While Norton Motorcycles has undoubtedly made a name for itself with its iconic bikes, the journey to becoming the brand we know today was shaped by the contributions of key individuals. While famous riders like Honor Blackman, Clint Eastwood, and Keanu Reeves have added to the brand’s allure, this blog will shift the spotlight to those whose influence steered Norton on a path that, without them, might have taken an entirely different direction. Join us as we explore the notable people whose impact on Norton goes beyond the roar of the engines and into the very essence of its identity.
James Lansdowne ‘Pa’ Norton, 1869-1925
The eponymous founder of the brand, James Norton was a Birmingham lad born and bred. Exhibiting remarkable mechanical ability from a young age, he transitioned into tool making, where his fascination with bicycles took root. At the age of 29, he established The Norton Manufacturing Company, dedicated to supplying spare parts for the emerging ‘safety bicycles.’ In a pivotal moment in 1902, utilising an engine from Clément, Norton crafted the Energette, marking the inception of the first Norton motorcycle. Within a mere seven years, he engineered the Big Four, and just over a decade later, he achieved a milestone with the development of an overhead valve engine, setting a world record. Despite his brilliance as an engineer, Norton faced challenges as a businessman, leading to the company’s liquidation and sale in 1913, but he stayed involved with the brand.
In 1922, Norton received a terminal cancer diagnosis, but he continued to contribute, remaining connected to the race team. Unfortunately, his health declined, and he passed away in 1925. Today, the legacy of James Lansdowne ‘Pa’ Norton endures, with his final resting place in Selly Oak, Birmingham.
Harry Rembrandt ‘Rem’ Fowler, 1882 – 1963
Another local and another skilled tool maker, Fowler is best known as the winner of the inaugural Isle of Man TT aboard a Norton. A passionate motorcycle racer from his youth, Fowler honed his riding skills by navigating trials bikes around Birmingham.
In 1907, at the youthful age of 25, Fowler entered the first Isle of Man TT race astride a 5hp Peugeot-engined Norton, clinching victory in the twin-cylinder class. The gruelling race spanned ten laps of a 15-mile course, which he conquered in 4 hours and 21 minutes, averaging a speed of 36.21mph. Although the speed might seem modest by today’s standards, the course presented challenges, and legend has it that Fowler crashed at Devils’ Elbow while hurtling at over 60mph. On the brink of retirement, a spectator informed him of his substantial lead, prompting him to remount and finish the race. 1907 was Fowler’s only victory at the TT and he retired from racing a few years later. Beyond his racing feats, Fowler continued his career as a tool maker, contributing to both WWI and WWII during the war efforts. He passed away at Solihull Hospital at the age of 80, having retired just a year earlier, leaving behind a legacy that extends beyond the racetrack.
Harold Daniell, 1909-1967
An accomplished motorcycle racer, you could argue that Daniell’s contribution to Norton is one of the greatest. His racing journey at the Isle of Man began in 1934, but victory eluded him due to the bikes’ unreliability. The turning point came in 1938 when he switched to a Norton, securing a substantial victory. Although he made the podium the following year, World War II interrupted his racing pursuits until 1947 when he claimed another senior TT victory on a Norton. Despite facing a setback the following year against Artie Bell, Daniell reclaimed the top step in 1949. Yet, his most significant achievement awaited him.
Daniell played a pivotal role as the team’s most accomplished rider by taking on the task of testing the new prototype race frame. Impressed by the innovation, he likened the experience to “riding on a feather bed,” a phrase that has become synonymous with Norton’s history. Following his retirement from racing, Daniell established a Norton dealership in Forest Hill, London, continuing his association with the brand in a different capacity.
Geoff Duke OBE, 1923 – 2015
Geoff Duke is undeniably one of the finest motorcycle racers ever produced by Britain, making an enduring impact on the sport in the 1950s. His remarkable career includes six world championships and six TT victories, a stellar journey that began in 1949, just as Daniell’s was beginning to wane. In 1949, Duke made a significant impact at the Manx GP, securing second place in the junior, first in the senior, and even winning the Senior Clubmans TT.
The following year, he joined the Norton works team, breaking both lap and race records in the Senior TT. Duke’s dominance continued in 1951, claiming another TT victory en route to securing the first two of his World Championships in the 350cc and 500cc categories. The success persisted in 1952, with Duke triumphing again in the 350cc, marking the continuation of an unbroken victory streak that clinched yet another World Championship. His outstanding contributions to British motorcycle racing earned him an OBE.
Having permanently etched Norton into the history books, Duke switched to riding for Gilera, where he continued to achieve success. Beyond his racing feats, Duke played a role in pioneering the ferry service that transports thousands of race fans to the TT each year. In 2003, his enduring contributions were further honoured when the bends at the 32nd milestone were named “Duke’s.” His legacy lives on, and upon his passing at the age of 92 on the Isle of Man, his funeral cortege assembled for one last lap, symbolising a fitting tribute to a racing legend.
Mike Hailwood, 1940 – 1981
Mike ‘the Bike’ Hailwood is revered among racing enthusiasts for his later successes with MV Agusta and Honda during a series of Senior TT victories from 1963 to 1967, but his first senior win is owed to a Norton.
By 1961, Hailwood had already established himself as an accomplished racer, securing wins in the 125cc, 250cc, and 350cc classes. Despite these achievements, major successes in large-capacity racing had proven elusive. The turning point came in 1961 when Hailwood clinched victories in three out of the four categories he entered. In a closely contested Senior TT, he narrowly edged out Bob McIntyre by less than two minutes, putting an end to Surtees’ winning streak in the process.
Hailwood’s victory would be the last Norton victory for the featherbed frame and the last win for Norton in this era. The brand would not reclaim the top spot for over three decades until Steve Hislop secured a win in 1992 aboard the rotary NRS588.
Hailwood’s illustrious career continued with 14 TT wins, nine World Championships, and even had a dabble in Formula One. His retirement in 1979 preceded a tragic end in 1981 when he was fatally injured in a road accident.
In looking back at Norton Motorcycles’ history, we’ve explored the lives of significant individuals who shaped the brand’s character. From ‘Pa’ Norton’s early contributions to Rem Fowler’s successes in the Isle of Man TT, each person has left a lasting impact. Harold Daniell’s dual role as both a skilled racer and innovative tester, Geoff Duke’s era-defining dominance, and Mike Hailwood’s crucial victory all add to Norton’s rich history. These stories together paint a vivid picture of Norton’s journey, blending moments of success, challenges, and the enduring spirit that defines this iconic brand.