With the sad news of the administrators being called in to Norton Motorcycles, I thought that now would be a good time to reflect on what could have (should have?) been a fairytale story of racing success and British pluckiness. (That’s a real word, honestly).
Although I grew up with British motorcycles, I never really got the whole Norton vibe. Perhaps that’s just a personal thing – Dad worked at Triumph, he owned a T140 Bonnie when I was a child, both brothers have owned Bonnies (T120 and T140), friends, and friends of friends have all owned Bonnies. I don’t recall anyone I know ever owning a Norton.
Sure, I’d seen them around, I’d been to motorcycle shows and sat on new models (late 80s or early 90s), I knew that they were another ‘Great British Bike’, at one point part of the Triumph setup (with NVT – Norton Villiers Triumph), but … they never quite captured my heart or imagination to be truthful.
If you want to talk about the history of the Triumph Bonneville, I can go for hours. The legend, designs, engines … but until recently (while researching an article for the Norvin), I didn’t actually know that much about Norton. I now have around 2,000 words of hand-written notes, starting in 1898, and ending … well, who knows where the Norton story will end right now?
The Early Days of Norton Motorcycles
Originally based in Bradford Street in Birmingham, Norton Motorcycles LTD was founded by James Lansdowne Norton in 1898, as a manufacturer of “fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade”. It took them until 1902 to start producing motorcycles, although they were using bought-in engines from elsewhere; it was a further three years before they produced their own engine.
That engine went into production in 1908, as 3.5hp 490cc, closely followed by the ‘Big 4’ 633cc engine. In 1907, a Norton ridden by Rem Fowler won the first ever twin-cylinder class race at the Isle of Man TT Race, and that set the way for the future – in whatever guise or ownership of the company, Norton have been racing bikes (and winning) throughout their history.
In 1913, Norton Motors LTD were facing financial difficulties, and their main creditor, R. T. Shelley & Co., bought the company from James, although he was part of the newly reformed company, along with Bob Shelley. This change brought about another (potentially significant, at least in design terms) change.
The first Norton logo was a simple affair, based on the ‘art nouveau’ movement, with the name written out in capital letters. In 1914, James Norton, along with his daughter, Ethel, produced an entirely new logo for Norton, which went on to become known as the ‘Curly N’ logo, with only the initial N being capitalised. This logo was first used on a motorcycle in 1915, although had been used on some marketing materials in the previous year.
As a result of the connection with Bob Shelley, Norton’s first motorsport successes came: Shelley’s brother in law was a well-known motorcycle tuner called Dan O’Donovan, in April of 1914, he set a number of new records using a Norton motorcycle;
- Under 500cc flying Km (81.06mph), and flying mile (78.60mph),
- Under 750cc flying Km and flying mile.
- Under 500cc with Sidecar flying Km (65.65mph) and flying mile (62.06mph).
- Under 750cc with Sidecar flying Km and flying mile.
Norton were beginning to carve out their name in the record books.
In July of the same year, O’Donovan also set the record for the flying 5 mile (75.88mph) and the standing start 10 mile (73.29mph). All of these records were set on the 490cc Norton.
WWI and Beyond
The ‘Great War’ (World War I) interrupted the Norton motorcycle manufacturing (as it did with all manufacturers), but deliveries to the public resumed in 1919, and they continued to pursue racing greatness – winning the Isle of Man Senior TT in 1924, the first ever lap timed at over 60mph. Norton went on to win the Senior TT a further nine times, until they withdrew from racing in 1938. (When they returned to racing again after WW II, they won the Senior TT every year from 1947-1954).
In 1925, James Norton died, aged 56. Perhaps missing some of the most incredible achievements of his marque: the Featherbed frame, the TT & racing success, the 100,000+ British Military motorcycles sold between 1937-45, and of course, the car racing success.
Norton Car Racing Success?
At the end of 1950, the English National Regulations were adopted as the basis for the new Formula 3 championship, and the JAP Speedway engine was dominant, that is until the Manx engine proved significantly more powerful and became the de facto engine of choice.
However, Norton weren’t prepared to sell the Manx engine as a standalone product, so car racers were purchasing complete motorcycles just for the engine, which led to a surfeit of frames on the market. And as history has already told us, the Featherbed frame, developed for Norton by the McCandless Bros. was perhaps the best handling frame of the time – tempting great legends like (Sir) John Surtees to build, or at least attempt to build a Norton/Vincent combo, better known as the Norvin.
