Norton Motorcycle Company is a British motorcycle marque, originally from Birmingham, founded in 1898 as a manufacturer of “fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade”. 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 and eventually twin-cylinder motorcycles, and a long history of racing involvement.
Norton racing heritage
The original company was formed by James Lansdowne Norton at 320, Bradford Street, 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. 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 .
The first Norton logo was a fairly simple, art nouveau design, with the name spelled in capitals. However, a new logo appeared on the front of the catalogue for 1914, which was a joint effort by James Lansdowne Norton and his daughter Ethel. It became known as the “curly N” logo, with only the initial letter as a capital, and was used by the company thereafter, first appearing on actual motorcycles in 1915. Ethel Norton also did some testing of her father’s motorcycles. 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, specifically with the 500cc Model 18, Norton’s first overhead valve single.
Designed by Walter Moore, the Norton CS1 engine appeared in 1927, based closely on the ES2 pushrod engine and using many of its parts. After Moores departure in 1930, Arthur Carroll designed an entirely new OHC engine destined to become the basis for all later OHC and DOHC Norton singles. The Norton racing legend began in the Thirties: Of the nine Isle of Man Senior TTs (500 cc) between 1931 and 1939, Norton won seven.
Until 1934, Norton bought Sturmey-Archer gearboxes and clutches. When Sturmey discontinued 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.
War Time effort
Between 1937 and 1945 nearly a 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 Second World War, Norton reverted to civilian motorcycle production, gradually increasing its range. A major addition in 1949 was the twin cylinder Model 7, known as the Norton Dominator, 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 “lay-down” box. More shapely mudguards and tanks completed the more modern styling to Nortons’ new premium model twin.
Post war, Norton struggled to reclaim its pre-WWII racing dominance as the single-cylinder machine faced fierce competition from the multi-cylinder Italian machines and AJS from the UK. In the 1949 Grand Prix motorcycle racing season, the first year of the world championship, Norton made only fifth place and AJS won. That was before the 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. Very quickly the featherbed frame, a design that allowed the construction of a motorcycle with good mass-stiffness distribution, became a benchmark by which all other frames were judged.
Norton also experimented with engine placement, and discovered that moving the engine slightly up/down, forward/back, or even right/left, could deliver a “sweet spot” in terms of handling. Motorcycle designers still use this method to fine-tune motorcycle handling.
In 1951, the Norton Dominator was made available to 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 machines.
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 Norton would not sell separate engines.
The racing successes were transferred to the street through cafe racers, some of whom would use the featherbed 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 featherbed frame.
The Norton racing tradition continues, with the renowed Mick Grant managing the Norton Race Team, and the legendary Cameron Donald riding for Norton during their entries at the 2014 and 2015 Isle of Man Senior TT.
However 2017 was the history making year when the Norton Team (shown above) placed 6th and 7th in the Senior TT. Norton just keeps getting better, and best is yet to come.