Norton Motorcycles were one of the founding fathers of motorcycle industry in Britain. Originally started in 1898 as a manufacturer of “fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade” wasn’t until 1902, it began manufacturing motorcycles with bought-in engines.
Over the years the manufacturer has won 94 times at the Isle of Man TT races. Until the 1960s, Norton Motorcyclesbikes ruled the racetracks as well as the private collectors’ market. The brand was riding high, with the Commando model selling 500,000 units in 10 years.
A decade later, though, the advancing Japanese motorcycle industry beat Norton Motorcycles into submission and the last Commando was made in 1976. Norton looked destined for the scrapheap until bike-loving entrepreneur Stuart Garner bought the business in 2008. Now, the marque’s putting UK production back on the map – and on the big screen too.
The proud history
Lets talk about the proud years of Norton Motorcycles.
- In 1898 James Lansdowne Norton (was known as ‘Pa’) founded Norton as a manufacturer of “fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade”.
- 1902 the first Norton motorcycles were being produced using French and Swiss engines.
- In 1907 Rem Fowler won the Isle of Man twin cylinder class riding a Norton,the beginning of a strong racing tradition.
- 1908 saw Norton Motorcycles produce the first bike, powered by a single cylinder side valve Norton engine.
- The famous Norton logo, designed by Pa Norton and his daughter Ethel, appeared on the front of the 1914 catalog and from 1916 Norton Motorcycles carried it on their tanks.
- In 1925 J L Norton died aged just 56, but not before he saw his motorcycles win the Senior and sidecar TTs in 1924, with the 500 cc Model 18, Norton’s first overhead valve single.
- As their contribution to the war efforts, Norton withdrew from racing but between 1937 and 1945 manufactured almost 100,000 side-valve motorcycles (almost a quarter of all military motorcycles).
- 1949 saw the introduction of the twin cylinder Dominator, whilst in 1950 the Featherbed frame was introduced.
- 1951 the Dominator and other Norton Cafe Racers were available with the Featherbed frame and its success meant that demand for more traditional frames rapidly diminished.
- In 1961 Commando was launched, with the engine unit ‘isolastically’ insulated from the frame for a smooth, vibration-free ride.
- The last Commando was produced in 1976.
The Game of Thrones
Death of J L Norton can be compared with that of Ned stark on Game of Thrones show. Starting with its looked stable (just like westron was under senior Lannister) until the second world war. After that it was full on Game of Thrones. It was no bloody of course but company faced the same threat as the westron, extinction. Lets take a look.
- Year 1925 J L Norton died aged just 56.
- Racing successes continued throughout the 1930s under the able leadership of Joe Craig. While this lead to sales, Norton Malways seemed to be one step away from bankruptcy.
- With major shareholders started to leave Norton in 1953, the company declined and Associated Motor Cycles took the command.
- In 1962 the Norton factory in Bracebridge Street, Birmingham was closed and production was moved to AMC’s Woolwich factory in south-east London.
- By the late 1960s, competition from Japanese manufacturers and a rapidly declining home market had driven the whole British motorcycle industry into decline.
- In 1966 AMC became insolvent and was reformed as Norton-Villiers, part of Manganese Bronze Holdings Ltd.
- In 1972, BSA was also in financial trouble. It was given UK Government help on the condition that it merged with Norton-Villiers. And in 1973, the new Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) was formed.
- UK Government asked for a repayment of its loan and refused export credits. Resulted in production halt with last Commando was produced in 1976.
- In liquidation from NVT the global rights were split between (at least) Norton UK, Germany, America and Rest of the World.
- The brand was relaunched on an ambitious scale in Lichfield in 1988. The new models were successful in racing but commercial success eluded.
- During the Nineties, Norton had three or four global owners. But between 2002 and 2006 Ollie Curme had done a great job of consolidating the ownership under one (American) umbrella.
Norton Motorcycles Revival- Arrival of snow oh! sorry means Garner.
As Norton Dominator SS was brought to international attention in the Bond movie, Spectre. It was the on of the signs that legend is ready to take on the world once again. But the real rebirth had already started in 2008 when current owner Stuart Garner bought the rights from US firm. In Mr. Garner’s own words
One day in early 2008, I got a phone call from the US asking if I would like to buy the Norton brand. On paper, buying Norton seemed a crazy proposition. It’s very difficult to quantify the risks of these investments. It’s akin to buying a stately home for a quid, but there’s moss coming out the gutters and the roof’s fallen in, so it’s going to be £20m to put it right.
Yes, I had that simplistic gut feeling that it would work, my heart was saying ‘go for it, what an amazing brand, why would you not do it?’ But you need to qualify that with your head in the cold light of day – saying, ‘OK, you’ve got a gut feeling, amazing, but let’s just risk-assess this process and make sure we’re not going to lose the ranch’. Buying Norton took just four days, from first call to completion, and included the bike parts, four prototype bikes and the intellectual property rights.
On Right path
Now with production going full on at Norton’s 45,000 sq ft factory is in the grounds of the Donington Hall, Leicestershire and manufacturing more than 1000 bikes annually. 80% of them exported to US and Australia. The company seems out red but past glory is still a distant but achievable dream. There seems to be on right path. The 650 cc engine licensing deal with Chinese firm will feed to their bottom line. And with them expanding to new markets like India is a sign of bright future.
Will it be able to take on Royal Enfield in India ?
They may have started as British firms around same time. But they have grown into totally different beast altogether. As Norton is a premium brand which hand build around 1200 bike a year selling them for 10-15k pounds. Where as Royal Enfield sells around 700,000 bike with average selling price under 2000 pounds. Its seems are not direct competitors.
But its seems they are going to fight in mid-range (650 cc) in India as well as world. With the launch of Inceptors and GT650 RE is trying to take on big boys. And once again establish the brand Royal Enfield in International Market. And Norton have partnered with Kinetic MotorRoyale to Launch a 650 twin model in India next year. But as my own guess, RE650 won’t go above 3 grands and Nortan650 won’t sell below 6 grands.
Lets wait for how it will go next year till them keep reading The Autolane.