Pierre Terblanche and Dan Van Epps on the new Norton

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Despite an ailing economy, nose-diving new bike sales and naysayers insisting it simply cannot be done, looks like the new Norton’s comeback is on track. Two recent big-name hires certainly have increased the start-up company’s chances of success. First it was announced that American Dan Van Epps was coming onboard as head of Norton’s U.S. operations. Van Epps was formerly CEO of Ducati North America before transferring to Bologna to lead the company’s overseas sales and product marketing. More recently he was in charge of sales strategy at Bimota. Bigger news was that designer Pierre Terblanche, best known for the many Ducati models he has penned, was moving to the British Midlands to become Norton Motorcycles Ltd.’s new full-time chief of design.

Hell For Leather talked exclusively with Terblanche, who had been in his new office at Norton’s Donington Park headquarters for just two weeks.

Terblanche’s 10-year stint as design boss at Ducati was fruitful if at times controversial (see gallery).  An understudy of the great Massimo Tamburini (Ducati 916, MV Agusta F4), Terblanche was responsible for the Cagiva Gran Canyon and the fantastic Ducati Supermono racer. When parent company Cagiva sold off the Ducati brand in 1996 Terblanche went with Ducati, where his successes included the MH900e Hailwood Replica, the Hypermotard and the Sport Classic line of retro-styled roadsters. More polarizing was his redesign of the 900SS, the original Multistrada adventure bike and, of course, the ill-fated 999 sportbike.

Charged with revamping the aging 916/996/998 series for 2003, Terblanche gave Ducati the 999, brave and bold and undeniably a better motorcycle than its predecessor. It won on the racetrack and in magazine comparison tests but not on the showroom floor, where it got the cold shoulder from Ducatisti. By 2007 the unloved 999 was gone from Ducati, and so too was Terblanche, increasingly unhappy with his corporate responsibilities. “I wanted to design, not sit in endless meetings choosing company stationary or whatever,” he says.

The Ducati 999′s biggest styling sin? It wasn’t a 916. Unique design, though, something not readily said about its replacement, the 1098, which with green paint could just as easily be a Kawasaki.

After a legally prescribed passage of time, Terblanche was back at the drawing board, consulting for Moto Guzzi with his former Cagiva/Ducati colleague Miguel Angel Galluzzi (Ducati Monster, Aprilia RSV4), now VP of design for the Piaggio group. Together they came up with three Guzzi V12 concept bikes, modern takes on M-G’s venerable sideways V-Twin that wowed show-goers at Milan in 2009.

Starting with the Cagiva Gran Canyon, then the Ducati Multistrada and Hypermotard, and with this Moto Guzzi V12 concept, Terblanche has shown his fondness for off-road inspired streetbikes. Is there one in Norton’s future?

Terblanche says there is at least one more of his Moto Guzzi designs in the pipeline, but when Norton CEO Stuart Garner came calling with the chance to start from the ground floor in decidedly non-corporate surroundings, he had to go. “If I were a younger man, I’d have stayed and seen the Guzzi project through, but after 21 years in Italy it was time to move on,” says the South African-born 54-year-old. “Norton is different environment, a different work culture. It’s a bit like working with Tamburini back in 1989. It’s unstructured so design can be quick and I’m working directly with the boss – no weeks of meetings in which nothing gets done.”

The chance to apply some Sport Classic-type touches to the Commando 961 – styled identically to the Kenny Dreer Nortons from five years ago – must be appealing to Terblanche. Or perhaps the design can be modernized a la the Guzzi V12 concepts?

“Obviously, both are possible,” answers Terblanche, lamenting Bologna’s discontinuation of the Sport Classic series. “Ducati didn’t see the future of the classic-type bike. It’s a shame they didn’t carry on the line; it’s certainly a strong trend right now. But we’ve just started selling bikes, so it wouldn’t be fair to current customers to redesign the 961 right away. In the future, look for detail improvements, and with Norton’s history we can really go in any direction we want.”

That there even is a Norton Commando in 2011 is due to Kenny Dreer and investor Ollie Curme, who rounded up trade rights to the Norton name and produced a running prototype, a $10 million endeavor by the time Stuart Garner purchased the company in 2008.

CEO Garner, 41, who made his millions in the fireworks business, has already stated his intentions to broaden Norton’s range of models, including water-cooled multi-cylinders and even a MotoGP bike, a prospect that excites Terblanche. “Yes, if that comes to reality I’ll be designing the bodywork,” he says.

