The name 'Norton Motorcycles' is once again back in the headlines as the latest British motorcycle manufacturer to have a re-birth in the modern era. Theirs is a long history pock-marked by some fabulous and era-defining models which all came sadly to an ignominious end, along with the rest of the British motorcycle industry, in the 1970s. Names such as the Manx, Commando, and Dominator were once held up as examples of British motorcycling and engineering excellence so, here, we choose ten of the best models from Norton’s history.
10 Norton ES2 - 1927-1964
While virtually all motorcycles between the wars were powered by single-cylinder engines, the Triumph Speed Twin of 1938 changed all that, and post-war, a parallel twin was the engine to have. However, that’s not to say that single-cylinder engines were abandoned: the likes of BSA and Norton continued producing large-displacement singles well into the 1960s. The Norton ES2 was first manufactured in 1927, with a 490cc, overhead valve engine. It was produced through to 1964, always with the same engine but the frame changed from a rigid rear end to plunger rear suspension, to swing-arm suspension, to the excellent Featherbed frame in both wideline and slimline forms. Never the most exciting model, but a mainstay of Norton sales for many years.
9 Norton Manx - 1950-1962
The archetypal Grand Prix racing motorcycle was dominant up to the arrival of the multi-cylinder Italian racing motorcycles in the mid-to-late 1950s. The Manx name was first applied to a racing version of the 1936 International model, the Manx Grand Prix. Post-Second World War, the Manx racing model continued, but it was the adoption of the Featherbed frame in 1950 that produced the definitive Norton Manx model, available in either 350cc or 500cc versions. Production ended in 1962, but Norton Manx motorcycles were active in Grand Prix racing in private hands for many years after that. Countless numbers of aspiring racers, including many who rose to the top of their profession, cut their racing teeth on Manx Nortons.
8 Norton Dominator 88 - 1952-1966
Norton’s first parallel twin engine brought Norton into line with great rival Triumph and, if the various Norton models lacked the attractive lines of equivalent Triumphs, from 1952, they were certainly much better handling motorcycles, thanks to the Featherbed frame. The Dominator 88 was the first Norton road motorcycle to use the frame, and fitted with a 497cc engine, was a fine motorcycle. However, Norton was a much smaller manufacturer than Triumph or BSA and couldn’t compete on economies of scale, so its motorcycles were often much more expensive. Also, the factory sunk huge amounts of money into racing in comparison with Triumph, whose boss Edward Turner wisely refused to do the same, reasoning that racing motorcycles had nothing in common with production models which were a company’s bread and butter.
7 Norton Atlas - 1962-1968
While rivals Triumph, BSA, Ariel, and Matchless were messing around enlarging their parallel twin engines from 500cc to 650cc, Norton went one (hundred!) better with the 750cc Atlas model. In essence, this was the Dominator 500cc engine which had grown first to 600cc, then 650cc, and now to 750cc. It was the vibration of this engine that would lead to the rubber mounting solution for the later Commando models. But, despite the vibration, it was a powerful engine, producing 55 horsepower and the slimline Featherbed frame and Roadholder forks gave it excellent handling characteristics, even if Norton still couldn’t match Triumph in the looks department.
6 Norton Commando 750 - 1967-1977
Quite apart from the motorcycles, 1966 was the year when the trajectories of Norton and Triumph began to converge. Associated Motor Cycles (AMC), Norton’s parent company, went bankrupt in 1966 and was purchased by Manganese Bronze Holdings, who already owned Villiers Engineering. Later on, MBH would absorb BSA in 1973, which included Triumph Motorcycles, to form Norton Villiers Triumph. Confused? So was the public. Anyway, back to motorcycles. The chairman of Norton Villiers needed a new flagship motorcycle and thus the Commando was born, being launched in 1967. The engine could trace its roots back to the 1947, 500cc engine that was used in the Dominator and Atlas models. A new engine had been proposed and built, but it was clear that it would not be ready in time and that, coupled with the fact that the Atlas engine had been further developed and was producing more power than the new engine sealed its fate. If the engine was long in the tooth, then so was the separate gearbox. To combat vibration, the engine, gearbox, and swinging arm were rubber mounted and the cylinders of the engine were canted forward to give a new, sportier look to the model. In 750cc form, the Commando was produced in 10 variants and was later replaced by the Commando 850, which lasted until 1977, when volume production at Norton came to an end.
5 Norton Interpol - 1969-1976
For many British motorcycle manufacturers, military and police fleet business was a very important part of the production. Norton was no different from Triumph and BSA in chasing this business, and it wasn’t long before the Commando model was adapted into the Interpol police model, as a rival to the Triumph Saint model (Saint stood for Stops Anything In No Time!). The Interpol models were fitted with an Avon fairing, panniers, top box, radio, police lights, and additional auxiliary equipment. The man responsible for the Interpol was Neale Shilton, who had been responsible for the success of the Triumph Saint and who would go on, after Norton, to help BMW take over the UK police motorcycle market after Triumph and Norton had disappeared.
4 Norton Rotary Road Motorcycles - 1987
Even though Norton was finished as a volume motorcycle producer, the name continued as part of an increasingly convoluted multi-owner concern. Back in the early 1970s, BSA had experimented with a Wankel rotary-engined motorcycle design, but it was dropped as financial pressures hit the industry. For some reason, the new owners of Norton in the 1980s decided to pursue the rotary-engined route for a new range of road motorcycles. If this seems strange, then you have to remember that the Wankel engine was seen as the next logical development of the internal combustion engine at the time. The benefits - simplicity, smoothness, and good power - were outweighed, however, by the drawbacks - excessive heat, poor fuel economy, and particularly polluting emissions. Two road models were produced, albeit in small numbers: the air-cooled Classic and the later liquid-cooled Commander. They were a fantastically brave undertaking by a small concern and deserved to succeed, but the rotary engine turned out to be a blind alley and Norton died once again.
3 Norton RCW588 - 1992
Despite racing activities having played a large part in Norton’s failure the first time around, ‘new’ Norton determined that a racing program for its rotary-engined motorcycles was what was needed. A hugely misguided project, maybe, but one pursued with dedication by a small team that had to overcome all manner of problems with the rotary engine, the chief of which was fragility and overheating. The engine was mounted into a proper racing frame, with racing suspension, wheels and brakes. But the real reason for the RCW588’s inclusion on this list is its performance in the 1992 Isle of Man TT races. That year’s Senior TT race has been hailed as one of the best TT races ever. Steve Hislop on the Norton and Carl Fogarty on a Yamaha staged one of the fiercest and most unexpected races in TT history. Over two hours and 226 miles of flat-out racing, the pair were never more than 8 seconds apart. If the Norton was fragile and no one expected it to last the distance, Fogarty’s Yamaha gradually shook itself to bits as the pair chased each other furiously. At the end of the race, Hislop prevailed by just 4.4 seconds. It was the first Senior TT victory for a British motorcycle since Mike Hailwood in 1961. Norton would return to the Isle of Man but never would the island see a race like that again.
2 Norton Commando 961 - 2006-Present
After 15 years of American ownership, the Norton name was bought by British businessman Stuart Garner, along with the designs for a new Commando model, called the Commando 961 which had been developed by the last owner, Kenny Dreer. In the fashion of the Triumph Bonneville revival, the Norton 961 closely resembled the original Commando 750, with a parallel twin engine producing 80 horsepower. It was a good-looking motorcycle, with premium components and deserved to do well but, by 2020, the dream was over as Norton Motorcycles went into receivership amid accusations of financial chicanery by Garner.
1 Norton V4RR - 2017
That still wasn’t the end of the story as India’s TVS Motor Company had acquired Norton Motorcycles and was preparing to invest big in an all-new factory as well as honoring commitments to previous customers who had paid deposits but not received motorcycles. If Stuart Garner’s custodianship of the brand ended in disaster, that doesn’t mean that he hadn’t managed to produce one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever built. The V4RR was a mirror-coated beauty, powered by an Aprilia V4 engine, that sounded as if you were waiting at the gates of hell and went as fast as if you were trying to escape them! At the time and still today the only superbike designed and built in the UK, Norton even returned to the Isle of Man TT races with it.
Q: Are norton Motorcycles Still Made?
Yes, Norton Motorcycles are still in business and building motorcycles in the UK
Q: Who makes Norton Motorcycles?
Norton Motorcycles are now owned by TVS Motor Company in India but the Norton factory is in the UK
Q: What was the fastest Norton Motorcycle?
The fastest Norton motorcycle is the new V4SV, with a top speed of over 180mph