Norton Motorcycle Company

Norton Motorcycle Company
Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd
Industry Motorcycles
Founded 1898
Headquarters Donington Park, United Kingdom
Key people Stuart Garner

Norton is a British motorcycle marque, originally from Birmingham, founded in 1898 as a manufacturer of "fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade".[1] By 1902, they had begun manufacturing motorcycles with bought-in engines. In 1908, a Norton-built engine was added to the range. This began a long series of production of single and eventually twin-cylinder motorcycles, and a long history of racing involvement.

Wartime WW2 production of the military Model 16h and Big4 sidevalve motorcycles was Nortons contribution to the war effort, almost 100,000 being manufactured.

When major shareholders started to leave Norton in 1953, the company declined and Associated Motor Cycles bought the shares.[2] Although motorcycle sales went through a recession in the 1950s, and Norton Motors Ltd was only a small manufacturer, Norton sales flourished. A series of Norton Dominator Twins of 500cc, then 600cc, then 650cc and then the 750cc Norton Atlas kept sales buoyant, especially with sales to the USA.

In 1968, the new 750cc Norton Commando Model appeared, with the engine/gearbox/swingarm unit "isolastically" insulated from the frame with a series of rubber mountings. This kept the vibrations from the rider, giving a smooth comfortable ride. The Commando was a best seller, and voted #1 Motorcycle of the Year a number of times in Britain. 850cc Models appeared for 1973, giving more torque. And for 1975 an electric start arrived in the 850 Mk3.

The largest UK motorcycle manufacturer at the time was BSA-Triumph, comprising Birmingham Small Arms Company in Birmingham, and Triumph Motorcycles in Meriden. BSA-Triumph faced difficulties caused by poor management, outdated union practices, old-fashioned motorcycle designs and antiquated factory conditions. A merger with Norton Motorcycles was proposed; but although Dennis Poore's Norton Motorcycles was by far the smaller partner, Poore effectively secured a take-over of BSA-Triumph, forming Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT). The Triumph factory Meriden was the least modern; but workers engaged in a "sit-in", forming a workers' co-operative. Poore was CEO of Manganese Bronze Holdings, a company apparently more concerned with asset-stripping than with motorcycle production. Subsequent political manoeuvrings led to the downfall of NVT, as taxpayer-assisted wranglings over amalgamations and sell-offs all but killed the once-massive UK motorcycle industry.

In late 2008, Stuart Garner, a UK businessman, bought the rights to Norton from some US concerns and relaunched Norton in its Midlands home at Donington Park where it will develop the NRV588 racer, a machine styled after the Norton Commando,[3] and a new range of Norton motorcycles, with options including 1,200 cc Superbike, and 750 cc Supersport variants.[4]



The original company was formed by James Lansdowne Norton (known as "Pa") at 320, Bradford Street, Birmingham in 1898.[1] In 1902, Norton began building motorcycles with French and Swiss engines. In 1907, a Norton ridden by Rem Fowler won the twin-cylinder class in the first Isle of Man TT race, beginning a sporting tradition that went on until the 1960s. The Isle of Man Senior TT, the most prestigious of events, was won by Nortons ten times between the wars and then every year from 1947 to 1954. The first Norton engines were made in 1908, beginning a line of side-valve single-cylinder engines which continued with few changes until the late 1950s.[2]

The first Norton logo was a fairly simple, art nouveau design, with the name spelled in capitals.[5] However, a new logo appeared on the front of the catalogue for 1914, which was a joint effort by James Lansdowne Norton and his daughter Ethel. It became known as the "curly N" logo, with only the initial letter as a capital, and was used by the company thereafter, first appearing on actual motorcycles in 1915.[6] Ethel Norton also did some testing of her father's motorcycles.[citation needed] In 1913 the business declined. R.T. Shelley & Co., the main creditors, intervened and saved it. Norton Motors Ltd was formed shortly afterwards under joint directorship of James Norton and Bob Shelley. J.L. Norton died in 1925 aged only 56, but he saw his motorcycles win the Senior and sidecar TTs in 1924,[7] specifically with the 500cc Model 18, Norton's first overhead valve single.[8]

Designed by Walter Moore, the Norton CS1 engine appeared in 1927, based closely on the ES2 pushrod engine and using many of its parts. Moore was hired away to NSU in 1930, after which Arthur Carroll designed an entirely new OHC engine destined to become the basis for all later OHC and DOHC Norton singles. (Moore's move to NSU prompted his former staff to quip NSU stood for "Norton Spares Used") The Norton racing legend began in the Thirties: Of the nine Isle of Man Senior TTs (500 cc) between 1931 and 1939, Norton won seven.[9]

Until 1934, Norton bought Sturmey-Archer gearboxes and clutches. When Sturmey discontinued production Norton bought the design rights and had them made by Burman, a manufacturer of proprietary gearboxes.

Nortons also appealed to ordinary motorcyclists who enjoyed the reliability and performance offered by single-cylinder engines with separate gearboxes. The marque withdrew their teams from racing in 1938, but between 1937 and 1945 nearly a quarter (over 100,000) of all British military motorcycles were Nortons, basically the WD 16H (solo) and WD Big Four outfit with driven sidecar wheel.[2]

1921 Norton 16 H (490 cc)
Norton International M30 500 cc OHC Racer 1937
1939 Norton ES2
Norton Big Four (1952 model)

Post war

After the Second World War, Norton reverted to civilian motorcycle production, gradually increasing its range. A major addition in 1949 was the twin cylinder Model 7, known as the Norton Dominator, a pushrod 500 cc twin-cylinder machine designed by Bert Hopwood. Its chassis was derived from the ES2 single, with telescopic front and plunger rear suspension, and an updated version of the gearbox known as the "lay-down" box. More shapely mudguards and tanks completed the more modern styling to Nortons new premium model twin.

Post war, Norton struggled to reclaim its pre-WWII racing dominance as the single-cylinder machine faced fierce competition from the multi-cylinder Italian machines and AJS from the UK. In the 1949 Grand Prix motorcycle racing season, the first year of the world championship, Norton made only fifth place and AJS won. That was before the Featherbed frame appeared, developed for Norton by the McCandless brothers of Belfast in January 1950, used in the legendary Manx Norton and raced by riders including Geoff Duke, John Surtees and Derek Minter. Very quickly the featherbed frame, a design that allowed the construction of a motorcycle with good mass-stiffness distribution,[10] became a benchmark by which all other frames were judged.[9]

Norton also experimented with engine placement, and discovered that moving the engine slightly up/down, forward/back, or even right/left, could deliver a "sweet spot" in terms of handling. Motorcycle designers still use this method to fine-tune motorcycle handling.[11]

In 1951, the Norton Dominator was made available to export markets as the Model 88 with the Featherbed frame. Later, as production of this frame increased, it became a regular production model, and was made in variants for other models, including the OHV single-cylinder machines.

Manx Nortons also played a significant role in the development of post war car racing. At the end of 1950, the English national 500 cc regulations were adopted as the new Formula 3. The JAP Speedway engine had dominated the category initially but the Manx was capable of producing significantly more power and became the engine of choice. Many complete motorcycles were bought in order to strip the engine for 500 cc car racing, as Norton would not sell separate engines.

The racing successes were transferred to the street through cafe racers, some of whom would use the featherbed frame with an engine from another manufacturer to make a hybrid machine with the best of both worlds. The most famous of these were Tritons - Triumph twin engines in a Norton featherbed frame.

Civilianised version of 1943/44 military Norton, model WD16H
1954 Norton Manx
Norton Manx 500 cc Racer 1958
Pre-unit Triumph engined Triton Café racer
Norton Manx Engine in a Cooper Formula 500 Race Car
Detail of the Engine


1967 Norton Atlas

Despite, or perhaps because of the racing successes, Norton was in financial difficulty. Reynolds could not make many of the highly desired featherbed frames and customers lost interest in buying machines with the older frames. In 1953 Norton sold out to Associated Motorcycles (AMC), who owned the brands AJS, Matchless, Francis-Barnett and James. The Norton factory in Bracebridge Street, Birmingham was closed in 1962 and production was moved to AMC's Woolwich factory in southeast London.

Under AMC ownership a much improved version of the Norton gearbox was developed, to be used on all the larger models within the corporation under the AJS, Matchless and Norton brands. Again, the major changes were for improved gear selection.

Late in 1955, a 600 cc Dominator 99 was launched. The 1946 to 1953 Long Stroke Manx Norton was 79.6 × 100 mm (3.1 × 3.9 in) initially SOHC, the DOHC engine becoming available to favoured racers in 1949. The Short Stroke model (1953 to 1962) had bore and stroke of 86 × 85.6 mm (3.4 × 3.4 in). It used a dry sump 499 cc single-cylinder motor, with two valves operated by bevel drive, shaft driven twin overhead camshafts. Compression ratio was 11:1. It had an Amal GP carburettor, and a Lucas racing magneto. The 1962 500 cc Manx Nortons produced 47 bhp (35 kW) at 6,500 rpm, weighed 142 kg (313 lb), and had a top speed of 209 km/h (130 mph).

In 1960, a new version of the roadgoing featherbed frame was developed with the upper frame rails bent inwards to reduce the width between the rider's knees for greater comfort. The move was also to accommodate the shorter rider as the wide frame made it difficult to reach the ground. This frame is known as the "slimline" frame; the earlier frames then became known as the "wideline".

The last Manx Nortons were sold in 1963. Even though Norton had pulled out of racing in 1954, the Manx had become the backbone of privateer racing, and even today are quite sought after.

On November 7, 1960 the first new 650cc Norton Manxman was launched for the American market only. By October 1961 The Norton 650SS appeared for the UK market, The 750cc Norton Atlas. in April 1962 for the American market as they demanded more power. Featherbed frames were still used, but the increases to the vertical twin engine's capacity caused a vibration problem at 5500 rpm. A 500cc vertical twin is smoother than a single-cylinder, but if the vertical twin's capacity is enlarged vibration increases. The 750 Norton Atlas proved too expensive and costs could not be reduced. Financial problems gathered.[12]

There was an export bike primarily for use as a desert racer, sold up until 1969 as the Norton P11,[13] AJS Model 33 and as a Matchless G15, which used the Norton Atlas engine in a modified Matchless G85CS scrambler frame with Norton wheels and front forks. This bike was reputed to vibrate less than the featherbed frame model. AMC singles were also sold with Norton badging in this era.[14]

Also during this period Norton developed a family of three similar smaller-capacity twin cylinder machines: first the Norton Jubilee 250 and then the Navigator 350 and Electra 400, which had an electric starter. These models were Norton's first use of unit construction. The engine was an entirely new design by Bert Hopwood and the frame and running gear were from the Francis-Barnett range, also owned by AMC. These machines had a reputation for poor reliability.[citation needed]


By the late 1960s, competition from Japanese manufacturers and a rapidly declining home market[citation needed] 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.

The 750 Norton Atlas was noted for its vibration. Rather than change engines Norton decided to change the frame, and the isolastic-framed Norton Commando 750 was the result.

In 1969, the Commando was introduced. Its styling, innovative isolastic frame and powerful engine made it an appealing package. The Commando easily outperformed contemporary Triumph and BSA twins and was the most powerful and best-handling British motorcycle of its day. The isolastic frame made it much smoother than the Atlas. It used rubber bushes to isolate the engine and swinging arm from the frame, forks, and rider. However, as the steel-shims incorporated in the Isolastic bearings wore, often from rusting, the bike became prone to fishtailing in high-speed turns.[clarification needed]

The "Combat" engine was released in January 1972, with a twin roller bearing crank, 10:1 compression and developing 65 bhp (48 kW) at 6,500 rpm. Reliability immediately suffered, with frequent and early crank-shaft main-bearing failures, sometimes leading to broken crankshafts. Older engines had used one ball-bearing main bearing and one roller bearing main bearing but the Combat engine featured two roller bearings in a mistaken belief this would strengthen the bottom-end to cope with the higher power-output. Instead the resultant crank-bending caused the rollers to "dig-in" to the races, causing rapid failure. This fragility did not show up well,[clarification needed] especially when compared with the reliability of contemporary Japanese machines.[15]

The Commando was offered in several different styles: the standard street model, a pseudo-scrambler with upswept pipes and the Interstate, packaged as a tourer. Electric start was introduced on the Mark III in 1974. Sales were respectable but the company declined financially and became insolvent in 1975.[9] In 1976 a Norton with a US-flag theme on the tank could be purchased for US$1,976.

1973 850 Commando

Norton Villiers Triumph

1978 Commando Interstate Mk3

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. The Triumph Motorcycles name came from BSA's Triumph subsidiary. In April 1973 an 8.5:1 compression 828 cc "850" engine was released with German FAG SuperBlend bearings. These, featuring slightly barrel-shaped rollers, had been introduced on late model 750 cc engines to cure the Combat engine's problems of crank-flex and the consequent digging-in to the bearing-surface of the initial cylindrical bearing rollers. This model produced 51 bhp (38 kW) at 6,250 rpm but the stated power does not give a true picture of the engine performance because increased torque seemed to make up for the reduced horsepower.[16]

In 1974, the UK's outgoing Conservative government withdrew subsidies, but the incoming Labour government restored them after the General Election. Rationalisation of the factory sites to Wolverhampton and Birmingham (BSA's Small Heath site) caused industrial disputes at Triumph's Coventry site; Triumph would go on as a workers cooperative alone. Despite mounting losses, 1974 saw the release of the 828 Roadster, Mark 2 Hi Rider, JPN Replica (John Player Norton) and Mark 2a Interstate. In 1975, the range was down to just two models: the Mark 3 Interstate and the Roadster, but then the UK Government asked for a repayment of its loan and refused export credits, further damaging the company's ability to sell abroad. Production of the two models still made was ended and supplies dwindled.

1973 also saw the start of development on a new machine with a monocoque pressed steel frame, that also included a 500 cc twin, stepped piston engine[17] called the 'Wulf'. However, as the Norton Villiers Triumph company was again in serious financial problems, development of the 'Wulf' was dropped in favour of the rotary Wankel type engine inherited from BSA.

Wankel engine

In the 1980s, the company went through several incarnations – mainly because the name was popular and now owned by several parties. In liquidation from NVT the global rights were split between (at least) Norton UK, Germany, America and Rest of the World. MidWest acquired the rights for light aviation use, and at Staverton Airport the MidWest AE series was an aero engine developed from the twin-rotor engine.

The brand was relaunched on an ambitious scale in Lichfield in 1988. The new models succeeded in racing – winning the Senior TT in 1992 – but they moved rather more slowly in the commercial market. The company had some success making the Wankel-engined Interpol 2 motorcycle for civilian and military police forces and the RAC. This led to a civilian model in 1987 called the Classic.

Subsequent Norton Wankels were water-cooled. The Commander was launched in 1988 and was followed by the Spondon-framed F1. This model was a de-tuned replica of Norton's RCW588 factory racing machines which won many races including the 1992 Isle of Man TT, ridden by Steve Hislop. The F1 was succeeded by the restyled and slightly less expensive F1 Sport. Chief Executive Phillippe LeRoux attempted to diversify the company to a group with interests in property and leisure,[18] meanwhile supply of Norton Classic was being delayed by supply problems with petrol tanks and headlight shells.[citation needed]

At this point the UK Department of Trade and Industry started to investigate improprieties in the investments of financier Philippe LeRoux and his associates[19] following which LeRoux resigned his position as Chief Executive.[20]

In a move to manage an outstanding debt of ₤7million, in 1991, David MacDonald was appointed Chief Executive at the behest of the Midland Bank. McDonald sold the company to the North American company Wildrose Investments. Head of Wildrose investments, Nelson Skalbania, reformed the company as Norton Motors (1993) Ltd, putting his daughter Rosanda in place as General Manager at the Shenstone site.[21] The new ownership attempted to reclaim Triumph and Norton motorcycles that had been lent to various science and technology museums. This proved controversial as some of the museums had assumed the loans had been made on a permanent basis.[22] In 1994 ownership of the company reverted to Aquilini Investments as Skalbania was unable to repay the money he had borrowed to purchase the company. The Skalbania connection was reported as being severed by July of that year [23] By 1996 the service side of the Shenstone site was closed and transferred to a small factory at Rugeley, Staffordshire. The focus of manufacture was moved to the manufacture of components for light aircraft engines based on the rotary design.

It was reported in 2005 that a group of former Norton employees built nine F1 sports models from existing stocks of parts.[24]

Ron Haslam on a rotary-engined Norton RCW588 racer
Norton Interpol
Norton Commander P53, sold as a civilian tourer

The Donnington Park revival

During the late 1990s, Kenny Dreer of Oregon evolved from restoring and upgrading Commandos to producing whole machines. He modernised the design and in the early 2000s went into series production with the 961 Commando, but then suspended operations in April 2006.

