An interview with
NORTON PARTS EXPERT
Phil Radford, Fair Spares America
Phil Radford, Norton Parts Expert Extraordinaire, owner of Fair Spares America, Inc., & all-around nice guy, beside a freshly-rebuilt Commando engine.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
When I pulled up to the non-descript commercial building in a large industrial complex in San Jose CA, the small sign that said "Fair Spares America, Inc." would have been easy to miss. And this humble frontage certainly does not belie what is inside. Namely one of the largest & most complete inventories of genuine Norton & Norvil motorcycle parts in the US. Since then, they have relocated to digs with twice the space in the lovely little town of Los Osos, on California's Central Coast.A BOOMING PARTS BUSINESS
Owner & Brit Phil Radford has, over the years built up quite a strong mail order parts business, specializing in parts for all Nortons, but focusing mostly on Norton Commandos.HIS BRITISH ROOTS
Phil was born & raised in Nottingham, England (of Robin Hood fame). He bought his first bike, a Francis-Barnett 175, at age 15. It was 1965 & the British bike boom was at its peak. He was hooked & of course this led to bigger & bigger bikes. His next one a year later was a TriBSA (Triumph 500 engine in a BSA Gold Star frame). It was a bundle of problems, and having no mechanical experience himself yet, he took it to a local mechanic for help. The guy also happened to race flat track & when he saw young Phil's all alloy 500 twin engine, he quickly swapped it into his own bike, leaving Phil with the old iron engine. Of course, he felt ripped off & frustrated, but it inspired him to learn to work on his own machines. Indeed, it lead him into his new career and his entire life's work.WORKED FOR JOHN PLAYER
A gifted mechanic, as it turned out, he quickly found work at the John Player Cigarette factory as an apprentice mechanic, a 5-year program from which he emerged a full-fledged Journeyman Mechanic. This was a dream job for anyone growing up in Nottingham at the time. John Player was a huge company & the biggest employer in the area. They offered good pay, benefits, an entire social life (the huge complex was like a small city). He'd gotten in to their apprentice program at age 16 & now at just 27, he already had over 10 years in on what could have been a career for life. One day, an older employee commented to him saying "If you're here one more year, you'll be here for life." This impressed the ambitious young mechanic & he surprised everyone when he left the company for bigger & better things.
Just one small corner of Phil's incredible Norton parts inventory.
THE NORTON CONNECTION
Along the way, in 1970 Phil got his first Norton, a 1961 Model 99 & was hooked. He took a mechanic's position in West Germany & left the Norton behind at Mum's & spent the next 4 years there. In 1979, he traveled to Canada & spent the summer riding across that vast land. Upon his return, he was ready to try something new, so he bought a Yamaha XS1100, more or less the ultimate road rocket at the time. He didn't like it. While it was fast, he said that after a Norton, the handling was a letdown. After only a few months & 1300 miles on the clock, he put it up for sale. He learned the lesson that many do when trying to sell a used Japanese bike. They're selling the new ones so cheap that the used ones are a dime a dozen. It took months to sell, but finally a call came through. A man from Liverpool was interested, but only if Phil would take a trade. What is it? A 1972 Interpol, an ex-police bike. It would be Phil's first Commando.
THE PLOT THICKENS
When they met, Phil noticed the man was wearing a Norton Owner's Club patch on his jacket. One thing led to another & Phil soon joined the NOC. When the newsletter arrived, it included a list of all the other Branches of the Norton Club around the world. There were two in the US, one in Minneapolis MN & the other in Northern California. He wrote to the California chapter & the guy who wrote back was very friendly & asked Phil if he could help set him up with a rental bike so that he could ride to the Isle of Man in 1980. Phil said he'd do one better, he'd loan him a bike himself & ride there with him, after all, he now had 2 Nortons. Later that year, the chap returned the favor when he loaned Phil a bike to ride the USNOA National Norton Rally in the California Redwoods. At this point, he was hooked & as soon as he could, he took care of things back in Germany then moved to California for good in 1981. He soon became the Member Secretary & Treasurer for the local chapter of the USNOA.
