It’s fair to say that most of us have endured a turbulent enough 2020 but what if you were a Norton customer, employee or fan? The first few months brought a whole new level of unrest with a discredited former owner and unpaid tax bills that resulted in the British marque entering administration in January.
However, one man’s misfortune (or in this case, ill-management) is another man’s gain, so says the old proverb. And in April 2020, in stepped the planet’s 6th largest motorcycle manufacturer, Indian-based TVS Motor Company, who’d been on the lookout for a ‘famous brand’ for a couple for years. John Russell, a self-confessed ‘failed engineer-turned marketing guy’ who ran Harley-Davidson’s European Operations for 10 years during an “exciting period of big changes and big growth” had been working as a consultant for TVS for seven years, a period where the firm had been “looking at build the business and growing our motorcycle footprint worldwide.” Norton had been identified, then lo and behold it became available.
John has been put in charge as Interim CEO and is “probably having more fun than I’ve ever had in my career.”
We had the opportunity to talk to the man charged with restoring the battered image of the British motorcycle firm. He talks about existing customers, a new headquarters, production, a growing team, the type of brand he wants Norton to be, the state of the UK bike industry, future models and ranges including what will happen to the V4SS, Atlas Twins, 961 Commando and Superlight, as well as his views on electric motorcycles, or use of another alternative power source.
Strap in and hold tight, below is the film and beneath that is the transcription:
BikeSocial (BS): Are you a rider?
John Russell (JR): Yes, I don’t ride much now. I have a few neck problems which makes life more hairy on a bike that they used to be. I have a licence and I was a previous rider so I’m hoping to get back on bikes but very carefully and probably fair weather only.
BS: Maybe a Norton?
JR: Yeah, definitely a Norton!
BS: As a businessman, is your focus firmly on restoring the image of the brand?
JR: It’s very rare that you get a start-up with so many good things going for it, because that’s essentially what we are. The company has got itself into a place where it has a tremendous public profile but there is very little substance to the business. The previous owner did his best but in the end, he didn’t have the resources to do it properly. So, I think we’re in a fantastic situation where we’ve created this start-up mentality but we’re doing it with an extraordinary brand with an extraordinary heritage and fantastic current following. Most people have heard of Norton even if they’ve not ridden the bike, even if they haven’t seen one on the road. Then we have the backing of TVS; a great company with 4m two-wheelers a year with a very, very high quality reputation. A very ethical company, so we have the perfect mix really; a start-up mentality with no legacy to drag us back, a fantastic brand and the backing of a very, very powerful, capable company.
BS: You speak about the brand, are you looking to change the way the brand is seen or has been portrayed?
JR: We are 123-years old, (with a) fantastic history. Most of the things in our history if they’re properly re-presented and brought back to life they are as relevant today as they were in the great days of Norton in the past. So our job is to very carefully nurture that, we’ve got to pay tribute to our past. TVS see themselves as custodians of this brand, so they’re very much honouring the history but we’ve got to move forward. What we can’t do is keep going back to our history. So, we see our job as making Norton as relevant and as powerful and as appealing in the present and the future as it was in the past.
BS: Do you see it as a state-of-the-art company or whether you want to rest on that historic/heritage laurel?
JR: Going forward, if you look at our history, we were always about being the best of our time. The great featherbed frames, the Commando in its day was the world’s fastest road bike. Now today it’s seen as a heritage asset but in its day, it was really leading edge. I think Norton had many strands running through its history but one of them was innovation, and innovation that worked for the rider. So, that’s what we’re going to be doing in the future. So, much of what we do might look and feel different but it will very much be coming out of the heritage and history of Norton.
BS: Are you performing market research, taking different markets for the way in which the brand is perceived around the world? For example, is India now a prominent market for the future of Norton?
JR: I think the first thing is we’re going to map out the world and look for the right places for us to be active. And the criteria are going to be around where can we be ‘Norton’. It’s not about saying ‘there’s a market, how do we adapt ourselves from being Norton’, we’re going to go out there and succeed by being a better Norton that we’ve ever been in the past. And that’s going to be our number one filter on where we go, what we sell and which bikes we produce.
The likelihood is that we’ll grow through the European, North American, Australian and Japanese markets first because that’s where, if you like, the premium market for motorcycles is best established but then the rest of the world is our opportunity.
Obviously there is an interest, we have an Indian owner, they want us to develop in India but the market for really premium motorcycles is relatively small at the moment. Hopefully we can enter India with the product that we are selling elsewhere with minor adaptations for India and help that market grow in India.
