In the mid-1970s, Norman Hossack visited the Royal National Institute for the Blind in London.  Norman had congenital nystagmus, a condition where his eyes dash left and right. Blindness was never a prognosis, but fine, up-close work was a problem.  A professor at the Institute told him farming would be a suitable occupation, but that wasn’t what Norman, who was perfecting his welding and machining skills, wanted to hear. “That was life altering for me,” Norman says of his visit to the RNIB, “But I didn’t stop thinking about stuff.”  Although his eyes were initially a setback, Norman gracefully steered through life’s twists and turns and absorbed the shocks, later developing the radical HOSSACK suspension system, as used by Britten, BMW and Honda in their motorcycles.

The start of it all: a brand new Ducati Mach 1 taken to the track in South Africa. [Norman Hossack]
At the time, Norman was working for McLaren in England. He was involved in many aspects of McLaren’s race cars and crewed on the racing teams, including three years at Indianapolis in 1972, 1973 and 1974. Running a metal lathe, perfecting his TIG welding skills, learning about chassis and suspension design… Norman was creatively inspired and more than happy in his position. “But my eyesight wasn’t adding up,” he says. “Distance sight wasn’t a problem, but any close-up work was ruled out.” Norman left McLaren in 1974 without divulging the reason for his departure. He went skiing, paid for by working in bars; he sailed as crew, and learned to pilot a glider by doing field maintenance. All things, he says, that didn’t depend on the noise and vibration of an internal combustion engine to propel him. Born in Bellshill, Scotland in 1946, Norman moved with his mother and father to South Africa just two years later. Norman’s father was an aircraft engineer, and during WW2 repaired RAF (Royal Air Force) engines in Karachi, India. They moved initially to South Africa and then to Rhodesia, where the family camped under canvas near Rusape for four years while Hossack Sr. maintained heavy construction equipment including bulldozers, tractors and stone crushers for a modern roadway project – the first real road to the East. “We were very remote and didn’t have a lot of things. I had to entertain myself and spent most of my time outdoors,” Norman says.

The first test mule for Hossack’s front end, HOSSACK 1, which eventually got a Honda motor. [Norman Hossack]
When the family moved to Umtali, Norman began taking an interest in engineering and mechanics. “I was greatly intrigued by the Luna Park (small amusement parks named after Luna Park, opened in 1903 on Coney Island) that would set up on the square outside our school. Rides such as the Octopus, Chair-O-Plane, Dodgem and Big Wheel fascinated me, and I wondered how it mechanically all went together,” Norman says. At 14, Norman’s father presented him with a challenge. A 1949 125cc BSA Bantam, taken apart and then abandoned, was found. Norman had to go and pick up the pieces and put it together and make it run. “My father didn’t get involved, but after a bit of struggle I managed to work it all out and would then tear around the neighborhood after school.” When he was 16, just about to turn 17, Norman began a 5-year apprenticeship in the motor trade. “I would have preferred to go into the air force, but I’d failed my English exam because my spelling was appalling,” he says. “I was ahead of the job, and fixing cars was a bit mundane – I wanted to be changing and inventing things and couldn’t really see a reason to accept some designs as they were.” He invented a door lock, for example, for a Ford Cortina to replace the bolt-action lock that wouldn’t keep the car door closed on some of the rough African roads. “Mine worked, and kept the door closed,” he explains.

The little bike that could: HOSSACK 1 on the track with a fairing, a winning machine for years. [Norman Hossack]
But the motor trade job provided wages that allowed him to buy his first – and only – brand new machine, a 250cc Ducati Mach I. Paid off in installments, the Ducati was soon on the racetrack. “During our racing season, many of the European racers would come to Africa, and we’d see people such as Mike Hailwood. In fact, I raced a 20-lap race against Mike, and he overtook me three times in 20 laps! Still, I found it significant to have been on the track at the same time as him.” Following advice found in a Cycle World magazine, Norman modified the Ducati’s swingarm pivot to strengthen it.  That didn’t make the motorcycle any faster, and he soon sold the Ducati to fund a trip to England and Europe where he spent time hitchhiking and doing odd jobs. One of those jobs, albeit unpaid, was working as engine tuner and mechanic for racer Gordon Keith as he campaigned the Continental Circus on European tracks. “It was me, his girlfriend and him in a van and a caravan, traveling and racing every weekend,” Norman recalls. “He ran a 500cc Velocette single and a 250cc Yamaha 2-stroke twin – that kept me busy.” After the 1970 Isle of Man race, Norman took a job working as a mechanic for a Lotus dealership in London. “I was just fixing road cars, and always found putting engines together a bit boring and not very nourishing – it’s always the same result, you turn the key, and it starts,” Norman says. “One of the guys I’d met in Europe during motorcycle racing invited me to join him, and I told him I’d think about it and had every intention of joining him but before the 1972 season started, I got a job with McLaren. I had to turn him down.” The ‘guy’ in question was a young Barry Sheene, and rather than entering the world of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, Norman found himself immersed in McLaren’s Indianapolis, Formula 1 and CANAM racing pursuits.