Despite all of the glory and success on the track, in 1953, Norton were once again facing difficult times; finances were tight, and it was down to Associated Motor Cycles (AMC) to bail them out. AMC were already big players in the motorcycling world, owning such brands as AJS, Matchless, Francis-Barnett and James. In 1962, the Birmingham factory (now located in Bracebridge Street) closed, and everything relocated to AMCs Woolwich factory in London.
Norton Motorcycle Timeline
As you’d expect, a company that’s been trading since 1898, and that’s had more rescues than Private Ryan’s compadres has a fairly extensive list of significant events, these are just some of them:
- 1898 – James Lansdowne Norton founded the company in Bradford Street, Birmingham
- 1902 – Norton changed from manufacturer of ‘fittings & parts’ to creating their very own motorcycle
- 1907 – Developed their first engines for their range of motorbikes, making it to production in 1908. Choices were a 3.5hp 490cc and the ‘Big 4’ 633cc
- 1907 – Rem Fowler won the first ever Isle of Man TT Twin-Cylinder class
- 1913 – After hitting trouble, Norton was bought out by Shelley & Co. to create Norton Motors Ltd. The company was now a partnership between James Norton and Bob Shelley
- 1914 – James Norton worked with his daughter, Ethel, to produce the ‘Curly N’ logo that we’ve become accustomed to
- 1914 – Bob Shelley’s brother-in-law, Dan O’Donovan, set a number of records using a Norton motorcycle, including Flying Km, Flying Mile, for 500cc, under 750cc and with a sidecar
- 1919 – Deliveries to customers resumed after WWI
- 1924 – Won the Isle of Man Senior TT with an average speed over 60mph
- 1925 – James Lansdowne Norton died, aged just 56.
- 1936 – Resumed making motorcycles for the Military; 900 in 1936, 2,000 in 1937 (and between 1937/45, made nearly 100k)
- 1947/54 – Won every single Senior TT at the Isle of Man
- 1949 – Norton launched the new twin-cylinder ‘Model 7’, also known as the Dominator. 1949 was also the first official Grand Prix, Norton came fifth, while AJS took the top honours
- 1950 – Perhaps Norton’s greatest success, the Featherbed frame was introduced. Also, in 1950, the English National Regulations were adopted as the new Formula 3. The JAP speedway engine was favourite, until teams figured out the Manx engine was more powerful
- 1951 – The Norton Dominator was made available for export as the ‘Model 88’, with the Featherbed frame
- 1953 – Despite the racing success, Norton was struggling financially, and AMC (Associated Motor Cycles) stepped in and bought them out
- 1954 – Norton stopped going GP racing
- 1955 – The launch of the 600cc Dominator, also known as the ‘Model 99’
- 1960 – Updated version of the Featherbed frame launched for road-going bikes, now there was the ‘Wideline’ and the ‘Slimline’. 1960 also saw the launch of another new model, the ‘Manxman 650’, but for the US market only
- 1961 – The 650SS launch for the UK (only) market, and the 750cc Atlas
- 1963 – The last of the Manx Norton
- 1966 – AMC were now facing difficulties, and were reformed as Norton-Villiers
- 1967 – The all new ‘Commando’ prototype shown at the Earls Court show, it went into production in 1968
- 1972 – Norton released the ‘Combat’ engine. BSA now faced difficulties, and the Government bailed them out, on the proviso that they merge with Norton-Villiers, leading to the creation of Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) in 1973
- 1973 – Norton started developing a brand new monocoque, pressed steel frame, to be teamed with a 500cc engine, codenamed ‘Wulf’. Development was soon dropped
- 1974 – Under the NVT brand, Norton launched the ‘828 Roadster’, MK II ‘Hi Rider’, JPN Replica and the MK IIa ‘Interstate’
- 1975 – The Norton range reduced to just two models: MK III Interstate and the Roadster
- 1980s – The liquidation of NVT meant that the brands encompassed within were split up and disbanded, with Norton eventually coming back in 1988
- 1988 – Norton launched the new ‘Commander’, and the Spondon Engineering framed F1
- 1992 – TT success again with the winning of the Senior TT, but commercial sales were slow’ Norton barely hanging in there with the Wankel-engined Interpol 2
- 2008 – Stuart Garner purchases 50% of Spondon Engineering LTD, leading to an introduction, and subsequent purchase of Norton Motorcycles
- 2011 – Garner’s father approached Stuart Tiller (Spondon Engineering) to warn him that he needed to check on what Stuart Garner had done with Spondon’s assets
- 2013 – Tiller walks away from Garner & Spondon Engineering, the company hasn’t traded since
- 2012/3 – Investors tricked into swapping their pension plans into three plans controlled by Garner, two associates of Norton/Garner are convicted of tax fraud, relating to pensions
- 2015 – Government grant for £4m
- 2020 – Administrators called in to Norton Motorcycles, uncovering a web of deceit, fraudulent activity, and customer deception
Full Norton Motorcycle Model List
Without looking, can you guess at how many models Norton have made over the years?
