Norton, a name synonymous with speed, power and innovation, has etched its legacy deep into motorcycle history. Across the years, Norton has produced some truly iconic models that have captured the hearts of enthusiasts and riders alike. In this journey through time, we explore a handful of our favourite Norton models, each a testament to the brand’s rich heritage and ingenuity.
The Norton Energette marked the beginning of Norton’s foray into the world of motorcycles. Before this, the company primarily dealt with parts and servicing. The Energette was effectively a combination of James Norton’s own design of bicycle frame with a Clément engine and was equipped with a two-speed Sturmey Archer gearbox; this pioneering machine could reach a top speed of nearly 30 miles per hour. Terrifying when you consider the front brake was just a rubber block pressing on the tyre, although the rear brake was no better – the brake shoe jammed against a second rim inside the wheel but the brake lever was behind the rider next to the spinning drivebelt. Best hope riders tucked their trousers in.
Operating the Energette was no easy feat. To get it going, you had to start pedalling, then shift into gear using the lever on the right side of the tank to bump-start the engine. This bump started the engine (no clutch remember) and off you went. The levers on the left side of the tank operated the throttle and spark advance. To make matters more complex, there was no oil pump, so you had to manually pump oil into the engine every few minutes. Despite its quirks, it was marketed at the time as being ‘good for doctors.’
Production years – 1902-1906
Engine – 142cc single-cylinder
Power – 1.75bhp
Weight – 32kg
1921 Model 1 (Big Four)
The Model 1, commonly known as the Big Four, was a significant milestone for Norton as it featured their own engine design, a departure from their earlier use of Clement and Peugeot motors. The 633cc engine was one of the largest and most powerful side-valve engines of its time and the largest in Norton’s range during its production. Interestingly, the “Big Four” name was derived from the bike’s tax classification, being rated at four tax horsepower.
Over its long production span, the Model 1 received several updates, including a chain final drive in 1915, an automatic dry sump lubrication system in 1931, and an optional four-speed transmission. Notably, found favour as the engine in a sidecar outfit and James Norton was a particular fan, riding one through Africa as a proof of its reliability. Even during World War II, the aging design found favour as a vehicle for the British army, with almost 5000 units produced for the war effort.
Production years – 1907-1954
Engine – 633cc side valve single
Power – 14bhp
Weight – 170kg
The Norton International was initially conceived as a factory-built racing bike that was accessible to everyday riders for racing or leisure. During the 1930s, it could be ordered from the factory with custom race specifications, and it enjoyed immense success, winning 10 out of 12 Senior TTs during its reign, right up until it was phased out in favour of the Manx.
As time passed, the International underwent steady updates, including the introduction of plunger rear suspension and Roadholder telescopic forks. The gearbox was swapped out but then remained largely unchanged for over 30 years, and there were some steady updates to the engine. However, the most significant transformation came in 1953 when the old plunger frame was replaced by the new featherbed frame. This innovation, partly in honour of the bike’s history and partly due to the dominance of the Manx, was only available for special order during the last few years of the International’s production before it was discontinued altogether.
Production years – 1931-1958
Engine – 490cc OHC single
Power – 29bhp
Weight – 176kg
In the 1980s, Norton faced challenges in staying relevant. The brand had been experimenting with rotary engines for police “Interpol” bikes, which transitioned to civilian models with the Classic. Work was done internally and, without managements permission, staff began modifying the engine for more power, before reframing it to take it racing. It was a success, so a proper factory race effort began resulting in the RCW588 race bike. The RCW588 achieved great success, winning a TT and the British Superbike championship. A road-legal version was created alongside the race bike, known as the F1.
The Norton F1 was a technological marvel of its time, featuring WP suspension and a twin-spare aluminium frame. However, its premium price tag of £12,670, equivalent to WSB homologation specials, limited its production to just 140 units during its brief two-year run. Nevertheless, the F1 remains close to the hearts of many motorcyclists, if only because of the famous black and gold JPS livery.
Production years – 1990-1991
Engine – 588cc rotary
Power – 94bhp
Weight – 176kg
In Norton’s rich history, from the Energette to the F1, we’ve witnessed more than the evolution of motorcycles; we’ve seen the embodiment of human innovation and passion. These iconic models, with their quirks and brilliance in equal measure, symbolise the unbridled joy of the open road. They are not just bikes; they’re tales of daring dreams and relentless pursuits. As we conclude, Norton’s enduring heritage reminds us that the love for riding transcends time, echoing in the hearts of riders worldwide.