Norton-Wankel. The Victory of the Underdog.

Back in the 1970s, when the Japanese motorcycles started to take over the world, Norton was just another iconic, traditional British bike brand struggling to survive.

Geoff Duke, riding the Works Norton 500cc. Both rider and bike became the World Champions of Moto GP, 1951.

A mix of mismanagement and lack of innovation brought the company very close to bankruptcy, but it was in the late 1960s that Norton had a spark of brilliance, the engineering development team concluded that the best way to defend the company against the Japanese attack would be adopting a new and revolutionary technology, the rotary engine.

The Wankel Engine.

One can write a whole book explaining why the internal combustion, reciprocating piston engine is an absurdity in terms of fuel and thermal efficiency, but it was only around the 1950s the development of alternative engines started to pick up some momentum.

Around the late 1960s, the Wankel rotary engine seemed to be the most promising “revolutionary” engine. The original design was created by the German engineer Felix Wankel in 1929 but only became fully developed in 1957. Mazda was the only automaker to mass-produce a car equipped with the rotary engine, the RX-7, and on two wheels, Suzuki was another enthusiast of the Wankel.

Norton was somehow confident the new engine would give the company the advantage needed against the Japanese bikes, but the process was long and painful. It took more than 18 years to put a rotary-powered Norton bike on the streets. The development began in 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. The Norton prototype was ready in 1972, at the same time the company finally got the license to use the engine from Auto-Union Group (the company that later on became Audi) the legal owner of the Wankel brand.

In 1973, Norton was absorbed by the BSA/Triumph group, and somehow the Wankel project survived all the complications of having 3 different brands under the same umbrella, but the problem is, the distance between the prototype and the final version can be very long.

The 1987 Norton P41 police.

It was only in 1987 that Norton unveiled the Interpol 2 police model P41, equipped with a 588cc, air-cooled, twin-rotor engine. A first batch of 350 bikes were sold to various police stations across England. It didn’t take long to realize that the project had a very poor development: rough idling, overheating, and blown engine seals were the most recurrent complaints by the police officers.

Norton Interpol 2 (1988) - MotorcycleSpecifications.com

In 1988 Norton released to the public the Commando 588 model P53, equipped with a liquid-cooled rotary engine, solving most of the overheating problem. The traditional customer didn’t receive well the new bike, sales were modest when compared with the regular “piston” engine Norton models.

The Wankel Wizard.

Among all the employees who participated in the development of the Wankel-Norton bikes, perhaps no one was more enthusiastic than Brian Crighton, he saw all the potential of the rotary engine and he spent countless hours of his spare time squeezing more horsepower out of it. At this point Crighton didn’t have any official backup from Norton in this idea of messing up with those engines, he found his “research material” from piles of junk police bikes and he never got paid for his after-hours work. During the first stage of this development, he increased the power output from the stock 85HP to 96HP, it might not sound much nowadays but back then it was good enough to convince the very skeptical CEOs that a rotary-propelled race bike could be a good idea.

Brian Crighton’s work at Norton was fueled by passion and that is easy to understand, he had been a hardcore race biker during the 1970s, the race track was his natural environment. He just wanted to be back there and do whatever it takes to make Norton a winning team.

In 1987 Crighton was invited to be part of the Racing Development Team, and in a very tight budget, Norton started its competition endeavour in the British motorcycle racing season. At this point, the Wankel engine had reached 125 HP while retaining the stock 9.2:1 compression.

Norton RC 588

1987 RC 588

For the 1987 season, the RC 588 was still considered a prototype but in many ways, it was a very good one: the air-cooled Wankel engine was producing a decent amount of power, 125 HP and the awkward steel chassis (derived from the police street bike) was replaced with an all-aluminum full race frame produced by Spondon Engineering, and the front fork was supplied by Suzuki.

