Norton’s collapse into administration has been described by a national newspaper, under a headline which includes the words acrimony and scandal, as a “pile-up that includes hundreds of hapless pension holders, together with unsuspecting Norton customers, staff and even government ministers who repeatedly endorsed Norton as millions of pounds of taxpayer support flowed into the firm.”
“All will take a lot of persuading,” says The Guardian, “that this is merely the story of a plucky British company that is a victim of circumstance. Their anger looks likely to be directed principally towards one man: Norton’s boss Stuart Garner.”
The complainants will be joined by one other man, TT hero John McGuinness, who not so long ago posted a message to the world which said “If anyone sees Stuart Garner ask him to give me a ring.” He claims that Garner owes him £60,000 from last year’s TT.
It had long been known within the industry that Norton was in financial trouble. The trade magazine British Dealer News carried a full page in the November issue headlined “Pension fund used ‘to finance Norton’”. It followed an inquiry into the pension affairs of the company and the suspension of Garner as a trustee.
Norton, one of the most famous brands in motorcycling and racing in particular, is no stranger to the financial problems of being a British motorcycle manufacturer, Triumph being a notable exception. In 1953 it was bought out by Associated Motorcycles (AMC) which in turn went bust 13 years later to be reformed as Norton Villers owned by Manganese Bronze Holdings Ltd and run by Dennis Poore. But the competition from Japan was becoming intense.
In 1972 BSA, which also owned Triumph, hit the financial buffers after a valiant attempt to restore its fortunes via racing. It was rescued by the government of the time but only on condition that they merged with Norton Villiers and a new company Norton Villers Triumph emerged with new models like the Commando, rubber-mounted engine and all.
Following many industrial disputes, a feature of the 1970s, mounting losses, the conversion of Triumph to a workers co-operative and the government asking for its money back, the company was again in serious financial trouble. NVT went into liquidation and the brands separated.
Triumph was bought by a house builder John Bloor and against all predictions is an amazing success. Rights to the Norton brand were split between the UK, the US and Germany but the 80s and 90s saw Norton’s racing heritage, introducing a Wankel engine, reignited with great success in Superbike series in the UK and the IoM with riders such as Steve Hislop, Steve Spray and Trevor Nation in the saddle and John Player as a sponsor.
But it couldn’t last. The rights to the brand in the US and UK had been acquired by Kenny Dreer in Oregon, a restorer who went onto producing whole machines. In 2006 operations ceased and it was bought by Garner.
What does administration mean? A winding-up order from HMRC for unpaid tax, said to be £300,000, has forced the company, which is based at Castle Donington and includes Donington Hall Estates and the Priest House Hotel, into the hands of the hands of London accountancy firm BDO.
Their role is to raise as much money as possible from the sale of the assets of the companies to pay off the debts. They also have a duty to other stakeholders including the staff.
So the future of one of the most famous marques in motor cycling, founded in 1898 and winner of the first TT in 1907 ridden by Rem Fowler, is once again uncertain.
In a statement Garner said: “I’m devastated at the events over the last 24 hours and personally have lost everything. However, my thoughts are with the Norton team and everyone involved from customers, suppliers and shareholders at this truly difficult time. We are now working positively with BDO to ensure Norton has the best possible chance to find a buyer.”