Norton are back to their best

Matt Majendie on Norton, the prospering British bike maker with plans to ride into the Gulf.

In January, 2009, the legendary Norton motorcycle company moved into its Donington Park headquarters under new ownership. Almost exactly a year on, the company is thriving amid a recession and the circuit's problems, which saw it lose its 17-year lease to host the Formula One British Grand Prix.
Norton's first run of bikes have sold out, 1,000 more are expected to go on the market and rapidly fly off the production line in 2010, and there are plans to bring the Norton name to the United Arab Emirates. British businessman Stuart Garner took over Norton in October, 2008, after 15 years in American hands, and a few months later set up the company's headquarters at Donington Park, a stone's throw away from where Norton originated in 1898.
With the UK market thriving from sales of its latest creation, the Norton Commando 961, Garner and his team are looking to tackle America, Europe and, tellingly, the UAE. "We've spoken to two different people in the Middle East about dealership and distribution for the region and both are in the UAE," he says. "It would be unfair on each of them to say who they are at this stage but the plan would be for us to focus on one and have a main hub for Norton based in the UAE.
"It's not something that can happen imminently as there is so much still to do first, but it's something we're looking at for the end of 2010 or else early 2011. It's such a key region for us and we really need to be there. "Norton is such an iconic name and people love it all over the world. And we need to be there selling Nortons - it's as simple as that - and not just our bikes, but our apparel and the Norton name in general."
Before Garner can crack the Middle East, he has to deal with the lucrative motorcycle markets of North America and Europe first. But judging by first-year sales in 2009, he is brimming with confidence that he can crack both. The batch of 200 Norton Commando 961 SEs (special editions) for last year sold out in record time and the queue is growing rapidly to buy the 2010 models, which come in three formats: the regular Sport, the Cafe Racer and the SE, and range in price from £12,000 (Dh70,500) to £16,000 (Dh94,000).
And Garner is the first to admit he is surprised by the level of success and interest in year one, but insists he was all too aware that it could dry up and that he had no plans to increase production. "The first year has been fantastic - much better than I expected," he says. "Given the time of year and the financial climate, it's been great. Hopefully when it comes to spring and summer - which is the real bike time - we will see things blossom even more.
"We've got people bidding for positions in the queue for the bike, but we're sticking with what we feel is a great plan for 1,000 bikes for 2010. It's great to have the luxury of a queue for sales. If there's a six, nine, 12-month queue, then so be it. The queue for something like a Morgan is three to five years and, hopefully, people will see that the Commando is worth waiting for. "For me, it was an initial fear that the length of queue might put people off and send them to buy bikes elsewhere, but that doesn't appear to have been the case. The other fear was the novelty value in year one of the brand coming back after so long and that wearing off.
"Sure, phase one was all about a honeymoon period for us, but we'd envisaged three different phases. Phase one is that honeymoon period, phase two is when we get up to meeting our demands this year, and phase three is keeping our place and reputation in the industry and improve our orders in the UK and overseas. We're encouraged at the moment." Reviews of the new Commando have already been positive, with most review riders praising it for its "feel-good factor".
Hollywood A-listers Keanu Reeves and Orlando Bloom are says to be big fans of the brand, while US talk show host and Motoring columnist Jay Leno has already offered to lend the brand whatever help it needs in a bid to crack the American market. Storming America is already one of Garner's major aims and something that Norton's former owners failed to do. But with a schedule to sell out all its planned 2011 models midway through this year, Garner believes his team are well on track.
Each bike is produced from start to finish by just two people and the bike takes a full day for the pair in question to put it together. At present, the Norton workforce is remarkably low - just over 20 - but Garner aims to raise that to around the 50 mark in 2010, mostly through production staff in a bid to meet the rising demand. Plans are also afoot to expand the team's headquarters, which are currently 10,000 square feet. Garner is looking to take on another unit at Donington Park in 2010.
However, despite the success story, which has seen Garner put between 80 and 100 hours of work into Norton per week, there have also been setbacks. Donington Park's failure to receive the funding to host this summer's F1 British GP was one particular blow. Garner admits he would have preferred the deal to have gone ahead but does not dwell on the negatives. "Overall, of course we wanted it here," he says, "but when we came to Donington we did so knowing there was no guarantee of getting F1 here and had it come here we would have been completely overrun by F1."
The idea of Garner taking over the lease at Donington Park has crossed his mind, but with Norton still in its relative infancy under his guidance, it is just too soon. "If it was in three or four years time, I'd probably do it, but not now," he says. Another setback and public-relations disaster for the team was last year's Isle of Man TT, where Norton's racing team returned to much fanfare with their latest offering and Michael Dunlop at the controls.
The team endured a nightmare of engine problems and barely managed 15km of racing before mechanical problems set in. "That was pretty embarrassing," says Garner. "We just didn't have the engine right for the TT. There we were with our own race truck, a couple of race bikes, a dozen members of staff with a fair bit of money and we could only manage a few miles. "Pushing our broken-down bike up the pitlane with people asking what went wrong was not exactly the highlight of the year. But thankfully, the negative publicity hasn't had an affect. Part of that is that the racing industry knows how hard it is for a new team at the Isle of Man. There was plenty of goodwill to us in year one, but we can't afford to do that again."
A new engine will be on board the bike for this year's event, which should be completed by next month, and Garner is aiming first to qualify for the race but also to finish in the top ten. Despite the aforementioned problem, it has generally been a positive first year for Garner and Norton, remarkable considering the recession that has massively hit bike and car manufacturers alike. "Starting in a global recession has been perfect as I've been able to get members of staff on board that never would have been available," he says, "and been able to get the use of equipment at far cheaper rates. All in all, it's worked far better than I could have imagined."
The next major step for Norton is a brand-new bike. Currently there are two or three options that Garner and the Norton management are mulling over with a decision expected in the next few weeks, a decision that Norton needs to get right. Building a bike from scratch is an expensive business, ranging in cost from about £2 million (Dh12 million) to as much as £7 million (Dh41 million), and Garner claims he and his firm have just two stabs at getting it right.
"There are nerves as it's something you need to get right - it's a big decision," he says. "If we get it wrong first time it won't bankrupt us, but we probably can't afford to get it wrong twice. We need to make sure we produce a bike that people expect from Norton. "There's a real kudos to having a Norton bike and it's at the relatively high end, price wise, of the market. It might not be the quickest out there but it handles beautifully and gives you a great ride even at 50 or 60mph. Norton is a bike that puts a smile on your face and we'll aim to continue doing that."