Norton's rotary revival

Norton is back, and not for the first time. The grand old name of motorcycling – grander than Triumph, older than Harley – has been bought and sold, traded and raided by corporate thugs and asset strippers so many times over the past few decades that it’s a wonder the marque has survived with its dignity intact.

In friendly American hands for the past 15 years after previous owner Philip Le Roux and his cronies were convicted of fraud in 1991, Norton is back on British soil and primed for a renaissance. New owner Stuart Garner – who made his millions in the fireworks business – has big plans: a road bike inspired by the marque’s iconic Commando twin and a return of the company’s wild rotary race bike.

If your cynical ears think they’ve heard that kind of optimistic talk before, unlikely comebacks by ancient automotive marques do happen. Triumph came back from the dead in the 1990s – undoubtedly the motorcycle industry’s greatest Lazarus moment. The famous Midlands brand had ceased to exist for some years when property magnate John Bloor bought the name in 1983. Triumph now manufactures bikes that can beat the Japanese at their own game: last year its Hinckley-built Daytona 675 won the British Supersport championship, the UK’s number two race series.

The only comeback more unlikely was Norton’s own when its 588 rotary won the British F1 crown in 1989, many years after the British motorcycle’s obituary had been written. The 588 seemed to come out of nowhere. While Triumph’s revival was meticulously planned and financed, Norton’s race track return was wrought in the caretaker’s house at the rundown Lichfield factory where workers struggled to produce a few hundred police bikes each year. Norton boffin Brian Crighton had taken an engine out of a scrap police bike and started tuning it in his spare time.

“I told Norton this engine could go well in racing but they thought I was mad,” recalls Crighton. “I couldn’t get anyone interested until it did 170mph at MIRA [the UK automotive industry’s test track]. It all went from there, they kicked the caretaker out of his house and let me have that as the race shop.” Le Roux had seen his chance to rebrand this old-money marque for the 1980s as ‘the Porsche of the motorcycling world’.

The rotary was ridiculously quick, so much so that British fans thronged to UK circuits to witness something they thought they’d never see again: a British motorcycle thrashing its Japanese rivals. The 588 (backed by JPS and wearing the black and gold colours made famous by Lotus) won three premier UK titles and an Isle of Man TT.

“The Norton was mental fast,” remembers Yamaha rider Rob McElnea, who battled mostly in vain against Norton riders like Ron Haslam. “You’d be squeezing behind the windscreen and Ron would come rocketing past, hanging on for grim death, laughing like mad. But you put up with it because it dragged in the crowds. British racing was on its arse, then the Norton came along and got everybody into it again.”

But the rotary is unlikely to be welcomed back into British racing any time soon. Felix Wankel’s oddball engine has always caused controversy in motor sport, with no one quite sure how to measure the triangulated rotor design against the reciprocating-piston engine. Mazda has had similar problems in car racing. During the 1980s the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (bike sport’s FIA) decreed that the 588 should be rated at twice Norton’s claimed 588cc capacity, then they relaxed the ratio to 1.7:1, so the bike could squeeze into 1000cc races. But it isn’t that simple anymore. Currently all British championship racing is production-based, so Norton’s hand-built NRV588 isn’t legal for the British Superbike series.

In fact Garner has grander plans – he wants to take Norton Grand Prix racing for the first time in half a century. Garner is currently talking to the people behind the new 600cc MotoGP feeder series which replaces the 250 World Championship in 2011. But he may well find he isn’t welcome there either. The technical regulations for this new ‘GP2’ championship aren’t being written to embrace radical engine technologies, they are being written to keep things cheap and simple. The draft text contains a curious oxymoron: prototype engines will be eligible but a claiming rule will allow competitors to buy the engine of any rival for just 20,000 euros. The rule makers are being disingenuous – they want the class to use street-derived 600 engines as its budget power source.

Even if the rotary was allowed into GP2 and could survive within the claiming rule, the rule makers say they would rate the engine at 2:1, based on the number of power strokes per crankshaft revolution. Thus the NRV588 would be an 1176, so Norton would have to build a 300. Crighton isn’t happy about that. “Why should the rotary be penalised just because it’s a good engine?” he asks. “It’s not fair asking us to use a half size engine, you can’t do the impossible.

So where will Norton be allowed to go racing? On the Isle of Man, of course, where James Lansdowne Norton first made his company’s name by winning a TT during the inaugural Tourist Trophy in 1907. The Isle of Man is a bastion of traditionalism and the TT promoters (the Manx tourist board) certainly won’t be concocting any new-fangled rules that might keep Norton off the TT circuit, a 37-mile public road course that includes more than 250 corners. Garner has already signed Belfast road racer Michael Dunlop (son of Robert and nephew of racing legend Joey, who both died racing the streets) to ride the NRV588 in the 2009 Senior TT .

Norton at the TT is a perfect anachronistic fit that will pack several thousand extra fans onto the Liverpool ferry next June. And if the rotary can win again – almost two decades after the late, great Steve Hislop wrestled a 588 to an unforgettable 1992 Senior victory – then the rest of the racing world should make the effort to reconsider the rotary’s pariah status. Now is the time to invest in different engine technologies, not shut them down.