Legendary brand is back - almost
Stuart Garner’s new Norton 961 Commando SE will pick up where Kenny Dreer left off with his failed 952/961 (952 shown).
It’s only been a few years since Kenny Dreer’s dream of relaunching Norton fell to earth. Despite attracting huge interest and praise, the move from prototype to production took more resources than Dreer and company could muster, and the venture folded before any production bikes were built.
But now, less than three years later, the Norton name is back in the U.K., this time under the sole ownership of a British businessman with passion for Norton motorcycles, Stuart Garner.
The new face of Norton
Garner secured the Dreer prototypes and rights to the Norton name in October 2008, and since then he’s been busily tying up lose ends in other countries, making sure he’ll have total ownership of all aspects of a brand that had been gradually split up over the past three decades.
Various projects surfaced over the intervening years, but with the exception of Dreer’s attempt, they were little more than high profile PR stunts, rather than earnest rebirths of a once proud racing brand.
This time, it’s serious. Garner has purchased two factories in Donington Park, one of the most historic racing circuits in the U.K. and current home to the MotoGP. He’s moved into one, while the second, a 15,000-square-foot facility, is being prepared.
A local man, Garner was born and bred within earshot of howling race engines circulating Donington. A successful entrepreneur, his extensive and diverse business interests have left him “comfortable,” but still interested in a challenge, and with a healthy interest in turning things around. Including, it seems, motorcycle brands.
Talking with Garner it quickly becomes clear this is not a business enterprise designed to be sold off to the highest bidder at some later stage; he intends to be part of it for a very long time.
“I still have to remind myself each morning how lucky I am to be given the chance to own Norton,” Garner says. “I really look forward to going to work each day, and I have structured some of my other companies to allow me to concentrate on getting Norton back into production. By the end of this year our first customer will have taken delivery of their bike, which is after I have the first one to ride to work each day!”
Garner speaks with passion and sincerity, and while he clearly has a comprehensive business plan that he is willing to share parts of — on and off the record — he is moving slowly, getting things right.
“I am very aware that over the past few years there have been lots of public promises about new Norton machines that have come to nothing,” Garner says. “As a result, I also realize people may well be skeptical about my taking over and the future of the company. I cannot answer for the past, but I am not going to be rash and fall into the same trap as those in the past have done.
“I was in the U.S. within 24 hours [of learning Norton Motorcycles was for sale] and, three days later, had signed the first lot of paperwork to buy it,” Garner continues. “At the time, I did not know exactly what I was getting into, but I had a feeling it was the right thing to do. Some advised me that I could not do the deal, but I proved them wrong and here we are,” he says with a huge grin.
Below Garner’s office in the building that will become the production plant are some of the prototypes developed by Dreer and his team. “People are expecting me to have the bikes ready now, but a prototype is just that — getting the tooling right and making sure the bike can be assembled on a production line are two different things. Everything must fit, there is no time to fettle things and we are currently getting the bike ‘productionized.’”
Along with these, one of the new rotary-powered NRV racing machines built by Brian Crighton and his team next door in the Spondon factory sits looking ready to go. At the time Dreer’s company folded, British frame builder Spondon (now owned by Garner), was licensing the Norton name back from the U.S. for a new rotary-powered race bike, the NRV588. The rotary was being developed by Crighton, the man responsible for the Norton rotary racers of 20 years ago; its revival is part of the rebirth of Norton.
Garner is intent on having as many components as possible made and produced in the U.K. “We may have to use some overseas suppliers, but these will be kept to a minimum, and only when a U.K. source cannot be found,” he says. “First up will be the 961 Commando, because that is a fabulous looking bike and reminds everyone of our heritage. At the same time we will sell race NRVs before moving on with a range of four machines based on an engine platform we have already established.” A limited run of road-ready NRVs is also planned, starting in 2010.
Garner says the first 200 961 Commando SEs will begin rolling out of the factory in August. Not surprisingly, they won’t be cheap; expect to pay roughly $26,000 at current exchange rates. Garner says 7,000 people have expressed interest in buying a 961 — he’ll offer the first bikes to them.
While Garner appreciates what John Bloor has done with Triumph, he has no intention of following his model. Garner is going to do things his way, and why not? It’s his money. Of course, not everyone is going to agree with his methods. For example, he tells us, there will be no U.K. dealerships. “We will handle sales at the factory and deal direct with the customer. The bikes can be serviced here and we will be able to offer them some track time and other incentives to make them realize they are buying a premium product and consequently can expect a level of service above and beyond the normal. I want to inject some fun and pleasure into ownership and make it special,” Garner says. “As far as possible I want to have an ‘open-door’ policy with customers, which is why I am working closely with the existing owners club. That is also one of the main reasons we are going racing to have some fun and generate some excitement.”
The original plans were to race the new Norton NRV588 at the Isle of Man TT this year, with Michael Dunlop, son of previous works rider Robert Dunlop and nephew of TT legend Joey Dunlop, at the controls. Unfortunately, rain and a cancelled practice run kept the team from qualifying for the May race.
Garner will be looking to appoint an importer in key markets like the U.S. and Australasia as well as Europe. Likewise, he has licensed various companies in the branded clothing market, where the use of the name had gotten out of hand. “Quality products have been licensed and other companies have been told to quit if they are producing products that are not in keeping with the brand,” Garner says.
Merchandising is one of three strands to his business plan, racing and road bikes being the others, but for now it is on the back-burner, hence his licensing of existing firms. “The bikes must come first to show we are serious and re-establish ourselves. I am aware of how well Harley does out of the merchandising of their brand and the income stream it gives,” he continues. “However, if we do well at racing and create a demand for the bikes, it will naturally follow.”
It is clear that despite his intention to have fun, Garner is very serious about bringing Norton back as a motorcycle brand to be taken seriously. “I would be happy to be on a par with Morgan cars, full order books and a waiting list of customers who are happy to wait for a quality product,” Garner says.
That product though will be a modern motorcycle. The 961 Commando SE is a link with the past that will eventually drop away when a new model appears. One link that Garner does want to keep, however, is with the descendants of Norton founder James “Pa” Norton, who have already visited and given him their seal of approval.
There are going to be plenty of doubters watching Garner’s progress with a certain dark interest, but I think they could be disappointed. Stuart Garner has already succeeded in other very diverse fields, and I have no doubt he will bring Norton back for good. MC