When Stuart Garner bought the rights to Norton Motorcycles in 2009, the famed British brand had been bouncing around between owners since the 1950s. Since then, the brand has slowly but surely grown its portfolio of bikes, expanding from the Commando 961 that relaunched it a decade ago into a range of 10 models and submodels that stretch from the scrambler-like Atlas Ranger to the screaming high-performance V4 RR.
Norton’s newfound solid footing and steady expansion have done more than bring the brand back to prominence in the minds of motorcycle riders; it’s also helped the brand find new partners to work with that elevate its status further. In March, the motorcycle maker announced the fruits of a partnership with famed watchmaker Breitling: the Breitling Sport, a limited-edition motorcycle designed in conjunction with the timekeeping company.
Gear Patrol sat down with him in Breitling‘s New York showroom to discuss Norton‘s partnership with the watch brand, the changing face of motorcycle owners — and why he’ll never ride an electric motorcycle.
Q: How did this partnership come about?
A: Breitling called us. It was quite clear that Georges [Kern, Breitling ‘s CEO] and Breitling wanted to reposition [the brand] a little bit. We got a call to say, they were looking at different partnerships, with air, land and sea; they saw motorcycles as a great extension of land, [so] would we be interested? And what a brand Breitling is, with all the racing over the years with the Bentley relationship. And we said, we’d love to be a part of it.
And it was super-cool; they actually sent a couple of guys over to live with us for a few days, to check us out, to make sure that we were genuine. A lot of companies would just say, “Yep, sign that,” take a cheesy picture, and we’ve got a partnership. They actually came out and put the legwork in. And then we went back to see them, in their hometown. So we got to know each other before we ever did anything.
And both teams care about the products. When we went to look at how do you design a watch, how do you make a watch…the parallels were unbelievable. They start with a sketch in the design brief, then that goes to manufacturing, et cetera, et cetera. But all the time, with Breitling knowing where that watch is going to be positioned and what it needs to be, going through design and drawing through to engineering and manufacturing, exactly the same process as a motorcycle. So not only did we have some historic brand parallel, and a very strong, customer-focused pair of brands, we also had some really strong parallels in the way that we designed and manufactured.
When Georges and I chat, we totally focus on really cool, exclusive product, but [having it be] available in an inclusive way. The product’s exclusive, but everybody that’s interested is included. And its exclusivity in an inclusive way. And there’s not many brands that can capture that; you’re either super-inclusive and you’re mainstream, or it’s super-exclusive and it’s almost…there’s a bit of an arrogance, it’s just a bit stuffy, know?
And I think Breitling sees that, if you’re into your watches, you’re into your watches, and you deserve to be looked after and treated well, regardless of who you may be or how you may conduct yourself. And we do the same at Norton; it’s all about the motorbike. Whether you’re a guy cleaning the roads or a judge or a barrister, if you’re into your bikes, you’re into your bikes, and you’re very welcome at Norton.
Q: Norton’s been around for, what, 10 years now?
A: I bought it in October 2008.
Q: Back from the dead, basically. How has that been?
A: Oh, it’s been a huuuuge adventure.
Q: That’s a polite way of putting it. [laughs]
A: I would never do it again. Never ever. I would never not do it; I’m super glad I did it, but I’d never do another one. I think the pressure of a historically huge brand like Norton, bringing it back in the digital age — with websites and social media, Instagram, Facebook — you have so many people that know and follow the brand, from yesteryear that have a view, et cetera. And then so many people that see the brand for the first time today, in the last 10 years, you have to be so careful to respect the brand and respect all of the owners, whether they’re really old guys back from the `60s and `70s, or whether it’s a new owner from today. And that gives you kind of a very tight…margin for error, if you like, in the way that you bring the brand forwards and how inclusive you have to be to bring forwards the rider and owner from 1970 and also the rider and owner from 2019.
Q: How do you do that?
A: Ultimately, it’s all about the motorbike. Which is why we have great commonality with Georges and Breitling. But being about the motorbike and respecting the brand…it kind of finds its own way. You have to be almost less corporate and less restrictive; in a bizarre way, Norton finds its own way [all by] itself.
Q: It’s a little bit of a Field of Dreams thing. If you build it, they will come.
A: A hundred percent. On day one, when I purchased the brand, I looked back to 1898, and saw what Norton was doing. And I made a brand timeline, with the start being 1898 and the end being where I stood. And I kind of metaphorically looked over my shoulder, back to 1898, followed all those touchpoints to today, and then turned back and looked forwards. You kind of feel the brand behind you, pushing you in a direction. And somehow, it became very obvious: that’s the way the brand has to go. The weight of the brand behind you is telling you which way to go with it, and I think you would only get that if you’re into your bikes, and you understood, if you build it, they will come.