Above: Norton’s V4SS
BS: Are your principals and philosophy for the brand around being premium as a base level?
JR: I don’t like using words that take you back to price because that’s not what we’re talking about. Our bikes will be high price but they’ll be driven by high value and they’ll come with all the attributes that you would expect of a high-end motorcycle, they’ll have that specialness that we’ve got to put into them that makes them Norton, and I think if you look in our past the Norton-ness was very evident; very exquisite design features, had a certain languidity that didn’t exist in other products. We were more sort of Aston Martin rather than Ferrari in the profile and positioning of the bike. So I think we’ve got a tremendous palette to work with to create this Norton offering in a whole range of segments of the high-price motorcycle market.
BS: What about team motivation, do you still have a lot of the guys who were employed in the previous era still with you?
JR: Yes, very much so. We brought 55 people with us from the old company and that was a mark of TVS’s commitment, they wanted to bring the people and give them the ability to grow the company. Since then we’ve almost doubled the size of the company, so we’ve got a very different team now, the mix of people is very different. Everybody in that team, both the existing and the new, are delighted to be part of something that is moving forward, to be in at the ground floor of an extraordinary journey to play their part in both building the brand and being part of this new business that we’re creating.
Whatever people think of the old company, the one thing that was always evident was that the people were highly motivated towards Norton. That’s why they stayed through difficult times. And, we’re taking that passion with a whole load of new passion coming from the people that are joining us.
BS: In terms of brand growth and product development, are you more focussed on the next 2-3 years as opposed to the next 5-10?
JR: Like all good businesses, when you’re seeking to grow you have a long-term vision that guides you and then you’ve got a road map that gets you to that vision so your eyes are sometimes on the horizon and sometimes on the step in front of you and that’s very much how we are.
So we begin our journey with the current products, so we have the V4SS which we’re about to go back into production with. We have a limited number of orders for Commando and we’re going to produce a very limited series to celebrate the end of that old Commando production run.
We then follow that fairly soon with the other products that have already been previewed and announced, so other versions of the V4-engined bike and the Atlas range which takes us into a much bigger segment of the market.
So that’s going to keep us busy for the next year, 18-months or so. While that’s happening, the things you mentioned earlier about the other segments, well now is the time we start doing the work to say exactly what do we want to produce - what are the engines, what are the segments we’re going to go into, how do we make it a Norton-branded product, which geographical markets are we going after, which customer types, so all that work is just beginning. And that will take us where it takes us.
BS: It would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask about existing orders. How is the fulfilment of those going?
JR: A couple of things. Firstly, the enthusiasm of our customers is extraordinary. When I joined this company, I imagined there’d be a hotbed of resentment and annoyance and all these things, and I’m sure at various points in time that’s been the feeling. But the general feeling from all those customers who places deposits was ‘great, I can have my bike’ and just a real sense of, ‘wow, thank you, you’re going to build my bike for me!’ – so the vast majority of the 400-or-so orders that were placed, the customers still want their bikes. Some of them have said no and will get their money back from the administrator but generally that’s because their lives have changed somewhat and the bike is no longer relevant and not because they no longer wanted the bike.
So we’ve built up a good relationship with those customers and we have a new facility which we’re in the process of refurbishing in Solihull, and that will give us the ability to create a really good factory with world-class standards that will keep us in a good set of premises where we can achieve our volume growth over the next five years and be a really good home for Norton as we continue to rebuild the brand. We intend to have the production facility in operation by the end of this year and begin the process of building the V4SS’s and in parallel with that, building out the Commando’s I’ve mentioned.
So that’s the basic short-term steps while we keep our eyes firmly focussed on the long distance to make sure we’re moving in the right direction all the time.
Above: Norton Atlas Ranger
BS: Will all those manufacturing and production facilities from Donington Hall be moving over?
JR: We moved out of Hastings House, the building next to Donington Hall at the end of October and the equipment, the inventories that we need, we’re taking with us. But more importantly, we’re adding a huge investment on top of that to make sure we have the equipment to both build and measure, manage quality, all the things we need to do.
BS: Have there been any production changes with types of materials used, processes or quality of assembly?
JR: There were clearly some quality issues in the past, in some respects they were driven by the financial difficulties of the company but also the very cottage-style approach to manufacturing. What we’re moving to is a much more recognisable, modern-day quality manufacturing process. Doesn’t mean we’re using robots and removing people, we still have a very much hand-built, hand-crafted side to what we’re doing because that’s an essential ingredient in the specialness of Norton. But behind that is the state-of-the-art equipment to ensure the bikes are built with great precision and great quality and that is very much a hallmark of the way in which TVS do their business.