First things first, though, like laying out an in-house design center. “There’s lots of work ahead of us, lots to be done,” Terblanche says. “We’ve got to set up a design studio, bring it all in. But that’s also an advantage in that there’s nothing here that needs to be undone.”

If anything, Van Epps’ canvas is even blanker. Based in his home state of Connecticut, he has neither bikes in hand nor a dealership network through which to sell them. He does have deposits from American buyers for 50-60 bikes, and two 961s are currently in homologation testing for the EPA and California’s Air Resources Board. “We’re shooting for on sale in April, but I think the reality is late May,” he says. As far as dealerships, he’s looking for shops with what he calls a “European sensitivity,” noting that current Ducati or Triumph operations are the most likely scenarios.

So, two men – one an American with a Dutch name, the other a South African with a French name –  who helped put Ducati on the map are now teamed up to help bring one of Britain’s grand old nameplates back to life, funded by a pyrotechnic who wants to go MotoGP racing. Unlikely as that sounds, Terblanche puts words to the optimism running rampant at the new Norton. “We’re small, we’re ambitious,” he says. “We plan to have some fun and make motorcycles that people will really like. We will be successful.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate BeastIncarnate

    Best of luck. I’m excited to see the future of the brand.

  • Charlie

    As a Norton owner (’73 Manx Replica) I think that restoring the brand with quality products is great. The Ducati sportclassics were too cheap. The morale of the story is that people will pay for quality/goods. Another example is the excitement around the MV F3. Cheers to the owners investing in the future with good people

  • James

    I’ve been a Norton fan for years (owner of ’68 and ’69 Atlas’s and a ’69 Norton Matchless G15), and am looking forward to seeing what the boys at the new Norton come up with. So far things are looking good, and I’m happy to hear that they’re thinking a moto GP bike is in the works.

  • Brad

    Gorgeous. What are they expected to cost? (I mean in dollars, not ended marriages, bankruptcy, etc.)

  • Jeffery

    Nice article:) Careful though JT might accuse you of puffery. ;)

  • David Edwards

    Full disclosure and all cards on the table, I’m pulling for the new Norton, just because it’s such a good story. When I was at Cycle World, the magazine became sort of the unofficial chronicler of Norton’s rebirth (remember Leann Tweeden as the new Noton Girl on the cover?) and I became good friends with Kenny Dreer. I still own the Vintage Rebuilds 880 that I commissioned from him 11 years ago, a 1974 Interstate model with Fastback tailsection and S-type up-pipes. I also had a deposit down (since refunded) on one of his new Commandos; in fact it was to be #00001, the first one for public consumption off the assembly line.

    Doesn’t mean I haven’t been skeptical about the British takeover of Dreer’s project, a feeling only heightened when Garner & Co. failed to meet early, optimistic production dates amid rumors of financial difficulties.

    No ironclad guarantee of success, of course, but as of today Norton is hiring. I doubt the same can be said for Honda or Harley-Davidson…

  • robotribe

    Very exciting. Can’t wait to see the results (please don’t suck).

    Oh, and I’m tired of the 999 getting the overblown hate over the years. It’s nowhere near the design tragedy description that so many seem to want to echo.

    • Philip

      +1 on the 999 design. Over time it’s actually grown on me quite a bit.

      • BMW11GS

        The 999 is so much more interesting to look at than the 916/1098. There are just so many elements like the partially exposed rear cylinder head and the muscular body work that the new generations of Ducati’s simply cant match.

  • 2ndderivative

    How does its performance compare (on paper) with a Monster 1100?

    • ontheroad

      80 HP vs the monsters 100, don’t know weight figures but I’d wager that the M1100 will dust the Norton while yanking your arms out of socket and painting a big, stupid grin on your face. The Norton’s mighty pretty though, and I’d love to ride it.

  • markbvt

    If they build an updated Manx Norton sporting single and price it decently, I’ll be lining up at the dealership to buy one.

    • Ceolwulf

      I’ll be right behind you in line!

      • Philip

        +1. Oh wait, forgot that I probably couldn’t afford one…

        • Ceolwulf

          Me either but that’s never stopped me yet …

  • Ted

    Go get ‘em boys.

    The 999 is a gorgeous bike. There I said it.

    • Ken D

      It is. And thanks to those who think it isn’t, you can pick one up ridiculously cheap.