After fifteen years of US ownership the Norton brand has now been secured by Stuart Garner, UK businessman and owner of Norton Racing Ltd. Garner is developing a new 15,000 sq ft (1,400 m2) Norton factory at Donington Park to develop the Dreer-based machine.[25] The new Norton is a 961 cc (88 × 79 mm (3.5 × 3.1 in)), air- and oil-cooled pushrod parallel twin with a gear-driven counterbalancer and a 270° crank (a concept pioneered on the Yamaha TRX850). The machine, a single-seat roadster styled after the earlier Commando models, has a claimed rear-wheel power output of 80 bhp (60 kW), giving a top speed of over 130 mph (210 km/h).[4][26]

The new operation at Donington Park has gone into limited production producing a motorcycle based on the Kenny Dreer 961 Commando. The new motorcycle only shares the outline of the Dreer bike, all aspects of the motorcycle have apparently been re-designed in order to move into production. An updated and revised version of the rotary by Brian Crighton, an engineer who worked on the rotary machine in the 1990s is also being developed.

To expand the range of machines available, the company has acquired a significant interest in Maxsym Engine Technology[27] with the aim of using the Maxsym parallel twin engine, originally developed for Moto GP as the basis of a new range of Norton motorcycles, with options including 1,200 cc Superbike, and 750 cc Supersport variants.[4] In January 2011, it was announced the highly regarded designer Pierre Terblanche had departed Piaggio / Moto Guzzi to join Norton.[28] In August 2011, UK minister Vince Cable announced that the Government was underwriting a £7.5 million bank loan to Norton, to promote secure cash flow for their export sales. Garner responded that this finance would allow Norton to double annual production from 500 to 1,000 machines[29].

See also

Around 200 bikes will be released in 2010[dated info], with a goal of 3000 to 4000 machines annually and a total of 30% of that will be destined for the American market.


  1. ^ a b Holliday, Bob, Norton Story, Patrick Stephens, 1972, p.11.
  2. ^ a b c "Norton Motorcycle History". Retrieved 20 December 2008. 
  3. ^ "Norton History". Retrieved 27 May 2009. 
  4. ^ a b c "Norton's next step", article by Alan Cathcart in Motorcycle Sport and Leisure, No. 585, June 2009, pp63-66
  5. ^ See e.g. Holliday, Norton Story, p.17.
  6. ^ Woollett, Mick, Norton The Complete Illustrated History, Osprey, 1992, pp.43, 48.
  7. ^ Chadwick, Ian. "Norton". Retrieved 2008-12-20. 
  8. ^ Robert Smith (May/June 2011). "1936 Norton Model 18 vs. 1938 Velocette MSS". Motorcycle Classics. Retrieved 2011-05-18. 
  9. ^ a b c "Motorcycle: Norton CS1". Retrieved 2008-12-20. 
  10. ^ Dr G. Roe in a review of "Motorcycle chassis design: the theory and practice" by T. Foale and V. Willoughby in Bike Magazine, November 1984
  11. ^ The Victory: The Making of the New American Motorcycle" (1999, Motorbooks International)
  12. ^, Norton Motorcycle History, Retrieved 23 October 2006.
  13. ^,Norton P11A on Display, Retrieved 25 October 2006.
  14. ^, Retrieved 23 October 2006.
  15. ^, Dominator 99 Build, Retrieved 23 October 2006.
  16. ^ NTNOA, Combat Questions & Comments, Retrieved 23 October 2006.
  17. ^
  18. ^ ”All Change”, an article by Julian Ryder in Motorcycle International, March 1998, p2
  19. ^ Hotten, Russell (1992-08-11). "DTI probe into Norton looks at Rudd links (CORRECTED) - Business, News". London: The Independent. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  20. ^ Perkins, Kris (1991). Norton Rotaries. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1855321815. 
  21. ^ Norton by Mick Woollett, MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, 2004, ISBN0760319847
  22. ^ MacKinnon, Ian (1994-03-17). "Motorcycle sale causes dismay among the fans: Fears that historic models could disappear from view raised as new Norton owners tell museums to return machines for auction - UK, News". London: The Independent. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  23. ^ Faith, Nicholas (1994-07-17). "Bunhill: Company in need of repair - Business, News". London: The Independent. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  24. ^ Café Racer magazine, No. 14, Mars-Avril, 2005, Motor Presse, p13
  25. ^ "Norton Comes Home!!!". 2008-10-16. Retrieved 2008-11-04. 
  26. ^ "Comeback Commando - the Norton 961" article by Alan Cathcart in Motorcycle Sport and Leisure No. 585, June 2009, pp80-83
  27. ^
  28. ^ "Pierre Terblanche joins Norton". Hell for Leather. 
  29. ^ Motorcycle News" August 10th 2011

External links

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