So, we want to retain the specialness of the way in which Norton’s are crafted whilst we introduce quality standards of the 21st century and where we need to be. So, a lot of things will be the same because that’s where Norton gets its personality and character from but in a lot of respects most of it will be different because we need to build in a different way to match the standards we need for today.
BS: I’m intrigued by the way in which TVS model themselves and do their business, are they going to be heavily influential on the way Norton is operated and the decisions are made around future models, or are they more of a silent partner, so to speak?
JR: The experience we’ve had to date is indicative of the way we go forward, they want us to be a self-sufficient Norton going forward. So they want to make sure we are a stand-alone company focussed very much on doing what Norton needs to do but we’ll do that within a framework of the value system and the business ethics of the way TVS operates; a strong focus on customer, strong focus on quality, strong focus on technology. All the things you would expect from a company that has such a track record of its own.
At the moment, we’re leaning very heavily on TVS because obviously we are a company with limited resources, limited experience of doing things the way we need to do them, we have big team of TVS people in India who are supporting us on a day-to-day basis, and as we become more self-sufficient that support will withdraw but we will always work hand-in-hand with our partners in TVS. They want us to become not a TVS Norton but the best Norton ever that happens to be owned by TVS. That’s the way they’re viewing it.
BS: John, you mentioned V4 earlier. Will that mean they’ll be Euro 5 friendly?
JR: Yes, that’s part of the programme we’re working our way through. It seems like in terms of the complexity and the investment and the testing required is massive but in terms of what the customer feels, it’s very limited. Those are things we have to do properly going forward. We have to make sure our bikes are fully compliant, they meet every standard that Governments would expect and that customers would expect. So, that’s what we have to do. The initial V4 production will continue in its current form and then we’ll move to Euro 5 next year.
BS: So, there’ll be no loss of power? The customer won’t notice any difference?
JR: Every time you hit a new set of environmental emission standards, every manufacturer says ‘it’s impossible, it would destroy the character of the bikes’ but somehow our ingenuity gets around that and we find a way of making it better usually!
As a personal observation, it seems like the only thing we’ve lost the noise. I can’t imagine any motorcyclist wanting a quieter bike but we have to live in the real world and understand why regulators want us to ride quieter bikes. But that’s probably the only thing we’ve lost through this journey.
BS: I’m glad you mentioned the Commando as well because all the 961 parallel twin models have disappeared from the Norton website, so I’m pleased they’ll still be produced…
JR: The aim is it’s very much an end of series, the life of that engine in particular is coming to end. It’s harder and harder to make it compliant and to build it with the quality standards we’d need, so we’ll finish the series and honour the past and recognise that quite a few people out there would like to buy the last Commandos from the old model line-up. Clearly Commando will be re-born in the future, it’s always been a central product but it could be very different to the Commando we’re saying goodbye too but it is very much at the heart of our brand.
Above: Norton Commando 961 Sport
BS: I see you’ve also trademarked several other names from yesteryear too with Ranger, Electra and Fastback. I know the Ranger already associated with the Atlas range but what about the other ones, is there anything you tell us about those?
JR: <laughing> Well you know I’m not going to tell you any of that!
BS: I had to ask…!
JR: A couple of things; clearly we’re going to go into a lot more product segments and customer segments that we’re in today or that we’ve announced so far today and we’ve got to make those choices so at the moment we genuinely don’t know what there’ll be… but there will some.
And on the naming front, names are always so difficult so once you have any sort of equity in a name, you should retain it, it’s like gold dust really, it’s always difficult to find a name that’s relevant and that’s not being used by somebody else, so any name that we have access to we will register and hope to use in the future.
BS: I have a question about the state of the motorcycle industry in the UK at the moment, how would you describe that?
JR: We obviously have a lot of information about historic customer and we’re building up quite a database now of new customers but we also need to look at it slightly differently, in my experience of both cars and motorcycles, there’s a tendency of looking at the hardware statistics; what do people own, how big is the engine, how expensive is the bike. While the real things we want to understand is why do people ride the motorcycle, what do they get out of it, what do they really want to do with the bike in the future? How can we get this balance right of adding to the exhilaration while reducing the intimidation? From an industry viewpoint, there’s no doubt that the industry needs to deal with that because I find it odd that people quite happily ride down a hillside with tree stumps and boulders in the way doing 30mph on a mountain bike and they’re worry about doing 30mph on a motorcycle with full gear on through a city centre. So somehow our industry has got itself into the wrong place with the exhilaration v. danger thing, and people do lots of things that are dangerous that don’t have the same negative reputation that motorcycling has managed to develop over the years. And it’s really impacting young rider throughput, the numbers of people coming into our industry. Finding solutions to things like that are the things we would want to participate in in the future, and it’s an industry-wide issue.
