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The Early Years



A 1928 Model 18 Norton.

Cathy Barton

In the late 20th century, apprenticeships were the accepted route to skilled employment for most of a country’s youth, in particular in the UK. This system of training tomorrow’s production workers was successfully followed until the early 1980s.

For talented individuals, the apprenticeship was a solid grounding in engineering principles and, if the apprentice was fortunate, included time spent in a number of a company’s different departments—machine shop, fabrication, and welding, for instance.

And so it was for Norton® founder James Lansdowne Norton.

The Beginning

Born in Birmingham, England, in 1869, James Lansdowne Norton came from a religious, middle class family. As a child he was fascinated by anything mechanical, no doubt inspired by his father’s cabinet making business. Not only did the young Norton find mechanical things interesting, he also had the ability to produce them--at the tender age of 12, he produced a working model of a steam engine.

After school, he went on to complete an apprenticeship as a toolmaker (a broad term often relating to machine shop functions of mills, lathes and drills). In Norton’s case, he was apprenticed to a toolmaker involved with the manufacturing of bicycle chains; it was the start of his involvement with the two wheeled industry.

Unfortunately for Norton, he was afflicted with poor health for most of his life. One particular bout occurred when he was just 19 years old. The illness was diagnosed as severe rheumatic fever. To aid his convalescence, his doctors advised him to take a trip New York and back on one of the new Trans Atlantic liners. Although he recovered, ill health continued to affect him to the extent that he prematurely aged; this premature aging led to his nickname: Pa (as in Grandpa).

The Norton Company

The Norton Manufacturing Company was established by James Norton in 1898 in Bromsgrove Street, Birmingham. Like many future motorcycle manufacturers, Norton started production of firstly cycle parts, and then followed that by producing complete bicycles.

Although bicycles were very popular at the turn of the 20th century, motorcycles were seen as the future. Norton’s first foray into motorcycle production began in 1902 with the supply of frames to his friend Charles Riley Garrard. Garrard had a deal to import into the UK (from France) some Clement engines for use in cycles. These machines were marketed as the Clement-Garrard motorcycle.

First Norton Motorcycle—the Energette

1902 also saw the first Norton motorcycle offered to the public. The Energette (French for energetic). The company claimed it was the “ideal doctor’s bike.” Not only did the company claim it was ideal for doctors, but also suitable for touring, racing and business use!

In reality, the Energette was a motorized bicycle, or moped. Its engine was similar to the one used in the Clement-Garrard, being a 143-cc (55-mm bore, 60-mm stroke) 4-stroke single with an automatic inlet valve and mechanical exhaust valve configuration. Weighing just 70 lbs., the machine was claimed by Norton to be capable of 20 mph (the legal limit at the time was 12 mph).

First TT Win

Before making their own engines, Norton also used larger capacity engines from Moto Rêve (a V-twin engine made in Switzerland) and Peugeot engines from France. It was with one of the latter manufactured engines that Norton won their first TT when Rem Fowler won the twin cylinder class of the first TT in 1907 with the 5hp Peugeot. (The machine was prepared by Pa Norton himself during the TT).

Norton’s first engine was produced in 1909. The Model 1 Norton (using both a Norton frame and engine) was a 633-cc single cylinder side valve engine, commonly known as the big four. This nickname relates to the horsepower class the engine was calibrated to be—4 hp. However, using current horsepower calculations, the engine actually produced around 14 hp. The big four was a popular motorcycle for sidecar use with its low rpm torque characteristics. The same engine was produced up until 1954.

The big four, and all Norton machines in the early days, did not use the now familiar Norton ‘Curly N’ insignia. The design of this emblem was a joint effort by James Norton and his daughter, Ethel in 1913.

Financial Troubles

While Norton motorcycles were becoming popular amongst the ever growing motorcycle buying public, the Norton company experienced one of its many financial problems in 1913, when the company went into liquidation. The liquidated company was purchased by Bob Stanley (an automotive accessory manufacturing company owner).

Although James Norton had relinquished ownership of his namesake company, he remained involved with the Norton brand, in particular the racing division. He was also actively involved with marketing and promoting the Norton motorcycles, including a round trip of all South Africa’s major cities (some 3000 miles) during the winter of 1921-1922.

For the South African trip, Norton used one of the company’s big four’s, coupled to a De Luxe sidecar. Although the trip was taken during a particularly heavy rain season, it was a major success and gained the company considerable publicity.

Ill health struck Norton again in 1924 (he was forced the watch the TT of that year from a chair, not having the strength to stand for the entire race). 1924 was also noteworthy for a chain driven OHC design which the company patented and called ‘desmodromique’.

Having been diagnosed with terminal bowl cancer in 1922, James Lansdowne Norton died in 1925 at the age of 56. He was buried at Lodge Hill Cemetery in Selly Oak, Birmingham, England.

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