Motoring: Norton returns ... at 225mph

The troubled marque has plans for a superbike - but a German rival could trump it, writes Roland Brown

Once-mighty Norton is celebrating its centenary this year amid controversy that must be causing the founder, James Lansdowne Norton, to turn in his grave.

Norton Motors International, owned by the Canadian-based Aquilini property group, recently revealed a remarkable 1,500cc V8 superbike, the Nemesis, to be produced at its factory at Shenstone, in Staffordshire, later this year.

If this does reach production it will signify a tremendous comeback for Norton. The V8's 260bhp output and 225mph top speed would make it by far the world's fastest and most powerful superbike. But as usual with Norton, the story is more complex than it seems. The Nemesis is a concept bike that requires much development before being ready for production. Meanwhile another new Norton is already being produced - by Norton Motors Deutschland, the former German importer, which owns rights to the Norton name in most European countries except Britain. The C652SM is being built by Tigcraft, of Farnborough.

In contrast to the futuristic Nemesis, the C652SM is a simple roadster powered by the single-cylinder engine from BMW's F650. Despite being assembled in Farnborough, the C652SM cannot be sold in Britain. When the first 15 bikes are completed at the end of this month they will be shipped to Norton Motors Deutschland's base near Munich. Most have been sold to German enthusiasts.

There is no love lost between the Canadian owners of Norton Motors International and Joe Seifert, boss of Norton Motors Deutschland. Seifert and Tigcraft have been issued with writs attempting to prevent them from producing the C652SM, although NMI accepts that Seifert has registered the Norton name in some countries.

Seifert, an enthusiast who sells spares for old Nortons and races one in classic events, is convinced that while the Nemesis may attract investment, it will never reach production. "It seems remarkable that NMI should present these proposals as the basis for a serious business plan to prospective shareholders," he says.

The Canadian-owned firm's proposals are certainly ambitious. According to NMI, the Nemesis will outperform Honda's CBR1100XX Super Blackbird, currently the world's fastest bike, by almost 50mph. It will also incorporate features such as a magnesium frame, active suspension and a push-button gear-change and clutch, none of which has yet been seen on a production bike.

According to NMI, the Nemesis will be the flagship of a range including four-cylinder superbikes, a cruiser, the Commando, with a different 1500cc V8 engine, and single-cylinder models. All have been designed by Al Melling, of Melling Consultancy Design in Rochdale, Lancashire.

Melling, 54, says he has worked for many leading car and bike manufacturers. He is known in the automotive world for his work on a controversial but ultimately successful V8 engine for the sports car firm TVR. It may be relevant that the specification of the Nemesis is very similar to that of the Melling-designed 1500cc V8 announced several years ago by March, an American-owned firm that recently formed a partnership with Norton. That bike was due for production in 1996 but was never built. March's UK base at Bicester in Oxfordshire is now closed.

Unlike the exotic Nemesis, the rival Norton firm's C652SM is a down-to- earth single-cylinder roadster that combines the 652cc BMW engine with a chassis based on that of Tigcraft's successful single-cylinder racing bike. The liquid-cooled, four-valve engine sits in a rigid tubular steel frame, which holds high-quality conventional cycle parts.

Styling is retro, with traditional Norton silver paint and low handlebars. The BMW engine produces a maximum of 47bhp - enough for a top speed of just over 100mph. The Norton is lively, pulling cleanly from low revs and reaching about 80mph before typical single-cylinder vibration becomes tiresome.

Where this Norton really scores is with its race-bred handling. The single's light weight (just 158kg) and taut suspension combine with its sticky tyres and powerful single front Brembo disc brake to make it great fun on a twisty road - though there are plenty of cheaper and more powerful machines on the market.

One problem for British Norton enthusiasts is that because the C652SM cannot legally be sold in this country it would have to be bought from Norton Motors Deutschland (00 49 8151 28 708) and personally imported, with the buyer paying VAT on top of the basic price of DM 18,100 - a total of just over pounds 7,000.

Alternatively, those looking for a more powerful Norton could wait for the 225mph Nemesis V8 to reach production. Such an event would be the perfect way to celebrate Norton's centenary - but, sadly, the wait may be a long one.

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