NORTONS HIS LIFE'S WORK
Phil opened his Norton parts, repair & restoration business in 1986 in San Jose CA. He always encouraged his customers & others to buy their parts from England because he really thought they were the best available for Classic British Motorcycles. But many people seemed reluctant. What if it didn't fit? How would they return it for the right one? And how to pay & ship? Remember, this was before the days of the internet & people weren't paying over the phone with credit cards the way they do today.
FAIR SPARES AMERICA IS BORN
Phil had been buying all his parts direct from the source, Norvil (Norton-Villiers), which was called Fair Spares in England at the time. He called them up & told them they needed someone like him to represent them in America & they said "When can you start?" He created Fair Spares America, Inc. in 1986, and it has developed into a healthy business distributing genuine Norton & Norvil factory parts in the US.
IT'S ABOUT MORE THAN JUST PARTS
As any parts expert, or anyone who has ever come home with the wrong part, will tell you, it's all about the knowledge & experience of the parts person. And it's even more so with Classic British Motorcycles, and Nortons are no exception. Phil's know-how & familiarity with all things Norton is not only reassuring, its vital for customers ordering Norton parts from around the world. He can answer their questions, sometimes asking a few of his own, in order to get it right the first time.
BOOMING PARTS BUSINESS
Phil carries the full range of genuine Norton parts from Norvil for the full range of twin-cylinder Norton Motorcycles including the Norton Commando, Norton Atlas & Norton Dominator. He ships a lot of stainless parts for Nortons. He does a booming mail order business. You can go to his website
or call (805) 534-9248 & order his catalog. If you're trying to find parts for your Norton, there is no better place to get them, this side of the Pond, that is.
Fair Spares NORTON SERVICES
FULL RESTORATION SERVICES
While Phil prefers not doing full restorations, he still does them. They take too long, tie up his workspace & tend to be more expensive that many owners are prepared for. But, as you can see from the photo below, he can & does perform every aspect of a complete frame-off restoration. This Norton Commando below, was stripped to it's bones, the frame & every other black part were powdercoated, all stainless & aluminum professionally polished (luscious), everything else chromed. Every wear item is new. From what I saw, when finished, this will look better than new.
Full resto being done on this Norton Commando.
NORTON REPAIR SERVICES
By far these days, Phil does much more general repair on Norton Motorcycles. He engages in all aspects of Norton repair, maintenance & service. Tune-ups, engine, clutch & gearbox repairs, suspension work, electrical, carburetion, wheels, tires & brakes...everything.
SPECIALIZED MACHINE WORK
While repairs are limited by the capacity of a one-man shop, it does not have to be limited geographically. That is to say that many customers ship their components to Fair Spares from all over North America & beyond, the repairs/mods are made & shipped back. As the result, Fair Spares America provides these highly specialized products & services to the world, through their catalog & website. They are as follows:
1. EXHAUST PORT THREAD REPAIR
Norton twins have a wonderful system for attaching the exhaust headers to the head. Large steel exhaust nuts thread into female threads in the exhaust port. Of course, the material used for the cylinder heads is soft aluminum alloy, and this never fares well, when confronted with angry steel. Over time, the combination of expansion & contraction (heating & cooling) and vibration work these threads nuts loose. Once this happens, the situation worsens quickly, as demon vibration uses the loose nut to destroy the soft threads in the exhaust port. Now, the nut will no longer tighten & stay tight. And so much material has been lost in the head that new threads can't simply be tapped in.
GET IT TIGHT!
Phil demonstrates the permanent answer to Exhaust Port Thread Destruction Disorder (aka: EPTDD...I just made that up). The only way to prevent your exhaust nuts from loosening & destroying the threads is to tighten them...BIG TIME! Phil's formula: Take it for a ride & get it hot. Then get one of these long-handled exhaust spanners & tighten the crap out them! As tight as you can get them. The threads are huge, so they can handle it.
THE FIX IS IN
Once those threads are gone, there's no turning back. Most owners end up either buying a new cylinder head, or welding up the old one. But there is another solution, and it's trick!
