James Lansdowne Norton: A British Icon

From bicycles to motorcycles, beginning in 1898

james norton astride a 1909 model
The founder of Norton Motors, James Lansdowne Norton, astride a 1909 model in Birmingham, England.Norton Motors archives

James Lansdowne Norton packed plenty into his 56 years of living. The son of a British cabinet maker from Birmingham took the engineering skills he developed at an early age and at age 29 started the Norton Manufacturing Company in 1898. Initially a bicycle chain and parts maker, the company expanded to become one of the most iconic motorcycle manufacturers in the world.

When he was 19 he came down with severe rheumatic fever and doctors advised him to take a trip to New York to heal. He recovered from the fever itself but his health continued to deteriorate, aging him prematurely. His nickname became ‘Pa’ Norton, as in Grandpa.

the first norton motorcycle
The first Norton ‘motorcycle, a 1902 Energette.Norton Motors archives
first known print ad for norton motorcycles
The first known print advertisement for any Norton motorized vehicle.Norton Motors archives

While the fastidious Wright Brothers were toiling in their Dayton, Ohio workshop to develop their 'aeroplane' concept, Norton was transitioning his company to make engine-powered bicycles. The first Norton motorcycle was produced in 1902. The Energette was a bicycle with a Belgian Clement engine on the down tube. With a 55mm bore and 60mm stroke, the four-stroke single featured an automatic inlet valve and mechanical exhaust valve configuration and weighed just 70 lbs. Norton claimed that it was capable of 20 mph (12 mph was the legal limit at the time). Five years later a Norton with a Peugeot engine won the first Isle of Man TT, ridden by Rem Fowler. By 1909 eight Norton models were available: six with Norton engines and two with other manufacturers' engines.

In 1911 Pa Norton wrote an opinion article in "The Motor Cycle" about 'the American invasion of distinctly American motorcycles of distinctly American Design built for distinctly American conditions'. Norton dropped its line of twins along with its lightweight machines and completely focused on single cylinder machines: particularly a new 490cc machine along with the 633cc Big Four and a standard 496cc bike. Although these were still popular among the motorcycle buying public, Pa Norton's lack of attention to the financial end of the company combined with his focus on designing new machines for competition rather than production had begun to show. In the winter of 1911 the company name was changed from Norton Manufacturing Company to simply Norton Motors, and in August 1912 they went into liquidation.

The company was purchased by Robert “R.T.” Shelley, a successful Birmingham businessman with an accessory manufacturing company. Shelley knew very well that Pa Norton was the primary asset. Norton relinquished ownership but he remained firmly involved with the Norton brand, primarily the racing division.

vintage motorcycles with riders
Ace tuner Dan O’Donovan (left) alongside the Braid brothers and Pa Norton (far right) at Brooklands.Simon O’Donovan

Concurrently, in nearby Surrey the Brooklands circuit was evolving into a popular speed and testing center. Ace tuner Dan O'Donovan was Shelley's brother-in-law and new engines were sent to him for testing in a rolling chassis known as 'Old Miracle', holder of many speed records. Tested engines were not offered for sale until the performance objectives were met. A government contract was secured in World War I for supplying machines to the Russian army and in 1916 a move to a larger facility in Bracebridge Street, Aston was made. The famous curly Norton logo appeared around this time.

first norton motorcycle logo
The first and famous Norton curlicue logo.Norton Motors archives

Pa Norton’s health continued a downward spiral, and in 1919 he reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by the stresses of the economic situation coupled with crippling rheumatism. Warned by his doctors to adopt a more relaxed pace, Norton tried to distance himself from the company and took up several hobbies including fly fishing. He also built aquariums in his greenhouse and began keeping fish and reptiles.

As early as 1913, Pa Norton had talked of overhead valves with desmodromic operation, but it was not until 1922 that he produced his first OHV machine, the Model 18. The OHV made little impact at the 1922 TT but before the year was out it had firmly established itself as one of the quickest singles around. In 1923 the Maudes Trophy was gained for the first time when an 'off the shelf' Model 18 broke eighteen world records at Brooklands, ridden by a team consisting of O'Donovan, Nigel Spring and Bert Denly. The trophy was to be retained for three more years after similar results.

pa norton and his wife sarah
Pa Norton and his wife Sarah in 1920.Norton Motors archives

In the winter of 1921 Pa Norton decided to take a Norton 633cc Big Four coupled with a De Luxe sidecar on a 3,000-mile trip to visit his brother Harry in Durban and tour South Africa’s major cities. Originally planned as a trip to research the “colonial market”, it was in fact an endurance test for both the 54-year-old engineer and the motorcycle itself. The route stretched from Durban through Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, East London and Port Elizabeth, eventually ending in Cape Town. Despite a particularly severe rainy season Pa Norton refused to give up and take the train back. Many of the rivers were flooded and damaged bridges required numerous detours.

To make matters more challenging the back wheel of the bike regularly bogged down and Norton reportedly resorted to wrapping a bicycle chain around it on some occasions to increase the grip. But despite the hardships the only damage to the machine was a broken sidecar connection bolt. Norton arrived back in Cape Town in early 1922 to a hero’s reception, and the tour bolstered the reputation of Norton’s Standard Big Four.

Shortly after his return, Pa Norton was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. He didn’t let his ongoing health issues keep him grounded, though. In March 1924, Shelley hired Walter Moore to make a winner of Norton’s OHV Model 18. This he did, resulting in an unparalleled year of success in racing: Norton Model 18s won the Senior and Sidecar races at the Isle of Man TT; the French, Belgian and Ulster Grands Prix; the Italian Circuit de Cremona and several others. In November of that year, Moore began work on a shaft-and-bevels OHC racing engine that would in time evolve into the iconic and hugely successful ‘Manx Norton’.

The Mayor of Birmingham held a civil banquet for the victors and again Pa Norton was hailed as the hero of the day. But he was forced to watch the TT of that year from a chair, not having the strength to stand for the entire race. It was his final public appearance. On April 21, 1925, James Lansdowne Norton died at his home in Sampson Road in Birmingham, England at the age of 56. He was buried at Lodge Hill Cemetery in Selly Oak, Birmingham. He and his wife Sarah had five children: Ethel, Grace, James Lansdowne, Henry Spencer and Raymond.