Norton’s Moving To Donington, and Dealerships Near You
It was great to see so many beautiful bikes and British bike fans at the Clubman’s All-British Bike Show this time last month at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. Seeing so many amazing vintage bikes in one place was incredible – thank you to the BSA Owner’s Club for another fantastic year. But the show was also time for the motorcycle community to tip our hat to the restorers and owners of these treasures. Many of them have spent years laboring, investing, toiling and tinkering, steadily and without fanfare, to return these bikes to a state of glory not seen for decades. And they didn’t do it for the oohs and ahhs or the head-turns, but for the love of the bike as it once was, and to see it in proud contrast to the machines of today.
A lot of historic motorcycles have been reborn into mass production in recent years, including Triumph’s Bonneville and the Royal Enfield Bullet, and their popularity shows how much we all love the vintage styling and image conjured by bikes of yesteryear. Now it won’t be long before we start seeing brand new Norton Commandos gracing California roads. But the journey to the rebirth of Norton has been a long one. The new leadership at Norton feels a great weight of responsibility to bring its bikes back to a station on par with its legendary beginnings, and they are doing it with care and patience. Not just for the oohs and ahhs, but truly for the love of the bike.
As part of their master plan, Norton Motorcycles purchased the 45,000 square foot historic Donington Hall in March of this year, a gothic revival style house and estate situated within the Donington Park Grand Prix Race Complex in the English countryside. The move to Donington isn’t much of a leap geographically – it’s about a mile from their previous headquarters – but it is a huge step in Norton’s drive to revive the motorcycle brand in a lasting way. The estate includes 26 acres of land, and will serve as the center of Norton’s management, design, and production facilities.
But not only will the purchase of Donington enable Norton to grow, it is also a grand, symbolic move that brings together the center of British racing with an iconic British motorcycle brand. Donington Hall is steeped in history, and, like Norton, has a heritage that conjures notions of a uniquely British “permanence, strength, and quality”, as it was put by Stuart Garner, the man who brought Norton back to England. Most recently, Donington served as the headquarters for British Midland International, but the two hundred year old building has seen eras come and go in true British style.
Since beginning production on three all-new Norton Commando 961cc models in 2009, orders for bikes have far exceeded the production capabilities of Norton’s current facilities and staff. As it stands currently, Norton is hand-building between one hundred to two hundred bikes a month. Donington will enable Norton to ramp-up production as necessary. But despite the pressure to meet increasing demand, the new Norton leadership is clear about their commitment to building on the permanence and maintaining the quality of the brand. The new Nortons will never be mass-assembly jobs, and they will remain ‘built in Britain, by British hands’.
While Norton is thoroughly embracing its British roots, the contribution by American clubs and restorers to keeping the brand alive and well-loved over the years hasn’t been lost on the the new leadership. In fact, Norton’s head of North American operations, Dan Van Epps, was amazed when he discovered the extent of the organization and dedication of Norton clubs in the US. It isn’t so surprising, though, when you consider just how much Norton lovers in America had to do with bringing Norton back from the rust heap.
In the late twentieth century, Norton Motorcycle’s patents and trademarks were coming under dispute and expiring. While big manufacturers were battling out ownership issues, small rebuild shops in the United States and England were sparking a renaissance in the brand. The most significant among them was Kenny Dreer and his Vintage Rebuilds in Portland. Dreer’s rebuilds and restorations included fabricated and modern parts, and by the early 2000s he was building whole new bikes, what he called the Commando 961 SS.
Sadly in 2006, Dreer was unable to continue due to financial difficulties. But it opened the window for the torch to be passed on to English businessman and committed Nortonist, Stuart Garner. In 2008, Garner, the owner of Norton Racing Limited, secured the rights to Norton Commando. With financial commitment and backing that Dreer didn’t have, Garner has made huge strides towards bringing Norton fully back to life. And finally, even back to our own state of California.
Earlier this year Norton USA announced they are very close to having California emissions approval on their Commando 961, and dealerships are taking orders for Commando SE, Cafe, and Sport models. But even when 2013 Nortons are being sold in California dealerships, they’ll still likely be a rare and beautiful sight, (almost) just like the originals.
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