James Lansdowne Norton, affectionately known as ‘Pa’, founded Norton in 1898 as a manufacturer of fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade. Little did he know what that simple business would go on to become.
Over the next 100 years, Norton Motorcycles would experience a series of highs and lows that would lead the name to its unique place in history, as well as thousands of hearts around the world.
THE EARLY 1900S. OUR RACING TRADITION IS FORGED
In 1902, the very first Norton Motorcycle, the Energette, was produced – powered by a 143cc, single-cylinder Clement engine.
Just a few years later in 1907, our enviable racing tradition began. Rem Fowler cemented his position as one of the country’s most notable motorcycle racers by riding a 5hp Peugeot-engine Norton to victory at the inaugural Isle of Man TT.
1908 saw the first Norton powered by a single cylinder side-valve unit (the now legendary big 4), and by the following year you could, quite literally, walk into Harrods and buy a brand-new Norton. From inception to high street in little under 10 years, the nation’s love for Norton Motorcycles was growing strong.
1910-1930. THE ICONIC LOGO TAKES ITS PLACE
By 1913, amid pre-war financial uncertainty, Norton brought in Bob Shelley and his brother-in-law Dan O’Donovan to help stabilise the business. The latter of whom developed Norton’s very first production racer, the BS 490.
And then came the famous Norton logo.
Originally designed by Pa and his daughter Ethel, it appeared on the front of the 1914 catalogue and on every Norton tank from 1916 onwards. But just as the business was gathering momentum, Pa Norton sadly passed away in 1925 at just 56 years old. He had set his dreams in motion with a brand that would live long into the 20th century and beyond.
Next up came the CS1. A concept originally designed as a TT racer but also later sold as a replica road bike. Alex Bennett rode the CS1 in its first ever TT race in 1927, and won. This was prior to the development of a new overhead cam engine designed by Arthur Carroll in 1930, going on to form the basis of all OHC and DOHC Norton single-cylinder engines.
1930-1950. A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH
From the early thirties onwards, it was clear that Norton bikes were fast becoming the best in the business.
Norton won 78 out of 92 Grand Prix races between 1930 and 1937. And of the nine Isle of Man TTs between 1931 and 1939, Norton won seven. It was these moments that helped spark the brand’s popularity.
Then the war hit.
Norton withdrew from racing and turned its attention to the war effort. Between 1937 and 1945, Norton manufactured nearly 100,000 motorcycles to support Allied troops.
When the war ended, Norton was able to finish what it started by completing production of the Manx in 1946, followed by the Norton Dominator in 1949.
1950-1960. ARISE, SIR GEOFF DUKE
In 1950 the introduction of the featherbed frame gave the Manx a new lease of life, going on to record a double hat-trick at the Isle of Man TT, courtesy of John Surtees and Geoff Duke.
Just two years later at the end of the 1952 season, Geoff Duke (riding for Norton) became world champion in both the 350cc and 500cc classes and was awarded the OBE. In 1958 Norton launched the 250cc Jubilee –– a bike for learners featuring the smallest Norton engine ever made.
Overnight, this created an entirely new market. It was soon stretched to 350cc giving birth to the Norton 350 Navigator in 1960.
1960-1980. INTRODUCING THE WORLD’S FIRST PRODUCTION SUPERBIKE
There are moments in history that can reshape a brand. Ours came during the sixties.
In 1960, the first 650 twin was produced and named the Manxman. They were exported largely to the US but also went to Australia, Sweden and even one going to the Falklands. The Atlas 750 started production in 1962 and initially was an export model for the US market.
An increase in rpm immediately led to vibratory problems. However, further refinement lead to the introduction of ‘isolastic suspension’ and insulation of the engine unit from the frame for a smoother, vibration-free ride.
It wasn’t until 1967 at the Earls Court Motor Show that the public had its first glimpse of the world’s first production superbike – The Norton Commando. Perhaps the most famous bike to bear the Norton name.
In the next decade over 55,000 were sold, with Commando named Motor Cycle News’ Machine of the Year for five successive years.
As Japanese bikes became increasingly more popular, many great British marques were driven to the brink of extinction. The last Commando was produced in 1977.
1980-2000. HISTORY IS MADE. AGAIN.
Another big name in Norton’s history was Norton guru Brian Crighton, the man who built the first Norton rotary race bike in 1987.
Although Crighton worked at Norton, he built the RCW588 race bike without factory support, basing it on the Norton 588cc Interpol model used by UK police forces. When it took third place in its club race debut at Darley Moor, the factory knew Crighton had built something special.
In 1988 the bike started winning national races with Steve Spray at the helm. JPS became the title sponsor for the 1989 season – the year Steve Spray won the British Formula One Championship and the 750cc Supercup Champion on the JPS-sponsored RCW588.
Success continued into the early nineties when Steve Hislop went above and beyond on his Abus Norton to defeat Carl Fogarty on his Yamaha and win the 1992 Isle of Man Senior TT – the first victory for a British bike in almost 30 years. It’s regarded as one of the greatest ever senior races to this day.
Not long after in 1994, Ian Simpson matched Steve Spray’s British Superbike triumph on the Duckham’s-sponsored Norton completing two decades of success.
2000-2020. THE FASTEST BRITISH BIKE AT THE TT.
Norton returned in 2012 and raced year-on-year to 2019, capitalising on each of the previous years’ efforts. And it showed. The years of development soon paid off for Norton in 2018 as Josh Brookes took the title of the fastest British bike on the SG7 at the Isle of Man TT. A remarkable achievement.
In the year that followed, Norton entered the lightweight category and raced the Norton Superlight, coming away with an 8th place finish with TT lap record holder, Peter Hickman, at the helm.
2020-PRESENT. A NEW ERA BEGINS
Change is on the horizon. In April 2020, TVS Motor Company acquired Norton Motorcycles, igniting the start of an exciting new era for the brand and its loyal followers and fans. A partnership destined to breathe life into this truly iconic British marque.
And now to today.
2021 marks the beginning of the Norton renaissance. Drawing on inspiration from the past to build our legacy for the future. And it all starts with a move to new state-of-the-art facilities, alongside the eagerly anticipated launch of new models.
These bikes will be the future of Norton, shaped by innovation and design. They will position Norton where it truly belongs – as one of the most iconic and influential motorcycle brands the world has ever seen.
Norton is back up to speed. And better than ever.