Racing success does not always equate to success with the buying public
Feature Article from Hemmings Sports Exotic Car
It took over 18 years for Norton to adapt a Wankel rotary engine into their own motorcycle chassis. Research and development on the rotary Wankel began during 1969 at the BSA Group Research Centre in Kitts Green. The Wankel engine was based on a Sachs air-cooled rotary used in the German-built DKW/Hercules model W2000.
A final agreement with Audi/NSU to market the rotary engine in a production motorcycle was signed in August of 1972, and the project survived the absorption of the Norton Villiers Group into Triumph/BSA in 1973. A Norton prototype was announced in several motorcycle magazines in 1974, but they did not reach actual production until 1987. They were first produced as an air-cooled version in the Norton Interpol 2 police model P41.
In 1988, Norton changed to a water-cooled rotary and released the police/military touring model P52 Interpol 2A. They were made available to the public as a Commando 588 model P53 in the same year.
The new Commandos were not well received by the riding public, and sales were sparse; however, Brian Crighton, an employee of Norton, spent many off-hours tweaking the rotary engine to squeeze more horsepower and performance out of it. In its stock configuration, the Wankel produced about 85hp; however, Crighton was able to tweak that up to 96hp with some modifications.
This convinced the management that a rotary-propelled race bike was feasible, and although he was not put in charge of any Norton racing motorcycle program per se, Brian was allowed to scavenge parts from used and damaged police bikes and continue to work on the prototype on his own time. With the help of a few friends, Crighton was able to modify the carburetion and cooling system and beef up the performance to over 125hp while retaining the stock 9.2:1 compression.
After testing at over 155 MPH, the team addressed some handling issues by having a custom Spondon aluminum frame built for it. This lightened the bike and increased the horsepower even further. The Norton Wankel race bike dubbed the RCW588 received John Player Special sponsorship in 1989 and went on to set several speed records and achieve superbike victories, including the 1992 Isle of Man Senior TT under Steve Hislop and a 1994 Superbike win under Ian Simpson.
Norton factory racers Ron Haslam and Steve Spray also enjoyed success on 588cc rotary-powered Norton racers.
On the retail side, Norton continued to market the Wankel-engined machines as the P53 Commander touring bike and the P43 Classic sport bike. Less than 110 of the Classics were built using the air-cooled version of the rotary engine. In 1989, the model P55 John Player Special Norton F-1 was produced, and later a P55B model F-1 Sport. The F-1 was a less powerful version of the RWC588 race bike, at 94hp, although it was mounted on the same Spondon frame.
The F-1 weighed less than 425 pounds, and this made it very racy. Quarter-mile times were in the mid-11s, and top speed was about 155 MPH. An additional rotary-based model, the Interplus was introduced in 1992 as a sport-touring bike.
Race track success did not equate to unit sales, however. The rotary Nortons did not survive for very long in touring bike market, and the F-1 enjoyed only modest success.
Nortons continue to draw attention at many classic motorcycle auctions and shows today. That interest has recently been fueled by the release of the new Norton 961SS Commando and SE models by the new Norton Motorcycle Company. The iconic Norton motorcycle will also be one of our featured marques at the Hemmings Sports Exotic Car Show on August 7, 2010, at the Saratoga Auto Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York.
This article originally appeared in the July, 2010 issue of Hemmings Sports Exotic Car.
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