Page last updated at 00:58 GMT, Thursday, 30 October 2008

Can Norton make its marque again?

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

A Norton poster
Norton's success on the race track fuelled sales of its road bikes
A UK businessman has bought the iconic Norton motorcycle brand, intent on returning the company to its former glory. So, is its future as bright as its past?

It stormed to victory in the Isle of Man's first TT race, delighted generations of speed demons and carried Che Guevara through South America.

The mere mention of the name Norton brings a glint to the eye of many men of a certain age.

Of all the marques associated with the post-war "golden age" of British motorcycles, it is Norton whose appeal has endured best.

"When I started biking, Norton was king," said 63-year-old George Peddie, of the Tay Valley Norton Owners Club.

He bought his first bike in 1963 and recalls the thrill of riding between his home in Perth to the Scottish naval bases at Faslane and Prestwick where he was stationed.

For thousands like him, the magic has never diminished.

"They are superb bikes. They might be getting old but there's so many Nortons still on the road," he said.

Mr Peddie owns "only" one these days - a 1987 ex-RAF Interpol 2 - but many fanatics own several and he says the bikes' longevity is part of the attraction.

Stuart Garner
The brand is really strong still so it's up to me to make sure we don't ruin it
Stuart Garner
Owner, Norton Racing Ltd
"How many foreign-made bikes are still on the roads after 20, 30 or 40 years?"

Set up in 1898 by Birmingham-born James Lansdowne Norton, the company produced its first bike in 1902.

Five years later, a Norton won the twin cylinder class in the first TT race and the company soon built a reputation as one of the best manufacturers of road and race bikes.

It supplied more than a quarter of the British armed forces' 400,000 motorcycles during World War II and, when racing resumed, remained a sporting force for 20 years.

A Norton carried Britain's Geoff Duke to world championship success - and an OBE - in both the 350cc and 500cc classes in 1952.

"While it was winning, the man in the street wanted one," said John Morgan, of the national Norton Owners Club.

Despite lacking the power of four-cylinder Italian rivals, its superior handling allowed it to take corners so quickly that it punched above its weight for a decade.

However, by the mid-1970s, the brand was suffering like much of Britain's manufacturing industry.

Sales fell as Japanese competitors churned out superior models at lower prices and Norton's ageing production methods left it unable to compete, said Mr Morgan.

A government-backed merger with fellow fallen giants Triumph failed to revive its fortunes and by 1976 it had all but disappeared.

Still from The Motorcycle Diaries
A Norton 500 featured in the film The Motorcycle Diaries, about Che Guevara
It spluttered on in various guises but finally went into liquidation in 1992 after Sir John Harvey Jones declared it a lost cause on his BBC Troubleshooter programme.

Despite this, the marque retained its romance.

Mr Morgan said: "During the 1990s, the classic bike movement grew apace.

"Baby boomers who, as teenagers, could never afford to buy a bike suddenly found they had the kids off their hands, money to spare and could indulge in the fantasies of their youth."

The UK owners club has more than 4,000 members and there are similar branches across Europe, in the US, South America and Japan.

That is the market that Stuart Garner, 39, hopes to tap into.

The Derbyshire-based entrepreneur invested millions of pounds into buying the brand from the US owners who took control 15 years ago.

With that comes the design for a retro sports version of the popular 1960s and 70s Commando model that the Americans had spent $9million developing.

"We have an instant customer base and the brand is really strong still so it's up to me to make sure we don't ruin it," said Mr Garner.

While full of admiration for the resurgent Triumph, relaunched by property magnate John Bloor in 1995 and planning to increase production to 100,000 bikes per year, he will not copy its model.

"I don't want to take Norton mass-production. It's got to be a niche product," said Mr Garner.

Norton will move into a 15,000-square foot factory alongside the paddock at Donnington Park, where it will develop the NRV588 racer in time for next season.

Norton Commando
Norton hopes to reignite interest in the brand with its retro Commando model
Mr Garner hopes to be selling Commandos by next summer, followed by a road-going version of the NRV588, and create 100 jobs in the process.

According to Motor Cycle News' Andy Downes, the test of Norton's comeback will be its quality.

"A new Norton has to encapsulate its British heritage without seeming too old. It'll be a fine balancing act.

"They need the product to be top class because no-one will spend a lot of money on them if they're not.

"But they have a good engineering team behind them and it's still one of the best-loved brands in existence."

Mr Peddie, however, remains sceptical.

"I would love to see Norton back in business but it's been tried several times and never reappeared."

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