If you’re into your bikes, you go, “If I had a bike brand, I’d do that.” And if you’re an accountant, you’d look at the balance sheet, and make sure my materials were profitable and I had a good margin. We didn’t give a shit about that. It was about building a nice motorcycle. We didn’t do it to be wealthy. We did it to bring the brand back. And as a biker, we just wanted to make cool bikes. We got the brand right, but we only got the brand right because we built what we thought was the bike we all wanted.
Q: What would you say makes a Norton a Norton?
A: When we design it, we say, you need to take a little bit of your history, and bring that forwards to the next bike. but also you need to break a little bit of fresh ground, otherwise, it’s just same-old-same-old. We say, you need to see a bit of old in the new, and you need to see a bit of new. And the acid test for us is to take the name off the motorbike and be able to identify the bike from the silhouette and the visual. When we’ve done that, we know we’ve gotten the design right.
But there’s a heck of a lot that goes into understanding all of that. We go and do all of the motorcycle shows ourselves; we all ride bikes, we’ve all got our finger on what the next trend is, what other manufacturers are doing. And when you stand there and do the motorcycle shows, there’s nothing as honest and blunt as a motorcyclist. If you’ve got it wrong, they will kill you. In a very nice way: “Boys, that’s shit.”
I have a theory: If you’ve been a lifetime on your motorbike, it will have broken down; you’ll be out in the rain and get super-wet; you’ll be in a crash, somebody in a car will knock you off. You have to have some humility. It knocks away your ego and your arrogance. And as you design the bike and look to speak to bikers, if you are one and you understand that, you realize, you don’t need bullshit. Just do it honestly, and as you would expect as a customer and an owner and a rider. That’s been our biggest lesson, just keeping it about the bike.
Q: Who do you admire in the motorcycle space right now?
A: I think over in India, Royal Enfield are doing very well. Not particularly in the big bike space, but as a brand, the last few years, phenomenal how they’ve come forwards. I think Indian have done a great job, with the guys positioning the brand into Harley, bringing out the FTR and some of their new models. Polaris has done a great job in buying that brand. Very brave to close Victory, and then go pretty full-on with Indian. Very, very brave decision by corporate to close a company that had strong revenue overnight and go, “Right, we’ve got Indian.” Super-brave, I couldn’t believe it. But they’ve proven to be absolutely right.
I think the industry in some ways is in a little bit of trouble, because the dynamic of the industry is changing. What motorcyclists want is changing. Everybody’s chased big bikes, horsepower and stats, and I think you see the retro, the coolness and the simplicity coming back. And I think some brands probably aren’t as prepared for that as they should be. I think lifestyle is going to become more of a factor; lifestyle of the brand, of the bike. If you buy a Norton, or a Harley, or an Indian, it’s a lifestyle proposition. It’s not about the numbers. And we continually, as a society, are becoming more brand- and lifestyle-driven. I think some of the Japanese brands will struggle to do lifestyle; they’re big volume guys, and they do big volume brilliantly like nobody else can. But equally, lifestyle proposition is difficult for some of those guys. So I think some of the smaller niche brands have probably got a strong future in the next few years, as it feels like that’s where the market’s going. Who knows. I hope I’m right! That’s where we’re headed.
It feels like that’s where the market’s going. There’s a few demographic changes; in the U.K., lady riders are the fastest-growing demographic. And we see 40-, 50-, 60-year-olds coming to bikes for the first time. They didn’t have a bike when they were 18 or 20, they didn’t have a bike, ever! And now they’re going, “Hey, that looks cool.” And they’re buying a motorcycle and taking their test for the first time.
There’s starting to become a coolness about having a motorcycle. Not in a Harley-Davidson way, where you’re foot-first, and you’ve got your tassels and your hells angels — it’s not in that way. It’s the coolness of having a ride out with your friends. I see the first signs of motorcycling becoming a nice, well-to-do pastime, where for a long time, it’s been kind of frowned-upon. It’s noisy, it’s loud, anti-social; motorcycles have carried that stigma, but I can see that changing a little bit. Maybe it’s already changed and we’re past that already.
And it would be a great thing if that happens, because it would kind of clean up the industry, in a way. Give the industry a nicer feel and a bit better reputation. ‘Cause, well, that stuff goes back to the 60s, when they were doing cafe racers, y’know? And fighting guys on scooters. 60 years ago.
