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Can Norton Motorcycles Make A Comeback In the US?

Can the regal Norton Motorcycles marque make a comeback in the United States? Businessman – and motorcycle lover – Stuart Garner is the next hopeful in line with his manufacturing effort based in Castle Donington, U.K.. Garner is trying to bring the Norton brand – and the Commando model name – back with a vengeance.

Garner and his freshly re-minted company received a British government-backed trade loan to make it happen.

“I still have to remind myself each morning how lucky I am to be given the chance to own Norton,” Garner says. “I really look forward to going to work each day, and I have structured some of my other companies to allow me to concentrate on getting Norton back into production. By the end of this year our first customer will have taken delivery of their bike, which is after I have the first one to ride to work each day.”

Stuart Garner on a Norton
New owner Stuart Garner on a Norton at Bonneville

But will it be enough?

Garner latched on to prototypes and rights to the Norton name in October 2008 and he’s been grinding away and closing loopholes in other countries to make sure he has total ownership of all aspects of the Norton brand, a brand which was split up among various hopefuls over the past three decades. Garner has purchased two factories in Donington Park, a historic racing circuit in the U.K. and the current home of MotoGP, and his firm has already moved into one facility while a second, a 15,000-square-foot building, is being prepared to start rolling out bikes.

While Garner concentrates his energies on production and branding, the critical United States side of the business, a Connecticut-based subsidiary, is hard at work putting together a North American dealer operation.

Norton Motorcycle USA CEO, Dan Van Epps, says Norton will build a network of about 50 dealers over the next two years.

“We need to ensure that most U.S. riders have reasonable access to a Norton dealer,” said Van Epps. “The goal is not quantity, but quality. We want the very best professional, experienced dealers in each market, obviously delivering superior service and support to the Norton owners.”

At this point, Van Epps said Norton USA has seven dealers signed up with six more on the cusp of signing on.

“We looked carefully at the motorcycle business over the last decade and we’ve seen this universal struggle for motorcycle dealers to remain profitable, or break even, for that matter,” Van Epps said. “Dealers who have been around for 50 years are closing their doors. We don’t seek to produce the volumes of the larger European manufacturers. Our growth plan and infrastructure are calculated to make sure we remain flexible, profitable and able to scale ourselves with the market. Rather than trying to push the market, we want to react to the market. That’s the fundamental difference. We’re not going to be leaders in absolute volume, we will be leaders in the contribution to our dealer’s bottom line.”

What does the “New Norton” need to make that happen? A bike lineup which will be ready for the U.S. market in the first quarter of 2012. The lineup is expected to include the Commando 961 Cafe Racer and the Commando 961 Sport. According to Van Epps, the Donington factory can hand-build about 100 bikes a month and could possibly push those production numbers up to 200 a month – if they sell. The bikes will retail for between $16,000 and and $20,000.

Another piece in the puzzle is, according to Garner, recovering the racing pedigree the Norton brand once held.

“The bikes must come first to show we are serious and re-establish ourselves. I am aware of how well Harley does out of the merchandising of their brand and the income stream it gives,” Garner said. “However, if we do well at racing and create a demand for the bikes, demand will naturally follow.”