      • Mr.Paynter

        I wish the same was true here in Africa!

        I’d LOVE to stand that in my garage, polish it lovingly and take it out in the dry only like once a week for the rest of my life.

  • Kirill

    The bikes look cool, but quality and price are going to determine whether the new Norton sinks or swims

    • bluegrass

      according to their site about 16,000 pounds, which is about $22,000 in dollars, and with a 961cc motor pushing about 80 horses at the crank. Still, its got brembo and ohlins parts stock on the chassis.

      • Kirill

        Wow. Even if you do the straight number conversion (typically works for car prices because of things like VAT), that’s still silly money. The bikes look really good, but you’d have to be a complete Norton nut to sign over that kind of scratch.

  • ontheroad

    Oh, Supermono, how I long for you.

    I’m excited about Norton’s revival and looking forward to more coverage here as things progess. Motogp sounds very optimistic for a fledgling company (see MotoCzysz), but that of course would be great too. I’m hoping for a range of models from affordable, sporting singles like someone mentioned above to the well-dressed 961s and the like, and I’m curious to see if the classic styling is universally retained or if some sumo-inspired or faired bikes are in the works. All in all, exciting stuff!

    Oh, and the 999: I can’t be objective about the damned bike! I love riding them and working on them (sweet sweet Testastretta…) so much that I can’t even recall how I felt about the looks at first. It’s a fantastic motorcycle in a controversial design package, but you certainly can’t slight Terblanche for being daring.

  • george

    can we please get away from 17″ wheels? all of these classics deserve 18′s at least, especially the new bonnie. the 17′s just look dumb. leave the 17s on the track.

  • David Edwards

    Just talked with Dan Van Epps, who says dealer interviews are ongoing, the plan being to have 50 franchises located in or near major U.S. cities.

    Far as price, the $22,000 figure was for the limited-edition 961 Special, which is now sold out (50 units). The bikes coming to America are the Sport (solo seat $16,995, dual seat $17,995) and the Cafe Racer (solo $17,995, dual $18,995).

    • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate BeastIncarnate

      When manufacturing and support picks up, and prices come down, I will be in line.

      That, or my “pay me more” appeal takes a dramatically better turn than I expect…

  • stackhousehouse

    Just saw some new Nortons in the flesh today at the London Motorcycle show. So skinny. So cool. Photos do not do them justice.

  • http://twowheelsplus.blogspot.com/ andehans

    Very exciting to see the outcome of this. I think Norton made the right choice to work with Terblanche. He’s a free thinker and not afraid to follow his gut feeling. That didn’t work to well at Ducati we’re they’re in the state of cashing in on the brand rather than establishing the brand. I’d be very interested in a modern Norton. Bring it on.

  • dux

    I dunno. Are they just chasing that shrinking and aging market sector? I’m young and think they’re cool, but can’t afford nor would consider one based on performance/styling/price matrix.
    Just curious

    • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate BeastIncarnate

      Give it time. Limited production and support, coupled with top quality components, equals a high price tag. The worst thing they could do is try to cash in on the name by putting put mediocre bikes at a low price. Patience.

  • Liquidogged

    I hated the 999 for the first 5 minutes of its existence, and have loved it ever since then. Very excited to see what Terblanche will do with Norton. Yes, the current crop is expensive but prices will probably come down. I think it would be more interesting if they actually tried to get people into bikes who aren’t already classics lovers, but that’s not their job. That Cleveland Cyclewerks fella already has that covered anyways, right…?

  • jason

    Good to hear from Pierre T. A man who totally understands what a motorcycle is, more that a machine, a medium of passion.

  • Mr.Paynter

    I love classics, I want classics and am seriously considering a Bullet 350 as a play-thing…

    BUT

    Does no one else feel even remotely moist at the idea of PT designed modern Norton sportbike? With the freedom he seems to have there, to really put some points of difference in to design?

    MotoGP racing could trickle down and make itself in to a very pretty F3 rival maybe? I’m dreaming out loud.

  • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

    “So, two men – one an American with a Dutch name, the other a South African with a French name – who helped put Ducati on the map are now teamed up to help bring one of Britain’s grand old nameplates back to life, funded by a pyrotechnic who wants to go MotoGP racing.”

    That actually sounds awesome to me. Especially the part about the pyrotechnic wanting to go MotoGP racing!

    Please please release the new rotary…