15? 25? Perhaps even forty?
By my reckoning, Norton have produced just under 70 different models, when you take in to account the differing engine sizes. Yes, seventy.
1908 – 1939
- Big Four (Model 1), 633cc single, made between 1907-1954. It’s believed that a 475cc model was also made at some point
- Model 7 (BS), 490cc SV, made between 1914-1922. This was the Brooklands Special
- Model 8 (BRS), 490cc, made between 1914-1922. The Brooklands Road Special
- Model 9(TT), 490cc, made between 1912-1923. Used a belt-drive
- Model 3½, 490cc SV, made between 1911-1918. Became the Model 16 in 1919
- Model 16, 490cc SV, made between 1919-1920
- Norton 16H, 490cc SV, made between 1921-1954
- Model 18, 490cc OHV, made between 1922-1954. The original Roadster
- Model 19, 588cc OHV, made between 1926-1939. The capacity increased to 596cc in 1933
- CS1, 490cc OHC, made between 1928-1939. CS stands for camshaft. 1928-30 were the Cricket Bat Motors. 1930s models were the Arthur Carroll designed motors
- ES2, 490cc OHV, made between 1928-1939
- CJ, 348cc OHC, made between 1929-1939. This was the junior version of the CS1
- JE, 348cc OHV, made between 1929-1939. This was the junior version of the ES2
- Model 20, 490cc, made between 1930-1939. The twin-port OHV version of the Model 18
- Model 22, 490cc, made between 1930-1931. The twin-port OHV version of the model ES2
- Norton International Model 30, 490cc OHC, made between 1932-1939
- International Model 40, 348cc OHC, made between 1932-1939
- Model 50 OHV, 348cc OHV, made between 1933-1939
- Model 55, 348cc OHV, made between 1933-1939. The twin-port version of model 50
1937 – 1945
- WD 16H, 490cc SV. H denotes the ‘Home’ model
- WD Big Four, 633cc SV. This was the Sidecar Outfit model
1945 – 1970
- 16H, 490cc SV, made between 1946-1954
- Model 18, 490cc single, made between 1946-1954
- Model 19S, 596cc single, made between 1955-1958. The Model 19R was only available in 1955
- Big Four, 633cc SV, made between 1947-1954. It was developed as a 596cc from 1948
- Model 500T, 500cc, made between 1949-1954. Norton also supplied it as a 350cc version
- ES2, 490cc single, made between 1947 – 1964
- ES2 MK II, 490cc single, made between 1964 – 1966
- Model 50 OHV, 348cc, made between 1955-1958. The popular single with featherbed frame.
- Model 50 OHV MK II, 348cc, made between 1964-1966
- International Model 30, 490cc, made between 1947-1958
- International Model 40, 348cc, made between 1947-1958
- Manx Model 30, 498cc OHC, made between 1946-1963
- Manx Model 40, 348cc OHC, made between 1946-1963
- Model 7, 497cc twin, made between 1949-1956. This was the first Norton twin-cylinder, designed by Bert Hopwood
- Model 77, 497cc, made between 1950-1952. The rigid framed version of the Model 7, only available to the Australian market
- Model 77, 596cc, made between 1957-1958. Designed mainly for sidecar use
- Dominator 88, 497cc, made between 1952-1966. This used the same engine as the Model 7, but had the Featherbed frame
- Dominator 99, 596cc, made between 1956-1962
- Norton Jubilee, 250cc, made between 1958-1966
- Navigator, 350cc, made between 1960-1965
- Electra ES400, 400cc, made between 1963-1965. This was basically just an enlarged Navigator with electric start
- Atlas, 745cc, made between 1962-1968. Norton also made the Atlas Scrambler, an off-road variation
- 650 Sports Special, 650cc, made between 1961-1968. Became the Mercury in 1968
- Mercury, 650cc, made between 1968-1970
- P11A, 750cc, made between 1967-1968. This was just the Atlas engine in a scrambler frame, it became the Ranger in 1968
- Ranger, 750cc, made in 1968
- N15, 750cc, made between 1967-1968. The N15 was a Norton engine in a Matchless frame; the Matchless G15 was essentially the same motorcycle
1967 – 1978
- Commando Fastback, made between 1967-1973. Just called ‘Norton Commando’ until 1969
- Commando Roadster, made between 1970-1975. It was a 750cc between 197073, then developed to 850cc between 1973-75. Targeted at the American market
- Commando Interpol, made between 1970-1976. Produced for the UK Police force
- Commando Hi-rider, made between 1971-1975. Targeted at the American market
- Commando Production Racer, made in 1971. Designed with a special high-compression engine
- Commando Interstate, made between 1972-1975. Initially a 750cc between 1972-73, developed to 850cc between 1973-75
- Commando Combat, made in 1972. Fitted with a sports cam, and skimmed cylinder head to raise compression. Made in both Roadster and Interstate model. Unreliable!
1981 – 1992
- Interpol 2, 588cc, made between 1984-1989. Fitted with the Wankel engine
- Norton Classic Rotary, made in 1987 only, as a special edition of just 100
- Commander, another rotary engined Norton. The P52 was the Police model, the P53 was civilian
- F1, with model designation P55
- F1 Sport, model designation P55B
2014 – Present*
- Norton Dominator
- Norton Commando 961 SF MK II
- Norton Commando 961 Cafe Racer MK II
- Norton Commando 961 Sport MK II
* – More of the later Norton story coming up
The Norton Featherbed Frame
As I confessed in the opening section, Norton was never really my thing, I didn’t actually know that much about the history (or even the racing pedigree) until very recently, but one word that I knew very well was ‘Featherbed’ (and not just because I’m a duvet worm either).
The Featherbed frame was widely acknowledged at the time, as being the best handling frame available, and although it’s known to belong to Norton, it was actually developed by two brothers – Rex & Cromie McCandless, only being adopted by Norton after the initial frames being built (and to stop BSA from using the frames).
The name ‘Featherbed’ came from the TT racer, Harold Daniell: “Like riding on a featherbed, rather than a garden gate”, after testing the new frame in 1950, which perhaps tells you as much about the existing frames, as it does the Featherbed.
Ten years after the initial tests with Daniell, Norton released an updated version of the Featherbed frame, with the upper frame-rails bent inwards, to reduce the width between the knees. This meant that riders who were ‘vertically challenged’ found it much easier to ride thanks to the slimline nature, and that’s how they’re now referred to – the Wideline and the Slimline frame.
It’s hard to gauge just what impact the Featherbed frame had on Norton’s success. I can’t think of many manufacturers that became known for a single, masterful stroke of design genius, such as Norton and the Featherbed. Of course, we have specialist engineering companies such as Spondon Engineering (who’ve had their own troubles related with Norton, or more specifically, Stuart Garner), but are there other manufacturers that can lay claim to such feats?
Despite having the product that everyone wanted, it didn’t stop Norton from facing further financial difficulties. Again.
In 1966, AMC became insolvent, and were reformed as Norton Villiers, part of Manganese Bronze Holdings LTD. (Bonus point – when I was engineering fast motors, we made the valve seats from manganese bronze).
More Norton Re-Framing
Although we know the Featherbed name well, Norton also developed another frame innovation later that decade, that was first used on the Commando – the isolastic frame.
However, whereas the Featherbed frame was designed for the purpose of going fast, the isolastic frame came about as an act of damage limitation; in 1961, the 650SS was launched for the UK market, but when the capacity was upped to 750cc for the ‘Atlas’, problems began.
