Mat Oxley

In 1992 Norton attempted 'the impossible': beating the Japanese factories on the Isle of Man TT with its world rotary racer

Many moons ago, Norton ruled the Isle of Man TT. The Birmingham-based manufacturer won the twin-cylinder class of the inaugural 1907 event and by the 1930s had assumed total dominance, winning 14 Junior and Senior TTs in that decade alone.

But we all know what happened to the British motorcycle industry after the war. Norton management refused to contemplate the future, so while the company’s European and Japanese rivals built multi-cylinder engines and fitted them in fully streamlined chassis, Norton struggled along with mostly naked single-cylinder machines.

The company won what seemed like its last Senior TT victory in 1961, with Mike Hailwood riding a 500cc Manx. By then the British industry was collapsing, unable to compete with foreign imports. Norton was absorbed by Associated Motor Cycles and later became Norton-Villiers. As MV Agusta, Honda, Yamaha and the rest took control, British motorcycle enthusiasts believed they had seen the last TT success by a British machine.

But Norton wasn’t dead, it was merely resting.

In the late 1980s the company was taken over by Philippe Le Roux, who was keen to push forward the factory’s rotary engine, which had been developed for use in bikes, boats and drones. Le Roux even gave engineer Brian Crighton his own race shop: the kitchen in the factory caretaker’s house. Crighton worked his magic on the kitchen table, taking the twin-rotor engine from 92 to 135 horsepower. In 1989 his creation won the British F1 title and the following year achieved its first Isle of Man TT podium. But time was running out: Le Roux was under investigation by the DTI, Norton shares plunged and the vultures were circling.

“One day we arrived to find a bailiff’s truck loading up all the mechanics’ toolboxes,” remembers team manager Barry Symmons. “Another time they wandered off with the CNC machine. It nearly drove me barmy.”

When the little Norton team travelled to the Isle of Man in 1992 the crew knew it was their last chance. “It was a pilgrimage for all of us,” says engineer Chris Mehew. “We thought we were doing something important for the British industry. We put our hearts and souls into it. The financial restraints were incredible – we had a budget for a pot of paint.”

Importantly, the team had been lucky enough to hire eight-times TT winner Steve Hislop, who had split from Yamaha just weeks before the 1992 races. Symmons now had a fast rider and a fast motorcycle; all he had to do was make the bike last six laps of the Mountain course, 226 miles.

“The engine was a pig, totally unreliable,” Symmons adds. “A conventional engine produces about 800 degrees at the exhaust gate, whereas a rotary produces about 1200 degrees. The only way we could get any reliability was with the Amal carburettors, which guzzled fuel. Essentially we were cooling the engine with fuel.”

The big problem was completing the six-lap F1 and Senior TTs with the usual two fuel stops. “It was a fine line: 22 litres for two laps, 11 litres a lap,” says Mehew. “You’d pour in a five-gallon drum of fuel and it would just lick its lips and say ‘Thank you very much’.”

Hislop finished second in the preliminary F1 race, so it was game on for the Senior, climax of race week. His main rival was Yamaha’s Carl Fogarty, who led Hislop by a second at the end of the first lap. The lead see-sawed between the pair, Hislop ahead by five seconds as they started the final circuit.

The Scot, renowned for his pinpoint accuracy around the 37 ¾-mile course, was taking bigger risks than ever. “I was riding the bike beyond its limits – I was totally out of control at 180mph,” he wrote in his autobiography Hizzy. “At that speed instinct takes over and, for the first time in my life, I started thinking that maybe victory wasn’t as important as living. But that soon passed and I got my head down.”

Fogarty was in the same mode, breaking the outright record on the sixth lap. He had started the race two minutes before Hislop, so the Norton team had an anxious wait after the Yamaha had taken the chequered flag.

“The commentator was counting down as Steve came towards the line,” says Symmons. “We were there, praying that the bike wouldn’t suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke.”

It didn’t. Hislop took the flag with 4.4 seconds to spare. “The race was unforgettable, absolutely engraved on my brain,” adds Mehew. “We knew we had that one chance because by then it was obvious Norton had no future. When Hizzy won I don’t think any of us could speak, we were so choked.”

Hislop was also aware of what he had done.

“As far as I was concerned I had achieved the impossible,” he said. “I deserved to get drunk, so I did.”

But the team had no budget for celebrations. Instead they were kept in champagne by a roadie for Meatloaf, who were playing on the island. In 1993 the bailiffs closed for the kill and the Norton race team was no more.

A privately financed outfit resurrected the rotary to win the 1994 British Superbike title. And that was that, until Stuart Garner bought the brand in 2008. Garner brought Norton back to the TT a few years later and this year has his first real shot at repeating the successes of Hailwood and Hislop with new signing John McGuinness, winner of 23 TTs. Practice week starts on May 26, race week on June 2 and ITV4 will broadcast daily racing coverage.

Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner