Joys of Ownership: Owning a Stuart Garner era Norton

In 2008, British businessman and motorcycle devotee Stuart Garner purchased the rights to Norton from Kenny Dreer and company. Norton, a name that rings synonymous with Isle of Man TT and rejuvenates memories of the battles between BSA and Triumph for British motorcycle sales supremacy, has always been a point of pride for British motorcyclists. Bringing Norton back home only seemed fitting.

Garner made news again in 2013; the famed British motorcycle company would reenter the United States after a three-decade long hiatus much to the elation of Norton’s cult-esque USA fan base. A customary Commando 961 was released with a café-racer-inspired Dominator following up behind. Norton seemed to press forward unrivaled with success as it introduced new models, schemes, and even a V4 powered TT race bike.

Like a split in the seam, Norton’s success began to unravel just five years into their venture of the American market; 2018-model orders were prolonged as they struggled to become CARB and EPA legal, providing no USA homologation models in time.  During that period of discourse, Norton lost its distributor in the USA and all distributor licenses at a state level expired. The few remaining dealerships were reduced to a mere parts house as Norton became increasingly quieter with only bleak promises seeping out from social media sites.

So how does an owner of a Norton 961 under the Garner era feel about the disappearing act? One would think they would be understandably upset and resort to paranoia regarding parts availability, warranty work, and resell value. After all, if history was to repeat itself, most owners would be waiting 30 years to get a shot at owning another one.

Kevin Nelson

“I wanted something different, something rare and something not seen at every bike night.” Kevin Nelson explains to me on our phone chat when asked why he chose Norton. Kevin is a Nashville Tennessee resident who has a large collection of mostly Italian bikes. His voice is calm-toned, but you can tell his passion is for motorcycles.

James Elkins: How did you discover Norton and what made you decide on choosing this as your next purchase?

Kevin Nelson: “I wanted something different, something rare and something not seen at every bike night. My garage plays host to five uncommon Italian bikes and I decided to try to change things up. AF1 Racing had a 2016 Commando in stock and they were able to install a de-cat pipe and flash the ECU before shipping it to me.”

James: Have you had any issues arise from the bike? Any warranty claims?

Kevin: “The bike ran good from the start, but Colorado Norton Works sells a plug wire kit that created a smoother idle and ran cooler. The AF1 Racing de-cat pipe and ECU flash I’m sure helped with this as well. I’ve had no warranty issues.”

James: How do you cope with your closest dealer being 12 hours away?

Kevin:  “When purchasing the Norton I knew there was not a local dealer. That being said AF1 Racing and Colorado Norton Works have provided me parts and technical help. I have a local independent shop that can handle anything that I’m not able to. Access Norton has also been a crucial resource of information.”

James: With Norton UK officially no longer in the US, does this play a factor in owning the bike?

Kevin:  “Honestly, no. I mix my riding time between six motorcycles, so the Norton does not see a ton of miles. However, we live in a world market – as long as Norton UK exists, I’ll still be able to get parts via UK or from US dealers. “

John Keating

“If they ever make one, I’m going to buy one” John Keating said under his breath while visiting the Norton booth at the historic Isle of Man TT race. John is no stranger to Norton, having owned a 1975 Commando 10 years prior to his current Dominator. His thick Irish accent expresses his admiration towards the design and beauty of the 961 Dominator.

James Elkins: How did you discover Norton and what made you decide on choosing this as your next purchase?

John Keating: “I lived in Ireland for a large majority of my life and it wasn’t uncommon to see a Norton. When I moved back to America, I settled in New York where there is a huge Norton group – the New York Classic Riders.  After visiting the Isle of Man and catching a glimpse of the dominator, I told myself ‘if they ever make one, I’m going to buy one.’ I searched CycleTrader and came across a 2016 Dominator in grey with black pinstripe and I added the Norton Aluminum Fuel Tank.”

James: Have you had any issues arise from the bike? Any warranty claims?

John: “Upon receiving the motorcycle, it appeared the battery drained itself during transit. I began to research and found a lot of people on Access Norton mentioning a parasitic draw. Rob Jameson from Norton was on the forum and sent me a wiring diagram and mentioned what readouts I should be seeing. It turned out to be an issue from the tachometer. Norton UK posted me a brand new one that resolved the issue.

James: How do you deal with a limited choice of dealerships in America?

John: “Well, I don’t really vibe well with my local Norton dealer. In most cases, I work on the bike myself. I work in a mechanically based trade and working on the Norton is not very difficult. I purchase all my maintenance items (i.e. oil change kit, crush washers, etc) from AF1 Racing, they are the US lifeline of parts.”

James: With Norton UK officially no longer in the US, does this play a factor in owning the bike?

John: “Not really. The way Norton handled my warranty tachometer and technical help via Access Norton, combined with the amount of Norton owners in my local area, I don’t foresee a reason to sell it.”

Dale Boardman

“I grew up in England and was constantly surrounded by Nortons.” Dale is the exemplary Norton owner, born in the United Kingdom, raised around motorcycles, and even raced at Donington Park where Norton now calls home.

James Elkins: How did you discover Norton and what made you decide on choosing this as your next purchase?

Dale Boardman: “I grew up in the UK and was constantly surrounded by Nortons; everyone from TT racers to the Police motorbike units used Norton. I spent a good amount of my youth racing TT series and doing track events all over England. While I own a track only triumph, I wanted a bike with a race feel and still be streetable. The Dominator Naked met all my check boxes and I was lucky enough to find one in my own state [Texas].” 

James: Have you had any issues arise from the bike? Any warranty claims?

Dale: “When I first bought the bike I rode it back from Austin to Houston. I had an issue with blowback of oil. Essentially, at 90 mph with the oil tank overfilled, it would push oil towards the back of the head. At the back of the head there is a vent pipe that would fill up and eventually drain into the airbox and overflow. Norton issued a tech bulletin for a longer re-marked dipstick that lowers the oil level in the tank to alleviate this. AF1 Racing handled the warranty side of things and sent me the updated parts.”

James: How do you deal with a limited choice of dealerships in America?

Dale: “I’ve been very fortunate to have a dealership within 2 hours of home. They were able to flash my ECU, install megaphone pipes, stubby levers, and quick turn throttle kit, along with handle my service and warranty work. However, we are a global economy, and Stuart Garner knows this and can get parts to the US if needed.”

James: With Norton UK officially no longer in the US, does this play a factor in owning the bike?

Dale: “No. Everyone in the Norton community (especially on Access Norton) wants the company to be successful. It’s a good community. I love the fact that Stuart pays a lot of attention to their TT heritage, signed multiple riders, and kept the Norton legacy alive and I’m proud of that.”

It would seem odd that a company that is so romanticized by Norton owners and well supported by select dealers would have ghosted the US at a height of their market sales. The conjuring of rumors quickly started and spread like wildfire with simple paper filling mistakes being made at Norton. Displacing the brand for 2 years under the guise of increasingly difficult United States regulations did Norton no favors.

However, in recent time, Garner’s outspokenness about a global economy may have hinted at how Norton plans to proceed with parts. While the dealers continue to hold onto the brand with a classic black and white Norton sign, loyal Norton owners are continuing to hold onto their bike. Their ability to receive parts, warranty assistance, and technical help far outweighs any critic’s opinion. When will Norton return to the US? Only time will tell – let’s just hope it’s not as long as last time.

Editor’s note: This was an article I wrote for Cafe Racer Magazine in August 2019 that went unpublished due to freelance agreements. As anyone can tell you now, the Stuart Garner era Norton did not age well shortly after this.

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