We’ve all seen the headlines and we’ve all seen Stuart Garner on the news. The crook that stole all his employees pensions, took deposits for bikes that didn’t exist, fobbed people off with below par machinery and all but ran Norton Motorcycles into the ground. But that’s all yesterday’s news. Since Indian company TVS Motor Group purchased Norton Motorcycles, things have been looking good for the British bike manufacturer. Well, they’ve been looking better anyway. Because they couldn’t really look much worse, could they?
Earlier this year it was announced that they’d taken on a new production facility, as well as a new CEO to steer them through the coming years. So to find out which direction Robert Hentschel, the new Norton CEO, is planning on steering one of the oldest British motorbike manufacturers, I popped into their West Midlands factory to have a nosey around, and a quick chinwag with the big man.
I started with the question on everyone’s lips…
44T: What are you doing to solve the problems you’ve inherited from the Stuart Garner episode?
RH: We have spent a lot of time, money and effort to fully understand the problems. I cannot talk about all the problems, but one of the main problems we had was the quality of the motorcycles that were coming out of the previous facility. The bikes weren’t developed with the proper processes. We have done a lot of testing to find out exactly the quality of the products, including testing things until something fails.
We found that the engine in particular was underdeveloped. These things can take years to develop, but that did not happen. Therefore the engines that were making it to the production bikes, and being sold to customers, were really just early stage development engines.
The first thing I asked when I started was “is this engine capable to be the basis of future development?” And we found out by testing that in general, the engine is ok, it is just the quality level that needs to be improved. We have inspected and measured 600,000 parts from the old Norton, and we have found that a big problem was with the engineering tolerances.
44T: So what about the people that spent £44,000 on a Norton V4SS, that’s to all intents and purposes, not road-worthy?
RH: Legally, we have no responsibility to do anything. But I have a responsibility for the Norton brand. I know that lots of people are waiting to claim against BDO (the administrators in charge of winding up the ‘old’ Norton Motorcycles), but the process takes a long time, and they are not a motorcycle company, so they don’t care about people’s emotions. It is taking longer than I thought it would, but unfortunately, we have no influence on that process. Therefore I made a decision. And the decision was based on the fact that we need to remove any Norton Motorcycles from the road, which we are concerned about the safety of. Because if something happens, it will reflect on the brand.
So therefore we have chosen the approach to offer a new V4SV, for £10,000, after the liquidation process, but they have to give us the old bike, and it will be scrapped. And that means it will be completely scrapped. It is a complete cut from the old Norton. And this is why we don’t repair the vehicles, we know they are not fit for the road, and we don’t want to be liable for them.
I am so sorry that they have spent £44,000 on a bike which they cannot ride, but they cannot ride it because they are unsafe. That is why we have offered them this.
There is a lot of emotion in the motorcycle industry. So much passion. It is emotion that is sometimes positive and sometimes negative. There are a lot of people complaining about the old Norton, and why we aren’t helping more, and I understand all of that.
44T: How much damage has Garner done to the Norton Brand?
RH: Norton has had many bad times, look at the 80s. Over the years, Norton has constantly been in the press. There is good news and there is bad news. And the brand was built on this journey, so I would say I don’t think it suffered too much under the previous owners. Because it is nothing new for a motorcycle manufacturer.
I bought my Norton Commando 961 in 2016 and when I did, I expected problems. There was no expectation of high-end engineering, or the best level of quality. I understood what I bought when I bought it, therefor I forgive.
There are so many customers so enthusiastic about the brand. Yes, there might be some negative, but the negative isn’t coming from many people; there are a few very loud ones.
The commando is a beautiful bike, as is the V4SS. They have just not been developed and produced in the correct way.
44T: You obviously want people to associate Norton with luxury and high quality engineering. What are you going to do to change people’s perception?
RH: The most important thing for a company like Norton Motorcycles is to establish proper processes, proper quality and a proper supply chain. That’s how you build a proper company, and that takes time.
What you see here is our headquarters, but we will also build up experience centres; this is instead of a normal, traditional ‘dealer network’. We are inviting customers here to see our factory, and to see how we work. We want to show people that these bikes are bespoke, and show them the craftsmanship involved.
The plan Is to eventually invite customers here, and offer them the chance to be part of the construction of their bike. That way buying a Norton is more than just handing cash over, or signing on the line; it’s a real experience.
44T: There are a lot of people in the UK excited to see what’s going to happen to Norton. But is there the same excitement worldwide?
RH: Yes, it is a British brand, but it is a global brand. So yes there will be many people from the UK that hopefully will buy into Norton. But what I learnt from my time at Lotus, is that many people from Asian countries are also excited by British brands. And in Asia, there is a lot of opportunity for premium products, such as Norton. And it is an expanding Market.
44T: What’s the market like for a bike like a V4SV?
RH: It’s not a big market. The superbike market is not the market that will carry the company forward. It is just one element of a product line-up which reflects our DNA. Because racing is part of the heritage of Norton as a brand and Norton as a company. It is an important ingredient of the Norton brand.
44T: Does that mean you’re going racing again?
RH: If we go racing, it has to be done in a way which doesn’t bankrupt the country. We have a business plan, but we still have a lot of details we need to polish before we can make a decision as to when racing will happen.
I personally think that the Isle of Man TT is a unique event and it is something that Norton should play a part in. But it needs to be done properly. And it needs to be done in a way that can be profitable, otherwise it is not sustainable for Norton.
44T: How do you compete with more established brands, that have been developing and building bikes non-stop for decades?
RH: You can win customers in this industry, or in any industry, by getting ahead of other brands in emerging markets. And by creating something new, that isn’t already available. In some segments we will follow the rest, but in some, they will follow us.
44T: How much can you say about future models?
RH: We have a defined product plan, which goes on for the next 10 years, but you have to consider that developing new bikes takes two to three years. At the moment, of course we have decided to reengineer the V4SS, which is now the V4SV. And we are also in the final phases of the Commando 961 development. So that is what we are concentrating on at the moment.
We will have a derivative of the V4SV in December which will be something new. That will be shown at Motorcycle Live in Birmingham. As for completely new models, you can expect to hear about them in 2023 and 2024.
A lot of people have asked about the Atlas, and whether that is on the list of bikes which we will develop. If you look at the adventure market though, there are some quite sophisticated products out there. I would hesitate to jump on it from the beginning. Yes, it’s a huge market but I don’t know if it is correct right now for Norton.
44T: Where does Norton Motorcycles stand on electrification? Will there be an electric Norton in the future?
RH: It’s not easy to package a battery and electric motor in a modern luxury attractive frame. But the future will be electric and I am sorry to the people that don’t like it, but this is the case. I think we all want internal combustion for as long as possible, but eventually, we will have to achieve attractive EV models. But that is something for the future.