In case you missed the news, the Norton Motorcycle Company has gone belly-up. Yes, again. The company is now under bank-appointed administration, with accusations of wrongdoing, hundreds of thousands of pounds of unpaid taxes, and British politicians going berko over why taxpayer funds kept propping up Norton while the financial situation deteriorated. (Did someone mention Aussie-made cars? Shame on you!) Modern-Norton owner and classic-Norton lover DAN TALBOT looks back, and forwards, from this latest chapter of the Norton motorcycle story.
IF I MAY be permitted to mangle the opening of a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, it has been the best of times and it has been worst of times — for Norton Motorcycles that is. The classic 19th century Dickens’ is widely regarded as a literary masterpiece. The Norton Commando is another classic English masterpiece, of a different type, that has lately fallen on the worst of times. As the company descends into administration, a lot of us Norton owners are bemoaning the demise of the once great motorcycle company – although it must be stated any link between the modern Norton out of Donington and famous marque of old is, at best, tenuous.
Since 1897, Norton has gone from the highs of world motorcycle racing domination to the lows of bankruptcy and take-over. Like the re-born Triumph, there’s a lot in a name but it is really just window-dressing, a romantic notion of things gone by. Adding “Bonneville” to the Triumph name had baby-boomers fell over themselves to purchase the modern, Thailand-manufactured motorcycles. Similarly, in re-establishing Norton Motorcycles, the company realised the value in the “Commando” and “Dominator” names. They did in fact start out with a re-birthed Commando.
During its brief, 10-year, life the original Norton Commando won Motorcycle News’ machine of for five successive years from 1968 to 1972. It was, by any measure, a superbike of the sixties and the only model that could be found in the Norton range in the final 10 years of the Norton-Villiers range. Since then, the brand has been bounced between Britain and the US and plagiarised around the world with enough reproduction parts to build completely brand new 1972 Commandos. Which is what some companies have been doing, https://www.norvilmotorcycle.co.uk/, and Molnar http://www.manx.co.uk/ are two examples. In the US, Matt Rambow of Colorado Norton Works and https://coloradonortonworks.com/about-us/, and Kenny Dreer have been taking old Nortons and turning out machines that are better than new. Dreer bowed out when Norton returned to the UK in 2008 with three of his 961 prototypes as part of the deal.
We don’t have enough energy to go into the various owners of Norton, corporate and/or individuals, but suffice to say that since the late 1960s the marque appears to have only ever got by on the best of British luck — but the luck has run out, a few times. With the latest collapse comes tales of despair and woe. Evidently deposits have been lost and pensioner investors have little likelihood of ever seeing their superannuation again. By comparison, I have little to complain of. My Norton is safely tucked up in my shed, destined to become a classic in its own right. Or not.
What becomes of Norton from this point on is unclear but it is unlikely they will recover sufficiently to resume building motorcycles in Britain, which makes this the end of the line for British made machines. Sure, some boutique manufactures remain but Norton, positioned between Castle Donington and Donington Park Motor-racing Circuit, was beginning to resemble something of an actual motorcycle manufacturer. They had a race team that was enjoying some success, the plant was expanding and new models were about to hit the market, but, alas, it was not to be. The new models, a 1200cc V4 and a 650cc parallel twin were modern, technologically advanced motorcycles that may well have pulled the company out of the mire but it would appear for too long they relied upon sales generated by the Commando range.
Whether my 2015 Commando will become a classic is entirely up to conjecture. It is one of only a couple of thousand units (no one seems to know exactly how many of the reincarnated Norton machines have been released since they commenced production in 2010). However, Wayne Thacker’s Norton Dominator SS, one of a limited run of 200 machines, is much more likely to become collectable. At roughly twice the cost of my standard 961 Commando, Wayne’s Dominator SS, is indeed a thing of beauty and can be enjoyed in its own right, irrespective of the value the motorcycle might realise in years to come.