Racing started in late 1987 with employee Malcolm Heath as the official rider, he scored one victory during the season. Things got more serious in 1988 when Steve Spray, the second Norton rider, won two major races for the team, first was the TT F1 British Championship race and then the Powerbike International open race. These two superb performances got the attention of the British tobacco brand John Player Special and the company became the main sponsor of the Norton racing team.

Norton RCW 588

Norton started the 1989 season proudly wearing the iconic black and gold JPS livery. The new sponsorship certainly gave the team some room to breathe but still, when compared with the mighty Japanese and Italian factory teams, Norton was like a little mouse going after a bunch of tigers.

The Norton guys knew they had something special, the new bike, the RCW 588, received the improved, water-cooled version of the rotary engine, and that means 10 extra “ponies” of power. The bike was light (268 pounds), powerful (135 HP), and well balanced, a killer combination that caught the competition off guard.

Retro Moto Planet
The original JPS team. L to R – Dave Hickman, Malcolm Heath, Trevor Nation, Brian Crighton, Steve Spray and Dave Evans.

What happened in 1989 was one of those stories that could well be the narrative of a movie: a small, underfunded team, streamrolling over way more powerful rivals and driving the fans into a frenzy.

Steve Spray won the 750 cc Supercup Championship and the British F1 title, Trevor Nation also had some awesome performances but 1989 season was definitely owned by Spray. On top of all the victories, he also set lap records at Donnington Park, Thruxton, Snetterton, Brands Hatch Indy Circuit and Cadwell Park during the season.

In 1989 Brian Crighton was promoted to Senior Development Engineer at Norton and the new responsibilities made it impossible for him to keep managing the racing team, at the end of the year, Barry Symmons the ex Honda Britain boss was brought in to run the works team.

Steve Spray, in action.

The success continued in 1990, the Norton boys were not only riding to win races, they were on a mission to show the world Norton wasn’t dead yet. Nation won the MCN TT Superbike Championship and Robert Dunlop won both Superbike races at the North-Weast league.

There was a surge in TV coverage, Norton/JPS merchandise was selling like hotcakes, and the fans were going crazy. It was a British bike, sponsored by a British brand, and ridden by British riders, for the UK fans it was a matter of national pride.

Trevor Nation

It was also in 1990 that the fairy tale started to crumble, the father of the Norton racing team, Brian Crighton, resigned from the company, alleging some serious disagreements with the new team manager, Barry Symmons. Later on Crighton started his own Wankel-powered bike project, The Roton.

The 1991 season was proof that many of the changes brought by Symmons were not working as planned. Perhaps the worst of his decisions was to switch the tire supplier to Michelin, throwing out of the window all the development done with Dunlop.

Most of the original team members were gone and so was the magic of the 1989/90 seasons, Norton was no longer the dominant brand in the British Superbike Championship and the CEOs were signalling that the end of the racing program was near.

The greatest Isle of the Man TT

In 1992, two of the brightest stars in the British bike racing universe, Steve “Hizzy” Hislop and Carl Fogarty, were the protagonists of, what is considered by many, the finest Isle of Man TT races in history.

The two riders were not bitter enemies, just bitter rivals on the race track, Fogarty was rude and a blabbermouth, always bragging about his talent. He made more enemies than friends on his way to the top. Hislop on the other hand was calm and well mannered, always willing to listen before saying something. Their distinctive personalities were reflected in the way they behaved on the race track.

For the 1992 Isle of Man edition, Fogarty had a comfortable position at British Yamaha, but Hislop was having a hard time finding a bike for the event. A month before the race, Barry Symmons offered him a chance to ride for Norton and with no better option on the horizon, he accepted, but he was sure that, at this point, the rotary machine had no chances against the big guys.

Phillip McCallen and his GP Honda, the winners of the 1992 Isle of the Man F1 race

On the first of the main races of the week-long event, the F1, Hizzy, even dealing with constant overheating on his Norton, was able to keep up with the two fastest riders, Fogarty on a Yamaha and McCauley on a Honda. The three riders imposed an insane pace, clocking laps with no more than 5 seconds from each other. Close to the end, Fogarty was forced to retire when the gearbox of his Yamaha broke down, leaving the first position to McCauley and Hislop in a close second.

