Sep 15, 2010

In Pursuit of Quality

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

The most recent owner/manufacturer of the Norton label claimed that he's only going to be capable of making 2000-4000 bikes a year because "Nortons are essentially going to be handmade . . . you simply can't maintain that level of quality and control with large-scale production."

Funny. Nortons have never been particularly famous for "quality," unless oil puddles, unreliability, and no competitive advantage in power, handling, or any other performance category has become a quality value. The definition of quality this corporate goof is using is one that is mostly centered around cosmetics and no-expense-spared handiwork. That's a definition that only the richest folks can appreciate.
2010 Norton Commando 961 Cafe Racer
An old manufacturing maxim directs the fruitcakes in marketing and the delusional loonies in sales in the reality, "Quality, price, or delivery. Pick two." Modern American and Brit motorcycle manufacturing blew off the option making that decision and appears to be happy with going for the appearance of quality without caring a lot about price or delivery. That appears to be the tact Norton's new owner is going to take with the long-abused marquee. That kind of business model only works when a sufficient number of customers are dumb enough to cough up buckets of money for a mediocre product. It's probably a pretty good short-term tactic, assuming those rich, dumb customers aren't actually going to ride their new toy.

For the rest of us, the modern manufacturing standard of quality will have to do: a quality product meets its customers' expectations. That's it. Japan practically perfected this standard and changed everything in the world of manufacturing in the process. Before the quality revolution of the 1960's and 70's, middle-class customers expected products from Detroit, American electronics manufacturers, and their appliances to have "personality." Personality means defects, glitches, and high maintenance. Most of us have places we want to go, people we want to meet, deadlines and schedules, and bucket lists. We don't have time for vehicles with personality, so we settle for real quality instead of the cosmetic kind.

If you are going to make that choice, your only option is to go for "large-scale production" products because that's where practical quality usually lives. One of the beauties of large-scale production is large-scale consumer feedback. Even in our age of passive consumers, a noticeable percentage of consumers still make the effort to complain when they get ripped off. That percentage might be less than 1%, but 1% of millions is still a pretty large collection of complaints. 1% of "2000-4000' is easily ignored. NTSHA might ignore 10 irritated Norton owners, but even a federal government agency pays attention to 20,000 complaints.

More importantly, the large manufacturer has the motivation and manpower and talent to squeeze failures down into the six-sigma territory. Although quality is largely taken for granted in modern products, the reason for that expectation is that modern products are largely very reliable. The reason that is true is because designers and manufacturing engineers have the resources and the skills to anticipate and resolve product reliability problems. A group of shade-tree mechanics working for a rich kid who is intent on burning up his trust fund won't be so inclined or gifted.

So, I'll just stick with boring, machine-made, engineer-designed production motorcycles and it won't even cross my mind that I would be happier with a boutique one-of-a-kind handmade bike. Besides, I'd have to decide between having a home or owning a rare piece of art and I'm not that interested in two-wheeled art.


Anonymous said...

I never could get with the Norton twin mystique so I'm with you. Electric-assisted starting meant deliberately choosing a starter for price rather than ability to rotate the engine. A 500-cc design inflated to 850 and then onward means wild crankshaft jumproping and a need for main bearings to be compatible with large angular motions. The cylinder head was progressive, with a smaller valve included angle than the Manx, but then they went and operated it with pushrods and rockers.

Now, insulated from the nasty truth about those junkers, we are supposed to be ready to pay out big for nostalgia. Sorry.


T.W. Day said...


I'm not sure who's with who, here. I loved your take on the "greatest bike in history" or whatever that nostalgia/failed memory series was about in CW. Manufacturing has made giant leaps in quality control management in the last 40 years and that, unfortunately, explains a lot about why we don't make much in the US (or England). Being old, I'm less impressed with the good old days. I'll take fuel injection, electronic ignition, high tolerance, high reliability, low maintenance modern products over carbureted, piston-slapping, 10,000 mile engine lifetime vintage memories any day.

In my real life, pro audio, there are hundreds of boutique garage manufacturers making all sorts of fidelity claims about their "superior handmade products" that make no sense at all. They often turn back 40 years of engineering knowledge and objective listening experience to copy products from the golden years of popular music, claiming old is better. For the most part, the serious engineers work for the more mainstream companies, churning out state-of-the-art circuit topologies and pushing the envelope of audibility constantly. The hobbyists hype unprovable audible qualities and pick terrific looking face plates and gold connectors over circuit design and hope their customers are willing to pay a 500% premium for "hand made."

It takes me too damn long to earn my money. Convincing me to shell out cash for unprovables is a tough sell.

T.W. Day

Anonymous said...

Let's fly the Atlantic in the good old-fashioned way - with Lindberg! Let's try to manufacture ICs by hand! Let's sit awhile before hearing the price for one Chevy exhaust valve, made by an elderly machinist wearing an apron with a micrometer pocket. Or, as an alternative, we could watch the machining cycle as a new valve forging clicks into the fixturing - all done in 16 seconds. And how about drugs? Maybe the crafterly way is, as the song says, "mix it up right here in the sink".


