Walking through the doors of Norton’s new Donington Hall factory, there’s a buzz of excitement as we arrive for the world first test of Norton’s super exclusive new £24,000 Domiracer. Everyone of the Norton-branded staff knows why we’re here and there’s a nervous energy as the latest child from the Norton family is prepped and ready to leave the factory gates.
Over the years I’ve built up a personal friendship with Norton’s charismatic CEO, Stuart Garner, but it has taken me over a year to convince him to let me ride his new baby. Today is the day.
On the workbench with two of Norton’s engineers twirling spanners round it is the latest chapter in Norton’s rebirth history - the new Norton Domiracer. A stripped-down Cafe Racer that combines the best of classic and modern styling and parts to create the dream cafe racer for 2014.
It’s a nod towards Norton's history and also towards the whole scene taking place right now with Cafe Racers. It's the vision of the man who previously created the Triumph Daytona 675 when he was working down the road in Hinckley, and it's also two fingers up to the kind of homogenised soft and friendly production bikes coming out of bigger factories. You can tell by how angry it sits on the workbench there’s nothing friendly about this.
Just 50 of the super exclusive £24,000 bikes will be built. To get the bike road registered is another £2,000 for single vehicle type approval. Most buyers have taken the £2,000 option. Number one is obviously the first one to be finished since the prototype was first revealed back in July last year. Three others are beuing built on the production line as we get a guided tour of the factory. The modern Commando isn't exactly a heavy beast, but there's nothing too the Domiracer.
Domiracer #1 is getting its last minute prep before I’m handed the bike for the afternoon. I’m stunned by how incredible it looks.
In truth, I first got to see this bike at the end of 2012 in a dusty corner of Norton’s old factory at Donington Park as Norton CEO Stuart Garner and chief technical and design guru Skinner pulled the cover off to give me a sneak preview.
What’s immediately obvious is that it looks better than the original prototype. Where most prototypes begin to look worse as they get further away from the designer’s pure technical essence, corners are cut for costs, and things like lights and indicators get bolted on, the Domiracer looks incredible. Today in its finished production form the Domiracer is looking fitter than ever.
Gone are the red Brembo brake calipers so loved by the man whose brainchild this bike is – Head of Technical Simon Skinner. The yellow Ohlins spring has gone too, Norton choosing to powder coat the spring black to keep it in line with the black and aluminium feel of the new bike. The attitude is all angry bull ready to charge. It sits haunched forward like a wound-up England player entering into the scrum at Twickenham.
Everywhere you look there’s a unique detail, from the side-mounted filler cap on the hand-built aluminium tank that's made on-site to the carbon fibre air box cover where you'd expect to see a classic bike's oil tank.
Then there’s the beautifully moulded stubby carbon-fibre seat unit, the tubular steel swingarm, the fat fully adjustable forks, the black headlight, the polished yokes and those trumpet/megaphone exhausts. You could spend all day going round the bike and finding ever more intricate details.
It’s a Cafe Racer at its stripped down lightweight best.
Everything you see on the bike is either hand-made or assembled at the Norton factory, from the hand-bashed and rolled aluminium tank which takes three days to make, to the featherbed style frames which are made in the welding shop out back by Donington Hall’s lake.
The more time you spend with it the more you see.
Skinner is keen to point out that everywhere you look there’s detailing you will never find on another production bike, or even a custom builder for that matter. As Skinner says, a man building a bike in his shed will not have the ability to combine carbon fibre to this level and have access to technology like the Cad Cam drawing facilities. It means he can design and produce hand-made details like the machined brake levers or fine tune the end angles of the mudguard stays, let alone specify those curvy corners on the CNC-machined yokes.
The bike harks back to days gone by but combines modern style with Norton’s classic lines and hunched forward aggressive stance. It’s designed to be an aggressive hardcore version of a Cafe Racer and although it’s still a great-looking bike, the Norton Cafe Racer parked in the lobby looks big and blobby in comparison.
After what seems like forever, but is only anout half an hour, the Domiracer is wheeled outside and fired-up. One of the technicians warns me that I better have brought my ear plugs and describes the noise of the twin pipes exiting the 961cc Commando motor as ’90 angry Rottweilers’. He’s not wrong. You'd even struggle to hear East Midlands Aiport next door when this thing rolls into town.
The sound of the bike reverberating off the walls of the Norton factory is something your hearing will only ever want to hear once. Pardon? But what a sound. 961cc of pure Norton twin-cylinder angriness letting Leicestershire know that Norton certainly is back in business, and if you don’t believe it, listen to this. See the video of our test if you don't believe just how loud it can be.
Before I'm let loose I'm gently geminded that the #1 bike is Garner’s own personal bike and finally I’m handed it for the afternoon. There’s no key, just push in the kill switch, thumb the starter and let those Rottweilers loose.
The span adjustable clutch is a work of art and it’s reasonably light, the pegs are high, the bars are low. This is Cafe Racer in the extreme sense of the word and those open megaphone pipes only add to the experience. The man who created the bike from his brain and sketched it on piece of paper, Skinner, says there’s no way he will ever recreate a bike like this from start to finish as Norton get bigger and he hands down intricate detailing work to his growing team. It’s fair to say he’s proud. So much so he’s bought one himself.
The seat is short and stubby flat and racer like. You're concious of the fact tank which your knees fit into perfectly. It’s big and long and makes you stretch to the bars. The tank itself takes three days to make and I’m reminded not to watch the world trickle by in the reflection or watch the trees of the leafy Leicestershire lanes pass by in the mirror-like finish, and instead concentrate. Braaap, short shift, braaap, with just the right hint of popping on the overrun.
There’s no speedo, just a centrally-mounted rev-counter harking back to days gone by. Even the font is a blast from Norton’s history books. The detail in this bike is so incredible from the polished pretend oil filler cap where the seat foam meets the tank, to the mudguard supports. You could spend all day looking at it. But why look when you can ride?
The rev-counter goes up towards 8000rpm but in truth you never need to rev it. Just ride the torque and feel the stomp of the Norton motor. The team behind the bike did discussed whether or not to big bore the 961cc engine that usually sits in a Commando frame but it wasn’t deemed necessary. I’d agree. There’s enough go to keep all but the adrenaline junkie amused, but going fast isn’t what this bike is for. I probably didn’t go above 80mph all day.
You just tuck in and get your head down playing classic TT riders. Immerse yourself in that glorious sound which is surely only second to a MotoGP bike in sheer volume. Decibel reducers are available some of you will be pleased ro know.
Like I say, the big 961cc motor will rev but the motor feels happiest shifting around 4500rpm. Take it to 5000rpm and it gets a move on, all 80bhp of the in-line twin cylinder motor giving you plenty of urge to shove you back in the carbon fibre seat. And to be fair, 5000rpm is all my ears could cope with without ear plugs, if you haven't got the message already, the sound is that loud.
The whole experience makes you feel alive, and it’s raw. It was designed as a hardcore Cafe Racer and it’s certainly hit that brief.
It’s a full-on assault of the senses from the noise, down to the way the hard suspension and the vibes through the seat as you bob down the road half expecting to see a road fulkl of sixties cars like you’re in some kind of time warp. You have to keep reminding yourself you’re not riding a good-handling and fast classic bike.
Yet at the same time it all works like a modern bike should. The fuel-injection is spot-on and on the open pipes (aftermarket option) that we tested it on it was spot-on. Ask the throttle for more and it delivers in town or on the road.
The gearbox is positive and needs a decent change to engage but it works everytime, the Brembo front brakes have a lovely bite and feel to them. Okay so you could say the forks are set a little stiff but when I put this to the Norton team they said they’d done on purpose to give you the hardcore experience. Fair play, and although the front end is stiff it feels lovely when pinning it on the brakes.
Lean it over and the Dunlop tyres will let you lean it as far as you want. It’s not lightning quick to turn but gets into a corner fast enough and is completely stable over the bumps, despite the steep geometry and firm rear end.
A little more fiddling could soften it up a touch and still make the suspension work, but that’s not the point, Norton have set it up like this on purpose. Get hooked into the tank and bounce around back roads feeling like a ‘Ton-Up’ boy racing out of the Ace Cafe on a Friday night.
The chances of ever grinding the pegs are slim as they’re set far back and high up and I’d cry if it was my bike and I ever grounded those beautiful swept exhausts. Though in reality you’d never ride a bike like this hard enough to get it in that zone.
The bike is all about sunny Sunday afternoons and is an almost unique experience. You engage your best Sunday morning riding feeling and blat along the lanes without a worry in the world.
It’s a customised classic bike for the man who doesn’t want a classic and who doesn’t want the hassle of modifying his own Cafe Racer. To give you an idea, most people ordering them have a main bike and most have another Norton already. Some will probably never even ride them which is an absolute crime.
All 50 of them are sold and the team at Norton estimate that around 40 are staying in the UK, the rest going abroad. Some of the bikes are even leaving the factory without oil in them so they can be ornaments at home. Yes, it is a work of art, the kind of bike that a mass production company like Triumph could never produce.
It’s a bike that reminds you why you ride bikes in the first place. But parking it in the dining room is such a waste. Rarely have I ever ridden a bike that gathers so much attention when you’re riding it, and at a bike meet you’d be swamped. It works as well as it looks and that’s testimony to how far the Norton team has come in such a short space of time.
Sadly if you want one they’ve all been sold, unless we can convince Norton to make number 51 for us of course and believe me I’ve already tried that.
It’s not the same experience at all but if you really want a Norton you’ll either have to wait for the next bike from Skinner’s brain whatever that may be as he's not saying, or buy yourself a Commando 961 Cafe Racer.
Here's the video of the bike in action, turn your speakers up (or down if you're in the office!):
Massive thanks to all at Team Norton for trusting us with the Domiracer. Beers on Bike Social next time fellas.