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Norton’s driving ambition

2011-07-29 07:27

STILL RADICAL, STILL LOVED: Norton’s Commando 750 was indeed a radical but much-loved machine. In name, the model is still in production by a company celebrating 110 years of manufacture and still going strong.

Oh boy, did I get a rocket at my local pub earlier this week; “How could I write about a motorcycle company that was ‘only’ a 100 years old when the greatest of them all has already turned 110 and still manufacturer’s a machine to this day?” asked one of the regular punters.

It was obvious from his tone of voice he was a little upset - as I suppose an indignant Norton motorcycle owner might be. “I’ve owned a Commando for close on 10 years now and it’s a damned fine bike,” he ranted on.

I dutifully promised that for this week’s column I would redress the matter, adding that I also owned a Norton some years ago: an early 1950’s Model 7 Dominator, as it happens, a sterling bike that’s still to be seen running around Pietermaritzburg in KZN.


The history of the brand suggests that James Lansdowne Norton was destined to become something of a legend before his untimely death in 1925 while at the height of his company’s success. In 1901 he started out making superb motorcycle frames, buying in the engines (usually Clement or Peugeot units from France).

Being a natural-born engineer he hankered after manufacturing the whole machine and achieved this particular milestone as early as 1902.

To be a really successful motorcycle company, even back then, one needed to win races; This he certainly did by employing the services of “larger than life” racer Rem Fowler who brought home the twin-cylinder Norton winner at the 1907 TT races on the Isle of Man.

To prevent freakish motorcycle manufacturers from entering outrageous bikes the organisers on the island set a precedent that all TT entrants would be required to achieve at least 75mpg (4.5 litres/100km in today’s terms).


In the case of the winning Norton, this was easily accomplished, along with an average speed of close to 60km/h for the 26km circuit – then all gravel roads with gates to open and close along the way!

Win on Saturday, sell loads of bikes on the Monday was the credo of ‘Pa’ Norton on account of him always looking rather old - even as a young man. And yet he didn’t just sit back on his laurels: a V-twin engine was put into production and there was even a desmodromic engine layout ready to go pre-dating Ducati by about 75 years!

Two-strokes, one of the most popular units in the early days, were designed, manufactured and discarded, finally making way for a 633cc, side-valve, single-cylinder engine that featured in the Norton catalogue for more than 50 years and was known as the Big Four.

The acknowledgedly most famous of British motorcycle addresses was in Bracebridge Street, Birmingham, in the heart of the British Midlands from where some of the greatest model names were to emanate: Dominators, Navigators, Commandos and of course racing machines of the very highest order such as Manx and International models.


Fast forward and, with a gentle push from the McCandless brothers with their revolutionary frame design called the Featherbed, that, and state-of-the-art Roadholder forks, Norton’s racing heritage and dominance was set to continue post-war well into the 1950’s and 1960’s, thanks to the likes of Geoff Duke, Les Archer and of course, Rhodesian rider Ray Amm.

At the height of British dominance in the late 1960’s (before Honda came along, sweeping all before it), the 750cc Norton Commando was king. True, the engine was a 20-year-old design, but with troublesome engine vibration finally sorted with the use of copious amounts of rubber-based engine mountings, the company once again had a winner on its hands.

Stretching it to an 850 in 1973 certainly rejuvenated the British bike industry but it was probably too little, too late; Japanese bikes were there to stay!

The Norton name continues to this day in the capable hands of CEO Stuart Garner. A multi-million operation continues to trade not in Bracebridge Street but at the famed Donington Park motor racing venue in the north of England.

The Commando name lives on - this time around called the 961.

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