Norman’s piston-sealing concept after Wankel inspiration: a square piston with a rocking-swiping motion that proved to work, many years too late for two-stroke engines. [Norman Hossack]
During his McLaren years, Norman returned to motorcycle club racing aboard a Yamsel, a 350cc Yamaha engine is a Seeley frame. He campaigned the racer on circuits such as Brands Hatch and Snetterton, but says it was a more a hobby than a serious affair. “McLaren really inspired me,” he says. “It was an opening up of the mind, and it made me a wiser, more experienced and skilled person – that was my university education.” But it was an education that ended in 1974, with the suggestion that Norman take up farming over any kind of engineering ambitions. During this period, Norman was still thinking and tinkering. For example, while living at home in South Africa, he’d pored over his father’s Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines for articles pertaining to alternative engine development. He was most interested to learn about the principles of the Wankel rotary. However, he didn’t appreciate that a power comparison couldn’t be made directly between a Wankel and an ordinary internal combustion engine. Ultimately, he’d come away from South Africa with an idea for an engine that combined a piston with the sealing capacity of a Wankel to the crank of a standard engine. Working with fabricators in London, by 1979 Norman pieced together a running prototype. There was a problem, though. While it started, it would only run for approximately five seconds before dying. It proved his theory of the revised combustion chamber, but the project got shelved without becoming fully realized. Fast forward, though, to 2011. Now living in California, Norman had brought his engine with him, and dragged the pieces back out. The running issue was traced to a defective carburetor – with a new carb on the intake, the little engine ran like a dream. “During the time I wanted it to work, it didn’t,” Norman says of the design. “When I got it to work, no one was interested in 2-strokes anymore.”

Offering the Hossack fork as a kit. [Norman Hossack]
Back to motorcycles and Norman’s story in England. Alongside the engine he designed, he’d also turned his attention to motorcycle suspension. From the dawn of the motorcycling age, front forks have evolved from the simple rigid bicycle blade to sprung girder-style to the most common telescopic versions still in use today. Other methods have been employed; just two examples include hub-center steering as seen on the Ner-A-Car of the 1920s [read our Road Test here], and the ‘pulled wheel’ or trailing-link girder system once used on some Belgian-built Fabrique Nationale single-cylinder machines from 1947 until 1952. Norman was not impressed with the FN fork. “I was always thinking about stuff, and I’d studied telescopic forks and hub-center steering,” Norman says. “I didn’t like either style and wondered if two wishbones with an upright, similar to racing car technology, could be used on a motorbike – this kind of designed itself, really, and it involved some creativity in how it would steer.” Norman constructed a rudimentary prototype dual wishbone and upright system to see how well it would articulate. It worked. His next step was to build a frame, front end and swingarm with scrapyard wheels underneath it. “We were just pushing it around a trading estate parking lot,” Norman recalls. “A friend said to me, ‘You’re doing quite well here, why don’t you put an engine in it?’”

