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Norton roars back to life

Chris Hall
April 22, 2024
8 min

When it comes to ups and downs, the Norton motorcycle marque has had more than most. Founded in 1898 as a producer of cycle com­ponents by James Lansdowne Norton, it progressed to motorcycle construction within four years and, by 1907, had gone on to build the machine that won the twin-cylinder class at the very first Isle of Man TT races. By2023, it has experienced nine lives, and in a story that has revved from racing success to failed American dreams to prison time, it’s about to embark on its next, thanks to new owner TVS. For decades, Norton’s machines were coveted the world over, most notably in America and Australia, for which the brand even pro­duced special models. Further proof of endurance – the company’s record of 19 wins at the Senior TT was only matched by Honda as recently as2017.


After disbanding its race team in favour of road bikes in 1955, the rollercoaster of Norton motorcy­cles really begins. They continued making bikes like the Dominator and the Commando until, like dozens of other British makers before it, bad management, poor sales and com­petition from Japan finally forced it into liquidation in 1977. In the late ’80s, Norton enjoyed a brief resur­gence, with smooth-running rotary engines produced in Lichfield, Staffordshire, enjoying a short period of success in racing, and as police vehicles.


However, as the rights to the name swapped hands between Americans, Brits and Germans in that decade, hopes for a true 21st-century business model being created at Norton became slimmer and slimmer. This wasn’t for lack of trying. Kenny Dreer, theowner of the Norton name in the US, spent more than five years developing a new version of the still-famed and much-loved Commando model in the early 2000s –only to be forced to abandon the project when his financial backers pulled out. 

That looked like the end of the road for Norton, but by 2009, another entrepreneur appeared out of nowhere with a promise to make Norton great again. What’s more, he was planning to do so in the brand’s home of the UK, little more than half an hour away from where the firm was originally founded.

Norton manufacture. Photograph © Jooney Woodward for QP Magazine UK

Stuart Garner wasn’t always a businessman, but rather a games keeper. Too much time spent drink­ing – and riding motorcycles – saw him sacked after three years, lead­ing him to start a business selling fireworks from the back of an old British telecom van. With the help of a small investment from his civil engineer father, Garner claimed to have gradually grown the busi­ness during the course of a little more than a decade before hitting the jackpot with the arrival of the new millennium – when everyone, of course, wanted celebratory fire­works.

When I interviewed him for the Financial Times back in 2009, Garner told me that the fortune he made as a result sent his pyrotechnics busi­ness skyrocketing. In what seemed like a testament to a roving eye for opportunity, no sooner had Garner heard that Dreer’s American Norton operation was for sale than he jumped on an aeroplane to Minnesota and, within five days, had signed a deal to buy it. However, there was a dark side to Garner’s appetite for acquisition. By 2014, he was boasting of making as many as “50-100 bikes” annually from his newly established factory. Furthermore, he spoke of developing Norton as a lifestyle brand with the backing of brands like Hackett, Pepe Jeans and Bremont watches. He had even taken Norton back to the Isle of Man TT with much fanfare, press owner­ coverage, and encouragement from the marque’s fans the world over, who had high hopes for his newly developed 1200cc, V4 SG race bikes.

Norton manufacture. Photograph © Jooney Woodward for QP Magazine UK

Unfortunately, Norton’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes turned out to be too good to be true. Garner was a scammer running on borrowed time and other people’s funds. It went into administration in 2020 with the revelation that Garner had illegally invested a staggering £11m of pen­sion money into the business when he should have used no more than five per cent, with, at a conserva­tive estimate, Norton and Garner’s various business entities being in the red to the tune of more than £14million. (Last year, Garner was sentence to eight months impris­onment, suspended for two years, after pleading guilty to making ille­gal pension investments).

Miraculously, Norton is now being nursed back to good health thanks to TVS, the giant engineer­ing group which acquired the busi­ness for £16m in 2020 just weeks after it went into administration. In the intervening three years, TVS – which makes around three million bikes per year and is one of the larg­est two-wheeler manufacturers in India – has injected a further £100m into Norton and built a brand new, state-of-the art manufacturing and R&D facility in Solihull in the West Midlands.

Around 300 people are now employed at the factory, where the Commando 961 and V4-engined machines have been re-engineered from top to bottom to eradicate the myriad mechanical and quality issues that existed under Garner’s tenure. Led by automotive industry veteran Dr Robert Hentschel as CEO, Norton has positioned itself as a high-end, luxury manufacturer with an initial offering of two versions of the Commando 961 (SP at £16,499 and CR at £16,999) with the V4SV super sports bike and its V4CR being available to reserve from £44,000.

Having experienced one of the early Garner-era Commandos back in 2009 and, this year, one of the models built under TVS owner ship, the difference is staggering. The new Commando 961 not only looks vastly better in terms of fit and finish, it rides just as one would expect of a 21st century interpretation of the classic, British parallel-twin motorcycle. The bikes exude the character Norton is known for, but they go, stop and handle with confidence-inspiring aplomb.

If those prices seem on the high side, that’s because Norton is being targeted at those with purchasing power. “There are four things a luxury product has to do,” says Christian Gladwell, a former Army officer, lifelong motorcycle enthusiast and now Norton’s chief marketing officer. “One, it has to spark desire; two, it has to look so good you want to lick it; three, it has to back up those looks with function. We think the new Nortons do that, and it’s our aim to become the only true luxury brand in motorcycling. Our offering is intended for people with serious earning power who are at a stage in their lives when they want to buy a motorcycle that they may not neces­sarily want to ride every day, which they can look at and feel that they have something really special,” he says.

Norton manufacture. Photograph © Jooney Woodward for QP Magazine UK

There are, excitingly, plans to keep the 125-year-old name ahead of the curve through a major investment in electrification. “It might be an inconvenient truth, but at some point motorcycles are going to need to be electric,” says Gladwell. “But far from taking the soul out of motorcycling, the notion of what electrification can do is actually quite thrilling. Internal combustion engines and electric vehicles can live side by side,” he continues. “I liken the sit­uation to music. True, I have a col­lection of vinyl records that I might listen to twice a week using my high-end Austrian Project turntable and amplifier, but I have Spotify too.”

For the time being, fans of Norton’s history will likely be happy to enjoy their motorcycles analogue. Let’s give thanks that this great British marque appears to be well and truly back on the road.