49. The Final Days Inside NVT / 1974
Norton Villiers Triumph is no more, or at least is now so small that it’s not truly a major manufacturer.
What went wrong?
There have been plenty of accusations: bad management, poor labour relations, government mishandling and lack of competitive motorcycles. These are all reasons but to pinpoint the blame would be impossible and would not change the result.
For Norton it has been an especially sad time. The Company had regained a little of the respect held in the Bracebridge Street days but, ironically, it was a decision by the man who rescued the name in 1966 that brought its final downfall.
Had Dennis Poore not accepted the challenge to save the BSA and Triumph group as well, Norton Villiers would still be going strong.
Norton Commando US / 1967
Roger Jordan started working in the Wolverhampton drawing office of Norton Villiers on March 1st, 1967, Bob Trigg, destined to become the Chief Engineer, had started, two days earlier. They were the first members of a new design team to be set up by Dr Stefan Bauer, the new Director of Engineering.
It was their job to create the engineering, which would launch new products for the newly re-formed company, but most drawing offices are ivory towers, refuges where draftmen, like recluses can contemplate the world from afar. Dr Bauer would be the first to admit, that he knew very little about motorcycles, but his enthusiasm and engineering expertise led to the Norton Commando and the AJS Stormer.
Already recruited by Dennis Poore were, the ex-Villiers engineers Bernard Hooper and John Faville, of Starmaker fame. The new design team were assembled at the Villiers works in Wolverhampton, away from the problems of the Woolwich based Norton production line in London.
Meriden / 1974
The first requirement was a replacement for the aging Atlas, a four-cylinder engine was ruled out, on cost grounds, and Norton and Villiers were still in the hands of the receivers, so money was scarce. The first engine chosen was the twin-cylinder double knocker, which had been quietly developed at Woolwich. The output figures of the engine were good, and performance of the machine was impressive, its design also held promise for further development, although its prototype was pretty rough.
Its bugbear was vibration, so it was decided to rubber-mount the engine, Norton had already tried this in London, by rubber-mounting a Dominator engine in a Featherbed frame. But their experiment only proved, that some form of positive side location, for the engine, would be necessary, to stop the chain peeling off during acceleration.
At this stage, Dr Bauer’s new broom began its clean sweep.
All the design team had assumed that the successful Featherbed frame would continue, but Dr Bauer denounced it as being an unsound engineering structure, relying on the engine/gearbox unit for its strength. Rubber mounting would rob the frame of this support, so a completely new frame was required.
The frame, which they evolved, had a large diameter backbone tube from the headlug with a triangulation of small tubes down to the swinging arm pivot. Apart from a design oversight, which resulted in the first production frames failing, it was eventually a success.
Then the first management “about turn” took place, they decided it would take too long to put the double knocker engine into production, so the faithful but aging Atlas engine was to be continued, this was the first, of many management ‘about faces’.
However, the summer of 1967 saw the company in an expansive mood. More design and development staff were recruited, and the Commando took shape on the drawing board, then came the prototype.
A consultancy firm, Wolff Olins, was also engaged in the project, their contribution to the Commando was the styling of the petrol tank, seat and rear fairing, which had the desired effect of attracting attention.
We also now had the green ball symbol, which became more a joke than a meaningful trademark. By show time a prototype was complete, but not in running order. It had taken thirteen weeks from a clean sheet of paper to the machine on display, at the Earls Court Show, the Commando was a great success, and pulled in big crowds.
After the excitement of the show, came the painstaking period of development, the first working prototype was built at Woolwich and brought to Wolverhampton. During the early part of 1968, Bill Brooker, a gentle giant from Woolwich, was brought up to the Midlands as the full-time test rider.
Bill became very enthusiastic about the project and would demonstrate the vibration-free qualities of the design by riding without his boots on. For final development and preparation for production, the Commando returned to Woolwich where it would be manufactured.
Many thousands of miles were put on the final production prototype, enthusiasm for the new model was high, and the machine was never short of a pilot.
