Norton like the present | How Norton's troubled past fuels its brighter future

The Norton story may be filled with plot twists, successes and treachery already but that doesn't mean its greatest tales have been written just yet...

Norton Motorcycles HQ_Solihull_©Hufton+Crow_048.jpg

One day there will be a movie about Norton Motorcycles

It has everything: Historic brand, world renowned success, murky scandals, heroes, villains… and of course some beautiful two-wheeled stars.

However, while there is already a rich back catalogue of plot twists to exploit from a legacy stretching back 123 years, there is good reason to believe the Norton tale may yet have its greatest stories still to tell.

The idea has come to me as I was considering how to open this piece heralding the official opening of Norton’s new factory and home in Solihull, which is much less a change of location but literally a glistening beacon rising from the ashen remnants of its (metaphorically) razed accounts, structure and reputation.

Indeed, Norton is a storied brand told across myriad ups and downs over its century-plus lifetime, but in February 2020, the tale appeared to have come to an unhappy end amid dire financial straits perpetuated by a brewing scandal embroiling its former CEO Stuart Garner. That was until  new owners TVS stepped in with a pen that signed on the dotted line and scribbled a thick line through ‘The End’.

This isn’t so much the start of a new chapter for the British marque, but a new volume for a new era. 

It’s fitting then that the company’s new CEO Dr Robert Hentschel refers to ‘new Norton’ as a ‘reboot’ rather than a revival.

While one might look at his role as leading along an arduous road to recovery for Norton, the former head of Lotus Engineering - another iconic British marque with a story riddled with twists and turns - instead regards it as an exciting opportunity to develop a new franchise for the marque.

“From the brand perspective, it is a unique opportunity to reboot - not relaunch, because is still here, it has not gone,” he says speaking from the edge of a couch, eager to get going on Visordown’s exclusive pre-opening tour of the firm’s shiny new home. 

“I’ve led a much bigger company with 1000 engineers, but it is not about the size of an organisation, it is about the way. This is an exciting way to bring everything together, all the ingredients for [an exciting] management task are there. You have to face the issues of yesterday, you have to build a new shell for the future, it has everything.”

A window into a transparent Norton

The new factory couldn’t be more different from its erstwhile stately home Donington Hall, where spires and grandiose Tudor architectural signatures have been replaced by clinical edges, squeaky coated flooring and a logical layout. If that reads negatively, it really shouldn’t - Donington Hall is certainly emotive, but logic is what builds motorcycles and - more pertinently - builds them properly.

Indeed, Norton as a company certainly reflected a beautiful but tired and flawed mansion. It looked impressive, played on its heritage and was alluring for a visit. But live there and you’d discover the roof leaks, the plumbing needs work and the bills keep rolling in.

What beauty its new home loses is only skin deep though. The new factory gives Norton an identity as a future-forward company by its simplicity. Large open spaces, a well-thought out floorplan, brand-new state-of-the-art machinery to complement the bespoke, hand-tailored techniques synonymous with Norton’s brand, plus a scope for growth.

Then there is the simple yet telling touch found at every workspace - a window.

A deliberate effort to cast off a reputation for quality borne from working practices that were at best desperate, at worst criminal, the ‘new’ Norton doesn’t want to tell you it has changed, it wants to show you.

“What we want to show is a new quality approach - we are open and transparent. Customers will have the opportunity to see the facility and what we have established. It is a statement of our quality approach. 

“Everything is clear and that is my approach. Everybody knows where we are, the task we need to do together.

While the legacy of Norton’s recent past is evident in the detail of the new factory, one can tell it wants its new global headquarters to primarily be a statement for where the company is going. A cocktail of Brexit, COVID and the taxing issues of inheriting a complex situation means Norton is occupied tying up the loose ends of fulfilling long awaited orders rather than laying out its model plan.

Norton is committed to completing the due diligence of helping existing customers forced to repair or write off their V4 sportsbikes after inspections revealed some to be unroadworthy, pointing out it has taken on a lot of responsibility even though it was under no obligation to do so.

It means these customers will have the chance to explore the new base and see for themselves the overhauled processes and openness that Norton hopes now go above and beyond this time.

The result is a dedicated laboratory to ensure the highest standards of build quality, inspection rooms, testing areas - including destruction testing and a rolling road - plus a personalised audit inspection that customers can be present for and interact with before taking their motorcycle home.

“I would call Norton ‘Modern Luxury’. 

“This is art, it is not just commuting, this is something that creates emotion. This is what people spend extra money on. The whole environment is based on an approach that is bespoke, it is craftsmanship. Everything here is done by hand and every part we put in the vehicles is inspected.

Why Norton's troubled past will inspire its future

For now Dr Hentschel is eschewing the erstwhile tactic of making promises that couldn’t be kept by resisting detailing the timeline by which newly developed Nortons will begin rolling off a production capable of building 8,000 motorcycles a year.

However, the conversations have been held and there is a defined plan in place for the next ten years, with the overhauled V4 SV the first step in its metamorphosis. Nevertheless, one key area Dr Hentschel is open about is Norton’s burgeoning commitment towards integrating electric motorcycles into the range. 

While the notion of EV models draws cynicism from a community sold on the fuel-powered emotion, sound and feel of a motorcycle, Dr Hentschel nonetheless sees this well-timed opportunity for Norton to stop playing catch up and instead lead in a market that, while niche right now, will grow exponentially by legislative decree.

Aligning with Norton’s efforts to reaffirm itself as an innovator in technology without trading in its vintage image, while Dr Hentschel is aware the attitudes towards electric presents a challenge, he firmly believes it can co-exist with conventional ICE-equipped Nortons and strengthen the brand on a global scale.

“I like both, I have emotions for both [EV and ICE],” he continues. “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.”

Even so, Norton’s premium, high-end image remains at the heart of any model plan but this time it wants to complement the classic 

“We want to be cutting-edge here, but it is also about the styling of the bike. It has to be integrated in an intelligent way, I don’t want too much volume. It needs to look like you want to touch it. It is a complete product approach and it is a mixture of all the elements. It is not about only one attribute, it’s a mix, that is what makes it unique.”

There is no escaping Norton’s recent checkered history and while the impact continues to be felt - and will for a little while yet - the opening of its new headquarters is arguably the biggest step yet towards a brighter future. 

In fact, if anything, Norton doesn’t want to ignore the past but instead harness it by presenting its wiped-clean slate and inviting everyone to enjoy Norton: The Sequel.

(I’m happy to come on board as an assistant producer, by the way…)