I’ll admit I dig motorcycles and occasionally hang out in Sturgis, South Dakota with generously-tattooed bikers. Is it any wonder I turned out this way when I grew up in the hometown of Norton Motorcycles and had one parked in my front yard for most of my childhood?
Norton—known for its racing models—has a very different kind of look and feel from the Harley-Davidson, and, in my opinion, has always been quintessentially British. Norton got its beginnings as a small manufacturer in Birmingham, England, and during World War II it produced the classic side-valve military bikes. Post-war, however, Norton hit hard times and was sold to AMC and moved to Oregon, USA.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Stuart Garner bought the company and moved it back to the United Kingdom. Garner then proceeded to do some pretty drastic remodeling of the bikes. Although he embraced Norton designs, Garner realized that in order to sell the motorcycles in regions such as Europe and California, a fuel injection system was necessary to meet environmental regulations, requiring extensive changes to the original bike, which was only designed to run on carburetors.
Over the past year; Norton Motorcycles’ design team has been meticulously recreating a line of motorcycles to capture the sporty character of the Norton brand, while re-engineering the bikes to support the fuel injection systems needed for today’s environmental requirements.
The first new Norton motorcycles recently rolled off the production line, and the company’s head of design, Simon Skinner, sees that all the hard work that he and his team has put in over the past year has paid off.
Skinner was the first employee hired by the company’s new owner, Stuart Garner. Over a period of 12 months, three new motorcycles in the Commando line were designed, and they are now being manufactured and sold.
“It’s all quite exciting. The company is growing, we have a full order book, and we’ve pre-sold a few hundred bikes already. We are planning on building just 1,000 bikes this year and nearly 2,000 next year,” Skinner says.
Norton Motorcycles’ Commando line is comprised of three models—the high-end SE version (which has a limited production of 200 bikes that have already been sold), the Café Racer, a traditional-looking sporty bike with low handle bars, and the Sport, the least expensive of the three with a slightly different spec wheel suspension.
In designing the Commando line, Skinner and his team had a very good start in the work that was done by former Norton owner, Kenny Dreer. Skinner explains, “We used Dreer’s bike as a basis, so our bikes look very similar to his, but from an engineering point of view, they are completely different.”
The biggest challenge facing Norton was re-engineering the bike for a fuel injection system. That meant quite a lot of additional components on the bike, such as engine management systems, sensors, fuse boxes, and a much more comprehensive wiring harness. All of this had to be hidden away on a bike without any fairings or bodywork.
“There is not one component on the bike that we didn’t re-engineer,” Skinner says. “It took us about twelve months to do that, which is very fast.”
“We used computer numerical controls for the lathes and milling machines, we could design a metal component on a bike in CAD on a Monday morning and have it on the bike on a Tuesday afternoon,” adds Skinner. “The CAD data would go straight to the machine and out pops a part. We could put it on the bike and try it or even make 50 or 100 production parts.”
With the Commando models designed and launched, Norton is looking ahead to its next line of bikes, as well as to expanding the company. “We’re growing on a daily basis. We employ 30 people here now, and I think the staff levels will easily double by the end of the year,” Skinner says. “Our design team will also grow from six to about a dozen engineers. On the physical location side, we just doubled the production facility; and we have planning permission to double the size of our entire premises.”
In the midst of the expansion, the design team is starting to work on a whole range of new, modern motorcycles for a 2012 launch. “We’re working on number of new products,” Skinner states. The first one that Norton will launch is a rotary engine motorcycle; that will predominantly be a race bike. That will be followed by a range of ‘engine motorcycles’ or ‘piston engines,’ but water-cooled, not air-cooled like the Commando.
I for one am glad that Norton has returned to its place of birth and is sticking with its sophisticate and edgy appeal. Note the ultra-racy (no pun intended) ad Norton recently appeared in.
Yes, Norton Motorcycles is looking better than ever and bound for new heights.
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