The history of Norton can be traced all the way back to 1898, when Birmingham-born James Lansdowne Norton founded the Norton Manufacturing Company in the city to produce bicycle chains. Four years later, the firm started to build motorbikes, buying in engines from overseas.
However, Norton was a better engineer than he was an administrator, with the firm finding itself on the verge of insolvency in 1913. It was saved by one of its creditors, forming Norton Motors Limited, which secured a government contract to supply the Russian army with engines during the First World War.
Various TT and Senior TT race wins, plus new models, followed until 1966, when the company was bought by Manganese Bronze Holdings and relaunched as Norton-Villiers. In 1972, the firm merged with the BSA-Triumph Group, but fell into receivership in 1974. In 1988, Norton was relaunched with production in Lichfield, but the bikes made more impact on the track than on the forecourt and it wasn’t until the brand was bought by Stuart Garner in 2008 that the renaissance truly began.
Over the last 12 months, Norton – the company and the brand - has seen a massive resurgence in consumer interest and sales. A new Norton Commando 961 SE is the first Norton bike to be manufactured in the UK for 20 years and is something of a milestone in the history of the brand.
“Thankfully the brand never waned in its appeal,” says Tony Norton, chairman of Norton Marketing Group. “The order book for the new bikes stands at 6,000 already; if that’s not testament to brand strength then I don’t know what is. We have a thriving Norton Owners Club in the UK and throughout the world and these loyal supporters give the brand it core strength.”
From a licensing perspective, the audience is much wider than keen bikers, Norton explains, as the rich collection of historic material on hand means product can be created which holds a wide appeal. Partners, however, are being selected very carefully.
“The core brand value is about quality and engineering excellence to the exclusion of all else, and this is what we want to see in our licensing partners around the world,” Norton says. “They need to share the same passion for quality and understand that the brand is for a wide audience. The start of the programme has been to position fashion ranges in the market to give everyone a flavour of the brand. This strategy is proving highly successful, with fashion about to launch in the UK, Europe, Australia, Asia and the US. I want to follow this up with footwear and fashion accessories.”
The brand has also been used in two high profile TV campaigns – one with a global luxury brand and the other with a US bank – and this is certainly an area that Norton is aiming to develop further.
“The programme isn’t about how many licensees we’ve signed,” he continues, “it’s about having the right partners who are prepared to make the right long-term commitment to the brand, and so far this strategy is working well. Our leather partner is with us for a minimum of five years, our textile partner in the UK is also with us for five years.
“I’m not naïve, it’s all about money in the end, but the brand is over 100 years old and has a strong long-term future and I’m not prepared to ‘ransack’ it today for the sake of a few quid. It’s more valuable than that.”
The brand certainly has an element of aspiration to it, but Norton believes it is still a brand that suits all incomes – from a £20 t-shirt right up to a £4,000 watch.
“The communications surrounding the brand coming home did a great job in recreating the long-term confidence in it. There is a warmth for Norton that I haven’t seen in any other brand and it is a good feeling to have that.
“In five years time Norton will be in a different place. Production of the bikes will be up, a new model will be on the road, the race team will have won at the TT Races again and the merchandising programme will be a natural part of the retail market around the world,” Norton concludes.