Norton was a British motorcycle
marque from Birmingham, founded in 1898 as a
manufacturer of cycle chains.
By 1902 they had begun manufacturing
motorcycles with bought-in engines. In 1908
a Norton built engine was added to the range.
This began a long series of production of single
cylinder motorcycles. They were one of the great
names of the British motorcycle industry, producing
machines which for decades dominated racing
with highly tuned single cylinder engines under
the Race Shop supremo Joe Craig.
Postwar a 500 cc twin cylinder
model called the Dominator or Model 7 was added
to the range for 1949, and this evolved into
the 1970s through 500 cc, to 600 cc, to 650
cc, to 750 cc and to 850 cc models with the
Dominator, 650, Atlas and Commando, all highly
regarded road motorcycles of their time.
The original company was formed by James Norton
(Known as Pa) in Birmingham in 1898. In 1902
Norton began building motorcycles with French
and Swiss engines. In 1907 a Norton ridden by
Rem Fowler won the twin-cylinder class in the
first Isle of Man TT race, beginning a sporting
tradition that went on until the 1960s &ndas;
The Isle of Man Senior TT, the most prestigious
of events, was won by Nortons ten times between
the wars and then every year from 1947 to 1954.
The first Norton engines were made in 1908,
beginning a line of side-valve single cylinder
engines which continued with few changes until
the late 1950s.
In 1913 the business declined,
R.T. Shelley & Co., the main creditors,
intervened and saved it. Norton Motors Ltd was
formed shortly afterwards under joint directorship
of James Norton and Bob Shelley. J.L. Norton
died in 1925 aged only 56, but he saw his motorcycles
win the Senior and sidecar TTs in 1924.
Designed by Walter Moore, the
CamShaft One (CS1) engine appeared in 1927,
based closely on the ES2 (pushrod) engine and
using many of its parts. On his departure to
NSU in 1930, an entirely new ohc engine was
designed by Arthur Carroll, which was the basis
for all later ohc and dohc Norton singles. (Moore's
move to NSU prompted staff to claim that NSU
stood for "Norton Spares Used") That
decade spawned the Norton racing legend. Of
the nine Isle of Man Senior TTs (500 cc) between
1931 and 1939 Norton won seven.
Up to 1934, Norton bought the excellent Sturmey
Archer gearboxes and clutches. When Sturmey
decided to discontinue production, Norton bought
the design rights, and had them made by Burman,
a manufacturer of proprietary gearboxes.
Nortons also appealed to ordinary
motorcyclists who enjoyed the reliability and
performance offered by single-cylinder engines
with separate gearboxes. The marque withdrew
their teams from racing in 1938, but between
1937 and 1945 nearly one quarter (Over 100,000)
of all British military motorcycles were Nortons,
basically the WD 16H (solo) and WD Big Four
outfit (with driven sidecar wheel).
After the War, Norton reverted
to civilian motorcycle production, gradually
increasing the range. A major addition in 1949
was the Dominator, also known as the Model 7,
a pushrod 500 cc twin cylinder machine designed
by Bert Hopwood. Its chassis was derived from
the ES2 single, with telescopic front and plunger
rear suspension, and an updated version of the
gearbox known as the 'horizontal' box.
Post war, Norton struggled to
reclaim its pre-WWII racing dominance, since
the single cylinder machine was facing fierce
competition from the multi-cylinder Italians,
and AJS at home. In the 1949 Grand Prix motorcycle
racing season, the first year of the world championship,
Norton only made fifth place, and AJS won. That
was before the Norton Featherbed frame appeared,
developed for Norton by the McCandless brothers
of Belfast in January, 1950, used in the legendary
Manx Norton, and raced by riders including Geoff
Duke, John Surtees and Derek Minter. Overnight
the featherbed frame was the benchmark by which
all other frames were judged. Nortons were winners
In 1951 the Norton Dominator became
available in export markets as the Model 88
with the Featherbed frame. Later, as production
of this frame increased, it became a regular
production model, and was made in variants for
other models, including the ohv single cylinder
The racing successes were transferred
to the street through Cafe racers, some of whom
would use the feather bed frame with an engine
from another manufacturer to make a hybrid machine
with the best of both worlds. The most famous
of these were Tritons - Triumph twin engines
in a Norton feather-bed frame.