The Atlas engine became known for vibration, and unreliability (as perhaps a by-product of the vibration), but rather than re-engineer the frame, Norton came up with the idea of damping it, and introduced rubber mounts for the frame. Of course, it was marketed as an upgrade, or innovative solution, but the reality was that it was masking problems.
Further redevelopment of the Norton powerplant saw it launched as the ‘Combat’ engine, but again, poor design and engineering practice led to problems with the crank bearings, often leading to failures, and the odd broken crank or two.
Norton Villiers Triumph
In 1972, it was BSA’s turn to hit the skids, only this time, government help was available, on the proviso that BSA merged with Norton Villiers, thereby creating Norton Villiers Triumph in 1973. However, there was a moment that the future still looked to be rocky, as the outgoing Conservative Government withdrew the subsidies in place. Fortunately for NVT, the incoming Labour Government reinstated them.
A slew of new models launched in 1974 – 828 Roadster, MK II Hi Rider, JPN Replica, and the MK IIa Interstate, but just one year later, the range was reduced to just two: MK III Interstate and the Roadster. The double blow came from the government, when they asked for the repayment of a loan, and refused any export credits until the loan was paid.
The liquidation of the Norton Villiers Triumph group happened in the 80s, and the global rights to the brand were scattered to the four corners of the earth.
There was some minor(ish) racing success after the relaunch in 1988, with a Senior TT win in 92, but sales success was slow and it never really recovered, even with the help of the Spondon Engineering framed F1, which was essentially a detuned replica of the RCW588 factory racer.
The Stuart Garner Years
Where do I start?
Garner was hailed as the salvation for Norton, after he purchased the rights to it in 2008. Not only did he ooze commercial success, but he had the patter (let’s be honest, after recent events, we’d call it bullshit) to schmooze, and he set about doing just that.
He was the shining light and prime example for a number of official government schemes, offered a world-class product that just screamed cool, and created a ‘want’ for the Norton marque, the like of which had never been seen before; people were lumping out chunks of money (£44,000) upfront to ensure they were on the list.
Surely, Garner had the recipe just right, and was going to drag the brand right up to modern day desires, and perhaps even show Triumph a thing or two about branding, history and legacy?
The NEW Nortons
As with all things Norton, comprehending just what was available, what has been sold, what’s just ‘demo’ or prototype is difficult; the website (which is still live at the time of writing) lists a number of models, but it’s unclear on specifications, with a mixture of horsepower/PS power readings (or none at all), and the drop down menus for each model don’t work. So what we have here is an approximation or rough guide as to the new Norton models.
V4 RR “The TT racer reborn”
This is the flagship road going model, and I believe was selling for around £44,000. To look at, it really is a beautiful thing, especially when finished in chrome, but as we’ve since found out, finishing details could be lacking.
With a 200hp, Norton developed V4 1200cc motor, it promised great things. Reading some of the engine specs left you in no doubt what it was all about: constantly variable inlet tract, eight fuel injectors and Titanium inlet valves.
Sounds very racy, but in my experience, Titanium valves aren’t exactly made for longevity, so I do question as to what sort of mileage they were expecting for a road bike.
The Dominator is another retro Café Racer thing, with a 961cc parallel twin motor. Just 80PS (around 78hp) meant that it trails behind other, similar bikes.
Commando 961 Café Racer MK II
“Built to replicate the old style café racers with all modern components and engineering whilst maintaining a classic appearance and style”
961cc parallel twin. Having checked out the site, I refer back to my comment about big money: want to add a bit of bling? How about a chrome plated side stand? £150, or carbon fibre chainguard … £225.
Commando 961 Sport MK II
“Based on the original design for the Commando with conventional forks to give a smooth, more comfortable ride and better aesthetic”
Spot the difference between the two Commandos. Prices for options are just as crazy though – an aluminium fuel tank will cost you an extra £2,640.
Atlas Ranger & Nomad
The little 650cc, parallel twin cylinder, off-roader mad-max styled bike. 84hp is enough to push it along with a pace.
Dominator Street Limited Edition (of 50)
I guess that this would be described as something akin to a Streetfighter. I love the chrome paintwork, and the Union Flag on the tail. Another 961cc parallel twin.