My Norton is a nod to the Commando of old, a modern machine that harks back to the streets of 1970s London. The Dominator SS, not so much. Actually, not at all. The Domi is a pure aggressive sports bike, purposeful, devoid of extraneous items such as passenger seat or pegs, cripes, it hardly has a seat at all. But it is the bulbous aluminium fuel tank that is, for me, the crowning glory of the Domi. It is a piece of art that takes 40 hours to manufacture, with the price tag to match. For a crazy, wee while, whilst standing in front of a rack of polished aluminium tanks at the Norton factory in 2018 it crossed my mind how good my Commando would look with one of these tanks. A price tag of $AUD5,000 crossed it right out of my mind.
Of course, the above is all for naught if this thing can’t deliver the goods. At the end of the day the lumpy, tall twin is only good for 60 kw (or 80 hp), roughly twice that of the original Norton twin but a long way short of modern offerings. The Norton engine not only looks like an antiquated design, it really is. But therein lies the magic. What Norton have been able to do with their Dominator 961cc parallel, pushrod twin, is capture the essence of the post-war, hot-rod motorcycle and unleash it on the 21-century public. It is an out and out sports bike that delivers exactly what the rider puts into it. If you select the appropriate line, gear and revs the Norton will respond par excellence. Get it wrong, or simply take the lazy option and the bike will wallow, groan and protest.
One of the starkest features of the 961 twin is the cacophony it generates. Its big air-cooled, clattery engine borders on vintage. In this day and age of environmental compliance, it’s a wonder they ever got it through licensing. Truth be known – they couldn’t. Coming off the factory floor a 961 Norton Commando is so heavily restricted it’s virtually impossible to live with. My trials and tribulations have previously been documented on this site. Evidently Wayne didn’t suffer the same restrictions that I had, due in a large part to the two massive megaphones the Dominator displays from new. In fairness to both the environment and his eardrums, Wayne had to have his pipes modified just so he could live with the raucous bellow emitted from the pipes. I would like to report how they sounded but some unscheduled maintenance meant the bike was not running when I called on Wayne. Chris Harris, writing in Café Racer #3 described the sound thus, “This would have to be one of the most intoxicating engine noises on a modern-day motorcycle punctuated by a pair of chest-pounding, straight-through megaphone pipes”
Chris was describing his experiences on fellow journalist Cam Donald’s Domi. Cam, a journalist with Australian Motorcycle Trader magazine and former champion received a Dominator SS as part payment for his racing contract with Norton during the 2015 British series. It was an odd arrangement and speaks volumes about how Norton went about business. Upon his return to Australia, Cam brought his Norton Domi back with him. Originally Cam had decided to keep the motorcycle but an investor from Japan made an offer Cam couldn’t refuse. Cam and his wife were able to build a new kitchen with the proceeds and he closed a less than ideal chapter in his professional road-racing career. Cam later wrote in Motorcycle Trader Magazine, “My experience racing for Norton wasn’t a good one and, with that bike being part payment for my efforts, it never sat right with me” (MT, 327, 2017).
Clearly Chris was enamoured with Cam’s Domi, “With everything warm, clicking, ticking and gripping in harmony, the Dominator rewards you with agile handling, and confidence-inspiring keenness to flip-flop through fast-flowing twists. Its roadholding is solid and authoritative and doesn’t need to be muscled around, but it does like you to dance with it by moving about and riding it accordingly. Like I said, you know you’re riding it, and it’s bliss. (Café Racer #3).
Cam’s bike was #86 of 200, which reflects his Autocycle Union racing number. Wayne’s Domi is #93, but not being a fan of Marco Marquez, he has removed the number and stashed it away for safe keeping. I trust Wayne has found a particularly safe place store the number because one day it will be that number, 93 of 200, that record’s this special motorcycle’s place in the history of Norton Motorcycles.
*Special thanks to Chris Harris of Australian Motorcycle Trader Magazine for his assistance in this article.
*The Best of British Luck is an idiom used to wish someone luck, especially when they do not think they have much chance of success. Us Norton owners need that.