Rotary-Powered Nortons: From Commander to F1

Norton’s winding road of rotary-powered motorcycles.

Norton F1 Sport Bike

The Norton F1 sport bike.

Photo by Robert Smith

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The Commander story has to be set against the boardroom machinations that plagued Norton from 1978 to 1992. Two years after his NVT Engineering Ltd. closed in 1976, the canny Dennis Poore acquired the remaining assets of the company to form Norton Motors Ltd. as a division of his Manganese-Bronze group. A separate company, Andover Norton, was set up to run the parts business for pre-1977 bikes.

By 1982, Norton Motors was supplying limited numbers of rotary-powered Interpol 2 motorcycles to British police forces, while the company also bought back Andover Norton, consolidating its parts and service business with former racer and Norton-Villiers sales manager Mike Jackson in charge.

Following Poore’s death in 1987, a group of investors headed by Philippe LeRoux acquired Norton Motors from Poore’s Manganese-Bronze group to form a new publicly traded company, Norton Group PLC.

Though he would have preferred to take Norton out of the motorcycle industry completely, LeRoux was persuaded otherwise and embarked on an ambitious plan both to develop a new range of high-end motorcycles and to take the company into the ultralight/drone aircraft engine business.

The results of these programs were the air-cooled Norton Classic, the liquid-cooled Commander, the remarkable 22-pound, 38 horsepower NR73 drone engine, the RCW588 race bike and the F1 sport bike. But by 1992 Norton was £7 million in debt (about $12,350,000 U.S.) and bankrupt again. LeRoux was investigated for financial impropriety, though no case was ever proven. LeRoux’s business plan for Norton is the subject of a Harvard Business Review case study titled To Be or Not to Be in the Motorcycle Business. MC

Read more about the Norton Commander

Norton's Rotary: 1989 Norton Commander
The Rotary Wankel Engine