Breitling Sport Limited Edition (of 77)
This is proper ‘classic’ styled, with lots of engineering on display, and reminds me very much of the traditional Café Racer, with just the smallest nod to modern day engineering.
Commando 961 California
A Commando with hi-rise bars, still with the single seat conversion. Neither Arthur nor Martha.
No power figures, but if looks are anything to go by, this thing will rock (but I’d guess it’s not for road use). All matt carbon fibre, no paint or lacquer. 650cc parallel twin.
High-gloss carbon bodywork, similar to the Superlight in that it looks pure racer, only this is fitted with extra oomph in the form of a Rotrex supercharger.
The Norton Scandal
When I first heard the news about Norton calling in the receivers, I was genuinely upset for them; they were producing some heart-achingly beautiful machinery, bringing manufacturing alive, operating from a stunning location, and genuinely seemed to be behind the Norton brand, the ‘story’. (Albeit charging proper money, and by proper, I mean BIG).
Garner complained of waiting on money-owed for Research & Development tax credit, assumptions were made by many that ‘fecking Brexit’ had struck again, and people rallied around trying to make things right.
Personally speaking, I viewed it as a man giving everything he had, even if that meant treading a fine line between what’s right, and what’s … borderline. And then rumours started becoming facts, and those facts shone a whole new light on to the subject.
We learned of the multiple supercars, suppliers going unpaid, customer bikes being stripped for parts, bikes not being delivered, full deposits being paid with no return (and now, no come back), nefarious business practices, pension holders being defrauded, and the demise (and pretty much the theft) of one of the greatest names in the business – Spondon Engineering.
The Spondon/Garner connection came about in 2008, when Bob Stevenson (one of the founding partners of Spondon Engineering) wanted to sell up and retire. The other founder, Stuart Tiller, knew Garner and told him that his partner was looking for an out. Garner agreed to buy 50% of the business for £360,000 (although only actually paid £180,000).
Within months of buying into Spondon, he’d charged every single asset, including Tiller’s own shareholding, to Tudor Capital Management, for the princely sum of £1.2m, the money was used to buy the Norton brand.
It took Stuart Tiller until 2011 to realise what was going on, and not until 2013 did he find out the full extent. Spondon Engineering haven’t opened since.
Money, Money, Money
In cases such as this, the authorities are told to follow the money, and it seems that over the last 12 years, there’s been plenty of it – a £4m government grant, £625,000 government-backed loan from Santander, £1m loan from the proceeds of a tax fraud, £14m in pension pots illegally obtained, and then of course, there’s the actual legitimate customers, who paid deposits (both partial & full) for bikes they never received.
John Hogan, Superbike, has confirmed that 802 bikes have been registered since 2008, but Stuart Tiller believes that number is conservative, and if we assume that even selling at the lower end (£22,000), that still equates to over £17.5m.
Sooner or later, the empire was bound to come crashing down around Garner’s ears – the five year lockout on the pensions was coming to an end, a number of pension plan holders had made complaints to the Ombudsman, and allegedly, most of the trade insiders knew that Garner was more than a wronged, innocent man.
What’s Next for Norton Motorcycles?
There was talk that Garner only bought the brand to flip it for a quick profit, his favoured buyer being John Bloor. However, when Bloor showed no interest whatsoever, Garner was stuck with an entity that he knew nothing about.
Today, the brand is pretty toxic, and you’d have to be a brave man to consider picking up the reins, even just to sit on them for a few years. We know that John Bloor has zero interest in purchasing Norton, even at a knock down price. It’s also pretty likely that the rumours suggesting Keanu Reeves would be interested are unfounded, and the most likely option is that Zongshen (already associated with the brand) could pick up the tab.
But, with both financial and legal liabilities, it’s very likely that Norton just won’t survive this latest financial mess, much less rise from the ashes created by Garner. After 122 years, it looks like Norton may have just about reached its final destination, and with that, comes a great sadness.
At one time, it seemed that Norton were the darling of the British bike industry – the 1968 Commando outperformed the contemporary offerings from BSA and Triumph, and was the best-handling British bike, with the most power. The racing success throughout the years should have been the key to sales success, and when Garner relaunched the brand with wild claims and superstar riders, it seemed a foregone conclusion that success would be waiting.
It’s been rescued before, numerous times, but is there anyone brave enough to try it again?