The annual Isle of Man TT gets underway this month. For those who don’t know it, “TT fortnight” comprises a series of motorcycle races across 37.7 miles of public road that dip, rise, curve and snake around a wind-blasted tax haven sitting in the Irish Sea, roughly equidistant from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. With the quickest riders regularly touching 190mph and averaging (note averaging) 130mph past drystone walls, street furniture, whitewashed cottages and the occasional sheep, it is widely regarded as one of the most thrilling and dangerous sporting events in the world.
The first Isle of Man TT took place in 1907, when the twin-cylinder class was won by a young toolmaker called Harry Rembrandt Fowler (“Rem” for short). He rode a Peugeot-engined Norton purchased direct from the works, winning the 10-lap race by half an hour at an average speed of 36.2mph – despite having come close to throwing in the towel after numerous stops to change spark plugs, drive belts and tyres.
The marque went on to clock-up 19 Senior TT wins (a record that stood until 2009) but disbanded its race team in 1955 and stuck to building road bikes, such as the Dominator and the Commando, until declining fortunes saw the firm enter liquidation in 1977.
It looked like the end of the line for one of the most fabled makes in motorcycling until, as reported in the pages of How To Spend It in the summer of 2009, British fireworks tycoon Stuart Garner forked out undisclosed millions to acquire worldwide rights to the Norton name from American owners whose dreams of bringing a 21st-century Commando to market had been thwarted by the country’s 2007 financial crisis.
After revising designs, Garner delivered the first £16,000 Commando 961 in 2010, having attracted interest from wealthy buyers around the world. The future looked bright for the reborn Norton and the order books filled up fast. But the sheer volume of orders caused frustrating delays for would-be buyers with some waiting for their machines two years or more, despite having paid deposits. In short, Norton was once more on shaky ground – with some suggesting that the company might even go bust.
But today the picture couldn’t be more different. So much so that Norton will field a team at this month’s Isle of Man TT – made up of top Australian riders David “Davo” Johnson and Josh Brookes – who will compete on the cutting-edge, 1200cc, V4-engined SG6 race bikes that were designed and built from the ground up at the Norton factory in Castle Donington, Leicestershire.
Last year, Johnson became the fastest-ever rider of a British motorcycle at the TT when he achieved a lap average of 131mph on a prototype SG6 – so it’s not fantastical to suggest the team could bring home the laurels 110 years after Fowler’s 1907 win. Victory at the TT would undoubtedly provide an enormous fillip to Norton, which already has an impressive global following. But even without such a win the firm is doing well, with a line-up of four regular production motorcycles comprising the Commando 961 Sport (£15,495), the Commando 961 Cafe Racer (£16,495), the Dominator (£19,950) and – most importantly – the new and fabulous £28,000 V4 RR, the road-going version of the SG6 Isle of Man contender.
A more exotic production version of the V4 RR, the V4 SS will also be made, in a limited edition of 200 – all of which were spoken for within days. The £44,000 superbike features a polished aluminium frame, full carbon-fibre bodywork and carbon-fibre wheels – and is already being tipped as a cast-iron two-wheeled investment. Each V4 SS owner will also get the option to buy one of 200 Norton chronographs (£5,495) by Bremont, the British watchmaker that is backing the marque’s assault on this year’s TT as title sponsor.
The collaboration is in line with Garner’s belief that the Norton marque can not only be returned to its position as a highly successful manufacturer of motorcycles, but also become a luxury lifestyle brand – to which end it has started a clothing line and opened boutiques in London and Barcelona where it’s possible to buy everything from a high-quality leather jacket to an actual bike.
To British motorcycle fans the world over, it’s all decidedly encouraging. But few probably appreciate just quite how committed Garner has been – and is – to making Norton a success. He tells me that it has cost him a vast amount of money as well as his marriage and, following what he calls his “Norton divorce”, he spent four years living in a single room above a garage.
But in a supreme case of going from the sublime to the ridiculous, he is now custodian of the 200-room Donington Hall – a Gothic pile that Norton bought from the International Airlines Group in 2013 – and a factory set up in the former British Midlands Airline HQ nearby.
The move marked a turning point in the fortunes of Norton, which finally went into profit in 2014. “The first year or two after the relaunch was an incredibly painful time, mainly due to supply chain problems,” Garner says. “Britain had, essentially, lost the market in motorcycle manufacture because there simply was no supply chain for wheels, seats, wiring looms or other essentials. But we got on top of that, and now 83 per cent of the parts used on the Commando are British, and every bike we sell has been handbuilt at Donington. But, while everything is fine while we’re making 1,000 bikes per year, our aim is to increase to 4,000 with the new-release models, so the supply chain will have to grow with us.
“We went through five years of real danger in bringing the marque back when we were often in a ‘life or death’ situation. But when we moved to Donington Hall in September 2013, things seemed to take off. I can’t explain why – maybe the location brought us greater credibility – but the business has grown stronger and stronger, as has confidence in it. And when confidence comes to a business, it is like the lifting of a fog.”
To further help Norton along, Garner landed a £4.29m government grant in 2015 that is gradually being used for job creation, to secure a reliable supply chain, and to run the recently established British Motorcycle Manufacturing Academy, a motorcycle engineering apprenticeship scheme that operates on the premises with 40 trainees each year.
Walking around the Donington facility as a long-standing fan of the Norton marque, I was heartened to see the new bikes being lovingly hand-assembled and to witness components being made using traditional engineering methods rather than by computer-controlled machinery – even if the building (blue nylon carpet tiles and all) is patently a converted office space rather than a purpose-built motorcycle factory.
What is perhaps most impressive is the fact that the new V4 superbike has been brought from drawing board to fruition, more or less, entirely within the confines of the premises by the firm’s head of design, Simon Skinner, and a band of skilled and committed craftsmen.
“Norton is clearly a very British marque, both in terms of history and design,” says Garner. “Oddly, the home market is our worst market – yet the ‘Britishness’ is what has given us strength in countries such as America, Australia and Japan. Hong Kong is also growing and, we hope, will give us a stepping stone to mainland China.” Surely, however, there can’t be a patriotic British motorcyclist on the planet who isn’t hoping for a Norton victory at this year’s Isle of Man TT? So what, I ask Garner, are the chances of a win?
“Naturally we have an ambition to win,” he says. “But it would be very foolish to say yes, we’ll pull it off. It’s a race that demands humility because there is so much that can go wrong, from mechanical problems to serious accidents – the only answer is to chip away at it and wait for a little bit of luck.”
I, for one, will be going along this year in the hope of witnessing the first Norton TT victory since 1992, when Steve Hislop took the laurels in the senior event on a rotary-engined machine produced during a short-lived relaunch of the marque in 1988.
We can’t, of course, expect a Norton win to match Rem Fowler’s 1907 half-hour margin. But at least the team shouldn’t have much trouble bettering his 36.2mph average speed…