The Norton RCW 588 Rotary is one of the most iconic Dunlop Dynasty machines

29th June 2017
Andrew Willis

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Joey Dunlop’s first of 26 TT wins. It’s a phenomenal record, and one the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard is rightly celebrating. Despite this, it’s the younger Dunlop that James Hewing – Director of the National Motorcycle Museum ­– wants to commend as he shows GRRC around two of Robert Dunlop’s race-winning Norton JPS Works Rotary bikes. 


There are 15 Dunlop bikes lined up as we approach James in the Festival of speed paddocks, and it’s certainly no easy task for a bike fan of his stature to choose one to talk us through from a parade of icons. With only a moment’s hesitation, James narrows the choice down to two, black, menacing machines. We’ll let him off not picking one.

As he looks over his choices, it doesn’t take long for the infectiously passionate curator to start setting the scene around the RCW and NRS Norton JPS Works Rotary bikes:

“Sometimes people forget what a great racer Robert Dunlop was, because Joey won so many TTs. To a degree, Joey overshadows Robert in some people’s eyes, but Robert himself was an absolutely amazing racer. Some people say as good as Joey, sometimes things didn’t always go his way”.

He’s right of course, and a turbulent period in the mid-90s saw Robert vanish from the road-racing circuit as he concentrated on recovering from a life-threatening crash which many thought would end his days as a motorcycle racer. It didn’t. In true Dunlop style, he later returned to the place of his crash to triumphantly claim an ultralight TT win. 


Years prior, however, Robert was showing the world that there were most definitely two Dunlop brothers racing and winning on bikes. He was on a role, taking consistent victories towards the end of the 80s, climaxing most notably in what James Hewing describes as “Somewhat of a double” when he went on to win the Northwest 200 and then finish 3rd in the Senior TT in 1990 on the RCW.

But what made the RCW and NRS such a potent accomplice to Robert’s rise in road racing? 

“A rotary engine in a motorcycle can be a very successful package. Both the bikes are very light. They were powerful of course, but only as powerful as their Japanese contemporaries. It was how they delivered the power, the torque of the 3-chamber rotary engine, of only 588cc, which made them very successful on both short circuits and the road circuits like the Northwest and the Isle of Man.” 

It’s a package which didn’t just perform for Robert. Indeed, the likes of Trevor Nation and Steve Spray both won the British Championships on Rotary Nortons, along with Steve Hislop taking 1st place in the 1992 senior TT. Cementing the rotary technology as a leading force in '90s road and circuit racing. 


Sadly, it’s the tragedy which followed the momentous achievements of both Joey, and later Robert, which today makes these bikes even more extraordinary. 

FOS 2017 features both William and Michael Dunlop, the sons of Robert, ride the two Rotary bikes up the Goodwood Hill in his memory. A detail not lost on the quietly respectful James, who protectively suggests, “As museum Director, it’s my personal opinion, that William and Michael should be the only people who ride these bikes. They are such famous racers in their own right, I think it’s a great tribute to their dad”.

A great tribute indeed, and one which promises to be a spectacle.

Tantalisingly, when we ask James what to expect from the current crop of Dunlops this weekend, he ends our chat with a wry smile before reminding us that Michael previously rode his dad’s bike to an 118mph lap of the 2014 Isle of Man TT from a standing start, on a bike he’s never ridden before. It’s a mindboggling nod to the talent, courage and raw pace which has blessed the Dunlop family for generations, and long may it continue. 

Remember you can watch all the action at #FOS on our GRR live blog! Watch and join the conversation by clicking here!

Photography by James Lynch

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