A Brief History of Norton Motorcycles
James Lansdowne Norton was born in Birmingham in 1869.
In 1898, he formed the Norton Manufacturing Company in Bradford Street, Birmingham to manufacture parts for the bicycle industry.
In 1902, James Norton began making his own motorcycles using Clement engines imported from France by the UK agent, Charles Garrard.
The single cylinder 142cc Clement-Garrard engined Norton was known as the Energette.
Norton later used Peugeot engines.
In 1907, Rem Fowler, a motorcycle enthusiast from Birmingham, entered a Peugeot engined Norton in the first TT motorcycle race in the Isle of Man.
Although Fowler was not the overall race winner, he did win the twin cylinder class. This was the start of Norton’s remarkable racing history.
After the 1907 TT, James Norton started work on his own engine, known as the Big Four because of its four horsepower output.
Later that same year, he exhibited a prototype of the Big Four at the Stanley Show in London.
The Big Four was a side valve single that remained in production until 1954.
In 1909 the first Norton logo appeared. It was designed by Ethel Norton, James Norton’s daughter.
James Norton fell ill around 1912 and for a while struggled to run the company.
The company ran into trouble and was forced into liquidation in 1913, but was rescued by Bob Shelley, who owned R.T. Shelley & Co., an automotive accessory manufacturing business who were already suppliers to Norton.
James stayed on as Joint Managing Director of the newly formed Norton Motors Ltd.
The company occupied premises at Floodgate Street and soon after moved to Sampson Road North.
Norton was now making a name for itself and winning presitigious races.
In World War I, Norton was unable to supply large numbers of motorcycles to the British military.
They managed to produce a small supply for the Russian Government.
In 1916, Norton moved to larger premises in Bracebridge Street, Aston.
After the war, Norton acquired some of the ex-military machines and refurbished them for selling to the general public.
In 1922, Norton introduced their overhead valve Model 18.
In 1924, a Norton ridden by Alec Bennett won the Isle of Man Senior TT Race and the Sidecar Race was won by George Tucker also on a Norton.
James Norton died in 1925 aged just 56. Bill Mansell from R.T. Shelley & Co. took over Norton management.
In 1926, the Big Four was fitted with Norton’s own design four speed gearbox.
In 1927, a production version of the winning TT machine was introduced. This was known as the CS1 and featured an overhead camshaft engine designed by Walter Moore.
That same year, a cradle frame version of the Model 18, known as the ES2, was introduced.
On Moore’s departure to NSU in 1930, an entirely new OHC engine was designed by Arthur Carroll who was assisted by Irish racing enthusiast, Joe Craig.
In 1931, Norton machines came 1st, 2nd, 4th and 8th in the Isle of Man Junior TT and 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the Senior TT.
Tim Hunt won both the Senior and Junior TT.
In 1932, road going versions of the works racers were introduced with 350cc and 500cc single cylinder engines. These machines were known as the International.
Until 1934, Norton had used Sturmey-Archer gearboxes and clutches.
When Sturmey-Archer ceased production, Norton bought the design rights and had them manufactured by Burman’s.
The Arthur Carroll / Joe Craig engine was tuned over the next few years to extract more power whilst still maintaining its reliability.
In 1937, the engine featured double overhead camshafts and became the basis for all later OHC and DOHC Norton singles.
From the late 1930s, Norton introduced plunger rear suspension and telescopic forks.
In the 1930s, the International engine was developed into the racing Manx engine.
The 350cc & 500cc Manx Nortons were very successful racing motorcycles.
The Manx engine was also used in Cooper racing cars.
In the late 1930s, Joe Craig still thought that Norton’s racing future was with the single cylinder engines. However, with increasing competiton from abroad, this was not to be and Norton withdrew from racing in 1939.
Norton stopped production of civilian motorcycles during World War II, however they produced many 16H machines for the military.
1948 saw the introduction of the 497cc Norton Dominator Model 7.
By this time, Norton had returned to racing and it was in 1950, that the McCandless brothers from Belfast designed what was to become one of the most famous motorcycle frames in the world.
It was nicknamed the ‘Featherbed’, a name which Norton used themselves.
Geoff Duke was recruited to race for Norton at that time.
Norton had considerable success racing in the USA, including at the Daytona races.
They also did well in Europe.
Despite their racing success, Norton fell into financial difficulties.
In 1951, the Norton Dominator 88 was introduced featuring a 497cc engine in a Featherbed frame.
In 1953, Norton was taken over by Associated Motor Cycles Ltd. (AMC) although the motorcycles still had the Norton name.
The 597cc Dominator 99 was introduced in 1956.
Norton introduced the twin cylinder 250cc Jubilee in 1958 to be followed in 1960 by a 350cc version known as the Navigator.
Under AMC management, Norton struggled to make a profit.
There were many factors that contributed to these difficulties including rising costs and increasing competition leading to low production numbers.
650cc motorcycles were becoming more popular and Norton’s response in 1962 was the introduction of the 110mph 650SS.
The engine was a stroked version of the Dominator 99 and the frame on the SS was altered so that the top rails were closer together to create what became known as the ‘slimline featherbed’.
However, even as the 650SS was introduced, Norton already had the 745cc Atlas waiting in the wings.
The Norton Atlas was the stepping stone between the Dominator / 650SS and the famous Norton Commando.
It featured many parts from the Dominator range including Norton Roadholder front forks and the slimline version of the famous “Featherbed” frame.
In 1963, AMC closed the Bracebridge Street works and Norton production was transferred to the AJS works in Plumstead, London.
A scrambler version of the Atlas was introduced in 1964.
In 1966, AMC sold out to Manganese Bronze Holdings Ltd. who had already taken over Villiers a few years earlier.
Norton Villiers was thus formed.
Norton then introduced the Commando which featured a 745cc twin cylinder engine that was rubber mounted in an ‘isolastic’ frame.
This was increased to 828cc and later versions featured an electric starter.
The Commando had a strong following, but even this could not save the Norton Villiers company who then moved to Wolverhampton in 1968.
Norton Villiers were struggling financially and were assisted by the British Government in 1973 and Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) was formed.
However, this was short lived and the Government would not provide any further financial assistance to NVT.
NVT battled on until the last Commando finally rolled off the production line in 1977.
In 1987, the Norton Group PLC was formed by Philippe Le Roux and other investors. The company started to produce a range of rotary engined machines in Lichfield in 1988.
In 1992 Steve Hislop won the Isle of Man Senior TT Race riding the Norton F1 Rotary.
In 1993, the Aqulini Investment Group of Canada acquired ownership of the Norton name and brand.
In 1998, a plaque to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Norton was erected at the Bracebridge Street factory and each year in March, the Mike Hailwood Memorial Run starts from the factory.
In the late 1990s, Kenny Dreer, a vintage motorcycle restorer based in Oregon, USA designed a modern take on the Commando.
This featured a twin cylinder 952cc engine which was then increased to 961cc.
In 2003, Dreer, funded by businessman Ollie Curme, acquired the Norton name and set about marketing the new Norton.
Eventual lack of funding led to the project being halted in 2006, however the Norton name is now back in the running after Stuart Garner, a UK businessman, bought the rights to Norton in 2008.
Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd., based at Donington Park in Leicestershire, revived the Commando name with 961cc twin cylinder machines such as the Commando 961 SE, 961 Cafe Racer and 961 Sport.