The average Despatch Rider route would probably be anywhere from 150 to 200 miles, sometimes much more. Because they were on tightly timed schedules, and operated 24/7 in all weathers and circumstances, they could be very exhausting, especially as we normally worked on shifts through the 24 hours.. For example, I recall one night trip I made in Derbyshire and Yorkshire in early 1940. There was heavy snow in the hills and ice on the roads everywhere else so I slid off the road so many times I was exhausted and could hardly lift the bike up again. Eventually I stopped an army truck and the bike was lifted inside and I got a restful trip to my next stop. After handing over the mail and collecting the new messages, I took a two-hour kip on a table in the mess hall then went on my way. After it was light it was much easier and I was able to complete the route. In 1940 and 41 we ran Despatch Rider routes right through central London whether or not there was an air raid in progress, making whatever detours were necessary due to damaged roads.”
Meet Mr. John Nevil Horsfall. As a Despatch Rider in Royal Signals, from enlistment in September 1939 to 1942 when he left for officer training, he rode the Norton. Still on unsteady ground after the trip to Muthukumar’s garage, I was to say the least, stumped when I came across B&W photos from the war showing Nortons & BSAs in a parade. It took me a while on the WW2 Forum to realize that I could actually have a conversation with a WW2 Veteran who had considerable experience with the Norton in the field. What followed was a flurry of emails exchanged requesting Nevil for photographs and a couple of words for Riot Engine. Thanks Nevil, for these pictures.
Muthukumar’s garage, fondly named B&Q Rest’s Garage, is reached through Avinashi Road a couple of minutes away from Coimbatore. Riding pillion on Mr. Muthukumar’s 1985 Kinetic Honda, I was at the gates of his garage, only at that moment realizing that even though I’d gotten there from Chennai taking the ubiquitous train, had the familiar breakfast of idlis, masala dosa and finished up with the routine of slurping filter coffee, nothing was going to be ordinary once I stepped beyond those gates.
The gates were thrown open and the memory etched in my mind right next to that of Rajnikanth throwing open the gates in Aboorva Raagangal. The presence of a beige Indica did nothing to lessen the visual glory of the garage. I’d seen enough pictures of some of the classics prior to restoration being brought in sacks, into the garage in the boot of that simpleton of a hatchback. Muthukumar showed me the custom designed saddle bags that were to be mounted on the Norton’s panniers. When I say custom, I mean custom. Muthukumar sketched out the design he wanted, sent the drawings to an upholsterer in Agra and had them shipped back.
We took out the Norton for a couple of photos. She definitely got the attention she deserved. Muthukumar rightly pointed out that the biggest hazard are the gawkers who suddenly become oblivious to the fact that they are still in motion as much on the road as they were before being visually and aurally assaulted by the 16H.
The WD16H is powered by a 490 c.c. single cylinder, four stroke, side valve engine. The front suspension is of the Girder Fork type, with a central spring complemented by a set of auxiliary springs (often referred to as rebound springs) and hand adjusted shock absorbers. Norton had patented this technology and displayed the patent number on linkages on both sides. We explain the functioning of the patented system elsewhere in this article. This Norton is a hard tail, with a sprung rider seat and an unsprung pillion.
Though the internet is rife with explanations for what the WD and H stand for, Mr. Muthukumar assures me that WD is War Derived and H denotes that H-section connecting rod used in this mill.
The 16H like its contemporaries has a dry sump lubrication system. A four gear pump forces oil under pressure to the bearings and the rear of the cylinder. An oil filter is incorporated in the piping. One novel feature pointed out to me by Mr. Muthukumar was that you could remove the tappet cover and grease nipples are provided to lubricate the valve guides. Having only recently been introduced to British Classics, I was stumped when I saw the Gear Indicator. Though the purpose of such a device beats me, the brass plate with the etched numbers definitely adds to the motorcycle’s charm.
The kind of abuse these motorcycles were subject to in the war, it was not uncommon to rebuild a whole motorcycle from parts recovered from various other worn/damaged motorcycles. Such a motorcycle was provided with a new Army Census number and put to work again only to end up as parts for some other motorcycle, or be repainted and sold to civilians. No wonder there are few WD16H’s left today with matching engine and frame numbers.
There are a number of variations of the 16H documented during the war. This variation is identified by its double bolt rear ‘civilian’ type number plate, removable rear mud guard tail piece, existence of a number plate on the front, winged “gravity” knob on the toolbox as opposed to the school bag type lock, OLH (Off, Low, High) headlamp switch, the lack of a black out mask on the headlamp, sideways mounted horn and a lot more visible only to the discerning eye. The last two of the lot of pictures below show the Lucas Regulator and the Smiths Meter.