After a year of sales in the United Kingdom, Norton Motorcycles are nearly ready to be released in the United States.
The British brand has been revived by Norton Motorcycles Ltd. CEO and owner Stuart Garner, and its reintroduction into the United States is being led by former Ducati executive Dan Van Epps.
Three models are planned for release in the United States this coming spring, and Van Epps is looking to create a new dealer network.
The brand has returned after Garner obtained the rights to its name a few years ago. In the mid-2000s, one of Garner’s businesses, Spondon Engineering, a motorcycle frame building company, began working on frames for Norton race bikes. At the time, the company had requested to use the Norton name, and the request was approved, Van Epps said. About a year later, the Americans who owned the rights to the name sold them to Garner.
At that point Garner began conceiving new Norton models, and about a year ago, the bikes were released in the United Kingdom. Now the company is expanding to the United States, looking to grow in what it considers an equally important market as its home market.
“Now is the right time to expand out of the U.K. market, once they’ve got all the ducks in a row,” Van Epps said.
The bikes set to be released around May in the United States are the traditional Commando 961 Sport, the 961 Café racer and the 961 SE, a performance-oriented cycle. Each will feature a 961cc computer-controlled, fuel-injected, parallel twin engine with Ohlins suspension and Brembo brakes.
The bikes are manufactured at Castle Donington at the Donington Grand Prix racetrack in the United Kingdom, and they’re built primarily with British parts.
“That’s going to be one of our core identifiers is a truly British motorcycle,” Van Epps said.
In the United States, the motorcycles will retail starting at $15,000-$16,000 and top off close to $20,000 with special versions likely retailing above $20,000.
“It’s a bit more expensive, but the quality is very, very high,” Van Epps said.
The bikes will be available for distribution after they have been found in compliance with American safety and emission standards.
“We are engaged now in the homologation process for motorcycles in the U.S.A. That process takes about six months,” Van Epps said.
The bikes will first be approved in 49 states before Norton goes through the California Air Resource Board for clearance in that state.
As Norton Motorcycles USA, the only subsidiary planned for the company, grows in the United States, a dealer network will begin to emerge. As of mid-December the dealer solicitation process had not yet begun, but the company already has some prospects.
“We’ve received a surprising number of inquiries, very strong inquiries,” Van Epps reported. “I’m happy to say most of those dealers really fit the profile of what we’re looking for.”
The best dealer candidates for Norton will be those who are well-funded, have experience with European brands and are dedicated to customer service.
The commitment would probably include carrying the full model line, which at most would likely be four to five models, and a demonstration model. It’s also likely Norton would like about 20 units sold per dealership per year.
“In terms of hard numbers, there’s no hard numbers I have in mind,” Van Epps said. “I do believe we need to be a significant enough contributor to their bottom line at a dealership for them to invest in Norton.”
Along with the flooring and sales committments, the company also will ask that each dealership have a Norton “ombudsman,” which Van Epps defines as “one contact in the dealer who has access to all of the information in the communication, one person we can reach out to.”
Norton is being careful with establishing its dealer network after the company has seen what it determines to be missteps within other OEMs’ networks.
“We’re lucky that we’ve kind of developed this approach to the market in a completely new way. You might call it the Norton way,” Van Epps said.
His concern is that with other OEMs, dealers have too much inventory, weak or non-existent margins, and they pay too much for flooring.
“I think the fundamental problem in the market right now is for any given brand there’s just too many dealers in any market area,” he added.
Norton plans to be selective with its dealer network, only releasing product in major markets to start and verifying dealerships are spaced apart. The hope is to launch in about 50 dealerships in 2011 and sell about 500 units.
In addition to maintaining a small dealer network, Van Epps said the company will also support its dealers by practicing strict inventory control, almost on a build-to-order?basis,?simplifying communication and shipping everything directly into and out of the headquarters in the United Kingdom.
“It’s a pretty simple approach to our dealer solicitation process. Someone’s going to contact us; we’re going to send them an application, and then we’ll ensure they’re in a market that’s large enough to support a Norton dealership,” he explained.
As the brand expands in the United States, it will look at marketing to both its dealer network and the public, both of which Van Epps finds important.
“Clearly we need to have a presence in dealers, and we need to deliver the Norton story and the Norton way to our dealers, so they can be part of the team, and much of that is going to be face-to-face,” he said. “We have a lot of travel ahead of us.”
To gain public enthusiasm for the brand, Norton will be present at events nationwide, including dealer open houses, demo rides, vintage shows, consumer shows, charity rides and races. The company also plans to market its international website, www.nortonmotorcycles.com.
“Kind of any place where motorcyclists congregate, we want to be there,” Van Epps said.
With the launch of the website, Van Epps’ informational e-mail account and the first press release from the company, the CEO of the American subsidy has already heard a buzz about Norton’s return from dealers and prospective buyers.
“It’s really, really exciting to be talking about the future, looking into tomorrow,” he said. PSB
From 1902 forward: A look back at the history of Norton Motorcycles
The history of Norton motorcycles is long and storied. Here are the highlights: