Unless otherwise credited, all photographs are © David Ritchie and may not be used without my permission.
Icons and con artists. It’s disheartening to read that Norton motorcycles are gone, again. The brand that I lusted for in my youth, a lust that resulted in the ownership of two Nortons.
Once again a British motorcycle has fallen victim to corporate indifference, greed and in the latest version of the company, corruption. In the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, the Brits were under pressure from Japanese advances into the international motorcycle business. Their reaction was limp and self-serving. Essentially they ignored the charge led by Honda into their market.
The British reaction was, “No self-respecting motorcyclist would ride a small foreign bike.” How wrong they were. It was essentially a racist, superior attitude, and it resulted in their downfall.
Japanese motorcycles were oil-tight, reliable, inexpensive and very well built. British bikes had few of those traits, and yet we bought Brit bikes. Triumph, Norton, BSA, Matchless, Vincent and many more- all had a very long history. Plus they were cool. Brando rode a Triumph in The Wild Ones, Steve McQueen raced them. They were fast, light, and stylish, and sounded right, but were not without faults.
“Sir must accept that a motorcycle leaks a little motor oil and occasionally breaks down.” Well, sir didn’t accept that when offered an alternative. Soichiro Honda, a brilliant engineer and industrialist wisely led the charge into the Brit market by attacking their position of strength: road racing.
The Isle of Man TT was- and still is- hallowed ground, the place to “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” It had worked for decades. Norton had huge successes, the Norton Manx, named for the Isle where it dominated for many years, sold many Nortons on Monday.
Gradually the howl of multi-cylinder, technically superior engines replaced the growl and thump of British twins and singles on the starting grid and the podium. Champion racers Mike Hailwood and Phil Read jumped ship, signing contracts with Honda and Yamaha. Racers want to win, allegiance to a brand ends at the finish line where bonuses were earned.
The Brits, rather than spending money on R&D to compete, let the accountants run the show. If we’re selling fewer bikes, well, we’ll just make them more profitable. What became known as parts-bin bikes showed up on the market. Assembled from parts made for previous models, they were poorly built, unimaginative designs.
The one shining light was the Norton Commando, one of the most attractive British bikes ever. I owned two of them. They were powerful and had a new ‘Isolstic’ engine mount that cured the vibration problem of big, long stroke twin-cylinder engines. They looked and sounded like real motorcycles. But there were still underlying problems: oil leaks and constant maintenance was needed to keep them running. Norton was simply delaying the inevitable. Bankruptcy followed after seven years of production.
My 1972 Norton Commando after restoration.
The classic Norton engine and transmission.
Various concerns in the USA tried to revive the brand with an engine that looked like the handsome original but built with advanced technology- electronic ignition, overhead camshafts, oil seals that actually sealed, electric start and much more. The lessons of economics ended their efforts- it requires very large investments of capital to build and sell motorcycles. The new Commando had to sell for a far higher price than comparable bikes to allow for some profit. After several years, the Norton tent was folded up once again.
Several years later Stuart Garner, a Brit, decided to have a go at reviving the Norton brand. He hired talented designers and engineers to build a new Norton Commando. It was beautiful, with top-drawer suspension, frame and brakes, a leak-proof modern engine that was a clever imitation of the original. A modern cafe racer.
The motorcycle press favourably reviewed the bike, the major criticism being the cost. Unmentioned was the long waiting list to buy one, with the money demanded upfront. That should have rung alarm bells, but the cache of owning the rare and expensive beauty appealed to many with the funds to afford one.
All the while Stuart Garner was in full weasel mode. He bilked untold millions from investors, kept the deposits on bikes with no intention of building them, and went so far as talking the employees into investing their own retirement pension funds they accrued before joining the company. He burned the Chinese engineering and development firms that he had used. Norton owes hundreds of thousands in unpaid taxes and multi-millions to investors. It’s all very sordid.
