Thursday, January 4, 2018

Remembering Bernie Nicholson

I bought my 1974 Norton Commando in 1976.  Aside from the dubious privilege of having previously owned, as a high school student, a pretty clapped-out Royal Enfield Interceptor, I had virtually no experience and knowledge about working on these machines. When I came to Kingston in 1976, I started looking for information, not so easy in those pre-internet days.  One day I walked into the Kingston public library and discovered the Holy Grail:  J.B. Nicholson's Modern Motorcycle Mechanics!

I had to own a copy, and eventually I was able to track the firm down and order one in 1980.  I found the original receipt inside of my copy.  (I got it before the price went up to $20!  Whew hoo!)

The book was both useful and fascinating. Below, from the Foreword of the Seventh Edition:

Bernie, who had cut his teeth on motorcycles during the heyday of the British supremacy in this field, was unsurprisingly sad to see what a state that industry had gotten itself into by the time his new edition came out in 1974:

He also passionately inveighed against what he called the "Chopper" craze!

Over the phone, Bernie was always available for advice and his knowledge was encyclopedic.  You could call and inquire about appropriate side-play on, say, a 1971 Triumph Blazer gearshaft and, in his quiet voice, he would reply, "Well, as I recall..." and go on to give you exactly the information you needed.  His encyclopedic knowedge was uncanny.

In the mid-1970's Bernie also wrote a regular advice column for Cycle Canada.  Below, his piece on Travel tips.  Look at the last paragraph:  He actually gave out his home number for riders who might need to contact him if they were in difficulty!  Imagine anyone in his position doing that today!

Aside from ordering parts from the Nicholson Brothers, in my capacity with the Canadian Norton Owners Association I worked up my nerve in 1984 to ask him if he would be willing to put  a free ad for our club into his annual catalogue.  He kindly consented, and the club received more new memberships from that ad than from any of the paid ones we put into the Canadian motorcycle magazines of the day.

On the strength of this connection, I ended up having a regular mail correspondence with Bernie and his lovely wife Joan.  In 1984, they let me know that they were planning a trip to Kingston to re-visit his time here during World War II when, among other things, he taught motorcycle riders.  

Again, pre-internet.  I sent them information and maps and extended an invitation to join my wife and self for dinner at our house.  They happily agreed, and in due time I had a most wonderful meeting with both of them.  Joan told me that Bernie was known as "Mr. Canada" in England, because he represented our country's interests over then when he would attend various trade shows and industries in the course of getting supplies for his business.  Joan herself had worked for Geoffrey Jones, Managing Director at the old Villiers Engineering Company in Sutton Coldfield, which is where she had met Bernie.  She mentioned that she had gone to Torquay in March 1985 to meet Mr. Jones, and also ended up talking to Bert Hopwood.  Of the latter, she commented:

I thought him a most charming man -- very clear, practical and low key about his achievements in the motorcycle industry.  His comment about the Wankel-engined machine being built at Shenstone was, and I quote, "If anyone can get it going, Doug Hele can."  It seems that Norton Motors at Shenstone is indeed fortunate to have the services of Mr. Hele. 

I also had lunch with an old and dear friend from the Villiers days  -- John Pedley, now Production Manager at Shenstone.  I understand the factory is small, employing about 50 people -- for John, a far cry from days gone by. He has the distinction of owning the very last Commando to come off of the line.  He knew, as Works Manager in those days, when production was to cease, watched as the last one came off of the line, and bought it!

In the mid-1980's, Bernie wrote and published a booklet entitled Motorcycling with Safety.  

He used to send me copies of this, which I would include in mail-outs to new CNOA members.  I have to say, the booklet was certainly dated for the time, with line drawings of vintage motorcycles, but the advice was sound and reflected Bernie's strong concern with improving safety in the sport.  I've scanned and uploaded a copy of it here.

He also wrote and published a companion volume, Auto Driving with Safety.  In the mid-1980's, Bernie was already ringing a warning bell about distracted driving, a behaviour that has become a huge problem today.  I've made a copy available here.

In one of the last correspondences I had, Bernie wrote that he had finally gone to visit his old friend, Bert Hopwood, and he sent me a photo he had taken.  With his permission, I submitted it to the Norton newsletter with a summary Bernie had written of Mr. Hopwood's accomplishments:

Below, a story on the Nicholson Brothers that appeared in Canadian Biker Magazine back in 1986:

In 1996, Joan wrote me to say that Greg Williams, "a young journalist from Calgary (and a biker)" had written an article about Bernie and the last edition of his book.  The piece had been published in the October 1996 issue Classic Motorcycle Magazine, and she enclosed a copy.  I've uploaded it here.

Greg Williams has subsequently published a biography on Bernie entitled, Prairie Dust, Motorcycles and a Typewriter.  Visit his site to order it, and to order a reprint of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics.  He also has some great photos on the site.  You can also find Modern Motorcycle Mechanics available on its own site.

Bernie started winding down the business in 1987.  Over the course of the following years, I'd arrive home to find a package in my mailbox from him, including original Norton sales brochures from back in the day and, best of all, one day a mailing tube with an original, large and full-colour Norton publicity poster featuring three of their 1960's models.  Bernie told me he didn't even know he had this until it turned up, and he generously thought I'd like it. Understatement of the year--it's long been framed and in my office, where I look at it all of the time. 

Thanks, Bernie. For everything.

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