Despite, or perhaps because of
the racing successes, Norton was in financial
difficulty. Reynolds could not make many of
the highly desired featherbed frames, and customers
lost interest in buying machines with the older
frames. In 1953, Norton was sold to Associated
Motorcycles (AMC), who also owned the brands
AJS, Matchless, Francis-Barnett and James. The
Birmingham factory was closed in 1962 and production
was moved to AMC's Woolwich factory in Southeast
Under AMC ownership, a much improved
version of the Norton gearbox was developed,
to be used on all the larger models within the
corporation under the AJS, Matchless and Norton
banners. Again, the major changes were for improved
The 1946-1953 Long Stroke Manx
Norton was 79.6 mm x 100 mm, initially sohc,
the dohc engine becoming available to favoured
racers in 1949. The Short Stroke model (1953-1962)
had bore and stroke of 86 mm x 85.6 mm. It used
a dry sump 499 cc single cylinder motor, with
two valves operated by bevel drive, shaft driven
twin overhead camshafts.
Compression ratio was 11:1. It
had an Amal GP carburettor, and a Lucas racing
magneto. The 1962 500 cc Manx Nortons produced
47 bhp (35 kW) at 6500 rpm, weighed 142 kg (313
lb), and had a top speed of 209 km/h (130 mph).
The new price was 440 pounds.
Manx Nortons also played a significant role
in the development of post war car racing. At
the end of 1950, the English national 500 cc
regulations were adopted as the new Formula
3. The JAP Speedway engine had dominated the
category initially but the Manx was capable
of producing significantly more power and became
the engine of choice. Many complete motorcycles
were bought in order to strip the engine for
500 cc car racing, as Nortons would not sell
Manx rolling chassis were frequently
resold, and equipped with Triumph engines. These
motorcycles were known as Tritons.
In 1960, a new version of the
featherbed frame was developed, with the upper
frame rails bent inwards to reduce the width
between the rider's knees for greater comfort.
The move was also to accommodate the shorter
rider, as the wide frame made it difficult to
reach the ground. This frame was made in-house
by AMC, and is known as the 'slimline' frame
- the earlier frames then became known as the
The last Manx Nortons were sold
in 1963. Even though Norton had pulled out of
racing in 1954, the Manx had become the backbone
of privateer racing, and even today are quite
In January 1961 a new Norton Manxman
650c was launched for the American market only
and one year later a Norton 650SS appeared,for
the UK market along with the Norton Atlas 750
in 1962, for the American market as they wanted
more power, still using featherbed frames, but
the increases to the vertical twins engine capacity
had caused a vibration problem at 4500 rpm,
A 500 cc vertical twin is smoother than a single
cylinder, but if you enlarge the vertical twin's
capacity, vibration increases. The 750 Norton
Atlas proved too expensive, and costs were not
able to be reduced. Financial problems gathered.
There was an export bike primarily
for use as a desert racer, sold up until 1969
as a Norton P11, AJS Model 33, and as a Matchless
G15, which used the Norton Atlas engine in a
modified Matchless G85CS scrambler frame, with
Norton wheels and front forks. This bike was
reputed to vibrate less than the featherbed
frame model. AMC singles were also sold with
Norton badging in this era.
By the late 1960s competition
from Japan and a rapidly declining home market
had driven the whole British motorcycle industry
into a precipitous decline. In 1966 AMC collapsed
and was reformed as Norton-Villiers part of
The 750 Norton Atlas, was noted for its vibration.
Rather than change engines, Norton decided to
change the frame, and the isolastic-framed Norton
Commando 750 was the result.
In 1969 the Commando was introduced;
its styling, innovative isolastic frame, and
powerful engine made it an appealing package.
Despite different variations and respectable
sales, the company declined and would go into
liquidation in 1975.
The "isolastic frame"
used rubber bushings to keep the engine and
swingarm from direct contact with the frame
duplex, forks, and rider, thus damping contact
between the rider and engine vibration. This
worked as long as the bushings were kept set
to tolerances, and were replaced before becoming
hard or damaged. If kept maintained, the system
The 'Combat' engine was released in January
1972, with a twin roller bearing crank, 10:1
compression and making 65 bhp (48.5 kW) at 6,500
rpm. Reliability immediately proved a problem.
(Older engines had used one ball bearing main,
and one roller bearing main.) This fragility
did not show up well, especially when compared
to the reliability of the Japanese bikes.
In 1972, the former giant of British
motorcycle manufacturing BSA was also in trouble.
It was given government help on the condition
that it merged with Norton-Villiers, and in
1973 the new Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT) was
formed. The Triumph Motorcycles name came from
BSA's Triumph subsidiary.
In April 1973 an 8.5:1 compression
828 cc "850" engine was released with
German SuperBlend bearings, which made 51 bhp
(38 kW) at 6,250 rpm however the stated power
does not give a true picture of the engine performance
because increased torque seemed to make up for
the lower horsepower.
In 1974, the outgoing government
withdrew the subsidies, although the incoming
government restored them after the election.
Rationalisation of the factory sites to Wolverhampton
and Birmingham (BSA's Small Heath site) only
caused industrial disputes at Triumph's Coventry
site; Triumph would go on as a workers cooperative
Despite mounting losses, 1974
saw the release of the '828 Roadster', 'Mark
2 Hi Rider', 'JPN Replica' (John Player Norton)
and 'Mk.2a Interstate'. In 1975 this was down
to just two models, the 'Mark 3 Interstate'
and the 'Roadster', but then the Government
asked for a repayment of its loan and refused
export credits, further damaging the company's
ability to sell abroad. Production of the two
lone models still made was ended and supplies
In the 1980s, the company went
through several incarnations - mainly because,
both the name was popular, and now owned by
several parties: in liquidation from NVT, the
global rights were split between (at least)
Norton UK, Germany, America and Rest of the
The name was relaunched on an ambitious scale
in Lichfield in 1988. The new models have succeeded
on the race track - winning the Senior TT in
1992 - but they have moved rather more slowly
in the commercial market. The British company
had some success making the Wankel-engined Interpol
2 motorcycle for civilian and military police
forces and the RAC.
This led to a civilian model in 1987 called
the Classic. Subsequent Norton Wankels were
water-cooled. The Commander was launched in
1988 and was followed by the Spondon-framed
F1. This model was a replica of Norton's RCW588
factory racing machines which won many races
including the 1992 Isle of Man TT. The F1 was
succeeded by the restyled and slightly less
expensive F1 Sport.
At this point the Department of
Trade and Industry stepped in to investigate
improprieties in the investment web of financier
Philippe LeRoux and his associates.] LeRoux
resigned his position as Chief Executive.
Norton is now a small entity dealing
with the approximately 1000 Norton Rotary motorcycles,
and from their website comes the results of
the end of Norton's debt plagued early 1990s
"asset stripping" and the production
run of the F1 Sport:
The end result was a motorcycle
that sold on a subscription basis, every single
one being snapped up immediately, and the last
one (No.66) actually being built in Germany
from new parts, as the factory in Shenstone
had run out. The F1 Sports or "TT"
is now considered to be the best and most desirable
model of all Rotary Nortons, if not off all
rotary engined motorcycles. The frustrating
thing was, that these motorcycles were only
built as an exercise to use up unshiftable parts
originally bought in for F1 production- thus
making Midlands Bank some more money, but never
with the seroius [sic] intention to make any
more after the original stash of parts was used
up. This was not aparent [sic] to the directors
of Norton Motors Ltd, nor to their trade customers,
until it was too late, i.e. after the last bike
had been produced. In order to explain the inexplicably
low retail price at the time- in fact a price
that was not only far too low, but also uncalled
for as all bikes sold instantly-, rumours were
placed with the press that as parts dried up
from the original left-over high-price parts
(PVM wheels, Brembo Brakes, White Power supension
[sic] components), these were to be replaced
by cheaper Yamaha-sourced items. Whilst this
was then faithfully repeated, and still is in
all publications about Norton ever since ("The
F1 Sports was built with cheaper parts"
etc), this was, in fact, never done, the only
bikes using these FZR1000-sourced "cheap"
components being the non-functional F2 prototypes.
During the 1990's, Kenny Dreer
of Oregon evolved from restoring and upgrading
Commandos to producing whole machines. He modernised
the design and in the early 2000s went into
series production, but then suspended operations
in April 2006.
In the UK a number of firms such as the remnant
of the Shenstone Norton factory, Norvil, Unity
Equipe and Norman White  (a former team
racer and mechanic) supply parts for various
generations of Norton motorcycles.
The origins of the Norton Commando
can be traced back to the late 1940s when the
497cc Norton Model 7 Twin, designed by Bert
Hopwood and initially an export only model.
The twin cylinder design evolved into the 650cc
Norton Dominator and 750cc Norton Atlas before
being launched as the 750cc Commando in 1967.
The revolutionary part of the
Commando compared to earlier Norton models was
the frame developed by former Rolls Royce engineer
Dr. Stefan Bauer. Bauer believed the classic
Norton Featherbed frame design went against
all engineering principles, so designed his
frame around a single 2.25" top tube. To
try to free the Commando from classic twin vibration
problems, which had severely increased as the
capacity of the basic design expanded from 500cc
of Edward Turner's 1938 Triumph Speed Twin.
Bauer, with Norton Villiers Chief Engineer Bernard
Hooper and assistant Bob Trigg, decided that
the engine, gearbox and swing-arm assembly were
to be bolted together and isolated from the
frame by special rubber mountings. This eliminated
the extreme vibration problems that were apparent
in other models in the range, as it effectively
separated the driver from the engine. Named
the Isolastic anti-vibration system, with Hooper
listed as the lead inventor on the system's
patent document. Although the Isolastic system
did reduce vibration, maintaining the required
free play in the engine mountings at the correct
level was crucial to its success. Too little
play brought the vibration back; too much, and
the result was "interesting" handling.
The police were showing a lot
of interest in the Commando and so Neale Shilton
was recruited from Triumph to produce a Commando
to police specifications. The end result was
the 'Interpol' machine, which sold well to police
forces, both at home and abroad. The machine
was powered by a 750 cc. O.H.V. engine and included
panniers, top box, fairing, and had fittings
for a radio and auxiliary equipment.
Right from the beginning the Commando
took part in racing events. After successes
in 1969 by dealer entered machines like Paul
Smart's second and Mick Andrew's 4th places
in the Isle of Man TT Production class and a
win in the Hutchinson 100 Production Class by
Mick Andrew on the Gus Kuhn entered Commando
and 4th by Peter Williams' Arter Bros machine,
the company decided to produce a racing model
- hence the developed S and "Yellow Peril"
In partnership with John Player
Special cigarettes from the early 1970s, Norton
went factory racing. Early entries were based
on the Commando, and in 1973 Peter Williams
won the 1973 Formula 750 Isle of Man TT, with
Mick Grant second.
Racing continued until the collapse
of Norton Villiers into BSA Triumph in 1973,
and did not return until the Rotary Nortons
of the 1980s.
In light of its "last of
the classic British twins" tag, and the
fact that many of the trade marks were disputed
and patents expired, a number of new Norton
companies began to emerge. These were based
on production of new parts sourced from various
manufacturers, and the legal battle over the
Norton name between Germany (whose Norton was
based on the Rotax 650cc engine that powers
the smaller BMW motorcycles), Canada and North
America. Many used the Commando name for their
lead model, or included the prospect of a Commando
twin at a later date.
However, the most interesting
development for original Commando fans was the
development of re-manufactured original motorcycles.
These mainly came from Norvil in the UK and
two companies in the United States, Colorado
Norton Works and Kenny Dreer's Vintage Rebuilds
based in Portland, Oregon. From 1995 onwards
Vintage Rebuilt began restoring vintage British
and Italian motorcycles, with Dreer showing
a "new" Commando based Norton VR880
Sprint Special in 1999 with newly cast and manufactured
parts, but using a bored out 880cc twin engine
with some modern developments.
Dreer's company has since continued
production of the 880, but also got caught up
in the Norton trade mark dispute following a
dream to develop a new Commando, scheduled for
release after the $10 million for production