Moto Guzzi National Owners Club Norton Factory Tour

Norton logo and 952 model Norton motorcycle photograph courtesy Norton Motorsports Inc.

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Saturday, March 19, 2005 was a red letter day for the Oregon Chapter of the Moto Guzzi National Owners Club in Portland. First came our customary breakfast meeting at the Pig 'N Pancake in Tualatin, then a brief ride to the day's main attraction - a guided tour of Norton Motorsports Inc's World Headquarters for the marque.

Organized by the club Webmaster, Jim Smith, who also planned the route to the factory, a troupe of Guzzis filed into the inner sanctum of the Norton operation, a welcome haven from the first real rain in over a month. Banners and posters decked the walls of the impromptu parking area awakening memories of yesteryear and, for the author, almost a tear of nostalgia.

Around midday, an audience of some thirty folks listened in rapt silence as president and owner, Kenny Dreer, recalled the path that brought him to where he is today. British motorcycles, in particular, had held his interest in the early years, but the reality of making a living in the industry drew him to working with the big Japanese brands. This, of course, ran lockstep with the effective demise of the British motorcycle industry in the 1970's. One day, however, his enthusiasm was rekindled by the arrival of a greasy beater of a chopper with a Norton engine in the then Portland Honda dealership's trade-in lot. As an employee, he bought it for a song; what started as a project then became his regular commute to a big brand Japanese dominated workplace.

"Living on 'Mt. Niche' is not the way of the future"

Kenny went on to share what he had learned from years of experience. 'Compromise is something you have to learn to live with. No company has all the time and all the money in the world to do what it would really like'. Also, his struggle to own and represent the Norton name has left him, understandably, less than complimentary about the legal community. On that subject, Jeff Springston, Sales Manager for Norton, chimed in with colorful analogies to pond life and the lower rungs of that food chain.

Kenny also holds the opinion that 'living on Mt. Niche' is not the way of the future, although his skills and temperament have often led him in that direction. By contrast, Norton now has loftier goals which reach all the way to Triumph's phoenix-like re-appearance on the motorcycle planet. The Norton team doesn't plan to stay with small runs for a limited enthusiast market. Kenny and Jeff indicated that there is yet 'a ways to go' to achieve that dream. Today's Norton is in the foothills, looking at the summit.

Jeff spoke animatedly and with authority about the history of the Norton brand. An electrical engineer by trade, he has thrown his lot in with the company and his enthusiasm for both its present and future is infectious. He described the fervor of would-be owners of the current product who regularly send large checks, deposits, begging letters and e-mails to get on the list. These customers are worldwide, most quite willing to wait eighteen months or more for their machine.

Club rides came in from the rain to shelter in the back room 'Hall of Fame'
Kenny Dreer gives the Club a run down on the 'story so far'
Jeff Springston entertained and informed, seen here delivering the gospel according to Norton
Forks go back in time, in keeping with the Commando tradition

The 952 model will follow the sold out 'Signature Series' featured on the Norton web site and development across almost all disciplines for the new machine is under way. The frame is chrome molybdenum, in common with some of the Guzzi range. Construction is of the trellis type found in the Ducati Monster. Twin rear shocks are piggyback reservoir Íhlins. These protrude somewhat from the frame right now. Later they will move inboard an inch or so to follow a consistent 'slimline' design philosophy. The front fork, likewise Íhlins, is 'right side up', still a rarity and unique in that manufacturer's range. Although there is supposed to be the benefit of reduced unsprung weight in the now more usual 'upside down' male slider, 'right side up' configuration was chosen for traditional reasons, more in keeping with the original Commando. Brakes are Brembo.

'A 270░ crank will feature in the new models'

Other technical features of note are the result of empirical research being carried out on that bane of vertical twins, vibration. A return to rubber mounts for the engine was rejected on the grounds that there is ultimately no way to prevent the flexing of the engine / swing arm assembly with that approach. The Isolastic system was one of the main problems with the Commando - silky smooth when initially set up, then quickly deteriorating into worn parts and unwelcome play between motor and frame.

