Proud of much race success Noon then faded to respond to foregn rivals

Norton’s rich history of racing success ensured it remained Britain’s grandest motorcycling marque long after it had ceased producing machines that merited such respect.

Racing milestones don’t come much bigger than victory in the inaugural Isle of Man TT races. Just five years after James Lansdowne Norton built his first motorcycle, Norton’s success with Rem Fowler (above) in the twin-cylinder class at the 1907 TT (albeit using a Peugeot engine) established it as a force to be reckoned with in the early 20th-century performance race.

Yet it was only after ‘Pa’ Norton died in 1925 that the company produced its first truly great bike, which would become the Manx Norton. The overhead camshaft 500cc single appeared in 1927 and enjoyed success in 1930s European GP events. But by the end of the decade the Italians and Germans were forging ahead, and Norton’s supremacy was only saved by the outbreak of war.

BMW had won the 193911 using a supercharged boxer twin, but supercharging was banned after WWII so Norton kept winning races until the four-cylinder MVs and Gileras overpowered the Manx in the ’50s. Norton’s race department squeezed every last mph from the single. Most of its engineering time was spent on the race bikes, so no wonder the road bikes were underwhelming.

Remarkably, Norton didn’t take the hint from the Italians and build its own multi. It continued manufacturing the Manx until 1962. The bike won its last Grand Prix in 1969, 42 years after the original ohc 500 appeared.

In the late ’60s Norton tried again with its air-cooled Commando 750 twin. The bike had some success but failed to stem the advancing two-stroke hordes, despite the genius input of racer/designer Peter Williams.

That seemed to be that, until an unlikely return with a wild, rotary-powered racer that won the 1989 British Fl title and the ’92 Senior TT. Norton owner Stuart Garner is keen on the rotary, but bike racing’s governing body isn’t kind to the engine in its technical rules.