A Yamaha RD350 racer with Hossack front end: zero brake diving, and a great weight reduction. [Norman Hossack]
A Honda XL 500cc single was slightly modified to fit the frame. In 1979, Norman started riding it around the parking lot and within two months, he was piloting it around the track at Brands Hatch. “I was rushing up to Paddock Bend thinking the only thing between me and a lot of pain is my own engineering – there were a lot of thoughts about whether I was doing the right thing.” But it never fell apart. At a time when nickel bronze welding was the popular method for joining frame tubes, Norman’s frame was all TIG-welded and all bearings were needle rollers. Norman raced his special to the end of 1981 and early 1982, and then Vernon Glashier took over the controls. In Vernon’s hands, HOSSACK 1, as it was dubbed, won the 1983 Bemsee single championship. “Hossack 1 was revolutionary in the way it handled,” Norman says. “The front suspension action was the most noticeable difference when seen on the track. The bike did not dive when the brakes were applied.” In 1982, Norman built HOSSACK 2, a 250cc Rotax-powered racer. That machine won the 1983 Bemsee 250cc championship. HOSSACK 1, the same bike that was built as the test platform, won the 1986, 1987 and 1988 British Single Cylinder Championship races. “It was almost 10 years old when it won the last championship at which point Vernon stopped racing it because the rules changed from 500cc to 600cc. It retired unbeaten,” Norman says.

Ray Knight on the HOSSACK 3 racer on its inaugural event at Brands Hatch in 1983; he took 3rd place first time out. [Norman Hossack]
Norman set himself the task of commercializing the HOSSACK 3 racer, now with a 350cc LC Yamaha engine and began taking names of potential customers. His venture didn’t see fruition. Motorcyclists essentially adhere to tradition. “It was only me against the world,” Norman says, and adds, “It was so different, and people didn’t want to experiment.” Common comments Norman heard were “what do car guys know about bikes anyway?” and “if it was any good, the Japanese would have done it.” Norman says he also did not have the wherewithal to put on a decent show. “I was working hard just to stand still, really. And then people stopped building bespoke racers as the club scene turned to production race machines.” What next? Norman’s friend suggested converting road bikes with the HOSSACK front suspension system. He converted a crashed BMW K100RS with front end damage to a HOSSACK system, and “that bike led from one thing to another,” Norman explains. “I converted five K100s for customers in England and the message got around, at which point a delegation from WUDO, a German BMW dealer came to see me, and I started selling (converted) bikes in Germany through WUDO. They helped me get TÜV approval.” Notoriously rigorous in its testing, German TÜV approval ensures the highest quality in design and workmanship. There’s another story here, too. Norman says, “One of my English customers went to BMW in Munich and let them test his Hossack K100 on their test track. After that I was invited into the Munich R/D department where they quizzed me about my design, but they were about to release their Telelever front suspension. When that happened, my BMW market all but dried up. I was a family man making a living and I didn’t have cash to put into this.” His last English-built HOSSACK was a 1994 Triumph Trident 900 conversion. The Triumph was owned by Keith Duckworth of Cosworth engine fame, and Keith got the bike into Hinckley Triumph’s hands. “They couldn’t see the point of it,” Norman says. “I was broke, and had to give up on it and walk away.”

One of Norman’s BMW K100 conversions, which the factory took note of, and copied for themselves. [Norman Hossack]
Norman found his way into the medical world and the design of intravascular ultrasound equipment. This career trajectory saw his family relocate to the U.S. in 2001, and “this was much more rewarding work that might actually help people – it seemed more useful to the world than racing motorcycles or cars,” he says. But just as his HOSSACK engine had a second life in America, so too has his HOSSACK suspension. In 2004, BMW launched their K1200S with Duolever front suspension, “and BMW credited me in their literature, acknowledging where the idea came from,” Norman says [he never patented his design – ed.]. For his own personal use, in 2013 Norman converted a Ducati 800 to a HOSSACK system. The bike shed 30 pounds in the process with an upright and wishbones constructed of TIG-welded 4130 tubing. Suspension is supplied by an Ikon damper. Overall, the HOSSACK front suspension provides a lighter, yet more communicative ride with outstanding braking power, but this Ducati is the last motorcycle he’ll likely convert. His eyesight did not, thankfully, deteriorate. In fact, the problem got better with time, and he says “It’s still present, but it doesn’t stop me from doing anything.” Norman retired from the medical world in 2017 and has set much of his life’s story down in a yet-to-be-published book that, thankfully, does not contain any chapters about farming.

Norman with a converted Ducati with trellis frame, a perfect match for his fork design. [Norman Hossack]




Greg Williams is Profiles Editor for The Vintagent. He’s a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics


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