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British Industrial History

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James Lansdowne Norton

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James Lansdowne Norton (1868-1925)

1868 Born in Birmingham the son of James Norton, a Cabinet maker.

He showed mechanical ability at an early age and made a model steam engine at the age of ten but began his working life as an apprentice toolmaker in the jewellery trade but soon realised that his career was in engineering.

Started The Norton Manufacturing Company at the age of 29 in 1898 at premises in Bradford Street, Birmingham. Initially supplying bicycle spare parts he progressed to fully assembled bicycles. Norton's business was interrupted when he went down with a severe bout of rheumatic fever in 1888. He went on a seatrip to New York and back which helped him to recover but he suffered ill health all his life which prematurely aged him and led to his nickname 'Pa'.

Norton met Charles Garrard, who worked for the French Clément engine company and in 1902 Norton made his first powered motorcycle called the "Energette" with a single-cylinder 143cc Clément engine made in Belgium. A fully restored example of the first Norton motorcycle is on display at the National Motorcycle Museum near Birmingham. Norton also used larger capacity Moto-Reve V-twin engines from Switzerland and Peugeot engines from France.

In 1907 Rem Fowler entered a Norton motorcycle in the first Isle of Man TT race and won the twin cylinder class, beginning Norton's racing career. Pa Norton was on the island for this race to look after the machine and act as the pit attendant.

In 1909 Norton exhibited motorcycles with his own engine design at the Stanley Show, the Big Four side valve single which remained in production until 1954. He went on to develop a prototype overhead-valve engine in 1922 with which Dan O'Donovan set a new world record for the 500cc kilometre at 89 mph. A road going motorcycle, the Norton Model 18 was launched in 1923 and became a best seller, as well as establishing many records, including Alec Bennet's Senior TT win.

1911 Living at 12 Sampson Road, Birmingham: James Norton (age 68 born Birmingham), Cabinet Maker - Employer (and Widower). With his son James Lansdowne Norton (age 42 born Birmingham), Manager of Motor Cycle Works - Employer. Also his DIL Sarah Norton (age 39 born Birmingham) and his four grandchildren; Ethel S. Norton (age 10 born Birmingham); James L. Norton (age 5 born Birmingham); Grace S. Norton (age 3 born Birmingham); and Henry S. Norton (age 1 born Birmingham).[1]

James Norton was a great engineer but struggled with the business and his company went into liquidation in 1913, being bought by Bob Shelley, who owned an automotive accessories manufacturing business


1924/25 Obituary [2]

James Lansdowne Norton was founder of the firm of Norton, and one of the best-known motor-cycle manufacturers in the country.

He was born in 1868 and his connection with the industry dates from 1901, when he commenced to build and repair cycles and motor cycles. Later, he designed the Norton motor cycle which, in its early days, was fitted with the Peugeot engine, but eventually Mr. Norton designed and produced a single-cylinder engine. The popularity of the machine steadily progressed, and its designer ultimately had the satisfaction of seeing it win the T. T. Race.

Mr. Norton had for years been a victim to the incurable disease to which he succumbed on 21st April, 1925.

He was elected a Member of the Institution of Automobile Engineers in 1918.


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