The History of Norton Motorcycles
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Our gracious host, Lucas Knight has invited us to submit articles about classic British bikes on a regular and ongoing basis. What you will see on this page in the future is a selection of articles taken right from the pages of Classic-British-Motorcycles.com. We hope you enjoy this column, and we invite you to visit our site for more of the same...much more.
NORTON, ALWAYS A GAME-CHANGER
James Lansdowne Norton began building motorcycles in 1902 using French and Swiss engines. By 1907, he was building his own, and winning races with them, including the first Isle of Man TT. This began a racing heritage that survived to the very end of the company. Today Nortons are among the most popular, fastest, best handling and sexiest of all classic British motorcycles, despite having expired as a company more than 40 years ago. The Norton Commando, (1969-1977) was the worldʼs first production Superbike, and for a brief moment in time was the worldʼs fastest production motorcycle. It is, to this day, one of the most desirable machines of all time. It represented the best that the British motorcycle industry had to offer at the time. It was a genuine game-changer. But game-changers were nothing new to Norton. Their radically-designed 350 and 500 Manx singles were ahead of their time, and dominated road racing for decades.
Launched in 1947, the Norton Manx was typical of Nortonʼs obsession with mechanical perfection. By the early 1950s, when most motorcycles still used rigid frames (no rear suspension), Norton introduced the revolutionary “Featherbed Frame” that set the pattern for nearly every motorcycle frame built for the next 30 years. The Featherbed (so named because of itʼs smooth ride) used a conventional swing arm, novel in 1953, and all welded steel tubing, at a time when most frames were held together with brazed lugs. It was light, extremely rigid and handled better than anything else on the road or track in its day. This handling advantage proved pivotal in its racing career as the Norton Manx dominated Grand Prix racing and the Isle of Man TT well into the 1960s. But, it wasnʼt just great handling that gave the Manx its edge. They were fast, very fast. The big, all-alloy single cylinder engines were either SOHC or DOHC at a time when most bikes had pushrods, and some were still using side-valve arrangements. But the days of the big British single were numbered.
BIG SINGLES RULED THE WORLD
By the 1930s the British motorcycle industry was dominated by OHV air-cooled single cylinder designs, all very similar in layout. Over many years, they slowly expanded these engines in both displacement and output until by the late 1930s, they had very nearly reached their physical limits at about 500cc and 30 horsepower. Any increase in either number led to excessive engine vibration. Many solutions were tried, but nothing seemed to work.
THE MODERN TWIN IS BORN
In 1938, Edward Turner, legendary designer of the Ariel Square Four, devised a radical new approach to the vibration problem in the parallel twin, launched in the new 1938 Triumph 500 Speed Twin. Built with the same technology and tooling as Triumphʼs singles, it used two smaller pistons rather than one large one to make up its 500cc of displacement, both rising and falling together on a 360-degree crankshaft with no center main bearing. It was a stroke of genius and revolutionized the motorcycle industry overnight. Alas World War II started two years later, ending production until 1946. But when civilian motorcycle production ramped back up after the war, nearly every British manufacturer had to have their own 500cc parallel twin design, and Norton was no different. In 1949 Norton launched its first twin, the 500cc Model 7. Development continued unabated as they built successively larger and more powerful twin cylinder machines, all based on the same design.
Norton mounted the Model 7ʼs 500 twin-cylinder engine into the Manxʼs new Featherbed frame in 1953, and named the new bike the Dominator 88. It ran through 1963, during which time they punched it out to 600cc creating the Dominator 99. In 1962, they punched it out again, this time to 650cc, renaming it the Dominator 650SS, which ran through 1969.
NORTONʼS SMALLER BIKES
When new “Learner Laws” were passed in the UK in 1960, suddenly new riders were limited to no more than 250cc. In anticipation of the rush for smaller bikes, Norton fielded a totally new bike, the 250cc Jubilee in 1958. It was soon stretched to 350cc giving birth to the Norton 350 Navigator in 1960. They werenʼt bad bikes, and sold reasonably well to their intended market. But they didnʼt survive the breakup of the AMC empire in 1966.
NORTON ATLAS: HORSEPOWER WARS
The race was on for bigger engines and more power. Triumph had enlarged its own 500 twin to 650cc in 1950, and was continually hopping it up further, first with the TR6 in 1956, then with the legendary twin-carb Bonneville in 1959. Norton had to step up its game. So, in 1962, they bored out the same old engine again, this time to 750cc, juicing up the styling a bit, and the Norton Atlas was born. By this time, the vertical twin design was also reaching its physical limits, and the Norton twin, now making 55 horsepower, was no exception. Vibration was always a factor in parallel twins at higher RPMs, with both pistons rising and falling together, and it was only getting worse the larger those pistons got, the more power they made and the faster the engines turned.