Stuart Garner: the Bernie Madoff of British motorcycle manufacturing. Not a legacy to be proud of. The list of people who would like to wrap their hands around his throat must be very long.
Norton is now in Administration which is similar to Chapter 11 in the US. It will likely end in bankruptcy.
Update It has been reported that Norton has been purchased by TVS Motors, a large builder of motorcycles in India. Hopefully, they can rebuild the name and salvage the company. All employees will be offered their jobs back but unfortunately, their pensions are lost.
More information is coming out about Stuart Garner. He was an even worse cad than suspected, a conman and fraud who cared nothing about the lives he ruined. There is no short supply of people like that today.
Triumph motorcycles are the business model of how the Norton saga could have succeeded. John Bloor, the owner of Triumph Motorcycles, revived the marque from the same bankruptcy that Norton, BSA and all the other British motorcycles ended in.
Bloor invested his own fortune, gained from his previous construction industry career. He hired the best engineers and designers to build proper, reliable, successful bikes. Triumph has a large model lineup from the ultra-modern to a range of models based upon the classic Bonneville.
Triumph has survived despite a drastic fire that destroyed the factory, the recession of 2018, and extremely competitive pressure from Europe, Japan, India (most motorcycles built and sold in the world), China, Taiwan and Indonesia. Triumph is a model for anyone considering reviving marques from the past.
The first rule is to bring lots of cash, and expect to need much more. Be patient and re-invest sales income. Hire the best talent and treat them right. Pay your suppliers and your taxes. Be honest.
Online motorcycle reviews often include videos, something I can do without considering the direction they’ve taken.
Too many reviewers carry on like they’re actors in a B movie. This most recent one I’ve seen is particularly aggravating. The pompous reviewer annoys me for many reasons- the $100 haircut and the introduction with his hands waving around as he speaks, like a cop directing traffic at an eight-lane intersection. Trying so hard to be a media personality.
He carries that annoying trait into the onboard ride review. How to we know this? Because he has a camera aimed backwards from the cockpit to capture him in his top-drawer helmet, gloves and jacket, all provided by the manufacturers. Over half the video is from that camera viewpoint, and it’s pointless- he’s wearing an iridium-type visor and his face is not visible, nor his designer hair. His head bobs around like a talking head in a tv studio- up and down, side to side.
Annoying as that is, what really grates is the constant hand gestures. Even when the camera view is the motorcycle instruments and the road ahead (really the only view we need to see), he’s waving his hand around.
That nonsense peaks at the 5:25 mark when the camera captures him with both hands off the controls simultaneously. Try that on your road test and it will guarantee failure.
That particular motorcycle is a bike that would appeal to new riders. Well, new riders with the sense not to buy a bike that’s bigger than their unformed riding skills. New, young riders are easily impressionable, so if they see some twit waving his hands around while riding a motorcycle in a video, then that must be acceptable behaviour.
A plea to bike review video producers: Please show the rider’s POV, the instruments, the mirrors and the road ahead, a few rear-view shots, plus a low mounted camera facing ahead- they look good with the suspension working the road irregularities and while braking. Views of the rider’s head and torso are totally unnecessary. Either before or after the ride show detailed views of the bike and the components. Point out special features and any perceived weak points too.
But no more views of puppet-boys auditioning for B movies.
Observed On a Ride
Saw the funniest damn thing on a ride yesterday. A large-barge Harley in the oncoming lane, a full frontal of the rider in the gynaecology position, boots in stirrups splayed out ready to fend off oncoming traffic (those guys are tough), in full pirate drag.
His ‘scoot’ was sporting a “bat-wing” (barn door) handlebar-mounted fairing. The old school design is a thumb of the nose at aerodynamics- but it does provide a platform for the 8-track /AM radio combo with room for speakers.
It gets even better. Stretched above the barn door ‘fairing’ and the oncoming boots, is a reach-for-the-shy set of ape hangers with attached hairy hands, in requisite fingerless gloves. The rider’s head just visible above the ‘dash’, framed by hairy armpits, face sports the appropriate bad boy grimace under a piss-pot helmet. Perfect.