Steve “Hizzy’ Hislop ridding the “White Charger” Norton RCW 588

Despite his amazing performance, Hislop’s bike wasn’t even completely set up for him. For the main race, the next morning: the Senior TT, the Norton team had to spend the night doing some critical changes. First, they installed a bigger windscreen, making it easier for Hislop to fit inside, improving the aerodynamic, then a wider handlebar for better control of the bike, and last, the front fender was removed increasing the airflow to cool down the engine.

At the start of the race, Fogarty was comfortable at the 4th position, but Hislop was 19th, it took him almost the entire race to get through the traffic but he did it masterfully, pushing his Norton to the limit but with elegance and precision, saving the machine from a possible breakdown.

Carl Fogarty and the Yamaha 750 GP.

Fogarty’s brutal ridding stile took a tool on his bike, it was literally falling apart but still in fighting conditions. When Hizzy finally closed in, one of the most intense duels in the history of the Senior TT race took place, they fought fiercely to the last lap but was Hislop and his howling Norton that crossed the checkered flag in first place. Norton was once again the winner of the Isle of the Man, the last time was in 1961. Hislop considers the 1992 Senior TT victory as “my greatest race ever”.

Hislop’s amazing performance at the 1992 Senior TT race was the swan song for the Norton Racing Team, the company was going through some serious financial crisis and it was time to end the program.

The official factory race team was over but that doesn’t mean the rotary Norton was gone from the race tracks.

The Wizard strikes again.

The official Norton-Wankel racing program wouldn’t have even existed if wasn’t for Brian Crighton, right after he left the company, in 1990, he started his own business, preparing rotary bikes for private teams and his team as well.

After the Norton works team left the competition, The Crighton’s machines started to shine, it was his turn to win.

Ian Simpson going airborne on his “Duckhams-Crighton” Norton

The Crighton Team was always among the top qualifiers but they reached their peak in 1994, when their two riders obliterated the competition, scoring 52 podium positions, with Ian Simpson winning the British Supercup Championship and Phil Borley taking the 3rd position.

As one can imagine, the big brands were not so happy with this rotary madness, as Terry Rymer, a Honda rider at the time, once said: “I am a bit fed up with those Nortons passing by and spitting flames on my face, but I guess this is what makes the crowd happy“.

Well, the fans were happy all right but the big teams were not and the 1994 season was the last straw. At the end of the year, they got together to put some pressure on the organizers and for the next season the Wankel engine was officially banned from competing in the UK.

Trevor Nation.

The Norton-Wankel era was short but intense, the fans will forever remember those years as the most exciting ones in British motorcycle racing history, after all, everybody loves to see the underdog winning.

The screaming, flame-throwing RCW 588 finished its career where it started: at the top.

But one guy wouldn’t let it go…

Brian Crighton never stopped messing around with the Wankel Norton bikes and after so many years of development, he might have reached the rotary nirvana. Here it is, his latest creation:

Crighton Racing CR700P.

For this new beast, the Crighton Team solved what was, perhaps, the most annoying problem of the rotary Norton: overheating. They created an ingenious hybrid cooling system that works with liquid and some sort of gas; sounds complicated? You bet, but he won’t tell us how it works, it a well-kept secret. The 700cc, twin-rotor Wankel engine can make 200 HP without the fear of melting internal components. The CR700P is scary fast and on top of that, it is gorgeous. Well done, Wizard.

Have you ever heard the howling of a rotary GP bike, flat out down the straight? Me neither, until I saw this video. Enjoy.

Published by Rubens Junior

Passionate about classic cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and watches.

One thought on “Norton-Wankel. The Victory of the Underdog.

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