit and wonderfully obtuse writing style were always welcome entertainment. This was his 1956 Manx Norton project bike.

Manney, a trained dancer in his youth, was comfortable rubbing shoulders with the Grand Prix greats in Monaco or touring deep in the American South driving some European import the locals had never heard of. His personal garage often included at least one exotic four-wheeler from Italy, but on the motorcycle side he favored the Queen’s iron.

Manney being pulled from a Lotus by Jim Clark.

Flagship of the motley fleet has to be this Manx Norton. As befits Manney’s slanted view on life in general and transportation devices in particular, it’s no ordinary Manx. In silhouette, all the familiar components are there. The overhead-cam motor with its right-side bevel-drive tower and exposed valve springs. The innovative all-welded frame so ahead of its time it was said to ride “like a featherbed,” a name that stuck. The bread-loaf gas tank and bum-stop seat, known to legions of privateer roadracers learning their craft, not least of which was a young Mike Hailwood. The conically shaped brake hubs, the front with a jutting scoop to collect cooling air. All standard Manx fare.

But look closer and you’ll discern Manney’s grand plan for his Norton. First clue is the Smiths speedometer alongside the usual tach. Gone are the low-mounted clip-ons, replaced my more comfortable tubular handlebars. A custom alloy bracket on one of the frame’s front downtubes holds an alternator intended to be belt-driven from a pulley attached to the crankshaft. The engine breathes through a filtered Mikuni carburetor, easier to start and keep idling than the proper remote-float Amal GP (which is included in the sale). The rear fender is drilled and wired to accept a taillight. In deference to neighbors and the local constabulary, a sound-deadening flapper valve was fitted to the megaphone exhaust, cable-operated from the handlebars. Yes, Manney intended this Manx to be street-legal and road-ridden!

His untimely passing in 1988 put a stop to the project. Since then, all of Manney’s bikes have been in the care of son Henry IV, stored in a shed and only recently brought back into the light of day. Obviously, it would take very little to put the machine back in race trim, but what fun to continue where Manney left off, complete the transformation and end up with a cafe-racer ne plus ultra, a genuine road-going Manx Norton with literary provenance.

This bike is due to be auctioned at the Bonham’s Classic California sale on November 13 in Los Angeles. A similar version of this article appears in the auction’s catalog.

  • Cajun58

    This Manx is very close to becoming a proper ton up machine isn’t it. Did Mr Manney invent the Snuff-or-Not quick change exhaust kit or significantly refine it with a bar mounted control?

  • CG

    HNMIII was the reason to subscribe to R&T, practice being “the usual shambles” for all of his F1 reports being the standard. I think his brain aneurysm that ended his career early was one of the sadder events of a time when driver deaths were not uncommon. I don’t think R&T was ever as good after him. I guess that is why I still have a bunch of ’64 – 69 mags in the garage…and nothing later. Ah well. Cool bike. I seem to remember him and a Ferrari Lusso burning up the clutch getting it off the truck. Funny stuff.

  • david.edwards

    In this era of snippet journalism, seek out Manney’s writing in old R&Ts and CWs. From his road test of a 1977 Sportster, remembering a ride on an earlier Harley:

    “…putt-putting gently through the scented Southern night with Deaf Cleo, resplendent in frilly puffed-sleeve blouse and suspender skirt, wedged tightly behind me. Flying objects the size of B-29s came zooming up out of the headlight’s fitful glow, stars glittered innocent of police helicopters, and the bluesey wail of a Seaboard freight could be heard over the 74′s ragbag rattle. Every now and then it helped to give the throttle a sudden tweak to keep dark-eyed Cleo’s soft arms tight around your middle, but she never wanted to go home, no sir.”