A dusty Dunstall, an eccentric genius, and a box of basket cases

If you read my Moto Memories #3 here on Road Dirt, you know the story of how I bought a Harley-Davidson Aermacchi 250 in the late 1990s for $150 from a guy in Framingham, Massachusetts, who had it in his basement. The seller had acquired the bike a few years earlier from a co-worker who lived in Somerville. And he said that fellow still had some other old bikes. So I asked for his phone number and I gave him a call.

Sure enough, the guy said he did, indeed, have both an old Norton and a Ducati, both of which he’d had for a long time and hadn’t been ridden in 20-plus years, that he’d be willing to part with. So I got his address and set up a time to meet him at his house on the coming weekend.

When the weekend rolled around, my oldest daughter Christy and I hopped into our then-new Dodge Dakota 4WD truck and headed into the city to see the bikes. When we got there, at the front door we met a somewhat disheveled fellow in his 50s—he was a software developer—who made us hot tea in the ancient kitchen of his enormous Victorian-era house.

We talked about the bikes.

He had a bad accident on a bike about 15 years earlier and gave up riding. As he told us, “The only two times I ever got hurt on a motorcycle they were each named after killers. One was a Commando, and the other was a Ninja.” I never forgot that line! I don’t recall how he had gotten hurt on the Norton, but I do recall him telling us that his last accident that made him turn in his spurs was on a Kawasaki Ninja. And apparently, he was sitting at a stoplight on the bike when he got hit from behind by a car. Somehow he ended up on the ground with the bike on top of him when it caught on fire. He was in the hospital afterward for a week feeling fortunate that he didn’t die, and that’s when he swore off motorcycles.

So we finally got around to getting out to the garage to see the bikes. And there, leaning up against the wall in an old rickety garage with no doors on it, was a 1970 Dunstall Norton Commando 750, and behind it, also leaning against the wall, was a ‘78 Ducati Darmah. I asked what he wanted for them and he hit me at $1000 for the Norton, and $2000 for the Ducati.

I love Ducatis, and no offense to anyone who owns one, but the Darmah is probably my least favorite Ducati ever made. I just didn’t care for their styling and their alloy wheels. I also thought (at the time) that $2000 was probably all the money and then some for a dusty, non-running Darmah (although if I saw one today, of course I’d snap it up in a heartbeat!), so I really wasn’t interested in it.

My 1970 Dunstall Norton 750, all clean and in running order.

That Norton, though, got my attention. It was coated with a thick layer of dust and, according to the owner, hadn’t run in at least 20 years. But it had a red frame, cowled racing seat, silver fiberglass tank with red pinstripes, black side covers, clip-on bars, rearsets, and ridged, alloy-rimmed spoked wheels. I immediately fell in love with it. One of the coolest features was it’s Paul Dunstall front end with gaitered forks and dual disc brakes. Later, while I still owned the bike, Paul Dunstall’s daughter somehow tracked me down to inform me that only 100 of those particular front ends were ever made, and advised me to never get rid of the bike.

Of course, I didn’t listen…

So we struck a deal to take the Norton home and were loading it up in the back of my truck when the seller asked if I wanted some other Norton parts he had, to which I replied, “Sure!” He opened the bulkhead doors off of his driveway to gain access to his crusty, dusty, and musty old Victorian-era home’s basement. He went down the stairs and came back up with frames, wheels, engines, and all kinds of extras. We tossed it all in the truck on either side of the Dunstall and carted it all home.

When we got home, we unloaded the bike and all of the parts, and I immediately started in on the Norton. It didn’t take much to clean it up and it looked surprisingly good. The paint was excellent, and the alloy wheels were in perfect shape. It was rust free. The previous owner was smart enough to store the bike without gasoline in it, so I didn’t have a mess in the tank or the carbs like you would normally find on an old motorcycle that had been sitting for a long time. I grabbed an old battery off my workbench (I owned another Norton at that time), and put some gas in the Dunstall. One carb had a float stuck in it, but I whacked the float bowl with a screwdriver handle and unstuck it. I checked the oil but initially didn’t even change the oil in it. A couple kicks on the awful Norton kickstarter lever (there is something fundamentally wrong with the geometry of them—it’s like kicking mush) and the old beast fired up and settled into an idle. The bike had some sort of an aftermarket 2-into-1 header and was raucously loud. I took a ride on it and everything worked, including the front dual disc brakes. It was fabulous!


Me on the 1970 Dunstall Norton 750 and my daughter Christy on her Kawasaki Ninja 250, at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum, 2002 I believe. My apologies for the grainy image.

Over the months and years that followed, I rode that old bike quite a bit. I will never forget the time my friend, Chris Bernardi, who had a hard tail Triumph chopper with a hand shifter on it, and my oldest daughter, Christy, who was 16 at the time and had a new Ninja 250, decided we would ride downtown to the Larz Anderson Classic Motorcycle Show at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline together. The morning of the show, we were going through a terrible downpour. But it wasn’t going to stop us! We suited up and stayed off the highway, riding back roads all the way down. When we entered the city, still in the middle of a fierce rainstorm, Chris hit a manhole lid that was sticking up from the street and the back end of that Triumph bounced about two feet off the ground! It was crazy to see but he managed to control it and not crash. I thought riding a hard tail was the dumbest thing ever after seeing that (although I have one today and it’s not bad at all!).

We had a great day at the show. The rain eventually stopped. Even though I had won several prizes at earlier Larz Anderson shows for my restored European motorcycles, I didn’t enter the Norton. I should have, though, because it got a lot of attention from everyone who saw it that day.

Dunstall Nortons like this are quite rare.

Eventually, when we decided to move from Boston to Northwest Arkansas in 2004, I sold the Norton to Mark Smyth, who was then co-founder and president of Factory Five Racing. The only pic I have of the bike (other than the one here of Christy and me at the Larz Anderson show on that rainy day) is the one above with Mark’s Ferrari. He and I still stay in touch and we both regret ever selling that bike. I don’t know where it is today.

Besides the fact that I still stay in touch with the guy I originally bought that Norton from (he is retired and living in Southern California with his sailboat—he has a blog, and is one of the funniest writers I have ever known), one more thing. I sold all of my parts to my friend Chris before our move and he eventually built two more bikes out of them! One of the extra frames I sold Chris turned out to be a Dunstall frame. Chris is an amazing talent, and has built a bunch of bikes, some of which have been published. He and I are still friends, and he is currently working on restoring a Vincent of some sort. I don’t know a lot about Vincents—they are too rich for my blood! But I do have a bad knee from kickstarting Nortons…


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