BS: We’ve spoken about the Atlas Twin (Nomad and Ranger), they were unveiled a couple of years ago with a lot of hype but with strangely optimistic performance figures but is there any idea on timescales?
JR: Those bikes were definitely announced as prototype, early development bikes as opposed to fully developed, production-ready bikes so there’s quite a bit of development work to be done. The basic concept of the bike; the way it stands, the way it rides, the way the engine performs, the fundamental look of the bike I think all of that is absolutely spot on. I remember seeing that way before we were thinking of buying the company, but I looked at that and thought I couldn’t think of a better product plan than that for Norton. It just seemed spot on in terms of bringing Norton into the present with relevant bikes, very appealing bikes and that’s reflected in the reaction we got to it when it was launched but it does need some final development work doing and there are parts of the bike we’d like to improve. It’s detail rather than substantial sort of system change and that’s probably going to take us most of next year to get done so that’s definitely on the product plan and the sooner we can get those bikes into the market, the better. For us certainly.
BS: Sounds like it’s going to be at least a 2022 model…
JR: It’s going to the back end of next year, that sort of timeframe and obviously these things are all subject to whatever happens with COVID.
BS: Yes, a relevant point. You bought the brand while we were in lockdown but how have the plans been affected the so-called second lockdown?
JR: Firstly, you don’t know because we don’t know what it would have been like without COVID! Coming into it, I went to Hastings House on April 17th to get my first look at what I’d taken on and I couldn’t imagine how we could get so much done without anybody in the office really. We’ve managed to do some extraordinary things; we’ve restarted the company, established contact with all of our customers, we’ve doubled the size of the team, we’ve found a new office, we’ve got all the base engineering in place to relaunch a new production facility which is almost ready to go, suppliers have been brought back on track. A tonne of things and it’s all be done by screens like this (Zoom) and it’s remarkable how adaptable people are. It’s great credit to the team I’ve got that they’ve managed to get so much done in such difficult circumstances.
BS: Do you have a timescale on the opening of the new facility in Solihull?
JR: Yes, Solihull. We aim to have the production facility set-up and operational by the end of the year. And then the office part of it and the external parts of it sort of January, February time so we’re looking at an official opening of that facility in the new year and that’ll be a great cause for celebration, and hopefully you’ll join us.
Above: Norton Superlight
BS: Your title is Interim CEO, are you hoping that it’ll not be Interim for much longer? What are you plans?
JR: Well, to stay breathing is the first part of my plans at my age! I’m here as long as I can support the business, obviously there’s a lot of interest from a lot of interesting people who want to take this role on permanently and I’m here to carry us forward until that point when it’s made. So, I’m here for some months yet at least, probably not years, but definitely months. And given my background with TVS over the last seven years I expect I’ll be involved with the company going forward. But it’s very clear the sort of culture, the style of business, the way of doing business has been very firmly laid down by a combination of what’s right for TVS and what works for Norton and hopefully my successor will take it forward on the same basis I’ve been running it.
BS: A question about a deal that was signed three years ago with the Chinese firm, Zongshen, is that still alive? I heard some reports earlier this year that they were under-licence developing the 650 twin engine?
JR: Yes, that was a deal done by the old company and one of the big steps in building up this company is establishing all the supply chain relationships. We’ve got a relationship established with Zongshen, they’ve always been a good partner to the old Norton and everyone has good things to say about them, the way they operate and the way they support us. We’ve got a relationship established and we’ll be working with them on the 650 engine as we go forward.
BS: Speaking of which, one model we’ve not spoken about yet is the Superlight, is that going to be appearing in dealerships anytime soon?
JR: Yes, that’s the plan. When I talk about the Atlas range, I mean the whole gamut through the Superlight and not just the Nomad and the Ranger, and I think that’s one of the most exciting products that has come out of Norton, so I think that one has tremendous potential and we’ve got to make sure we can deliver that potential, that the bike can lives up to its look and its early test performance but yes, that’s definitely a bike we’d like to produce.
BS: There was some talk about a supercharged Superlight but what are your views on the standard combustion engine vs. alternative power be that supercharged, other forced induction or even electric power?
