A Legend Returns
The History of Norton Motorcycles
The Norton Commando is undoubtedly one of the most iconic British motorcycles of the 20th century. And so is the Norton Motorcycle Company, as a bona fide British marque for all things motorcycling.
First founded in 1898 by James Lansdowne Norton (known to all as ‘Pa’) as a Birmingham-based manufacturer of motorcycle parts, Norton progressed to building complete two-wheeled machines utilising out-sourced French and Swiss engines by 1902 and within the span of 6 years started to build their own engines.
The start of the Norton’s racing legacy can be traced to Harry Rembrandt ‘Rem’ Fowler, a British motorcycle racer who won the Isle of Man twin cylinder class in 1907. Additional wins at Brooklands and other European races strengthened Norton’s reputation as a builder of serious road and race bikes.
The company hit another milestone by producing its first single cylinder side-valve unit a year later in 1908. Just as fast as its motorcycles were at that time, Norton took just another year to retail their motorcycles at Harrods.
The Norton logo was designed by ‘Pa’ Norton and his daughter Ethel in 1914 and by 1916 was displayed on the fuel tanks of all Norton Motorcycles. Norton’s first overhead valve single, the 500cc Model 18 then won the Senior and sidecar TTs in 1924.
Norton produced over 4,000 road bikes annually by the mid 1930s and 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.
With the onset of the Second World War, Norton withdrew from racing but between 1937 and 1945 the motorcycle company manufactured almost 100,000 side-valve motorcycles, which amounted to almost a quarter of all military motorcycles, as their contribution to the war effort. As racing resumed, Norton won more TT races every year from 1947-1954.
Norton also introduced the twin cylindered Dominator in 1949 as well as a lightweight but extremely strong frame, the ‘Featherbed Frame’ in 1950. The frame was developed for the Manx Nortons to help negotiate the turns of the Isle of Man track, improving the bikes’ handling and contributing to further race success. A year later the Dominator and other Norton Cafe Racers saw their frames upgraded to the Featherbed frame. The 1950s came to a fitting end with Geoff Duke becoming the world champion in both the 350cc and 500cc classes and awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1952.
The 1960s heralded the legend of the Norton Commando, the new model that produced a smooth vibration free ride from its latest ‘isolastically’ insulated engine and frame components. The Commando’s new frame design did away with the highly acclaimed featherbed frame from other models and introduced a new rubber-mounted engine transmission cradle designed to greatly reduce the derived engine’s vibration. The new frame was another success and over 500,000 Norton Commandos were produced and sold, with the Commando further named Motor Cycle News readers ‘Machine of the Year’ for five successive years.
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. However this was the decade where the prevalence of Japanese models saw Norton, alongside other great British marques, driven to the brink of extinction, with the last Commando produced in 1976.
In the 1980s the company went through several incarnations and the brand was officially re-launched in Lichfield in 1988. Norton made an emphatic return to racing a year later when Steve Spray won the British Superbike Championship on the all-black JPS bike, a victory repeated in 1994 by Ian Simpson on the Duckhams Norton!
More success was to follow and in 1992 Steve Hislop, on an ABUS Norton, defeated Carl Fogarty, riding a Yamaha, to win the Isle of Man Senior TT, recording the first victory for a British bike for almost 30 years.
In 2008 Norton moved to its current home at Donington Park, Derby UK and in 2009 CEO Stuart Garner set the World Speed Record for a Rotary Powered Motorcycle, recording 173mph for a timed mile.
As we move towards current times, 2010 saw the introduction of the Commando 961SE and a host of new Norton motorcycle models initiating market production.
In 2012 Norton returned to race the TT with the SG1 and after promising results in 2013, the company has no looked back since and remains one of the most iconic of British racing motorcycle brands that has in a little more than a hundred years amassed an exciting history of competitive performance motorcycle engines, models and racing accolades.
Norton has long enjoyed a unique place in motorcycle history and continues to draw inspiration from the past whilst building on the Norton legacy for the future. And the future and the legend have finally arrived in Singapore.
To get to know a bit more of a returning British racing legend, you are invited to link up with Bike Studio LLP in Singapore, who recently wowed the crowds at the Singapore Bike Show with their Norton motorcycles on display.