Phil place the errant cylinder head (750 or 850) into a custom jig (LEFT) & machines the exhaust ports out to accept a new larger thread. He then uses the enormous taps (RIGHT), one rough-cut & one finishing-cut, to install the new, larger threads into the bored-out exhaust ports. Into these, he threads in (& dowels) one of these custom-fabricated, hard alloy inserts (RIGHT-CENTER), that have the external threads to match the new ones in the head, and internal threads to match the standard steel exhaust nuts. The inserts are beautifully-machined & finished pieces & once installed in the head, it's better than new. As long as you keep those exhaust nuts tight...real tight! The entire operation costs $105.00 per port. Heads that have been welded in the past can also usually be repaired, but it's more involved & labor intensive & so might cost a little more.
2.TACH DRIVE MOD
Norton twins had a tachometer drive in the front-right of the crankcase, driven off the camshaft (LEFT). From the factory, these came with only an O-ring to provide oil tightness & these have proven inadequate. Norton tach drives are a notorious source of oil leaks. Fair Spares America offers a service where the owner sends in his original tach drive & they machine it such that it will accept a proper oil seal. This has proven effective in stopping any leakage. Sending your old Tach Drive unit in & having the machine work done & a new seal installed runs a total of $35.00.
3.GEARBOX COVER MODS
All right-foot-shift Norton Motorcycles from 1956 through 1974 use the same AMC-sourced gearbox as was fitted to Matchless & AJS Motorcycles. They are well-known for leaking some oil from both the kickstarter shaft (LEFT) & the shifter shaft (RIGHT). Both are fitted with simple O-rings from the factory, and the kickstarter hole is below the level of the gearbox oil, so it's especially prone to leaking. When the left-foot-shift bikes came out in 1975, this eliminated one hole in the gearbox cover & the other, the kickstarter, was finally fixed with a proper oil seal. But everything before that, forget about it!
Phil jigs the covers up & machines both holes to accept modern oil seals, thereby ending any leakage problems from the gearbox cover. This service, including the two new seals, runs $55.00.
Phil performs other specialized services as well, including Cylinder Stud Repair & converting earlier Norton Commandos over to the later-style Mk3-spec Isolastic Suspension. But this is by no means the limit to what he can do for a Norton Motorcycle.
CONTACT FAIR SPARES AMERICA
For any parts you need for any Norton Motorcycle, for service from simple repairs to full restorations, & for specialized products & services to finish your Norton off, contact Fair Spares America, Inc. at (805) 534-9248 or visit their website at
Their mailing address is P.O. Box 6781, Los Osos CA 93412. Their physical address is 1137 Los Olivos Avenue #3A, Los Osos, on California's beautfiul Central Coast. You will find Phil to be knowledgeable, helpful & a valuable resource for all things Norton. Norton parts, Norton Repairs, Norton Service & Maintenance, or full Norton Restoration. They ship anywhere in the world, quickly & efficiently, and accept Visa, Mastercard & Amex. But most important, and best of all, you get to confer with one of the top Norton Motorcycle experts in the field, and someone who is willing to take the time to share some of that knowledge with you to make sure you get your Norton right, the first time.
I have known Phil Radford since 2004, when I rode with him, along with a group from
to the Classic British Motorcycle Rally held at Cachuma Lake, near Santa Barbara. It was one helluva ride & one helluva weekend. Back roads most of the 300 miles each way, old old Brit bikes, with 120 miles between gas stops, at one point. Fun. Phil rode it on one of his Nortons, as usual I was riding
We all had a blast & no one got hurt. (Well, I got stung by a bee & I'm deathly allergic, but other than that...) We did it again for the Cachuma Lake Rally in 2008. Phil's a great guy & a real Norton guy. If you're looking for parts & maybe some helpful, knowledgeable advice for your Norton, Phil's your man.
Check out these NORTON BOOKS:
NORTON COMMANDO, COMPLETE STORY
ESSENTIAL BUYERS GUIDE - NORTON COMMANDO
NORTON COMMANDO: ULTIMATE PORTFOLIO
NORTON MOTORCYCLES FACTORY WORKSHOP MANUAL 1957-70
THE MANX NORTON
THE BOOK OF NORTON DOMINATOR TWINS
NORTON DOMINATOR PERFORMANCE PORTFOLIO
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