Moving to the power plant, the pros and cons of different connecting rod throws, rod angularities (the angle that the rod subtends relative to the piston crown when the crankpin is at 90░ from top dead center) and crankpin offsets have all come under examination. A 270░ crank will feature in the new models, along with a gear-driven 270░ counterbalance shaft. Several versions of this vital part have been tried; it looks as if the development team is homing in on a workable one. A vibration specialist is contracted to analyze the trial results.

According to Kenny, the crankshaft design borrows in one respect from the mid-fifties Matchless G45 which had a center web crankshaft bearing. The new Norton 952 has a roller bearing between the two crankshaft webs where the G45 had a plain type. Whether roller or plain, this configuration eliminates the crankshaft flex that was inherent in most British vertical twins, especially those where the con rods rise and fall together in a 360░ configuration. The Commando, like the BSA 500cc and 650cc twins, had a central flywheel set between two plain bearing big ends, hence no center bearing. The 952 differs in other ways. Its big end bearings are a roller type with no con rod end cap, so the crankshaft must be disassembled (and rebalanced) to replace the bearing. Little ends are phosphor bronze plain bearings supporting a short skirt, 9mm oversquare piston.

"Will it leak oil on my garage floor ?"

"Certainly not !"
952 'Signature Series' engine, test ridden on the Clackamas River Road
Kenny Dreer holds the current 270░ crank featuring the Matchless G45 style center web bearing
Background: 270░ crankshaft. Foreground: Prototype balance shafts, most recent to the right
Original Commando 850 engine with central flywheel, cast aluminum rods and plain phosphor bronze small end bearings

It is memories such as these that modern day Norton seeks to evoke; the marketing team is very conscious of Norton's demographic. The youngest potential customer is 29. All the rest are 'still alive', meaning they remember and revere the original Dominator, Atlas and Commando and the latter's ultimate fate. Jeff recounted one telephone conversation with an interested party who asked: 'Will it leak oil on my garage floor ?' to which Jeff replied 'Certainly not !'. After a pause, the voice asked hopefully: 'But it could, right ?'.

Pressed on whether it intends to stay in the Pacific Northwest, Norton says it has no plans to move far from Portland, Oregon. One interested nearby city is Estacada, home to the famous road that hugs the north fork of the Clackamas River. This is where the new machines are often test ridden and, as an Englishman, I could not help but feel a burst of pride and happy irony that this hallowed motorcycle is making a comeback in my adopted back yard, so far from its origins and mine. One wonders if local law enforcement can be encouraged to look kindly (or better yet, the other way) on the necessary test runs to bring this exciting motorcycle to the world market.

Oregon MGNOC State Reps Gerri and Gary Jenkins chat to Jeff Springston
Jim Smith, organizer of the tour, gets the grin factor on the 952

A number of other features are expected to grace the machine. Carbon fiber wheel rims, of which there were two breathtaking examples on a heavily customized Ducati there in shop, will be employed. These are made by a South African company and contracts are underway to supply the item. Switchgear will be Italian. The swing arm will remain double sided, but change from steel to aluminum going forward. Fuel systems will continue to be carbureted for a while yet, recognizing that fuel injection will bring with it the flexibility to meet environmental and homologation requirements in local and foreign markets. Norton plans to hire engineers in quality and quantity in the near future. Some of them may yet fit in the Gladstone premises. If things go well, the aforementioned move may be on the cards.

The reception for our club at Norton was notably friendly and open. Members were allowed to roam the shop and take photographs; questions were answered eagerly and candidly. There was a heady atmosphere of that camaraderie that thrives among like-minded souls who are smitten with the love of unique, characterful and classic motorcycles.

Thanks again to Jim Smith for organizing the tour and to the management and employees of Norton who deserve recognition for their drive and creative tenacity. If you want to learn more about Norton and the Oregon Chapter of of MGNOC, visit their web sites at Norton Motorcycles and MGNOC Oregon.

Footnote: Jeff Springston is closely involved in the 'Ride for Kids' charity which supports the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. Kenny Dreer has generously donated two valuable motorcycles to the cause. There is a major motorcycle parade event planned in Portland, OR, for Sunday, October 2nd, 2005. Your support, both moral and financial, will be much appreciated.

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© 2005 Open Road Rider: Visit photographs and article
Norton logo and 952 model Norton motorcycle photograph courtesy Norton Motorsports Inc.