JR: Firstly, it’s inevitable. We can’t hold onto the past and hope the new thing goes away. We’ve got to get our heads around how do we create a Norton with electric power or hydrogen power, or whatever it might be. The biggest challenge for us, much like all manufacturers, is certainly the sound, the feel and some of the look comes from the current engine configuration and the idea of having an electric motorcycle isn’t the answer for many riders, you lose so much. So, our challenge is how do build the personality, how do we build the rawness, how do we build the gritiness into the motorcycle using one of the other alternative power sources. How do we do that in a way that’s not through a soundtrack or a vibrator, or whatever other thing you could use to do that, so we’ve got to find a way of finding the motorcycle in these alternative energy ideas.
You can certainly get the performance – electric gives you startling torque and power characteristics so that piece of it is a big tick but I think the actual sound and feel side of it is the piece where we need to do quite a bit of work.
And final thing is, it is relatively easy to create differentials between products around the engines are developed, the way they’re tuned, the way the sound is created but as you get particularly into EV it tends to be a generic characteristic around the sound and the feel. If we lose that ability to differentiate between a BMW, a Ducati, a Harley, a Norton, that becomes a real challenge for the industry. How do we create things that are meaningful for our customers and give us an advantage and a benefit against our competition?
It’s a big challenge but we’ve got to get on it, it’s not going to go away. Currently, the UK government’s talking about year 2030 as a possible deadline for banning the sale of petrol and diesel powered vehicles. It is 2035 but they want to bring it forward by five years, well that’s one-and-a-half engine development timeframes away, so in engineering terms that’s very, very close.
BS: Is that something that Norton is actually working on right now?
JR: There was nothing in place with the old Norton, I think they’d have had a big challenge and would have had to rely on proprietary drivetrain to develop that. We’ve got to develop our own, it’s on the plan, it’s not currently being worked on because we’ve got a tonne of other things to get the foundations in place.
TVS are working on EV but of course much of what they need on EV is very different to our requirement. They sell a lot of small engine, commuter, city travel two-wheelers and the need there is very different to putting it in a Commando or a V4 SS or whatever. We’re more where Harley have been and Harley is probably the first one to come up with something that’s excited the market but I think we all need to go further than that, and it’s a big challenge and we’ve just got to get our heads around it.
I think the other thing with EV, well not just EV itself, but the motorcycle industry has a lot to gain from connectiveness, from general digital capabilities and electronic aids. The motorcycles we’ll be selling in ten years’ time will be radically different, not just in power train terms but in the whole way stability control operates, the balance systems, safety warning systems which in many respects are more useful on motorcycles than they are on cars, so I think there’s a revolution to come through that side of motorcycle development.
BS: Norton’s got a great history in road racing, particularly around a certain island in the Irish Sea, and has come back with relative success in recent years…
JR: …which is amazing considering where the company has been…
BS: …yes it seemed more of a vanity project which we were all seduced by but what are the plans, are you likely to go road racing again with the brand?
JR: I think firstly, the history of Norton is so entwined with racing, I grew up in the era of Geoff Duke when the Manx Nortons were just coming to the end of their racing supremacy. They were extraordinary, they were the Hondas of their day, the Mercedes F1 of their day, their dominance in racing was absolutely extraordinary. And the interesting one is the difference between road racing as opposed to track racing is that it’s more about the combination of the rider and the bike on road racing, he’s less of a jockey and more of a partner in getting around the track – the bravery, the courage and the riding skills are just as important as the capabilities of the bike and I think that’s very much were Norton is, it’s a bike that brings the best out of the rider and we are drawn towards road racing generally, and the Isle of Man obviously as winners of the first TT and all the rest of it, so I cannot imagine a future without us being in racing and I suspect with a bias towards the road racing and maybe that is the first we get back into.
BS: Next year, maybe?
JR: We’d love to do it, along with a whole tonne of other things we’d love to do, so it’s which comes first. In terms of proving to the world that Norton is back, I think we need to be competitive in racing pretty soon, if there is one thing we can demonstrate that this Norton is the real Norton who are sustainably successful in racing. I’ll probably get about 20 people ringing me after this interview saying they’ve got a great idea for a team, come and have a look at my workshop, I can do it for you, I’ve got a contract with this rider!
I think it would be good for the sport with Norton coming back in, seriously and sustainably.
BS: Thank you so much for your time, I wish you every success both personally and for the brand as well. As a motorcycle enthusiast, as a British marque fan, as an out-and-out rider, I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Norton under its new ownership and guidance.