Was Dennis Poore Norton’s Savior Or Scourge?

How does history view his management of Norton?

dennis poore illustration
Roger Dennistoun Poore (1916-1987)Illustration by Michael Koelsch

British entrepreneur Roger Dennistoun Poore (1916–1987) was a risk-taker from the cradle to the grave, best remembered for diversifying the Manganese Bronze Holdings family business of marine propeller manufacturing to fund the takeover of failing Associated Motor Cycles (AMC) to form Norton-Villiers in August 1966. Five brands were included: Norton, AJS, Matchless, James, and Francis-Barnett, with the jewel being Norton. The London native quickly decided to push for the development of a Norton model to debut at the Earls Court Cycle Motorcycle Show a year later, led by one of his college tutors, former Rolls-Royce engineer Dr. Stefan Bauer. Poore was eyeing the lucrative US market and its appetite for 650 and 750cc twins.

Poore was a qualified engineer with a degree from King’s College at Cambridge and a wing commander with the British RAF during World War II with a knack for finance and business. His hunch with the Commando proved correct; the press and riders loved it. Poore analyzed every aspect of retail trends and best distribution options, even touring the US during the winter of 1968–’69 to see firsthand what Harley-Davidson and General Motors were doing right. Poore decided his company should own its distribution network worldwide.

Norton needed to grab eyeballs and wallets, so Poore himself organized and booked an advertising campaign featuring model Vivien Neves to be "The Commando Girl" in the inside front cover of Cycle World and Cycle magazines exclusively for five years. This Steve Jobs-style of leadership was unheard of in the late '60s, especially in Great Britain. Poore's maverick business style evolved from his days behind the wheel of a race car, which began immediately after the war.

Starting with a supercharged MG J4, Poore stepped up to Tipo 8C-35 Alfa Romeo. He won sprint events and hill climbs and placed fourth driving for the Connaught Formula One team at the 1952 British Grand Prix. His entrepreneurial spirit and lust for speed prompted his launch of Autosport magazine in August 1950, published by Gregor Grant. Poore got involved in British motorcycle manufacturing just when the Japanese were making their efficient mark on an antiquated industry. Peter Williams persuaded Poore to enter racing in late 1971 with support from Imperial Tobacco, forming the John Player Norton racing team. Mick Grant, Phil Read, Williams, and Tony Rutter flew the Norton flag with moderate success until sponsorship was dropped at the end of 1974.

By then BSA Triumph had stumbled mightily, going cap in hand to the British government for assistance, which recommended a merger with Norton-Villiers. By July 1973 Norton-Villiers-Triumph was formed with 5 million pounds from the Department of Trade and Industry. Poore’s plan was to close the underperforming and outdated Triumph Meriden factory, which led to an 18-month workers strike. Money had remained tight and the consolidation of the brands under one roof led to a general lack of passion. Dated tooling and technology just widened the gap. By this time the booming global motorcycle market had all but collapsed—with excessive inventory levels of Japanese bikes in the US—leading to a price war. Leadership squabbles delayed production. Poore’s dream of a healthy British motorcycle industry went out with a whimper.

How does history view Poore’s management of Norton? He brought the Commando to America, leaving a legacy still talked about 50 years later. Could he have done better by letting BSA Triumph wither on the vine and focus his attention on Norton-Villiers? Either way, all great businessmen have to gamble, and Poore’s four of a kind was no match for the royal flush.