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Classic Vintage Motorcycles: Norton

Vintage Norton Commandos

Norton History

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The Norton Manufacturing Company was founded by 29-year-old James Lansdowne Norton (1869–1925) of Birmingham, England in 1898, starting out as a manufacturer of bicycle parts and fully assembled bicycles that were built at the Bradford Street facility in Birmingham, West Midlands.

Norton embarked on their journey into motorcycle history in 1902, building their first production Norton motorcycles known as the "Engerette," which used a single-cylinder 143cc Clement engine made in Belgium, or a larger Moto Rve V-twin engine made in Switzerland.

1923 Norton 16H Sport 500
500cc 1923 Norton 16H Sport

Early Nortons were tested extensively for reliability, and with the success of the Peugeot-powered Norton V-twins at the Isle of Man TT, Norton adopted the moniker of "the unapproachable Norton" in 1907.

1926 Norton Racer
1926 Norton Racer

After two moves to Floodgate Street, and then to Sampson Road North, Norton was forced into liquidation in 1913, being purchased by Bob Shelley who founded the automotive accessories manufacturing company R.T. Shelley & Co. In 1916 Norton moved to Phillips Street in Aston.

The Norton Model 18

For the introduction of the 'Model 18' Norton began building their first 'overhead-valve' 490cc long-stroke engine in 1921.

1933 Norton Model 18
1933 Norton Model 18

James 'Pa' Norton passed away in April of 1925, at the age of 56, but his company would go on to become one of England's most successful motorcycle companies. Under Shelley, Norton was reformed in 1926, becoming Norton Motors Ltd.

1933 Norton International
500cc 1933 Norton International

In 1927 Norton introduced the "CS1" (CamShaft One) engine which was based on the ES2 pushrod layout, and designed by Walter Moore.

1937 Norton International Racer
350cc 1937 Norton International Racer

The Manx Norton and the 'Featherbed' Frame

The 350cc and 500cc motors used in the Manx were based on the earlier, long-stroke OHC racing engines designed by Arthur Carrol. By the 1950s, the Manx began using Norton's "Featherbed" chassis which was designed by Rex and Cromie McCandless, and used a revolutionary, pivoting "swinging arm" suspension assembly, and twin down-tube cradle frame. The "Featherbed" name was coined by TT racer Harold Daniell who, after a single test ride on the first prototype, proclaimed the ride to be like a "featherbed."

1954 Norton Manx 500
1954 Norton Manx 500

The "Manx" name allegedly began a nickname for Norton race bikes of the mid 1930s. Apparently, several bikes were being shipped to customers in the Isle of Man, and the shipping containers were marked with the stenciled, and abbreviated, letters of their final destination, "MANX." The nickname took hold, and soon after, the company adopted the name for its own.

The Norton Dominator was also introduced in 1949, using an ES2 chassis with telescopic front forks, plunger-type rear suspension, and 500cc twin-cylinder engine designed by Bert Hopwood.

1950 Norton 7 Dominator
500cc 1950 Norton 7 Dominator

By 1953 Norton was once again facing financial problems, and was sold to AMC Associated Motorcycles who also owned the AJS and Matchless brands. The 'Short Stroke' Manx was introduced in 1953, which had bore and stroke of 86 mm x 85.6 mm.

1969 Norton Mercury 650
1969 Norton Mercury 650

In 1962 the Birmingham factory was shut down and production was moved to AMC's Woolwich factory in London.

Norton Racing Heritage

Norton's storied racing heritage begins at the 1927 Isle of Man TT, with their cam-driven 4-stroke "CS1" (CamShaft One) finishing in first place. Norton rider Alec Bennett finished nearly eight minutes ahead of the second place finisher. The CS1 was designed by Walter Moore, who went to NSU in 1929.

Arthur Carrol took over engine design, and by 1931 Norton was back on top with a double win in the 350 and 500 class. Over the next decade, the team of Arthur Carrol and race chief Joe Craig racked up an unbroken series of 350/500 class wins on the Grand Prix circuit, cementing Norton's reputation in the history books.

1968 Dunstall Drainpipe Racer
1968 750cc Dunstall Drainpipe Racer

After the close of WWII, the Italians were refocusing their industrial war machine into civilian production, namely cheap two-wheeled transportation, and this soon translated into a proliferation of small-displacement bikes that were very nimble, and highly competitive with the best of the British machines. The McCandless brothers' invention of the aforementioned Featherbed frame helped put Norton back on top, despite their dated powerplants which were no match for the sophisticated Italian motors.

