Norton. A name that always stirred the soul, but more recently has stirred anger and bitterness.
Ironically, a very British motorcycling name may now rise again from the ashes of financial scandal thanks to Indian money and a German doctor.
The glory days of the company began with its first TT win in 1907, after which Norton went on to win the Senior TT 10 times between the First and Second World Wars, including seven out of nine between 1931 and 1939, and between 1930 and 1937, won 78 out of 92 Grand Prix races.
That continued into the Fifties, with Geoff Duke winning a string of world championships on the legendary machines.
My Dad, who raced back then, would have given both arms to ride a Manx Norton. As it were.In 1989 and 1994, Nortons were still winning the BSB Championships, and in 1992, Steve Hislop’s Senior TT win was the first for a British bike for almost 30 years.
After that, the company passed into US ownership, then in 2008, UK businessman Stuart Garner bought the rights and relaunched Norton in its Midlands home at Donington Park to develop the 961cc Norton Commando and a new range of motorcycles.
Sadly, the phoenix turned out to be dead duck. In January 2020, the company went into administration, and Garner is now facing jail after allegations of fraud, stripping owners’ bikes in for a service to fit them to new models in order to meet waiting lists of years.
In April 2020, Norton was bought for £16million by giant Indian company TVS, the world’s sixth biggest motorbike manufacturer, which makes three million motorcycles, scooters and three-wheelers a year and has an annual profit of £2 billion.
In May that year, TVS appointed Dr Robert Hentschel as CEO and Vittorio Urciuoli as Chief Technical Officer and said production would move to a new, state-of-the-art 75,000 sq ft factory in Solihull.
Dr Hentschel was previously MD of Valmet Automotive Holding, the Finnish engineering company whose clients include Mercedes, Porsche, Ford and Saab.
He said the role was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity… to help restore this iconic and much-loved marque to its rightful place on the global stage”.
He’s certainly got the money behind him – a former Triumph employee I met on my way in said he was one of scores tempted from Hinckley by offers too good to refuse.
However, TVS faced an early problem soon after buying Norton when it discovered up to 35 potentially dangerous faults on the £44,000 V4 SS superbikes produced in the previous year.
TVS recalled all 50 bikes sold, and originally said owners could claim for the cost of repairs via the liquidators of the previous Norton.
Owners were understandably very unhappy with this, and in October this year, Norton said owners could have the bikes back and a new V4SV for £10,000.
Designed and tested over the past 12 months, the V4SV has a new 1200cc 185bhp V4 engine and Öhlins suspension.
The price will be about the same as the V4 SS, and the initial production run will be 200 machines, with priority given to the 50 V4 SS owners and 70 who’ve paid deposits for the new machine.
Other bikes in the pipeline include the cheaper Commando 961, Atlas and Superlight 650 twin. Initital total production will be 1,000 bikes a year, potentially rising to 8,000.
The factory is hugely impressive – cleaner than Marie Kondo’s kitchen, with state-of-the-art tech everywhere operated by 142 enthusiastic and professional staff, 55 of them from old Norton.
The chances of a faulty part slipping through here are about the same as Greta Thunberg sitting down to a nice juicy steak on her private jet, I thought as I sat down on a giant leather sofa with some questions for Dr Hentschel.
Norton is a great name which has been tarnished by recent history. How difficult will it be to make it shine again?
We have some image problems from old Norton, but this factory and the huge enthusiasm from staff and customers for the quality of new Norton makes me very excited about making Norton big and successful again.
Some buyers who paid £44,000 for the V4 SS are unhappy with now having to pay another £10,000 for a V4SV. What would you say to them?
That was my decision, even though we had no legal obligation to do so. I just thought that to do nothing would be wrong. Buyers of the V4 SS may also get their money back through the liquidators of old Norton, but there are so many defects on that bike that the price of fixing it would be higher than the price of the bike. I am not liable for old Norton products – and don’t want to be.
We have plans for the next 10 years. As well as the current type of bikes, I already had a product in my mind, described it to the designer and he produced exactly what I had in mind.
Future products will include petrol bikes, electric bikes and bikes to attract younger costumers, but all new Norton bikes will be modern and luxurious.
Any racing plans?
If you ask me do I want to go racing and win the Isle of Man TT, the answer is yes. It’s part of Norton DNA, but racing costs money, so we will decide on that when the business plan supports it.
How do you see the future of motorcycling in general?
I’m getting less excited about new cars and more about new motorcycles. The emotion is much higher, so the future is very exciting.
And finally, do you ride a motorbike, and if so, what?
Absolutely. I bought a gold Norton Commando 961 in 2016 and still have it. It’s on its way from Germany for the maintenance guys here to check it out – and I’ve asked them to treat me as a normal customer.
Yes, I thought that would get your attention.
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