Wolff Olins pitch to Norton Villiers
At Wolverhampton, the attention now turned to the AJS Scrambler, but the company had problems. The manpower build-up had been too quick, the financial burden proved too large, with the inevitable redundancies. All departments were ruthlessly cut, so quick was the redundancy decisions that one person was recruited on a Monday, and asked to leave on the Wednesday. AJS recruited a number of works riders, but there was never complete harmony between employee and employer, in this environment.
Freddie Mayes, Chris Horsfield, Dick Clayton, Jimmy Aird, Malcolm Davis and Andy Roberton, all rode for the factory team in the early days, but with the exception of the latter two, didn’t stay long.
In early November 1968, the AJS development team set up in premises on Thruxton airfield in Hampshire. Pioneering times, converting the old RAF buildings into habitable workshops, one problem was the electricity supply; the fuses would blow if too many heaters were put on at the same time and so isolated was the building, that on one occation a member of staff was lost in a blizzard, for two hours, trapped by the perimeter fencing.
Under terrible conditions, their enthusiasm unnoticed, the development team produced the AJS Stormer. Their keeness for the job may have mislead the management team into believing that all the employees had the same dedication, and this lack of management/worker awareness was indemic, throughout the company. The shoddy workmanship of the Norton Commando was the result, but the isolation of the Thruxton team meant the Stormer didn’t suffer the same fate.
In 1969 the Woolwich factory closed, and the manufacture of engines and components for the Commando was transferred to Wolverhampton, and the assembly line to the new premises in Andover. This meant an additional frieght cost of 120 miles for each Commando produced; it was obvious that this financial burden could not be carried for long. Despite management statements to the contary, many of the Andover workforce, some had moved from Woolwich, felt very insecure.
FB AJS Stormer 250cc Enhanced / 1974
Bill Smith, Sales Director, went, then Ron Price, the companies PRO, left within weeks of arriving. Talent galore was axed, two Managing Directors came and went, and by 1970 others like John Mc Dermott had gone, along with Dave Poole, a very clever production director and Norman Ryan, the General Manager, recruited from Ford. Loyalty, which was freely given, became less freely given and insecurity continued to spread, like fear.
Nortons were selling well and as every bike went out of the door, money came in; the emphasis was on production rather than quality.
A shortsighted policy, which led to large, warranty bills. After the initial frame failures, due to a design fault, the Woolwich machines were of a high manufacturing quality, but now an all time low was reached, the hard earned respect for the Norton name was being thrown away with production issues from the Andover and Wolverhampton machines.
In early 1970 the drawing office returned to Wolverhampton. This did not improve the morale in Andover, as it was generally considered to be the start of an enevitable move up north.
The struggle for quality continued, throughout that year. Weekly meetings on, quality control, modifications and other production issues, ground through the machines problems but progress was painstakingly slow; there was always a good financial reason for not going ahead with this change, or that. The warranty bill through from 1971 was enormous. It could be piston rings, porous head castings, faulty valve guides, any combination or even all. Every unsold bike had its piston rings and valve guides replaced, and as more customers complained, their bikes were also modified.
Next in 1972 the main bearings began to fail, the cost of new bearings, £5, and the labour to replace them, £20, this accounted for most of the profit on a new bike, and this also continued, worst still, to drag the Norton name through the mud.
Then came the dockers strikes of 1973, the export spares and bikes lay in warehouses for weeks, feedback of technical information apparently began to go unheeded and requests for help on service problems were answered with, “Sorry, we haven’t come across that problem before”.
The Commando 850cc models were a consolation, the quality was much better, and reliability was greatly improved. The Interstate model became very popular with the touring fraternity and at last the company was beginning to move in the right direction, but at what cost.
FB AJS Stormer 250cc Enhanced / 1974
That decision mentioned at the beginning, expanding from Norton Villiers, to Norton Villiers Triumph, for whatever reason, political or finacial, proved to be a ‘Bridge to Far’.