Fred Walmsley has been building and developing manx norton racers since he was 19. But all along he was planning to make this.
Most people’s first go at building a custom bike involves a shed, an angle grinder and too much enthusiasm. But Fred Walmsley is no novice; he’s spent a life in racing. His exquisite singles grace the Isle of Man, Phillip Island and Goodwood, and their quality has attracted the best riders in the world: Wayne Gardner, Barry Sheene, Michael Dunlop, and so on.
So although this is Fred’s first custom, it’s as good as it gets. “For years I’ve wanted to make what you might call a bobber,” he says. “I decided to call it a Fredder, ’cos I’m not Bob, and it’s my bike.” If you can see a hint of speedway in the bike, that’s because Fred’s dad was a speedway rider at Belle Vue in Manchester. “Peter Craven was world champ and my dad used to be fixing his bike with our bloody lino rolled up behind the back of the settee.
That inspired me a bit, but I liked a comfortable, powerful bike and it’d always been in my head to build one. I’ve got this bucket list. I’d done all sorts of things and I thought, ‘I’ve got to build a Fredder.’” The resulting 500cc masterpiece broke cover at Goodwood's Festival of Speed last year, where three-time world champion Freddie Spencer became its first fan. “Freddie sat on it and said, ‘I’d like to flat track this!’ I said, ‘You tell me where you want to flat track it and I’ll bring it.'”
A few weeks later, at the Classic TT, the Fredder pulled more admirers in the paddock than any race bike. “People said it doesn’t look like a special,” Fred says. “It’s a real creation. And it’s all about the engine.” It’s a modern Manx, with a short 86mm stroke, one-off cylinder head, and newly-produced barrels, cases and crank. “I built it for Goodwood in 2016,” Fred says. “It cost me over £25,000. The magneto’s worth two grand! At Goodwood Ken’s man [Ken McIntosh: another formidable Manx builder] complained about it. Charlie March [who owns the event] said I could still use it, but to save any controversy I put a long-stroke engine in the bike. It’s what jigged me on a bit. I had this engine and thought, ‘What am I going to do with it? I know! I’ll put it in the Fredder.’”
Fred has spent decades developing Norton’s famous race engine way beyond what it could do in the 1950s. It’s the usual story of marginal gains everywhere, but the main factors are camshaft design, and new thinking on combustion chamber and port shape. Norton quoted 49bhp at the crank, where a Walmsley Manx probably does 60bhp (55bhp at the wheel).
It’s a great achievement, but Fred’s just as interested in the motor’s emotional appeal. “When I see one stood on my bench, ready to go in a bike, it’s a sculpture.” Fred’s appreciation for big singles dates back to his teenage years in the 1960s, with ton-up thrashes from his home in Lancashire down the empty M6 to Mallory Park. “Back then everybody built Tritons and stuff like that. I built a big Matchless single. They’d get away, then there’d be smoke coming out and I'd peg ’em back in. They lose 15% of their power when they get hot.” As an apprentice Fred helped his friends race, and built his first Manx Norton engine aged 19. “In the late 70s and 80s I raced a Manx myself. I seriously got going when the replicas started in the mid 1980s.”
Original Manxes used welded tube frames, but for this bike Fred chose older tech: straight tubes brazed into lugs. “The frame came from a 1952 19R. To accommodate the motor I cut the front and back out, and bent new tubes to fit. I put the motor and frame on blocks, made cardboard templates, then made mounting plates. Forks are modified Norton, I think from a war-effort 16H.” The one-off tank that gives so much attitude is designed to leave the engine exposed: “I took a picture, printed it out, then got a felt tip and drew an outline to show off the cambox.”
Fred wanted the speedo and tacho in the tank too. The job of making such a complicated shape in aluminium sheet went to vastly experienced race fabricator Ben Sergeant, who also made the oil tank. The filler caps for both were cast by Ian Bain; their slotted lever action seals the cap shut on an o-ring, or hinges it open. Every custom should have magical mechanical moments – the filler caps are the Fredder’s. “They had that system on works Nortons in the 1930s,” Fred says. “I think it originally came from a French pickle jar.” Ian also cast the tank badges, number plate and front brake hub, which is a copy of a works conical hub from 1938.
Spokes and rims were added by Steve Lomas, who also hunted down the Heidenau front tyre to match the chunky rear Avon. Fred spent a long time on the mudguards, and has little time for special builders who don’t. “If I look at a bike and the mudguards don’t fit, I can’t be doing with it. You see big gaps, or they don’t follow the wheel. I had to re-roll it and re-shape the rear to get it to follow the tyre. And as it’s a 21-inch front I had to stretch that out a bit too.”
There’s yet more one-off work in the exhaust. “It’s scrap pieces of Shakey Byrne’s BSB Ducati. Every time he crashes it Ben repairs the pipes. He has all these bends and found one that’s perfect for the bend out of the head.” Despite skip-raider sourcing, the pipe uses the same diameter and length as Fred’s Classic TT bikes, and matches the line of the oil tank.
The frame is a hardtail, so the silencer is bolted right near the end, using a the old pillion footrest bracket as a mount. Apart from a thrash up Goodwood the bike has yet to be ridden in earnest, but Fred says it handles beautifully – weight distribution is as on his racers. If you’ve got the cash you can have your own. “I’m slowing down on the racing, so I’ll take commissions. If someone’s called Jack he can have a Jacker, or whatever. I’ve turned down £50k. It would probably cost more for the time it’d take – over six months. The stuff I’ve had made isn't crap. It’s proper. Everything’s hand built.” If you can afford that kind of money, it’s a bargain.