Last week saw the long awaited Motorcycle Live show hitting the NEC. After a few months of spectacular new model launches, excitement was at a high amongst the bike community and especially so, at my house.
Up until last week I was torn between the Kawasaki H2, Honda SP2 and the Yamaha R6 as my stand out launch of the year. The R6 is obviously in a very different league to the H2 and SP2 but these were the three I was eagerly waiting for. For the impatient, after spending time up close and personal, my money would be on the SP2. More about that in another article.
However, a little spanner in the works. A Norton shaped one in the form of the V4 SS and RR. The moment Norton released images of these bikes, that was it. Game over for the rest of my list.
If you are British and a bike lover, then you HAVE to love Norton. The company has an incredible history. The TT. The Military - supplying 100k bikes to our armed forces in WW2. The fact we almost lost Norton to a clothing brand. Reading the history of Norton is fascinating, complicated and inspiring. However Norton today is possibly the most inspiring and exciting it's ever been and that is thanks to the passion, creativity and foresight of a man called Stuart Garner.
Stuart left school with no qualifications. Got a job as a game keeper, lost it due to it getting in the way of bikes and birds then was forced into accepting a job in a fireworks factory owned by a very sensible man whom told Stuart "You aren't dating my daughter unless you have a job"
It was whilst working in this firework factory, Stuart realised he had some attributes that qualifications couldn't get you. Tenacity. Passion. Creativity. Balls.
There are many articles documenting Stuart's eventual path to Norton. But essentially it was fireworks, mobile phones, baby buggies and finally Spondon Engineering which lead to first contact with Norton over a IP rights issue of the Norton name. He got in touch with Ollie Curme who owned Norton at the time, was granted permission and that was that, until a short time later...
Norton was about to crash. It was up for sale. Stuart was offered the business and given 5 days to come to a decision. Buy it, or its sold to a fashion retailer. 3 frantic days of due diligence later and Stuart was on a plane to sign the documents. Becoming owner and CEO of a truly British brand, he walked away with the intellectual property rights, four prototype bikes and some bike parts.
Since purchasing Norton he managed to secure £6.65m funding through The Budget and Santander. How? He tweeted George Osborne and asked him.
Fast forward us to today and I am standing in a very crowded hall at the NEC, in front of me the Norton stand, busier than anything else I've seen today. I squeeze through a plethora of real bike fans. Guys who truly love the spirit that Norton captures. There, in front of me, the V4 SS and the V4 RR. I pop over to a Norton team member "Is Stuart available?" I assume he'll be off somewhere, busy promoting the brand or maybe taking a well deserved rest after a huge year of developing these beautiful bikes "Yeah, he's just over there" I look up and see him, sitting amongst the chaos of the stand.
He's a fantastically normal biker. Leather clad, I become very aware that I might be over inhaling as I sit next to him. He smells how the CEO of Norton should smell. A leathery divinity. Yes, he has charm and is terribly charismatic yet he some how manages to be all that in the most subtle, understated and elegant way. A little like his bikes. He reminds me of why I loved the IOM TT so much. There is no divide between Norton and it's fans. With the Moto GP you feel like you can't get to the riders. With the TT you don't even blink when Hutchy stands next to you in the pits. There is something about the nostalgia which makes the fans, owners and riders the gate keepers of this special place. The bike world is full of this equality, this empathy, this shared bond. Norton treasures the fans who keep the brand alive as much as the clients who buy the products. There is no hierarchy. Stuart likens the V4's to his babies and hell, as it's Christmas, I'm going to liken them to the Baby Jesus. Norton may have given birth to these incredible bits of machinery but it's us who they were created for. He understands the importance of those who will never be able to afford to own a Norton, and those who invest money in buying one, both equal and neither should be taken for granted.
I could have sat on that stand and talked to him for the whole day. He's like the chap down your local pub who is full of passion and stories and kindness, whom you never want to stop listening to. However our chat was very politely interrupted by an older fan, so respecting the ethics of Norton, I decided to treasure my few minutes with him and let someone else enjoy a moment.
To me the V4 SS and RR truly define the success of Norton today and will be looked back on in years to come as one of the finest hours. Currently the V4 is the only bike using a carbon fibre fuel tank. The wider V of the engine was constructed to look beautiful even when the bike was naked. The engine is designed and built by Norton, not borrowed from another manufacturer, it is not only a truly British superbike but a truly incredible superbike. 1200cc with over 200bhp, it's growling at it's competitors fiercely. It is a mix of true Great British engineering and high technology. Wrapped in the most elegant outfit.
Motorcycle Live was a brilliant event full of incredible bikes, outstanding innovation, cutting edge engineering and brilliant marketing, PR and people. But the stand out memory I will have of the whole show was Norton and the outstanding aroma of Stuart's Norton 'Duke' Jacket.