1975 Norton Cosworth Challenge
1975 Norton Cosworth Challenge 750cc Racer

Over the next decade, the Norton Manx continued to best the competition in Grand Prix racing, ridden to victory by such notable riders as Geoff Duke, Mike Hailwood, Derek Minter, Phil Read and John Surtees.

1970 Norton Seeley Racer
750cc 1970 Norton Seeley Racer

1974 John Player Norton
1974 John Player Norton 850

The Norton Commando

The 750 cc Commando Mk1 was introduced in 1967, and was a huge commercial success for Norton, winning Britain's Machine of the Year award over five consecutive years from 1968 to 1972. The Commando's engine design was based on previous twins such as the 650 cc Dominator and 750 cc Atlas, but with the Commando cylinder heads being canted slightly forward.

Norton decided to abandon their previous "Featherbed" frame design in leu of a new, "Isolastic" anti-vibration frame that was designed by Dr. Stefan Bauer who previously worked as an engineer for Rolls Royce, along with Chief Engineer Bernard Hooper and Bob Trigg. The Isolastic design was an attempt to isolate the vibration that was generated by the Commando's larger-displacement engine, using rubber engine mountings. The Isolastic frames were built in Manchester, while the engines were built at a facility in Wolverhampton.

1968 Commando 750 Fastback
1968 Commando 750 Fastback

With this new frame design, the Commando's engine, gearbox and swing-arm assembly were built as a single unit that was completely isolated from the main frame tubing which consited of a single 2.25 inch (57mm) top tube. Harley-Davidson would eventually use a similar approach on their larger touring models. Final assembly took place in the factory at Burrage Grove, Plumstead.

1972 Norton Commando Special
750cc 1972 Commando Special

The first bikes began to roll off of the assembly line in 1968, but the new frame design had bending issues and was redesigned in 1969 as the "Fastback" and "S Type" racer. That year, final assembly was relocated to an aircraft hangar at Thruxton Airfield in Andover.

In 1970, the Commando Mk2s were introduced, including the Roadster, Fastback Mk2, and Street Scrambler. For 1971, there was the addition of the Hi Rider and Fastback 'Long Range' tourer.

Norton Commando MK3 Ala Verda Racer
850cc Commando MK3 'Ala Verda' Racer

The next significant turning point for the Commando lineup came in 1972, with the introduction of the Mk4's "Combat" engine which was used on the Fastback, Interstate, and Roadster models. The Combat's higher 10:1 compression ratio, and higher, 65bhp power output caused sever reliability issues, which proved to be a publicity nightmare for Norton.

The MkV was to be the last 750cc Combat powered Norton, and in 1973, the company introduced the first 850 cc Commando with beefed-up crank bearings and a lower compression ratio.

The Commando was the last twin-cylinder piston-engined motorcycle produced by the company. In a move that was clearly designed to come up with the next "new" thing to compete with the Japanese, Norton tuned to the unlikely twin-rotor "Wankel" engine, which began in their P52 and air-cooled Interpol2 police prototypes, P53 prototype, and in their ill-fated Norton "Commander" production models. The Commander used a 588 cc, water-cooled twin-rotor engine that produced 85 bhp (63 kW), but the bike was only built from 1988 to 1992.

Norton's Resurrection

The "Norton" name was reborn in 2006, with Bruce Murdock's launch of Norton Motorsports, Inc. in Gladstone, Oregon, now Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd. in Castle Donington, Derby UK. The first two motorcycles to be produced by the new company are the Commando 961, and the NRV588 Rotary Racer.

1968 Commando 961 SS
Factory 2007 Commando 961 SS

The Commando 961 is powered by a conventional 961 cc parallel-twin engine with push-rod valves, which is married to a state-of-the-art chassis using Ohlins suspension and BST Carbon Fibre wheels.

The NRV588 was designed by Brian Crighton in 1994, and is powered by a fuel injected, 588cc twin-rotor Wankel motor that produces a "projected" 170 bhp @ 11,500 rpm. Both motorcycles are being built to order as of this writing, and there website does not indicate any future dealer arrangments.

Vintage Norton Motorcycle Links

The Birmingham Motorcycle Industry

National Motorcycle Museum in Coventry

Norton Dunstall Fibreglass Replica Parts

Blackbird Vintage Norton Racing Collection

Norton Reborn - Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd.

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Books on Norton Commando Motorcycles
Books on Norton Motorcycles
Norton-The Racing Story