Cars, Bikes & Boats

Hitting the marque

Thanks to one man’s rescue mission, one of the most evocative marques in British motorcycling is back on the road, says Simon de Burton.

September 11 2009
Simon de Burton

Stuart Garner doesn’t hang about. When he heard last year that the American owners of Norton were about to sell it to a company intent on making nothing more exciting than branded clothing, he jumped straight on a plane to Minnesota. Five days later, he’d signed a deal to buy the name and promised himself to get one of the most evocative marques in British motorcycling back in business. This month, the first Norton Commando 961 is due to hit the road.

In exchange for what he will only describe as “millions of dollars”, 40-year-old Garner acquired worldwide rights to use the Norton name, a sheaf of engineering drawings, some tooling and a few prototype machines constructed by Oregon-based motorcycle engineer Kenny Dreer, who had spent more than five years developing a new version of the famed Commando model but abandoned the project when his financial backers pulled out.

The last of the original, British-built Norton Commandos left a decidedly rickety production line in 1977, shortly before the company went to the wall. Norton was founded as a producer of cycle components in 1898 by James Lansdowne Norton, who progressed to building motorcycles within four years and made the machine that won the twin-cylinder class at the inaugural Isle of Man TT races in 1907, ridden by the artistically named Rembrandt Fowler.

Norton subsequently established itself as the purveyor of the mightiest road and racing motorcycles on the planet (its record of 19 wins in the Senior TT was matched only this year by Honda) and for decades its machines were coveted the world over until, like dozens of other British marques before it, bad management, poor sales and competition from Japan finally saw it off.

During the 1980s, rights to the name were split between owners in Britain, Germany and America, and from 1988 to 1992 Nortons with smooth-running rotary engines produced in Lichfield, Staffordshire, enjoyed a short period of success in racing and as police machines. Since then, only Dreer had offered Norton’s legion fans much hope of a 21st-century model ever coming to fruition.

It is Garner, however, who has eventually brought the name back from the dead with the £15,995 Commando 961 SE that is based on the Dreer silhouette but built with very different components.

“Although the basics were there, we’ve had to do a great deal of work to get the bike into production,” explains Garner. “The engines have been redesigned and built in Oxfordshire by MCT, the leading builder of racing motors, and the frames are being made in Coventry. We’ve used components from places such as Sweden, Italy and Japan, but about 80 per cent of the bike comprises parts made in this country and it is being assembled in our factory at Donington Park race circuit. So it is a truly British motorcycle, just as a Norton should be.”

The decision to produce a retro-styled machine inspired by the last “true” Nortons was an obvious one to make, not least because the Commando model evoked beautifully the speed, power and machismo so redolent of the marque. But Garner insists that the 961 will be just the first of a whole range of Norton motorcycles that will cover the entire gamut of types from the classic to the cutting edge. He has been careful to acquire the rights to all of the most famous model names of old such as Atlas, Dominator, International and, most importantly of all, Manx, the one that speaks of the marque’s illustrious record in the Isle of Man TT races.

“The first 200 Commandos will be SE or special edition models, after which we plan to build standard production versions that will be a little less expensive. The Commando will probably remain in the range forever, but Norton will have to evolve during the next 10 or 20 years if it is to succeed, and that means we will need a multicylinder engine that we can use in a modern sports bike,” says Garner.

“We will, however, need to remain reasonably mainstream and not attempt to produce anything too radical or people won’t follow us. I knew we had inherited a great name but I had totally under­estimated the affection that is held for the Norton brand. There are 10,000 owners-club members around the world and classic versions of the bike are collected by all sorts of people, including Hollywood stars Orlando Bloom and Keanu Reeves. By the time we opened the order book for the Commando 961 in June, we had already received 7,000 enquiries.”

That affection for the brand was clearly seen at this year’s TT where Garner fielded a team of redesigned rotary-engined race bikes and displayed a prototype of the Commando 961. Many of the fans who crowded around the Norton stand appeared, however, to be as inquisitive about Garner as they were about the bike as he milled among the throngs, happily answering questions. Who was he, where had he come from and, at such a young age, how could he afford the millions required to buy and revive one of the greatest names in motorcycling?

The answer is that Garner is a self-made man who, in the best tradition, left school at 16 with no qualifications. His sole ambition was to become a gamekeeper and he found himself a job rearing pheasants on the estate at Foremarke Hall in Derbyshire, once the ancestral home of the Burdett family but now the preparatory school for nearby Repton. According to Garner, too much time spent drinking and riding motorcycles saw him sacked after three years, leading him to start up a business selling fireworks out of the back of an old British Telecom van. With the help of a small investment from his civil engineer father, and lots of time, Garner gradually grew the business for more than a decade, only to hit the jackpot with the arrival of the new millennium.

Fireworks International is now one of Britain’s biggest players in the pyrotechnics game and has enabled Garner to establish Klever Kids (a nursery products manufacturer), buy a 50 per cent stake in the long-established Derbyshire engineering firm Spondon and set up a 3,500-acre game reserve near Botswana, where he breeds sables for supply to both private and government-owned animal parks.

Norton Motorcycles appears to be his first passion at the moment, however, and he was keen to offer How To Spend It a chance to sample the new Commando 961 on the Donington Park race circuit – which, incidentally, has just been confirmed as the new venue for the British Formula One Grand Prix, and which may be extended so that a length of the new track actually passes through a tunnel straddled by the Norton factory.

In typical British biking tradition, it was a grey, damp day when I became only the second person outside of the Norton team to swing a leg over the new machine. It immediately struck me as being entirely worthy of carrying on the Commando line in terms of its beefy appearance, which manages to look fresh while still hinting at the past.

Thumbing the electric starter (a facility that never worked very well on 1970s Commandos) produced a pleasingly mechanical chatter and a healthy bark from the megaphone silencers. The wet track and Garner’s request to “treat it gently” meant that the outer limits of the bike’s performance were left far short of being explored, but it only took a few brisk runs up and down Donington’s Wheatcroft Straight to reveal that here is a British motorcycle that appears to combine all the quality of modern engineering with the character expected of such a machine but now sadly lacking in the successful but slightly antiseptic Triumph Bonneville that the 961 will have to compete against.

This, together with Garner’s realistic expectations for production levels, the power of Brand Norton and the constant desire among motorcyclists for “something different” should ensure the bike’s success and return one of the greatest names in British engineering to the worldwide map.

The real icing on the cake, of course, would be for Garner to take Norton back to the Isle of Man in 2010 and prevent Honda from usurping its status as holder of the most wins in the Senior TT. There are currently around 20 people employed at the tiny Norton factory compared with the thousands who work for Honda around the world, so it would be a David and Goliath tale of epic proportions – but if anyone can pull it off, Garner probably can. And that really would be a reason to get out the fireworks.