Why historic Norton will stake its future on electric motorcycle gamble

The reasons why Norton bold move to invest heavily in electric motorcycles has the potential to redefine its image as an industry-leading innovator  

Norton V4SV

For such a historic marque with a founding date stretching right back into the 19th century, Norton Motorcycles has arguably never been uttered so frequently in the press as it has in the last two or three years.

While the tale of its collapse, rescue and subsequent revival has been well documented, Norton has been pro-active in recent weeks to show it has concluded one era and started a fresh one, with its focus turned firmly towards a significantly brighter future for so-called ‘new Norton’.

As for what that future might look like, you might have noticed Norton promoting a meticulous ‘ten-year plan’, even if it declines to go into much details about it. However, while Norton bosses remain light on most specifics for now, it has been substantially more vocal about one development that sits front and centre of its vision; Electric Norton motorcycles.

It’s an enthusiasm and openness - preluded by a sprinkling of name-drops in interviews before being formalised in an official press release last month - that speaks volumes for Norton as it attempts to not only rebuild a premium image tarnished under its former management structure but also position itself as an innovative, forward-thinking ‘it’ brand.

Electric is - pardon the pun - a buzzword across the motorcycle industry, even if its mere mention still elicits many a grumble… and we’re not talking about customers either. 

Indeed, while volume manufacturers are bound by the knowledge they will eventually need to engineer a shift from the fossil fuel drinking ICE to electric power, figuring out how to pump significant resources and investment into a market reacting languidly to the notion of EV motorcycles without harming their bottom line, is causing some headaches.

However, for all of the stresses and strains that came with dragging Norton back on its wheels and functioning again, the company’s revival comes at an opportunistic time, one that allows it to stop playing catch up and instead change direction to forge ahead as something of a futureproof trailblazer. 

Old Norton meets New Norton meets Future Norton

If the concept of a vintage-flavoured Norton powered by a battery is somewhat jarring, for CEO Dr Robert Hentschel the juxtaposition of old meets new is, on the contrary, actually a huge part of the appeal.

“I like both, I have emotions for both [EV and ICE],” he told Visordown during an interview in November 2021 . “I like these classic motorcycles, they are so beautiful - they are like a mechanical watch. But I like the iWatch too. 

“You need to have passion for something and I think we can provide both products to the market. It will change over time. Right now we will have ICE and over time we will probably be 50% electric. 

“I would like to have more than bikes, I’d like the lifestyle, a community living the Norton brand. If I look back in 10 years time, I would like to have ICE models and I would like to have nice EV motorcycles. But they have to be exciting.”

While the idea of an electric Norton has - putting it kindly - raised some eyebrows judging by comments on our social media channels, take a step away from the typical criticism associated with electric motorcycles, and there is more method to the madness than you may think.

Compared with cars, electric is a much harder sell over its petrol equivalent when it comes to motorcycles.

Cars carry more passengers, emit more harmful gases and run on increasingly expensive fuel, making their frugality a far more significant consideration than for motorcycles. While now you can’t seem to move for advertisements touting the latest electric or hybrid car, it has taken decades for buyers to be convinced electric is the way forward. There is still some way to go though with electric accounting for 25% of new UK car sales in the first quarter of 2022.

For electric motorcycles, the market share is far smaller with 5% of new PTWs (powered two wheelers) electrically powered. Even then the vast majority of these were budget scooters, which couldn’t be any more the antithesis of what a Norton represents.

And yet despite this, there is an argument for electric motorcycles to find their niche more quickly when pitched at either end of a wide scale - as a budget runaround covering modest mileage or as a luxury accessory where the price reflects its lavishness and cutting-edge associations as much as the mark-up as a result of its costlier battery tech beneath.

While it would be presumptuous to brand Norton as the potential ‘Tesla of motorcycles’, the integration of electric among upper crust car manufacturers - such as Porsche, Aston Martin and now even Bentley - and the eagerness of buyers to adopt them should augur well for a company pitching among a similar demographic

What form could an electric Norton take?

Scepticism from a mainstream audience aside, going electric represents a goldmine of marketing potential for Norton. After a period of fire-fighting to extinguish its charred legacies, going electric allows Norton to tout its new message for cultivating the best of British in partners, showcase its ingenuity and shape a fresh image for the brand more effectively than the new but certainly familiar Norton V4VS ever could.

While it isn’t entirely clear whether Norton will dip a toe first by overhauling a model like the Commando with the engine swapped out for a battery, there is an opportunity here for the company to develop an entirely new model… which, as it is pained to point out, will still be ‘unmistakably Norton’ on the surface.

With its bespoke approach to construction, things don’t move quickly at Norton - literally - but there is evidently growing momentum behind launching the company into a new era so it stands to hit the market quicker than a number of its competitors.

And yet, despite its solid reasoning for plugging into the fledgling electric movement, for a company so synonymous with nostalgic evolution, the very fact that Norton is even thinking so revolutionary is an ambition so crazy, it might just work…