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A Brief History of Norton

12 May 2023

The British brand that won the first ever Isle of Man TT celebrates its 125th anniversary this year and what a century and a quarter it’s been…read on for a brief history of Norton!

It’s impossible to think of the famous silver and black bikes from Birmingham (now Solihull) without thinking of the greatest road race on earth, the Isle of Man TT. The famous brand has taken 94 victories and 323 podium finishes from appearances that have spanned almost the entire life of the TT. That might explain why it has no plans to return to racing the roads of the Crown Dependency anytime soon – what does Norton still have to prove?

Today, the brand seems to be once again in the ascendancy, after a few tricky years, following its tumultuous return to the UK. Now seems like the ideal time to look back over the often exciting and rarely dull history of arguably Britain’s best-known motorcycle brand.

History of Norton – Where it all started

It all started in 1898, when founder James Landsdowne Norton – later affectionately called ‘Pa’ – launched his two-wheel parts and fittings business in Bradford Street, Birmingham. James was just 29 when he formed The Norton Manufacturing Company but the young Norton quickly discovered making parts for push bikes wasn’t as thrilling as making his own. Following the logical progression that so many others were making at the time, Norton’s two-wheel creations soon gained engines…

The first Norton motorcycles were created in 1902, using French and Swiss engines, before Norton designed his own engine in 1907. Shortly before this, racer Rembrandt Fowler rode a Peugeot-powered Norton to victory at the inaugural Isle of Man TT, beginning the long and fruitful association between Norton and the infamous road race.

That first victory coincided with a move to a larger site on Floodgate Street, where the now renamed Norton Manufacturing Co. began producing its ‘Big 4’ 633cc side-valve, single-cylinder engine. This staple motor of the firm’s early years would go on to power numerous Nortons, right up to the late 1950s.

History of Norton - Norton Big 4 in the National Motor Museum

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Norton encountered the first of many turbulent times. With a dip in demand, creditors R.T. Shelley and Co. bought into Norton to save the company. James Norton was forced to share control with Bob Shelley. Thankfully, Shelley’s brother-in-law Bob O’Donovan happened to be a talented engine tuner, who went on to set several flying mile speed records on Nortons he’d tinkered with – records that stood until well after the end of hostilities.

The War was undoubtedly a needless tragedy, but it threw Norton a lifeline. Government commissions brought with it a welcome injection of cash and with the pressure off, James and his daughter Ethel had time to pen the now famous ‘curly’ Norton logo. Resuming Norton’s racing involvement post war, the now terminally ill James was only able to watch from his chair, as two Norton riders took victories at the 1924 Isle of Man TT. James also managed to submit a patent for a ‘desmodromique’ overhead camshaft cylinder head before his untimely passing at the age of 56 in 1925.

Many firms struggle to outlast their founders, but Norton not only survived, it thrived. The late ’20s saw even greater focus on racing and this investment of funds and time soon bore fruit. A new model, the CS1, effectively a TT racer prototype – but one that would later be sold to the public – won the race outright on its debut in 1927. Better was still to come, as Arthur Carroll’s design for a new overhead camshaft engine in 1930 lead to Norton racing dominance for decades.

Of the nine Isle of Man TTs raced from 1931 to 1939, Norton won seven – in addition to 78 of the 92 Grand Prix races held between 1930 and 1937. The war effort once again took over from 1939 to 1945, with nearly 100k motorcycles made in support of allied troops. Just as it did with Harley-Davidson across the pond, this no doubt went a long way to endearing Birmingham-built machines to demobbed service men and women around the world.

History of Norton – Post War

Post-war, Norton picked up where it had left off – though typical of the firm – it went one better. The mighty 1946 Manx was followed in short succession by the equally impressive Dominator of 1949 and the revolutionary ‘featherbed’ frame a year later. The new frame proved pivotal to Norton’s TT double hat trick of wins in the hands of John Surtees and Geoff Duke – the latter went on to become 350cc and 500cc world champion in 1952; earning him a knighthood for his efforts.

The seemingly endless list of Norton wins certainly didn’t hurt sales, but there was one vital demographic where the firm was missing out, younger riders. That was cured in 1958 when it introduced the 250cc Jubilee – a bike specifically aimed at learners. The concept was an instant hit, though its somewhat chequered reliability spawned Ron Hopwood’s vastly improved 1960 Norton 350 Navigator.

While it was keeping parents happy with its safe and controllable junior bikes, Norton hadn’t forgotten its core audience, releasing the 650cc Manxman the same year as the ‘baby’ Navigator. Things got more serious still with the Atlas 750 export model in ’62. These ever more powerful bikes culminated in 1967 with what’s widely considered to be the world’s first superbike…

The Norton Commando was made in hitherto unheard of numbers – producing equally eye-opening 0-60mph and top-speed figures. More than 55,000 Commandos were sold during its decade in production, making it arguably the most well-known Norton on them all.

History of Norton - Image of tank

History of Norton – 1980s onwards

By the late 1980s, Norton’s influence on the world of racing and sports bikes had diminished, largely due to fierce competition from Japanese manufacturers. However, one Norton employee took it upon himself to regain some of his employer’s lost prominence. Brian Crighton built his first rotary-powered Norton racer from a 588cc police Interpol base. Taking third place on its first race outing, the factory soon sat up and took notice. In 1988, the bike was winning national races in the hands of Steve Spray, which bought John Player Special onboard as sponsors from the 1989 season, where Spray went on to win both British Formula One and 750cc Supercup championships.

Further Norton victories came in 1992 at the TT in the hands of Steve Hislop – the first British bike to win in nearly 30 years – and in the final year of the Crighton Norton rotary campaign, Ian Simpson rode his Duckhams liveried RC588 to a British Superbike title.

Post-millennium budgets for top flight motorcycle racing began aping those of more popular four-wheeled championships, Norton choosing to compete sporadically as a result. Though there was a presence at the TT throughout the 2010s, the days of outright victories and podium finishes were gone. Attention turned to road bikes as once again the firm was under British ownership – after more than a decade absent from manufacturing in US hands. Many promises of rekindling past glories were made but ultimately, financial trouble and mismanagement led to bankruptcy in 2020. Though, thankfully, that’s not the end of the story…

Indian firm TVS Motor Company acquired Norton in April 2020 and has since rejuvenated the ailing and once famous firm; moving it to new state of the art facilities in Solihull. We’re eagerly awaiting new and continuation models that’ll place Norton back at the top of the world’s most exciting and influential motorcycle makers. It’s got a long way to go, but let’s hope it’ll be around to mark another 125 years.

History of Norton - image shows a rider on a Norton bike

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