If any single person deserves credit for Norton’s extraordinary decades of racing dominance from 1930 through the mid-1950s, it must be Joe Craig.  The de facto racing team manager for Norton under several owners, Craig at first successfully raced the factory product himself in the 1920s, then switched to the role of development engineer in 1930.  He held that position (despite a break from the company during WW2) through 1955, when postwar company owners Associated Motor Cycles (AMC) decided exotic factory specials could no longer be supported financially, and focussed on selling factory catalogued racers like the Norton Manx, AJS 7R, and Matchless G50 models, all of which were produced simultaneously under their corporate ownership.

Norton factory racer Jimmie Guthrie in 1936, after taking several world speed-distance records at the Montlhéry speed bowl: 117.161mph for 50 miles with the 500cc machine, and 107.669mph for 100km with a 350cc Norton. [Craig family archive]
Mick Duckworth has just published a paean to Norton’s heyday: ‘Joe Craig – Making Norton Famous’, built from the collected photographic archive of the man himself, provided by surviving  members of the Craig family.   The archive has passed through many hands since Joe’s 1957 death in a car accident, first with his son Des, then relatives and Norton enthusiasts who understood the value of the collection. Finally, Mick was tapped by Barry Stickland to do something with the photos, and has self-published a unique document: 218 pages of images from Joe Craig’s career, with only six of them sourced outside the family archive – something of a dream for an author.

Joe Craig in 1929, aged 31, with an early OHC Norton ‘Moore’ racer with the ‘cricket bat’ engine. [W&G Baird]
Duckworth has told the story of Joe Craig’s career in pictures, with a few separate essays, but most of the information is attached as context for the multitude of photos, which should delight any fan of Norton racing motorcycles from their earliest OHC CS1 racers of 1928, designed by Walter Moore, through their last experimental Type F outside-flywheel Manx of 1955, developed 25 years after Arthur Carroll and Joe Craig sat down to rectify the limitations of Moore’s engine.

Joe Craig filling Jimmy Simpson’s 350cc factory Norton at the 1934 Swiss Grand Prix. [Carl Jost / Berne State Archive]
We’re a long time past Norton’s ‘golden age of racing’, as Mick puts it, between 1930-38, when the International and Manx Grand Prix models won more than 70 Grands Prix and 10 European Championships.  Norton was a very small motorcycle company compared to Triumph, BSA, BMW, and DKW, yet its impact on racing was outsize, from taking the first Isle of Man TT win in 1907, to its total dominance of GP racing in the 1930s. Joe Craig gets much of the credit for this, and not just because of his motorcycles: he was a keen talent spotter, and a stern tactician, earning a reputation for being as ‘Unapproachable’ as the factory slogan.  Craig ran a tight ship, and wasn’t known for the exuberance, for example, of his longtime racing star Stanley Woods.  But Mick Duckworth suggests there was a softer side to the man, especially towards his family and close friends, some of whom he includes in this book.

Mick Duckworth’s latest, made almost entirely of Joe Craig’s personal photos between the 1920s through 1950s. [Mick Duckworth]
There are definitely gems in the collection, including Craig’s barbs at the nascent Vintage Motor Cycle Club in a March 1944 article in The Motorcycle: “I should like to make some attempt at breaking away from the present fashionable practice, which is becoming almost a vice, of rhapsodizing over ancient, so-called masterpieces.  This latter tendency may perhaps be partly attributable to Capt. JJ Hall’s activities [Hall was co-founder of the VMCC with ‘Titch’ Allen] – or should I say ‘mania’ – for collecting vintage machines.  If we are to consider the future seriously as regards improved motor cycles, then we must break new ground.”  Consider, of course, that Craig was a development engineer in an extremely competitive industry, and in 1944 international ‘competition’ was quite literally lethal.

Every picture tells a story, don’t it? At race meetings, Joe Craig invariably wore suit and tie, but at the 1935 German GP, he wore a casual workingman’s outfit, and refused to raise his arm in the Nazi salute for 250cc race winner (DKW) Walfried Winkler, who looks sternly at Joe and 350cc race winner Walter Rusk (Norton of course), who likewise ignores hails to the Führer. This is a full four years before the UK went to war with Germany, and demonstrates exactly how Joe Craig felt about Fascism. [Schneider]
As a team boss and single-minded development engineer, Joe Craig had few peers.  While every other factory team explored multi-cylinder, supercharged racers in the 1930s, Norton remained steadfast in their evolution of the Manx, focusing on reliability and superb handling characteristics, which served them well in long-distance and road racing events.  At other venues, such as Monza, top speed was everything, and the Nortons were 20mph down on top speed compared to a Gilera four or BMW blown twin.  His decades-long development work on the Carroll engine design was rivaled in the industry only by, believe it or not, the race shop at Harley-Davidson, who kept their 750cc sidevalve racers competitive (domestically) from 1930 through 1969, with last iterations of the KRTT clocking in at 150mph on Daytona’s banking, which was faster than the 750cc BSA/Triumph triples they were racing.

Harold Daniell at Donington Park in 1936, with Norton’s first telescopic fork, about to take the lap record on an empty track as an exhibition between races: he lopped 7 seconds off the absolute record. Note the heavy bracing for the 7″ diameter megaphone exhaust. Joe Craig looks nervous, with boxes of spark plugs at the ready. Top speed of this last SOHC factory racer was around 120mph, which was hoisted to 125+mph when the factory racers went to DOHC in 1938. [Dunlop archive]
Do you rhapsodize over ancient, so-called masterpieces?  Then surely you need this book!  You can order the book here.


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
Related Posts

The Universal Racing Motorcycle

Dimitri Coste attempts the impossible:…

Legend of the Motorcycle Attire

It was an event that changed the…

Those Dashing Racers of the 1920s: Harry Weslake

Harry Weslake was a snappy dresser, and…

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter