Historic Motorcycle Brands
The Norton brand was founded in 1898 to manufacture ’fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade’. By 1902 the company was manufacturing motorcycles with bought-in engines and, from 1908, with Norton-built engines. Thus began a long series of single and twin-cylinder motorcycles, and a long history of racing involvement.
The original company was formed by James Lansdowne Norton (known as ‘Pa’) in Birmingham.
In 1902 Norton began building motorcycles with French and Swiss engines.
The first Norton engines were made in 1907, with production 3.5hp, 490cc and ‘Big 4’, 633cc, side-valve, single-cylinder engines which continued with few changes until the late 1950s.
1907 Norton – Brian Snelson
In 1907, a Norton with Peugot engine, ridden by Rem Fowler, won the twin-cylinder class in the first Isle of Man TT race.
By 1909 Norton motorcycles were on sale in Harrods!
In 1913, the business declined, but the main creditors intervened and saved it. Norton Motors Ltd was formed shortly afterwards, under joint directorship of James Norton and Bob Shelley.
Shelley’s brother-in-law was engine tuner, Dan O’Donovan, who managed to set a number of records on the 490cc Norton by the outbreak of World War I: under-500cc and under-750cc flying flying mile, 78.60mph; under 500cc and under 750cc with sidecar flying flying mile, 62.07mph; flying five mile record at 75.88mph and the standing start 10-mile record at 73.29mph.
Norton continued production well into the War period, but from 1916 produced munitions and aircraft parts, plus some export motorcycles, including a ‘Colonial Model’ Big 4.
1921 Norton 16H 490cc – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
Norton resumed deliveries of civilian motorcycles in April 1919 and also resumed racing. In 1924 the Isle of Man Senior TT was the first post-War win, at a race average speed over 60mph, by rider Alec Bennett on the 500cc Model 18, Norton’s first overhead valve single. Norton won this event 10 times, until the company withdrew from racing in 1938.
J L Norton died in 1925, aged only 56, but he saw his motorcycles win the Senior and sidecar TTs in 1924, with the 500cc Model 18, Norton’s first overhead-valve single.
1929 Norton CS1 – Lars-Goram Lindgren
Designed by Walter Moore, the Norton CS1 overhead-camshaft 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 that was destined to become the basis for all later OHC and DOHC Norton singles.
The Norton racing legend was established in the 1930s. Of the nine Isle of Man Senior TTs (500cc) between 1931 and 1939, Norton won seven. Between the wars Norton won the Isle of Man Senior TT race ten times and, between 1930 and 1937, won 78 out of 92 Grand Prix races.
By the mid-1930s Norton was producing more than 4000 road bikes annually.
Until 1934, Norton used 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.
Norton started making military motorcycles again in 1936, following a tender process in 1935, where a modified Norton 16H beat other contenders.
1942 Norton 16H – Thruxton
Production of 900 military bikes in 1936 grew to 2000 in 1937 and there were good reasons in terms of spares and maintenance for the military to keep to the same model. Between 1937 and 1945, more than 100,000 Nortons were produced: basically the WD 16H solo models and WD Big Four outfits, with driven sidecar wheels.
1939 Norton ES2 – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
After the Second World War, Norton resumed civilian motorcycle production, gradually increasing its range. The Isle of Man Senior TT successes continued after the War, with Nortons winning every year from 1947 to 1954.
A major addition in 1949 was the twin-cylinder Model 7, known as the Norton Dominator.
This pushrod-OHV, 500cc, twin-cylinder machine was designed by Bert Hopwood on a chassis 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. Shapely mudguards and tanks completed its more modern styling.
1952 Norton Big Four- Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
Norton struggled to reclaim its pre-WWII GP racing dominance, when its single-cylinder machines faced fierce competition from multi-cylinder Italian machines and from AJS.
In the 1949 Grand Prix motorcycle racing season – the first year of the world championship – Norton took fifth place, while AJS won.
Norton 500 Manx – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
The cure was Norton’s ‘Featherbed Frame’ that was developed for Norton by the McCandless brothers of Belfast and appeared in January 1950. The frame was used in the legendary SOHC and DOHC Manx Norton bikes that were raced by Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Derek Minter and many others.
By the end of the 1952 season, Geoff Duke, riding for Norton, was the world champion in both the 350cc and 500cc classes and was awarded the OBE.
The 1946-1953 Long Stroke Manx Norton was initially SOHC and the DOHC engine became available to favoured racers in 1949. The Short Stroke model (1953-1962) had a dry sump, with two valves operated by bevel drive, shaft driven, twin-overhead-camshafts.
Compression ratio was 11:1. The 1962 500 cc Manx Norton produced 50bhp at 6780rpm, weighed 142kg and had a top speed of 130mph.
The Featherbed Frame design allowed the construction of a motorcycle with excellent mass-to-stiffness ratio and became a benchmark by which all other frames were judged.
Norton also experimented with engine placement and discovered that moving the engine slightly up and down, forward and back, or even right to left, could deliver a ‘sweet spot’ in terms of handling.
At the end of 1950, the English Formula 3 regulations stipulated a 500cc engine and the JAP Speedway dominated the category initially, but the Norton 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 500cc car racing, because Norton would not sell separate engines.
Norton Dominator 650SS – Steve Glover
In 1951 the Norton Dominator was made available with the Featherbed Frame to export markets, as the Model 88. Later, as production of this frame increased, it became a regular production item that was made for other models, including the OHV, single-cylinder machines.
Racing success caused Norton financial difficulty, because the company couldn’t make enough 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.
Under AMC ownership a much improved version of the Norton gearbox was developed and used on the larger models of AJS, Matchless and Norton.
In September 1955, a 600cc Norton Dominator 99 was launched.
In 1960, a new version of the road-going Featherbed Frame was developed in which the upper frame rails were bent inwards to reduce the width between the rider’s knees, for greater comfort. This frame was known as the ‘slimline’ frame.
Norton Manx – Lothar Spurzem
The last Manx Nortons were sold in 1963. Although Norton had pulled out of Grand Prix racing in 1954, the race-shop at Bracebridge Street continued until 1962 and the Manx was a mainstay of privateer racing.
In 1961, the Norton 650SS and 750cc Atlas appeared, but increases to the vertical-twin engine capacity caused a vibration problem at 5500rpm. Also, the 750 Norton Atlas proved too expensive and costs could not be reduced. Financial problems gathered.
There was an export bike primarily for use as a desert racer, sold until 1969, as Norton P11 and N15 that used the Norton Atlas engine in a modified Matchless G85CS scrambler frame with Norton wheels and front forks.
Norton Atlas – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
Norton also developed three similar, smaller-capacity, twin-cylinder machines: Jubilee 250; Navigator 350 and the Electra 400, which had an electric starter.
These models were Norton’s first use of unit construction, powered by all-new engines and the frame and running gear were from the Francis-Barnett range. These machines had a reputation for poor reliability.
In 1968, the new 750cc Norton Commando appeared, with the engine/gearbox/swing-arm unit isolastically-insulated from the frame by rubber mountings. This design gave a smoother, more comfortable ride.
In the 1970s Norton raced under the sponsorship of John Player and the commercial success of the Commando was underlined by the ‘Norton Girls’ campaign.
Norton 850 Commando – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
The 1972 Combat version of the Commando was a reliability disaster and showed the folly of releasing a race engine in a street bike.
In 1972, BSA-Triumph was also in financial trouble. It was given UK Government help on the condition that it merged with Norton-Villiers, so in 1973, Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) was formed.
Subsequent political manoeuvrings led to the downfall of NVT, as taxpayer-assisted wranglings over amalgamations and sell-offs all but killed the once extensive UK motorcycle industry.
In April 1973 a Norton, 8.5:1 compression ratio, 828cc ‘850’ engine was released with German FAG SuperBlend bearings, to cure the Combat engine’s problems of crank-flex and bearing failure. An electric starter finally arrived in the 850 Mk3, in 1975.
In 1973, development began on a new machine with a monocoque, pressed steel frame, powered by a 500cc twin, stepped piston engine, but, as the Norton Villiers Triumph company had serious financial problems, development was dropped in favour of the rotary Wankel-type engine inherited from BSA.
Norton JPN – Jean-Pierre 60
Despite mounting losses, 1974 saw the release of the Norton 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.
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.
However this was the decade where the prevalence of Japanese models saw Norton, alongside other great British marques, driven to the brink of extinction. The last Commando was produced in 1976.
In the 1980s the company went through several incarnations and the rights to the name were split between several companies in several countries.
Norton rotary-powered Classic – Derk Nicol
The first Norton Wankel motorcycle was the 1987 Classic, using an air-cooled engine, built as a special edition of just 100 machines. It was followed by the air-cooled Interpol 2 model.
In 1989, Norton made an emphatic return to racing with the Norton RCW588 Works Racing motorcycle, produced for the 1988-1994 racing seasons. The bikes initially had air-cooled versions of the road-going, twin-rotor Wankel engines, but were soon followed by water-cooled versions from 1989.
Steve Spray won the British Superbike Championship on the all-black JPS bike in 1989; a victory repeated in 1994 by Ian Simpson on the Duckhams Norton.
Norton Commander P53 – HDP
The commercial market for the radical Norton was slower, although the Wankel engined Interpol 2 motorcycle was popular with police forces and the British RAC.
The Commander was a water-cooled successor to the Interpol 2 and its final-drive chain was protected by a full enclosure. Some parts, including wheels, forks, switchgear, clocks and brakes were bought-in Yamaha XJ900 items.
The P52 Commander was a single-seat model equipped for police use and the dual-seat P53 was a civilian tourer. Both the P52 and P53 had panniers integral with their fibreglass bodywork.
The Commander was followed by the Spondon-framed F1. This model was a de-tuned replica of Norton’s RCW588 factory racing machines which won many short distance races, but had serious reliability issues and required frequent servicing, like changing the primary drive chain every 100 miles.
In 1992, Steve Hislop on an ABUS Norton, defeated Carl Fogarty, riding a Yamaha, in the Isle of Man Senior TT, recording the first victory for a British bike for almost 30 years.
The F1 was succeeded by the restyled and slightly less expensive F1 Sport.
However, Norton finally had to admit it couldn’t solve the problems caused by the Wankel engine’s exhaust heat of around 1100-degrees C. Nor could the engine meet forthcoming emissions regulations.
The 1990s were disastrous for Norton, as the brand was shuttled between successive owners and it was reported in 2005 that a group of former Norton employees built nine F1 Sport models from existing stocks of parts.
By 1996 the service side of the Norton business was transferred to a small factory. The focus of manufacture was components for light aircraft engines, based on the rotary design.
Norton Commando 961 Sport – Darren ‘n’ Amy
During the late 1990s, Kenny Dreer of Oregon, USA, evolved from restoring and upgrading Commandos to producing whole machines. He modernised the design and in the early 2000s intended to produce the 961 Commando, designed by Simon Skinner, but then suspended operations in April 2006.
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 developed the pushrod, OHV, parallel-twin, 961cc Norton Commando. With fuel injection, the air-cooled engine put out 79bhp.
There were three models in the new Commando range: a limited edition of 200 Commando 961 SEs, a Cafe Racer and a Sport model.
In March 2010 Norton shipped the first new Norton Commando in more than 30 years and by mid-April 2010 was producing 5-10 new machines per week.
In March 2013 Norton acquired Donington Hall in the village of Castle Donington as its new corporate headquarters, to launch a new model range, powered by Norton’s own, Ricardo-designed, 1200cc V4 and 650cc engines.
These top-shelf, hand-made bikes were very, very expensive.
Norton returned to the Isle of Man TT and claimed the title as the fastest British bike at the TT, with a time of 131.745mph with Josh Brookes piloting the SG7 in 2018.
However, Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd fell into administration on 29th January 2020, but has since been rescued…again.
On 17 April 2020, it was reported that India’s TVS Motor Company had acquired the business in a cash deal. The company intended to continue production of motorcycles at Donington Park.