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Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd
Founded 1898
Headquarters Donington Park, United Kingdom
Key people James Lansdowne Norton (founder)
Stuart Garner (current owner)
Industry Motorcycles

Norton is a British motorcycle marque, originally from Birmingham, England founded in 1898 as a manufacturer of cycle chains. 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. When major shareholders started to leave Norton in 1953, the company went bankrupt and Associated Motor Cycles bought the shares.[1]

In late 2008, Stuart Garner, a UK businessman, bought the rights to Norton and relaunched Norton in its Midlands home at Donington Park where they plan to develop the NRV588 racer, a machine styled after the Norton Commando,[2] and a new range of Norton motorcycles, with options including 1200 cc Superbike, and 750 cc Supersport variants.[3]


The original company was formed by James Lansdowne Norton (Known as Pa) in Birmingham in 1898. 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.[1]

In 1909, the first Norton logo appeared. It was designed by Ethel Norton, James Lansdowne Norton's daughter. She also did some testing of her father's motorcycles. 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.[4]

Designed by Walter Moore, the Norton CS1 engine appeared in 1927, based closely on the ES2 (pushrod) engine and using many of its parts. On his departure to NSU in 1930, an entirely new OHC engine was designed by Arthur Carroll, which was the basis for all later OHC and DOHC Norton singles. (Moore's move to NSU prompted staff to claim that NSU stood for "Norton Spares Used") That decade spawned the Norton racing legend. Of the nine Isle of Man Senior TTs (500 cc) between 1931 and 1939 Norton won seven.[5]

Up to 1934, Norton bought the Sturmey-Archer gearboxes and clutches. When Sturmey decided to discontinue 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 one 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).[1]

1921 Norton 16 H (490 cc)

Norton International M30 500 cc OHC Racer 1937

Norton Big Four (1952 model)

1939 Norton ES2

Post war

After the War, Norton reverted to civilian motorcycle production, gradually increasing the range. A major addition in 1949 was the Norton Dominator, also known as the Model 7, 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.

Post war, Norton struggled to reclaim its pre-WWII racing dominance, since the single cylinder machine was facing fierce competition from the multi-cylinder Italians, and AJS at home. In the 1949 Grand Prix motorcycle racing season, the first year of the world championship, Norton only made 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. Overnight the featherbed frame, a design which allowed the construction of a motorcycle with good mass-stiffness distribution[6], was the benchmark by which all other frames were judged. Nortons were winners again.[5]

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 are still using this method to fine tune motorcycle handling.[7]

In 1951, the Norton Dominator became available in 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 feather bed 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 feather-bed frame.

Civilian 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


Main article: Associated Motorcycles

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 was sold to Associated Motorcycles (AMC), who also 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 south east 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 banners. Again, the major changes were for improved gear selection.

In late 1955, a 600 cc Dominator 99 appeared. The 1946 to 1953 Long Stroke Manx Norton was 79.6 mm (3.1 in) x 100 mm (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 mm (3.4 in) x 85.6 mm (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 6500 rpm, weighed 142 kg (313 lb), and had a top speed of 209 km/h (130 mph).[8] The new price was £440.

In 1960, a new version of the 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 was made in-house by AMC, and 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.

In January 1961, a new Norton Manxman 650c was launched for the American market only. One year later a Norton 650SS appeared,for the UK market along with the Norton Atlas 750 in 1962. For the American market more power was desired. Featherbed frames were still used, but the increases to the vertical twin engine's capacity had caused a vibration problem at 4500 rpm. A 500 cc vertical twin is smoother than a single cylinder, but if you enlarge the vertical twin's capacity, vibration increases. The 750 Norton Atlas proved too expensive, and costs could not be reduced. Financial problems gathered.[9]

There was an export bike primarily for use as a desert racer, sold up until 1969 as a Norton P11,[10] 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.[11]

1967 Norton Atlas


Main article: Norton-Villiers

By the late 1960s, competition from Japan and a rapidly declining home market had driven the whole British motorcycle industry into a precipitous decline. In 1966, AMC collapsed and was reformed as Norton-Villiers part of Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC.

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 Triumph and BSA, 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 bushings to isolate the engine and swingarm 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.

The 'Combat' engine was released in January 1972, with a twin roller bearing crank, 10:1 compression and making 65 bhp (48 kW) at 6500 rpm. Reliability immediately proved a problem, with frequent and early crank-shaft main-bearing failures, sometimes leading to broken crankshafts. Older engines had used one ball bearing main, and one roller bearing main, 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 instant failure. This fragility did not show up well, especially when compared to the reliability of the Japanese bikes.[12]

The bike came 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 in 1974. Sales were respectable, but the company declined financially and went into liquidation in 1975.[5] 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

Main article: Norton Villiers Triumph

In 1972, BSA was also in trouble. It was given 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-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 6250 rpm; however, the stated power does not give a true picture of the engine performance because increased torque seemed to make up for the lower horsepower.[13]

In 1974, the outgoing government withdrew the subsidies, although the incoming government restored them after the election. Rationalisation of the factory sites to Wolverhampton and Birmingham (BSA's Small Heath site) only 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 ‘Mk.2a Interstate’. In 1975 this was down to just two models, the 'Mark 3 Interstate' and the 'Roadster', but then the 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 lone models still made was ended and supplies dwindled.

1978 Commando Interstate Mk3

Wankel engine

In the 1980s, the company went through several incarnations – mainly because, both 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.

The name was relaunched on an ambitious scale in Lichfield in 1988. The new models succeeded on the race track – winning the Senior TT in 1992 – but they moved rather more slowly in the commercial market. The British 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 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,[14] meanwhile supply of Norton Classic was being delayed by supply problems with petrol tanks and headlight shells.

At this point the Department of Trade and Industry stepped in to investigate improprieties in the investment web of financier Philippe LeRoux and his associates[15] following which LeRoux resigned his position as Chief Executive.[16]

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.[17] The new ownership attempted to reclaim Triumph and Norton motorcycles that had been loan to various science and technology museums, this move proved to be controversial as certain of the museums had assumed the loans to have been made on a permanent basis.[18] 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 [19] By 1996, the service side of the Shenstone site was closed and transferred to Startright Motors[20] in Leeds, and Reg Allen Motorcycles in Acton, London. The focus of manufacture was moved to the manufacture of components for light aircraft engines based on the rotary design.

It was reported[21] in 2005 that a group of former Norton employees made a production run of nine F1 sports models from existing stocks of parts.

A number of firms continued informal spares and service support for various generations of piston-engined Nortons, including Andover Norton,[22] Mick Hemmings,[23] Norvil (formerly Fair Spares), RGM Motors,[24] Unity Equipe and Norman White (a former team racer and mechanic).[25]

Ron Haslam on a rotary-engined Norton RCW588 racer

Norton Interpol

Norton Commander P53, sold as a civilian tourer

Replicas and 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.[26]. The new Norton is a 961 cc (88 mm × 79 mm (3.5 in × 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 is a single seater styled after the earlier Commando models. A power output of 80 bhp (60 kW) at the rear wheel is claimed, giving a top speed of in excess of 130 mph (210 km/h).[27] Further development of the machine is being carried out by Menard Competition Technologies Ltd.[3]

The new operation at Donington Park plans to put into production the Kenny Dreer 961 Commando and an updated and revised version of the Rotary by Brian Crighton, an engineer who worked on the rotary bike in the 1990s. On 19 June 2009, the price for the upcoming Norton 961 Commando was released as £15,995.[28] To expand the range of machines available, the company has acquired a significant interest in Maxsym Engine Technology Ltd 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 1200 cc Superbike, and 750 cc Supersport variants[3].

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Norton Motorcycle History". Retrieved on 20 December 2008. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Norton" defined multiple times with different content
  2. "Norton History". Retrieved on 27 May 2009.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Norton's next step", article by Alan Cathcart in Motorcycle Sport and Leisure, No. 585, June 2009, pp63-66
  4. Chadwick, Ian. "Norton". Retrieved on 2008-12-20.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 "Motorcycle: Norton CS1". Retrieved on 2008-12-20.
  6. 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
  7. The Victory: The Making of the New American Motorcycle" (1999, Motorbooks International)
  8. [1] MotorbikeSearchEngine Norton 500 Manx specifications . Retrieved 23 October 2006.
  9. [2] BestMotorcycleGear Norton Motorcycle . Retrieved 23 October 2006.
  10. [3] RealClassic Norton P11A on Display. Retrieved 25 October 2006.
  11. [4] Ian Chadwick Matchless . Retrieved 23 October 2006.
  12. [5] RealClassic Dominator 99 Build . Retrieved 23 October 2006.
  13. [6] NTNOA Combat Questions & Comments . Retrieved 23 October 2006.
  14. ”All Change”, an article by Julian Ryder in Motorcycle International, March 1998, p2
  15. "DTI probe into Norton looks at Rudd links (CORRECTED) - Business, News". The Independent. Retrieved on 2009-07-12.
  16. Perkins, Kris (1991). Norton Rotaries. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1855321815. 
  17. Norton by Mick Woollett, MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, 2004, ISBN0760319847
  18. "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". The Independent (1994-03-17). Retrieved on 2009-07-12.
  19. "Bunhill: Company in need of repair - Business, News". The Independent (1994-07-17). Retrieved on 2009-07-12.
  20. Startright
  21. Cafe Racer magazine, No. 14, Mar-Avril, 2005, Motor Presse, p13
  22. Andover Norton
  23. Mick Hemmings Motorcycles
  24. RGM Motors
  25. Norman White
  26. "Norton Comes Home!!!" (2008-10-16). Retrieved on 2008-11-04.
  27. "Comeback Commando - the Norton 961" article by Alan Cathcart in Motorcycle Sport and Leisure, No. 585, June 2009, pp80-83

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