Kenny Dreer, who started making hot-rod Nortons in an old barn behind his house and almost succeeded in bringing the grand old name back to life as a viable, modern motorcycle manufacturer, has resigned his position on the Norton Motorsports board of directors.
Cycle World first met Dreer in 1999 through his Vintage Rebuilds company, which took classic Norton Commandos and upgraded everything from the engine cases to the instruments. About 50 of the $20,000 customs were built, the final versions having electric start, Brembo brakes and box-section swingarms. With an investor, Dreer then proceeded to acquire the rights to the Norton name and design a clean-sheet 961 Commando, a modern take on the old design.
We tested a prototype in 2006 and found it to be about 90 percent ready for production. But after a reported $8 million outlay, the investor turned off the money tap, and day-to-day operations ceased in March, 2006. Since then the company has been on the block, so far without any takers.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank all of those many people who believed in Kenny Dreer and Norton,” said Dreer in announcing his resignation. “The 961 Norton Commando was and still is everything I dreamed a new Norton should be. Hopefully the stars will have better alignment next time around.”
So, after eight years of trying, what brought you to this decision?
“For starters, it’s a timing thing. The company ran out of operating funds in March of 2006, and now it’s July of ’07. I have been involved with the board sporadically during that timeframe in an effort to resolve some ‘issues’ and move the company forward. While a lot of time and money has been expended on this enterprise, I feel it’s time I pack my bags and head off in another direction, hence my decision to resign. There is no denying that I would still like to see the 961 become reality. What I can’t answer is by whom and when—or if ever. So I’m relinquishing my position as ‘point man’ for Norton. If anyone out there needs or wants info as to what’s happening with the company, they will have to inquire to the Norton board of directors.”
Have you had a chance to look back and gain some perspective on this whole endeavor?
“Certainly I have been center stage on this deal from the start, and will admit that not everything I did was a home run. Far from it. But in retrospect, I believe the bike I delivered to Cycle World in February of ’06 was well on its way to primetime. It wasn’t completely validated or finish-tested; it wasn’t even a first-article pre-production machine, but it nevertheless proved itself to three of the most-respected editors in the motorcycle business. It was definitely on its way. It didn’t deserve what it got—or what it didn’t get.
“Still, today I am very proud of what we accomplished. In the grand scheme of things, the Norton 961 was designed, developed and prototyped for a pittance of what the big guys spend on similar-type projects. What it all boiled down to was our inability to raise the necessary funding to continue operations. Personally, I think when we started this drive toward an all-new Norton, there was opportunity, but the money landscape changed with the tragic events of 9/11, the rise and fall of Excelsior-Henderson, and then the monstrous financial collapse of Indian. Investors now only compared Norton and every other motorcycle start-up to the unattainable success of Harley-Davidson.
What’s going on with Norton now? Has there been any movement on the sale of the company?
“All operations are at a standstill. The prototype bikes are in a storage facility. The company continues to hold discussions with several parties who have expressed interest. It’s frustrating because these talks can go on and on…and on some more.
“Early on (and again later) I broached the idea to the board of ‘keeping the flame alive’ by continuing to show the new bikes at such events as the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours and other selected venues. That didn’t meet with board approval and consequently just added more speculation to the ‘What’s happening with Norton’ question, which I couldn’t answer.”
What have you been doing for the last 15 months since the company shut down?
“Mostly working. I have been doing manufacturing consulting work for Latus Motors Harley-Davidson here in Portland, Oregon. Owner George Latus brought me in to work with Mike Stegmann developing performance-based products. Mike has been the in H-D performance segment for quite some time and George saw opportunity to get some of his ideas into production. That’s where I come in. With Norton, I had developed several great manufacturing relationships over the years and these companies have been great to work with in the H-D environment as well—a casting doesn’t know brands.
“My demo machine is a Buell Ulysses. I’ve taken a huge liking to this bike. It does about everything you can ask of it, from going fast on twisty roads to some single- and two-track trail riding. I want to get a group of local Buellers in the Portland-Vancouver area and set up a ride schedule to explore the wonderful roads we have here in the Pacific Northwest. (If this sounds like an invitation, it is. Please get in touch with me for details, 503-702-4183; firstname.lastname@example.org)
“In addition to the manufacturing, I help manage the Team Latus Racing Program. George takes great pride in being a ‘competition dealership.’ We partake in almost every venue of racing that H-D is in currently; AMA flat-track, roadracing, drag racing, we do it all.
“This is where it really gets good: I’m a rookie drag racer! Last summer I attended my first-ever AHDRA event as a spectator at Woodburn Dragstrip, our local track. I was totally blown away by the event, all the spectators, the vendors. It was a happening, and I got the bug big time. Opportunity came via an open spot on our V-Rod Destroyer team for the ’07 year. I used to drag race Nortons and Kawasakis back in the day, so I informed George that I would like to be considered for that spot. Several months later, I found myself on a plane to Gainesville, Florida, to attend the Frank Hawley School of Drag Racing. The Pro Stock Motorcycle course is instructed by George Bryce, Chip Ellis and Hawley. This is the real deal, 250-hp Suzukis with enough launch g’s force to put your eyes firmly into the back of your head. I wasn’t exactly a duck in water, but by the end of the second day my confidence and abilities were coming on strong. An eye-opening and mind-altering experience doesn’t even come close to describing it! I’m currently fourth the Destroyer class, Western Division, with three events left on the schedule. Focus, focus, focus!”
Besides tearing up the quarter-mile, do you have any plans for the immediate future?
“Several is the short answer. I could write a book on the whole Norton deal. I plan to continue my consultant position with Latus Motors, and whatever special projects George steers my way. It’s a great dealership, with super-positive people doing what they like the best. I spend about half my work week there.
“I am also being courted to get back into the vintage business, which I have given some serious thought to. But I want to change the menu from what Vintage Rebuilds was originally. I really have learned so much, not only about vintage motorcycles, but modern bikes as well. I have a couple of custom Norton projects underway currently. In addition to those, my personal streetbike is a totally modded-out Ducati Superbike—it’s way-cool, and an all-day rider the way I have it set up. So given that I really enjoy both new and old, I want to kick off Kenny Dreer Motorcycles, which will focus on several custom-bike builds per year, restoration and service work, including component-part rebuilds. I will also be developing a line of specialty parts. I want to start off slow and build up as the need arises. I’m looking forward to attending some of same shows that we did as Vintage Rebuilds, and getting re acquainted with a lot of folks that I haven’t seen in a long while.
“And, if time permits, maybe I’ll write that book.”
Sound Off! Did the new Norton ever really have a chance?