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Is the New Norton For Real?

Norton Nirvana

Norton Nirvana

I don’t know about you, but I grew up looking at Norton motorcycles in magazines here in the United States – lusting after both the bikes and the beautiful women draped over them in Norton’s advertising.

I am too young to have ridden the classic Nortons in their heyday (such as the Commando 850), but I know the Norton heritage well – performance and handling, coupled with the typical British-bike reliability problems of the era. Nevertheless, the Norton name evokes performance and “machismo” perhaps like no other, with the possible exception of Triumph.

The new Norton Motorcycles, Inc. is an extraordinarily ambitious motorcycle manufacturer utilizing the classic Norton name. This ambition has been a double-edged sword for Norton – which has clearly over-hyped itself since early 1998, when it announced plans to manufacture several models from engine designs developed by March Motors International, Inc.

When you study Norton carefully, you come away impressed, despite the clear mistake made by Norton when it promised delivery, for instance, of its V-8 Nemesis model last year. The Nemesis was not delivered in production form last year and, indeed, it is still a prototype to this day – with the promise of delivery either later this year or early in 2000.

I think we can forgive Norton for its overzealousness, however, given the sheer brilliance of some of its design concepts, and the unbridled enthusiasm of its talented, proven designer, Al Melling, principal of England’s Melling Consultancy Design.

The heart of the new Norton is its technology, and the creative genius behind that technology is none other than Al Melling. Who is Al Melling? He is an engineer and designer who, since the mid 1960’s, has steadily gained credibility and business in the automotive world. Let me quote from Europe’s Auto Car magazine (April, 1998 issue), which contained a profile of Melling.

“Melling is undoubtedly Britain’s most prolific engine designer. Until the mid 90’s he was also the country’s least known. Working with an eight strong team of master graduates he has designed literally hundreds of engines – and improved countless others – for clients across the world. He has been in business since 1964, but has only sprung to prominence in recent years, first as a designer of TVR’s own V8 engine and then as a potential supplier of an engine to the consortium of Rolls Royce enthusiasts who aimed to outbid BMW and Volkswagen for the Crew based company.” . . . “Though he quite likes cars and has collection [sic] of bikes, Melling says he’s never messed much with the parts of them that stay cool and don’t go bang. ‘I’ve not really bothered about chassis and things’, he says. ‘They’re just there to carry my bloody engine.'”

Although the end of the quote raises some concerns about Norton’s chassis and suspension design, Melling clearly has a reputation as a top-notch, cutting-edge engine designer. Indeed, his company makes considerable income trouble-shooting, and fixing, engine designs created by others.

Melling’s firm has even created a Formula One racing engine. Formula One is generally considered the highest level of technological achievement in the combustion engine universe – the designs are as cutting-edge as it gets.

Thus, Norton’s engines promise to be innovative, powerful and reliable. The power output figures for both the Nemesis and its cruiser-like sibling, the Nirvana, reflect Norton’s focus on the power and efficiency in its engine designs. The sport-oriented Nemesis will contain a 1500cc V8 engine with a claimed 235 horsepower and 111 foot- pounds of torque. This horsepower figure significantly surpasses the horsepower-per-liter derived from Yamaha’s R-1, for example.

The Nirvana, a model added by Norton to provide some volume to its production (the Nemesis is expected to be a very low volume seller), is a 45 degree v-twin cruiser-style motorcycle with a claimed 95 horsepower and 102 foot-pounds of torque. Displacing 1539cc, the Nirvana is in the same displacement category as several modern cruiser designs from other manufacturers (such as Yamaha, Kawasaki and Harley Davidson) but provides substantially more horsepower, if Norton’s figures are accurate, than any v-twin competitor. By contrast, Yamaha’s 1602cc Road Star v-twin cruiser measures far less than 70 horsepower at the rear wheel.

But will the company get itself off the ground – and meet the production goals it has set for itself (now scaled back to just these two initial models, the V-8 Nemesis and v-twin Nirvana, scheduled for production late this year, or early 2000)? This is the critical question, and largely dependant on financing and management ability. MD won’t make any predictions here, but you can be sure we will watch Norton closely and keep you informed.