T.W. Day said...

Great list of things I never want to see. The "good 'ole days" are better for remembering than experiencing.

T.W. Day

Anonymous said...

I completely agree about fuel injection and all the rest of it - I have no desire to spend my life trying to bend some bit of steel on an antique Holley carb in hope that will make it cold-start without backfiring and setting the top of my engine ablaze. I want to turn the key and go. The Morini was a pure racing machine that had no production counterpart, so it was attended by the entire racing department every time it ran. No doubt, like the three-cam 125 Duc desmo before it, it needed a new crank for every GP. Today's production motorbikes and cars are the best that have ever existed, and their quality is in the process that directs their manufacture. In the 1950s US auto makers were sending as much as 30% of production to rework because of low process quality - in effect, those cars had to be manufactured twice.

Somehow, the people who rode British twins managed to accept their terrible vibration, which every rider today would reject unless it were cloaked in nostalgia ("We ought to like this - it's old"). Aircraft engine vibration had to be suppressed in order to bring airframe weight down to a level at which payload became possible. THe steel tube production feather-duster Norton chassis weighed some 46-lb, mainly because if the tubing wall was any less, the engine mounts cracked out of it. So for decades people accepted that as a motorcycle frame, just as eve-of-WW II US and British fighters still had some tube-and-lug fuselages, and B-17 wings were built like a Wilson truss bridge. Along came the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero and gave his airplane stressed-skin construction out of Sumitomo Metals Co's new "Ergal" aluminum alloy, later known as 7075 when produced in the US. And by golly, with a 24-lb/sq. ft. wing loading, the Zero turned so hard that no Allied fighter could match it. Right to the end of the war Allied fighter pilots were train never, ever to be sucked into a turning contest with a Zero. Always use superior speed or height to make one surprise firing pass.

Only now am I learning of the mid-throttle mixture problems of Japanese GP bikes (two-strokes) on Amal GP/TT copies that were just as bad as the originals. If they were made big enough to supply the necessary mixture, they were big enough to be absurdly sensitive to changes in temperature, leading either to richness and plug-fouling or to one catastrophic seizure after another. Finally in 1965 Mikuni made their own design of carburetor - the VM, the underside of whose slide formed a kind of crude-but-effective venturi above the fuel delivery tube. This greatly strengthened the mid-throttle metering signal and banished many two-stroke problems. It was also a rubber-mounted center-float design.

I have no love for magnetos, either. The Hitachi MC2RY unit on my 1965 TD1-B went out of time as soon as the engine started. Recalls the concept that if you stop cleaning the house, a steady state will eventually be reached in which the dirt tracked out will equal the dirt tracked in. Maybe I should just have left the mag alone, assuming it would vibrate into correct timing as often as it vibrated out. The coils were insulated with varnished fabric, mounted so close to the permanent magnet rotor (advanced!) that they could, and would, spark through all that laundry to wreck themselves, leaving black "witness marks" for proof.

It is always the crank flywheel that carries the extra weight of the ignition rotor that vibrates enough to slowly walk off its crankpin press-fit. This was no problem on lower-revving TD1s but on RD 350 and 400, getting to 9500 or above was a sure recipe for con-rod side clearance growth. Assemble at .024", then measure .032" after one race meeting, and it went on from there until the outer main bearing was wrecked. The flywheels were vibrating like a tuning-fork, with the crankpin as their spring. And what did that do to timing on the racetrack?


T.W. Day said...

When I was a 20-year-old kid, my mechanical "skills" were limited to really simple stuff and I relied on garage mechanics for all things complicated. One mechanic "friend" convinced me to replace my reliable but simple '65 Opel Kadet station wagon with a "like new" 1959 MGA. At the time, I was capable of replacing my own plugs, setting points timing, and less complicated maintenance. By the time I sold the MGA, I was pretty handy with head gaskets, minor carb adjustments, and radiator repairs. I was also dead broke, all thanks to the MGA and it's godawful design flaws. We lived in Dallas at the time and Texas heat and the MG's postage stamp radiator were a poor combination; which explains my head gasket skills.

None of my memories of the MGA are good, but I remember a pair of distributors and 3 carbs which were often out of sync and a transmission that would often over-pressure and exhaust transmission grease on the passenger seat. (Which happened as my wife and I were returning from our wedding, among other fine memories.) The wooden floor boards would catch fire when the timing slipped even a little. The air filter went up in smoke a few times, too.

I've been told that I owned a twin cam "race version" of the MGA and that it would be worth a fortune today. It would have required an investment of several fortunes to still be alive today. I credit the MGA, a short acquaintance with a BSA 441 Victim, and (to a lesser extent) my Rickman 125 IDST for my general disinterest in all things European or vintage. I still suspect that British "engineers" are the only people capable of forging, casting, or injection-molding any material into any shape so that it will be unable to retain fluids.