VIBRATION IS THE ENEMY
Triumph, BSA and all the other British motorcycle manufacturers were experiencing the same vibration problems. But what to do about it? The long-term answer would have been to design completely new, totally modern engines more like the Japanese model. But the much-lower-volume Brits were perpetually strapped for cash and simply couldnʼt afford it. Finances forced Norton, Triumph, BSA and the rest of the Brits to make do with the engines they had. So Norton, true to its tradition of innovation, approached the vibration problem from a totally new direction. They created yet another iconic motorcycle frame, this one with what they called “Isolastic Suspension”, a system of rubber mounting the engine in common with the swing arm to isolate the engineʼs vibration and channel it out the rear wheel to the road. It was brilliant, and proved to be highly effective at quelling the big Nortonʼs otherwise wicked engine vibration.
THE NORTON COMMANDO IS BORN
The new frame bequeathed a new bike, the 1969 Norton 750 Commando. Arguably Nortonʼs most famous bike, certainly their biggest commercial success. The Commando was an instant hit. It was a handsome machine, fast, powerful, it handled well, and it was smooth...very smooth. At the time of its launch, more than a full year ahead of the Honda 750 Four and the Triumph Trident, the Commando was considered to be the worldʼs fastest production motorcycle.
Norton seemed adept at spinning off “Special Models” like the Production Racer and the John Player Norton (part of a cross-promotion with the famous British cigarette maker), by hanging trick bodywork on an otherwise stock Commando. They overreached however, with the “High Rider”, their hideous attempt at a factory chopper. Over the next few years, evolutionary changes were made, including a front disk brake in 1973, electric start in 1975, and in 1973 the engine was punched out yet again, this time to a whopping 850cc. This was the same engine that started out life as a 500cc twin in 1949! But the extra displacement allowed the power to come on at a lower RPM, making the bike smoother and a better overall road machine. Ultimate performance was becoming irrelevant in old British bikes like the Norton and the Triumph, in the face of the onslaught of modern superbikes from Japan.
AN AGE OF MERGERS
Sunbeam and others, and which had been the worldʼs largest motorcycle company just a few years earlier, was now on the verge of collapse. AMC (Associated Motor Cycles) who owned Norton, Matchless, AJS, James and other British motorcycle brands closed its doors in 1967, selling off Norton to Manganese Holdings, which also owned Villiers motorcycles, forming a new company Norton-Villiers. As BSA imploded, a merger was attempted between the two companies, creating yet a new entity, NortonVilliers-Triumph (NVT). Triumph was the only thing left of the BSA empire that had any value. By this time, there really were only two players left in the entire British motorcycle industry anyway: Triumph and Norton. So the merger seemed to make sense. Norton, the stronger of the two, was quick to take action. In a cost-cutting move, they announced that they would be closing Triumphʼs legendary Meriden factory and moving all Triumph production to Nortonʼs own factories. Triumph workers rebelled in 1974, blockading themselves in the factory and not allowing any bikes to leave until well into the 1975 model year. Norton finally relented, allowing the Triumph workers to buy out the company and form the Meriden Co-op to continue building Bonnevilles (now their only model) at the Meriden plant. The only other one left was Norton, now building only Commandos.
THE END IS NEAR
The two comanies struggled at the edge of insolvency. A British government hostile to industry was part of the problem. Unbelievably bad management on the part of the Brits making the business decisions was another part of it, a very big part. But they were also victims of changing times. The world was turning a corner, away from cottage industries manned by artisans hand-making antiquated products in low volumes, and toward the modern model typified by the Japanese. The Brits wanted to keep building the same bikes they always had, in pretty much the same way, just making them better each year. The Japanese held no such loyalty to their past, embracing anything that would help them make more bikes, better, cheaper, faster. They literally swamped the Brits on a scale that they could never have competed with.
THE LAST GASP
Norton continued building Commandos in relatively low volumes. The last Commando rolled off the assembly line in 1975 (although some of the unsold bikes were retitled as Classic-British-Motorcycles.com “The History of Norton Motorcycles” ʻ76s and ʻ77s). Triumph, now owned by its workers, struggled along until 1983, bringing an end to the classic British motorcycle industry as a whole.
THE MODERN NORTON
Several attempts have been made to revive the hallowed Norton name, including a stillborn 1987 twin-rotor Wankel-powered motorcycle called the Norton Classic. More recently, UK businessman Stuart Garner, owner of Norton Racing Ltd., acquired the rights to the Norton Commando brand. He had a totally new bike designed from a clean sheet of paper (or CAD), using modern technology but meant to be instantly recognizable as a Commando. The Norton 961 Commando launched in 2010 and is still in limited production today.
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