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The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, Part 2: Norton

Racing Success Didn’t Translate to Sales Success

Norton is one of the great names in motorcycle racing: for many years the famed Manx Norton swept all before it and was only deposed from the throne with the arrival of multi-cylinder Italian racing motorcycles. Unfortunately, the money spent on racing was never recouped through sales and the company struggled from one crisis to the next before the doors shut in the early 1970s.

Norton: Great Bikes But Bad Business

The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, Part 2: Norton
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The Famous Norton Logo
First used on motorcycles in 1915

In this, part two of our look at the decline of the British motorcycle industry, we focus on the Norton story.

Norton was formed in 1898, as a manufacturer of "fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade". By 1902 the company had begun manufacturing motorcycles with bought-in engines. In 1908 a Norton-built engine was added to the range.

The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, Part 2: Norton
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Norton Manx
Archetypal racing motorcycle of the 1950s. Massively successful but couldn’t save the company from itself

Throughout the following decades, Norton built up a solid reputation based not only on road bikes but on racing success. The Manx Norton was the archetypal racing bike, in all its various guises and was winning races well into the 1960s, albeit at local and clubman’s levels. The appearance of Italian multi-cylinder racing bikes from Gilera and MV Agusta in the late 1950s had signalled the end of the Manx Nortons international Grand Prix success.

The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, Part 2: Norton
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Norton Commando
Introduced in 1968, solved the vibration problem by mounting the engine with rubber bushes. Fast and handsome, it sold well.

It was on the Manx Norton that the famed ’featherbed’ frame, designed by Rex McCandless, was first seen. It got its nickname after test rider Harold Daniell - who was also a successful racer, with three TT wins to his name - declared that riding it was like ’riding a feather bed’ compared to the old, rigid ’Garden Gate’ framed Manx.

The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, Part 2: Norton
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Norton P11
Parallel-twin engined factory desert racer built for the US market

Throughout the post-Second World War years, Norton created some great motorcycles: the Dominator - the first production bike to get the featherbed frame - the 650SS, the Commando and the P11 desert racer replica. But business acumen lagged far behind model development and the company limped into the 1970s along with the rest of the industry.

The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, Part 2: Norton
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Norton RCW588
Rotary-engined race bike. Fast but fragile, it won the 1992 Isle of Man Senior TT race

By now owned by Associated Motorcycles (AMC), Norton was absorbed into the BSA concern, which owned Triumph and Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) was created. By the 1980s, Norton had separated from Triumph and continued with development and production of a Wankel-engined motorcycle. Success in the 1992 Isle of Man Senior TT, when Steve Hislop won after a thrilling race against Carl Fogarty, could do nothing to prevent the subsequent Commander model being a sales flop.

The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, Part 2: Norton
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Norton Commander
Civilian version of the rotary-engined bike was not a success

In 2008, Stuart Garner bought the rights to the Norton name from a US company and announced ambitious plans for the brand. New models were introduced - a modernised version of the Commando and a V4-powered superbike - and a return to racing at the Isle of Man completed before accusations of financial shenanigans were levelled at Garner in 2019/20 and the company was once again up for sale.

The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, Part 2: Norton
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Norton Commando, 2017
Produced by resurrected Norton company in the UK. Should have been a success but for financial double-dealing by owner Stuart Garner

Indian company TVS stepped in and bought the company lock, stock and barrel and have announced plans to continue production and introduce new models.

We can only hope that the Norton name hasn’t disappeared for good this time.

The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, Part 2: Norton
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Norton V4RR
Spectacular return to racing, using V4 Aprilia engine at first, but with home-developed engine in the pipeline.
Harry Fisher
Harry Fisher
Motorcycling Contributor
Born and raised in England, he has lived in South Africa with his family since 2002. Harry has owned examples of Triumph, Norton, BSA, MV Agusta, Honda, BMW, Ducati, Harley Davidson, Kawasaki and Moto Morini motorcycles. He regrets selling all of them.  Read full bio
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