I love motorcycling.
Fall motorcycle rides are precious. The fickle weather of autumn swings on a pendulum, warm and sunny now can be quickly replaced with cold and rain, so rides are taken when an opportunity presents itself.
Yesterday I enjoyed an excellent tour with two friends. We rode along some of our twisty roads circuits and then explored back roads, gravelled, bare dirt and some potholes too.
Roads are as unpredictable as life- no guarantees and make the most of what you have. It’s a calming ride with little traffic and more opportunity to look around. The trees were garbed in their most colourful wardrobes. If they were people, it could be said that the tarts were on parade. The scented air- smoke from leaf fires, manure feeding the fields for next year’s crops, and is that a skunk or a cannabis crop? The leaves and soil have a deep, earthy pong.
The air, scenery and mood demanded a slower pace. Notice the swirl of leaves in wake of the lead rider, squirrels cutting down walnuts, some of them fall onto the road- mind you don’t ride over them, they’re like ball bearings. Squirrel revenge for their road-killed mates?
Combines harvesting beans, some giant marvels of technology working massive acreage next to a smaller farm with older equipment gleaning at a slower pace. The aqua blue waters of Lake Erie wink through trees. Alongside a woodlot, the alternating sunlight and shadows like riding through a barcode.
Another scene is directly from Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, drying corn substituting for wheat, but the crows are eternal. I’m often reminded of landscape paintings when I ride.
After the ride, big grins and happy comments. I christened it the ‘gravel road and pig shit tour’, just to keep us grounded.
I remember the sound, the smell and the feel of every bike I’ve owned. Each one is attached to a particular era from the fifty+ years I’ve been riding. The ring-ding of Yamahas’ two-stroke exhaust, with their oily exhaust scent, and the ting of cooling fins at the end of the ride. The bark of a Norton twin at full chat, the howl of four-cylinder litre bikes under urgent acceleration. The thump of a Matchless big single, the smell of oil on a hot exhaust pipe after an oil change. The metronome tick of engines cooling. The song of a gas tank at the end of a hot ride as the air pressure in the tank equalizes through the gas cap. The rush of acceleration, the satisfaction of a perfectly executed series of curves, feeling at one with the machine, as though it is an extension of the body and mind.
It’s funny how memory works. Remember your first whatever and the circumstances from that time can seem crystal clear.
I particularly remember Dick Wilson’s Shakespeare Cycle, an old-time Norton/ Bultaco bike shop near Stratford. Dimly lit, an oil-soaked wood floor in the front, parts everywhere on shelves, in cases and hanging from the ceiling, the beat, worn old counter, an ashtray filled with butts. The smell that motorcycle shops once had, a smell that only comes with age like a fine patina on old furniture.
Dick raced a short-stroke Norton on the flat track circuit. He was a legend. The many fractured ribs, a broken wrist, arm, and leg testified to his fearless, aggressive racing style.
Drop by his shop with a six-pack and Dick would entertain with amusing stories. If you needed to pee after the beer, the “washroom” was in a back corner of the workshop: a funnel attached to a hose that ran out through the wall to drain outdoors. Priceless memories.
I always meant to take my camera and photograph him in the shop. I swore that next time I would do so. Sadly, Dick was killed riding his Norton to the 1993 Paris Vintage Motorcycle Rally, hit by a car driver who ran a stop sign. The next time never came for either of us.
Dick Wilson was honoured the following year at the Woodstock flat track races. I have a laminated copy of this hanging in my garage, a garage very much like his shop: the old, wood walls richly dark with age, and a cracked floor. It smells like motorcycles. Drop by with a six-pack, listen to the ticking of your bike as the engine cools. we’ll kick tires and do some bench racing.
The washroom is outside, behind the garage.
Norton engine on my workbench. Polaroid transfer to watercolour paper.