MO­TOR­ING: TEN YEARS RUN­NING

Nor­ton mo­tor­cy­cle CEO Stu­art Garner aims to turn the com­pany into a su­per­bike su­per­star

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY NATASHA STOKES

Stu­art Garner is cel­e­brat­ing a decade since his revival of the Nor­ton mo­tor­cy­cle brand, trans­form­ing it into a lux­ury name for the ul­ti­mate in boys’ 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-sqft pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity, with prices start­ing around £20,000 (HK$219,000).

Soon to hit the mar­ket will be the £28,000 Nor­ton V4 RR, a light­weight 179-kg ma­chine with a 1200cc, 200bhp en­gine that pushes a top speed of 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 the £44,000 pre-or­der price. This de­vel­op­ment project cost around £7 mil­lion – £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 cul­ti­vat­ing a rep­u­ta­tion on the 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 says, is that the whole team needed to share his pas­sion for mo­tor­cy­cles. Today, his en­tire staff of some 130 is mo­tor­cy­clists; 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 when 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. 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 Ltd, 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 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 set 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 even more am­bi­tious plans on the books. He’s aim­ing for a Nor­ton to win the 2018 TT race, some­thing that hasn’t hap­pened in decades. 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.”

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