The Case of the Inverted ’Taco

Back when I was riding District 37 enduros in the 1960s and ’70s, you’d see a much wider variance in motorcycle types lining up to compete than is the case in this age of specialization. My own ride—a 1967 Norton P11—was a prime example; while a 380 pound, 745cc parallel-twin-powered bike now seems more appropriate for adventure riding than off-road racing, the model was fast and stable enough back then that San Gabriel MC's Mike Patrick rode one to the ’68 Heavyweight No. 1 plate in Southern California. Some other riders preferred lighter, more nimble machines, and encounters between the different solutions didn’t always go smoothly….

My late brother Corky had a P11 as well, and the same year that Patrick was ruling hare & hounds, we entered our Nortons in the Prospectors MC Enduro at Red Rock Canyon. As was our typical approach, I was handling timekeeping duties, with Corky following my lead, and we were having a decent day. At one point, the course took us into Freeman Gulch, where a bottleneck put us both behind schedule, and once we were through, we began hustling along the rocky-but-open side-hill trail in an effort to catch up to our minute.

Before long, we approached another rider from an earlier minute, and it was clear from a distance that he was a bit unsteady, standing on his pegs the entire time. As we closed in, I could see that he was riding a Bultaco Sherpa T trials bike, which didn’t have much of a seat. Based on the Sherpa N 250 trail bike, the trials version—campaigned in its intended application by pros like Sammy Miller and Mick Andrews—featured revised geometry, and perhaps it wasn't ideal for negotiating rock fields at a quick clip, whereas our Curnutt-suspended Nortons were relatively planted.

 When encountering two Nortons in the desert, a Sherpa T quickly has its world turned upside down.

When encountering two Nortons in the desert, a Sherpa T quickly has its world turned upside down.

Corky and I soon closed to the ’Taco’s rear fender, and as we still hadn’t caught up to our minute, I disengaged my clutch and gave the throttle a quick twist, the twin high exhausts emitting a healthy bellow that was intended as friendly encouragement to make way. Alas, apart from a startled shudder, the Sherpa pilot didn’t react, so I decided to move closer before gunning the engine again. It so happens I didn’t get that opportunity, as a miscalculation resulted in my Norton giving a love-tap to the Bultaco’s rear tire.

Although the P11 barely felt the impact, the ’Taco immediately veered off the trail and pitched off its rider, who tumbled several feet down the slope before rolling to a stop. Concerned, Corky and I halted in the trail, and as the rider struggled to a sitting position and fumbled for his goggles, all of our eyes settled on the Sherpa T. Incredibly, the little bike had come to a trailside rest perfectly balanced upside-down on its handlebar and seat, like a bicycle having a flat tire repaired, its still-idling engine spinning the rear wheel and sending puffs of blue two-stroke smoke from the stubby exhaust. Apparently, trials bikes really do have good balance at low speeds….

The way I remember it, Sherpas had a rubber plug in place of a screw-on gas cap, but I’m unable to confirm that via Bultaco websites (please post a note in the comments section if you have info). Whether that's the case or the cap simply hadn't been fully tightened, it suddenly popped free from its home, and as we three stunned spectators looked on, the tank’s contents glugged out into the dirt and slowly trickled down the hill. Before anyone had fully processed that, the Sherpa’s engine coughed and expired, the rear wheel shuddering to a stop.

Ahem. Ermmm… you okay?” I asked, awkwardly breaking the desert silence.

The rattled rider shifted his gaze from his inverted bike to me before giving himself a distracted onceover. “Ye-, yeah, I guess so,” he stammered.

Corky and I glanced at each other, shrugged in unison, kicked over our engines and headed down the trail, the big Nortons once again in their element.

The father of Jonnum Media founder Chris Jonnum, Jerry is a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast and former amateur off-road racer. Have a Moto Story you'd like help telling for free? Email chris@jonnummedia.com.