February 12, 2021

Norton Motorcycles: A Brief History

At White’s Bodyworks in West Sussex, we’ve seen a lot of classic cars and motorcycles come across our threshold and we’ve loved every one of them.

One of our favourites is the Norton, a motorcycle with a rich heritage and one that’s a favourite with classic bike enthusiasts not just here in the UK but around the world. Its iconic logo is easily recognisable and one that gets everyone purring when a bike like this rumbles onto our forecourt at White’s.

Here we take a quick look at the history of Norton motorcycles and what makes them such as great bike to own. While it recently went into administration after some troubled times, there is good news that the brand has been brought by TVS Motor Company in India. We may soon, once again, see some new Nortons with that proud logo hitting the roads around the world.

Early History

The original Norton company was founded in 1898 and was one of the earliest manufacturers of motorcycles in the world. It was only 13 years previously in 1885 that the first motorbike was invented in Germany by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

In under 10 years, the Norton company had produced a bike with a Peugeot engine that went onto win the twin-cylinder class during the very first Isle of Man TT. It was to begin a close connection with racing that the Norton brand would have throughout the 20th century.

About the same time, Norton began making its own engines in its factory in Birmingham. By 1913, however, the business was in trouble and had to be bailed out by creditors.

During and following the first war, Norton benefited from orders to provide bikes for the Ministry of Defence. It wasn’t until 1919 that they began to produce civilian models again. The bikes continued to win at events such as the Isle of Man TT and became increasingly popular during the prewar years.

During the Second World War, 25% of all military motorbikes were Nortons, chosen because of the ease of getting spares and low maintenance requirements. For many classic enthusiasts, this was the heyday of the company and one which forged it as an iconic British brand.

Post-War Nortons

After the war, civilian production continued although success in the TT began to wane with competition from more powerful Italian machines. In 1949, the Norton Dominator came onto the market and the bike began to take the shape that classic owners know today. By 1951, these were also being exported widely abroad.

Unfortunately, designing bikes for and taking part in racing so much damaged the companies profitability. Whatever the reason for its losses, Norton struggled in the early 50s and was bought out by Associated Motorcycles (AMC) and eventually the factory in Birmingham was closed and the company moved to London.

AMC put work into the development of the bike, producing an improved gearbox in the mid-50s and launching the 600 cc Dominator 99. Throughout the late-50s and the 1960s, several models came onto the market including the 650 cc Norton Manxma that was designed exclusively for the American market.

The impact of the wave of Japanese bikes that hit the market in the late 60s meant that every bike manufacturer in the UK was under pressure and Norton was no different.

AMC got into financial difficulties and was reformed as Norton-Villiers. In 1967, the company produced the Commando which far outperformed other British makes such as Triumph and BSA.

When Norton produced the combat engine in the early 70s, however, problems that frequently led to broken crankshafts took their toll on sales. By 1972, competitor BSA was also set to fold but was given financial assistance from the Government as long as it merged with Norton-Villiers.

In the 1980s, the Norton-Villiers partnership recovered their winning ways at various races but by the early 90s, the company was again struggling with millions in debt. Despite being reformed as Norton Motors in 1993, for the next few decades production was small and often erratic. The brand was purchased by businessman Stuart Garner in 2008 and moved to Castle Donington.

In 2020 the company went into administration but was bought by the TVS Motor Company in India, currently the 6th largest manufacturer in the world. They hope to put the Norton brand back on the pedestal it once occupied in the mid-20th century.

Time will tell whether we see Norton reinvigorated and new bikes coming onto the market.

White’s Bodyworks for Classic Motorbike Restoration and Repairs

There’s nothing we like more than a classic motorbike at White’s Bodyworks in West Sussex. We handle all repairs, restoration and maintenance for motorcycles of all types and vintages.

If you own a classic motorbike, we understand that you don’t want to give it over to just any garage.

The team at White’s Bodyworks has a vast amount of experience of dealing with classics and we’ve developed a strong reputation over the last couple of decades. From minor repairs and resprays to major renovations, we have all the equipment on-site you could think of and technicians who really know what they are doing.

If you are looking for a garage that can handle all the needs for your classic motorbike, whatever make it is, our team is here, ready to lend a helping hand. Contact us today to find out more.

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