Meet the saviour of the storied Norton motorcycle

In 2008, Stuart Garner bought legendary British motorcycle maker Norton and began an ambitious programme to turn the company into a superbike superstar. The key? Make sure everyone at the company loves riding motorcycles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2018, 12:02pm

Stuart Garner is celebrating a decade since his revival of the Norton motorcycle brand into a luxury name for the ultimate in boys’ toys engineering.

What drives a man to stake a small fortune on nothing but a name? That probably depends on the name – in this case, Norton, venerated maker of motorcycles; and the man – Norton CEO Stuart Garner, who bought this iconic British marque in 2008, then resurrected the brand to new heights while staying rooted in its 120-year history.

Now in his late 40s, Garner remembers watching the British Motorcycle Championships as a teenager with his father. When the Norton bikes passed, Union Jack flags would ripple along the grandstand, cementing the brand’s place in a young enthusiast’s heart.

“Motorcycle riding calls to the hard-edged ruggedness of the biker lifestyle. The Norton brand has always been about a raw authenticity that, if we let it speak, I somehow knew other people would buy into,” Garner says.

In the 10 years since Garner’s purchase, Norton Motorcycles has become something of a recovery story in British manufacturing. The company is headquartered in Donington Hall in Leicestershire, England, in a 26-country-acre site purchased from British Airways in 2013. Each year, about 1,000 hand-built motorbikes roll out of its 45,000-square-foot production facility, with prices starting around £20,000 (HK$219,000).

Garner came into the picture and in four days closed a deal that supplied him with the rights to the Norton brand, four shipping crates of motorcycle parts, and four prototype bikes

Soon to hit the market will be the £28,000 Norton V4 RR, a lightweight 179kg machine with a 1200cc, 200bhp engine that pushes a top speed over 200mph – in racing parlance, a superbike, designed for greater power and smoother handling. Its limited-edition brother, the V4 SS, is already sold out at a £44,000 pre-order price. This development project cost around £7 million to £4 million of which came from a UK government grant support, recognising the company’s contribution to jobs in the British supply chain.

“We passionately make exclusive, British motorcycles with British components,” Garner says. “Our design ethos has always been focused on motorbikes with integrity to purpose, whether that’s high-performance racing or off-road riding.”

Founded in Birmingham in 1898, Norton Motorcycles put its first bike on the road in 1902. A Norton motorcycle won the first Isle of Man TT race in 1907; in total, Norton bikes have won 94 Isle of Man races. While making its name on racetracks, the brand was also becoming a fixture in private collections, well into the 1960s. The competition from advancing Japanese brands such as Honda and Suzuki proved stiff, and in the 1990s the company was sold to a few global owners, re-consolidated under American ownership in 2002, before approaching collapse in 2008.

At this point, Garner came into the picture and in four days closed a deal that supplied him with the rights to the Norton brand, four shipping crates of motorcycle parts, and four prototype bikes. “Looking back, it was a crazy decision, made by the heart, not the brain,” says Garner.

Garner then commemorated this purchase of passion by racing a one-off bike, the Norton NRV588, to set a world land speed record for a motorcycle in 2009, reaching 180mph. That same year, Norton Motorcycles officially reopened for business with a retooled Commando 961, a classic off-road motorcycle last produced in 1976 and which sold 500,000 units in a decade. Now, Norton sells three models: the 961 Sport, its lighter make, called a café racer, and the Dominator racing bike.

“Bringing Norton back from its golden era has been special. It’s got a glorious backstory, which has given us so much to pick up for our story today,” Garner says.

A critical factor in the brand revival, Garner said, was that the whole team needed to share his passion for motorcycles. Today, all 130 employees are motorcycle enthusiasts; management attends motorcycle shows and meets riders to stay tapped into riding trends and designs. “This is one of the questions we look for in CVs – do you love riding motorcycles?” Garner says.

Garner himself had ridden motorcycles since age 10 after he nagged his parents into buying him his first. “The thrill now is the same – the fun, the freedom, the power of jumping on a motorcycle and blasting away,” he says. “When I was a kid, it was about doing jumps and wheelies, showing off in front of the girls.” Some things don’t change – Garner and his girlfriend often ride the lanes around Donington Hall, taking longer rides into the countryside when time allows and, he makes clear: “Of course I still do wheelies.”

That early fascination with, as Garner succinctly puts it, “boys’ toys” would manifest in the creation of his first company at the age of 19, Fireworks, which became a million-pound pyrotechnics firm by the time he was in his early twenties. Later, Garner would settle into entrepreneur mode, launching businesses for mobile phones, baby sleepwear and strollers, and acquiring Spondon Engineering, whose expertise in bike frames would be critical in the designs of the Norton motorcycles to come.

More recently, Norton has partnered with Swiss specialist watchmaker Breitling, whose brand has long been associated with aviation. Like Norton, Breitling was founded in the 19th century; its brand is emphatically defined by being 100 per cent Swiss-made. “We have similar principles centred around authenticity, and products that are highly engineered and highly designed,” Garner says. “Breitling appeals to independent free spirits, much like Norton. Once our two teams of designers met, they were away!”

The first Norton-inspired Breitling watches are likely to launch later this year – with a twist on the refined product Breitling is known for, Garner believes. “You’ll probably be able to see the biker influence in more of a raw, hard-edged style,” he says. Future watches might showcase even more influence by incorporating similar materials as Norton’s lightweight frames.

As for Norton, Garner has ever more ambitious plans on the books. He is aiming for a Norton to win the 2018 TT race, something that hasn’t happened in decades. And, he wants to launch a couple more models to complete a product range that can woo every type of rider. “This still often feels like a start-up,” he says. “We were globally very successful in previous times, and we’re looking to reclaim that footprint.”

Yet there’s one frontier Garner doesn’t expect to cross. “There’s a big push towards electric vehicles – but I don’t think that’s the future of the motorcycle,” he says. “Motorcyclists love the rev, the whine and the power. You’re missing out in life without the thrill of sitting on a combustion engine, blasting past.”

(This article appears in the March issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores and by invitation.)