Q: How do you see technology changing the motorcycle experience?
A: A motorcyclist is just about the purest petrolhead you can find. So…if you enjoy your big V8 or your V12, you probably don’t want to kill that with technology. And that’s not an [anti-] electric vehicle statement…you don’t want endless traction control and a Tiptronic gearbox. You want a manual. You want traction control off. You wanna drive the car. Motorcycling is about the purest form of speed. In essence, you sit on an engine with wheels. So there’s an element where, if you’re on a track bike, and you want your rider aids and your anti-wheelie and launch control, we have that — we have all that at Norton, and it takes the bike into a level of performance that you pretty well gotta be a professional rider to maximize and enjoy. We see a lot of our guys and girls, they want the rawness of motorcycling. It’s almost an escape from technology.
And I think one of the reasons why some of the retro bikes are super-cool and coming back, the simplicity of riding a 1950s, `60s, `70s bike is so refreshing! I’ve not got the digital screen; I’ve got four gears. It’s so easy, and it’s not fast, so it’s enjoyable. It doesn’t feel dangerous, because I’m not going that fast. The simplicity of riding the bike means I’ve got more mind space to enjoy the ride more. I think there’s a place for technology in the sports bike market, primarily for track days, and maybe some of the cruisers just to make long rides a bit more comforting. But general motorcycling, I think, is everything technology isn’t. Because it’s about that free spirit, the wind in your face — you know.
We’re not technology-driven at Norton. We have it — bristling on our V4 bike, it’s all over — but if you ask me what’s my favorite bike, it’s my 1950s 500cc single. It’s just so easy to ride. You get on it, and off you go. Beautifully simple.
Q: Have you tried riding any of the EV bikes that are coming out?
A: Man, I don’t wanna do something that’ll make me turn in my grave in years to come. No, I’ve not.
I think…y’know, we all want to leave the planet better than we found it. We’re learning that now. We didn’t know this shit 30, 40, 50 years ago. We’ve obliviously kinda destroyed sections of the planet. I don’t think anyone would say that’s a good thing, or that they’ve enjoyed it. And we all want to do the right thing. But…I think the technology hasn’t shown itself yet, for cars or motorbikes. Full electric, to me, doesn’t seem to be the correct way for cars. and certainly doesn’t work for motorbikes. It works for A-to-B, short mobility, for a motorcycle. It works, for sure, off-road, in a 20-30 minute competition, motocrossing or similar; you’ve got less noise, it’s less anti-social; probably cruising, where you can have a bigger battery, that probably works. But general motorcyclists, battery-limited performance, limited range — the concept doesn’t work at all.
When you come away from the concept and the practicality of it, when you start your bike, what’s the first thing you do? Put your key in, start the bike, rah, rah — you give it a couple revs! Motorbiking’s all about the visceral experience. It’s not just about the speed or the look, it’s the whole package. The sight, the smell, the noise. And an electric bike doesn’t give that visceral experience that a combustion engine does.
And I think we’re kind of playing with fire if we all move over to electric. It could ruin the industry. And it might be different in a couple of generations, when we haven’t experienced the smell of two-stroke and the noise of V8s or a big V4 screaming along, or a 500 single. But at the moment, I think if we move too quickly, we risk losing some bikers. And you might see some of the old retros just become everlasting, just because nobody wants to go electric.
And, y’know — it’s interesting, isn’t it, the planet thing? I think we need to find solutions that work commercially, that are commercially viable and sustainable, and not forced upon industries. And I do have concerns about the electric market and emissions being forced upon the motorcycle market by politicians. And in some instances, I don’t think it’s suitable. And I wouldn’t like to see an industry and jobs ruined because of this EV push. I think if we’re sensible, there are categories and sectors where it could work, and there are categories and sectors where it won’t work. But as yet, I don’t think we’ve found the solution.
We’re probably at the front end of looking at hybrid. So far as I know, nothing’s being launched or delivered in a hybrid motorcycle, but if anybody can crack hybrid…you could be zero emissions in town, because everybody wants that, but have full combustion engine out of town. And I think maybe there’s a compromise there, where the industry could move forwards and have a really sustainable, valuable product.
As a small company like Norton…we can’t afford to be the first mover, to break new technology. We can’t risk putting our investment into a technology that might be the wrong one. So we’ve gotta look to see which technology is gonna be industry standard and adopted, and then move to get behind it. But for now, we’re full-on petrolheads, and fully committed to motorbikes as we all know them.
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