Norton have a great tradition in single cylinder motorcycles and this Tigcraft framed machine, manufactured in the late 1990s by a German called Joe Seifert, attempts to capitalise on that heritage.
With an Austrian Rotax 650cc four stroke single inside its spartan, tubular framework, the bike certainly has the handling to live up to the reputation cemented by the old Manx International models – but is it a proper Norton?
Whatever you think of the 652 project, it has to be said this was one Norton revival which actually made it into full working order.
A manufacturing brand as British as bangers and mash, its future in the hands of the Germans. A familiar story and one that in 1998 was just the latest chapter in the Norton saga as Roland Brown reported as the C652M was unveiled.
The brief was simple. Norton’s new bike was to be a ’conventional single-cylinder roadgoing motorcycle with no fairing’. It would combine a ’good, reliable engine with a very good chassis, an upright riding position, and enough space for the rider and a passenger’.
Those ideas were outlined early last year not by Norton’s Canadian owners but by Joe Seifert, boss of Norton Motors Germany, in a letter to Dave Pearce of Farnborough-based single-cylinder specialist Tigcraft. If Norton themselves wouldn’t build any motorbikes, Seifert had decided, then he with the help of Tigcraft, plus former Norton engineering chief Richard Negus would do so himself.
Which is how I came to be rumbling along a slightly damp road in Hampshire aboard the prototype of the Norton C652SM. Less than a year after Seifert’s first letter, and only a few months after Pearce had begun work on the prototype, the first new non-rotary Norton for 20 years was finished. The famous old marque was back, albeit unofficially, in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of James Lansdowne Norton’s founding of the company in Birmingham in 1898.
The C of the C652SM’s name stands for Centenary (the SM is for Super Mono) and the new bike’s look is traditional Norton, from the silver paint and old-fashioned tank badge to the steel frame with its ’Made in England’ logo. But that’s where the link with previous Nortons ends. The C652SM is powered by the 652cc, watercooled engine from BMW’s F650. And far from being built at Norton’s factory at Shenstone, this bike was conceived in Germany, developed without the firm’s knowledge and launched, to their surprise, at the NEC Show last November.
For reasons of cost, a single-cylinder roadster was the obvious option once Seifert who owns rights to the Norton name in many European countries, but not Britain had decided to build a series of bikes. And the popular and reliable F650 unit was the logical choice of powerplant, particularly when he managed to persuade BMW, whose Munich headquarters is near his own Bavarian base, to supply him with engines.
Some enthusiasts of the famous British marque might question the nationality of both this Norton’s creator and its engine, but the C652SM has credibility on both counts. Although Seifert, 42, is German, he is a long-time Norton owner, racer, spares dealer and former importer whose brand loyalty cannot be questioned (unlike that of the Canadian-based Aquilini family). And over 90 years ago ’Pa’ Norton’s first bikes used engines from Continental Europe, by Clement and Peugeot of France notably the Peugeot V-twin that powered Rem Fowler to victory in the twin-cylinder class of the first Isle of Man TT in 1907.
Apart from some new badges, this Norton’s DOHC four-valve motor, made by Rotax of Austria, is identical to that used by the F650, even down to the pair of 33mm Mikuni carbs and the large airbox in an identical position under the seat. Only the C652SM’s exhaust, a chromed twin-pipe system, made by Tigcraft and fitted with traditional Norton-style silencers, is new. It is designed to pass international noise tests and does not alter the single’s peak output of 47bhp at 7500rpm, or its maximum torque figure of 57N.m at 5200rpm.
The engine is solidly mounted and acts as a stressed member of the C652SM’s steel frame, which is very similar to the F650 racing frame of which Tigcraft have built a dozen or so in recent years, several of which have been raced successfully in international supermono events. The main tubes are in 41mm diameter chrome-molybdenum steel, almost identical to the racers’. Differences are that the Norton uses a steel rear subframe instead of the racebikes’ self-supporting carbon-fibre seat unit, its swing-arm is steel instead of aluminium, and the roadster has a more progressive rising-rate linkage.
Dimensions are identical to the racebikes’, with 25 degrees or rake, 94mm of trail and a wheelbase of 1380mm, a substantial 100mm shorter than the dual-purpose F650. Even more impressively, the Norton weighs only 158kg complete with fuel and oil, which not only means that it weighs over 20kg less than the F650, but makes it one of the lightest mid-capacity bikes on the market.
To add a touch of retro style the SM has Akront wire wheels in 17 inch diameters. Braking is by modern single Brembo discs at each end, with a floating 320mm rotor and four-pot caliper from the same Italian firm up front. Suspension on the production bikes is also likely to be Italian, from Paioli, but due to a delay in supply the prototype was fitted with modified Showa units from a Honda CBR600F instead.
The other major component that will be changed on the production bikes is the seat, which will be reshaped to avoid the plank-like item that detracts from an otherwise good-looking bike. This will also reduce seat height by about 30mm, which is a good thing, because after climbing aboard the Norton for the first time I was surprised by how tall the bike is. At a lanky 6’4’ I could get both feet flat on the ground, but only just.
In conjunction with the fairly low clip-ons the tall seat initially gave the C652SM a rather strange feeling of sitting high up on the bike, as I headed off on a typically dull winter morning. But the riding position is not particularly racy, giving a fairly gentle lean forward to the bars. The generous leg-room also helped make the Norton reasonably comfortable despite its fairly firm suspension.
With clip-on bars and a race-derived Tigcraft chassis it was no surprise that the SM had a sporty feel, despite its softly-tuned single-pot engine. The Norton’s compact size and lack of weight were obvious immediately, giving the bike a supremely manageable feel and also lending the motor which fired up with a blend of mechanical rustling and traditional single exhaust thump some extra muscle. A tweak of throttle in first gear was enough to lift the lightweight Norton’s front wheel skywards in a way that neither the F650 nor Aprilia’s Pegaso, longer and heavier bikes powered by the same engine, could match.
Losing so much weight gives any moderately powerful bike a boost, and for a single Norton felt impressively responsive throughout the range. Power delivery was crisp and glitch-free from low revs to approaching the 9000rpm limit. With less than 50bhp on tap acceleration was never going to be dramatic, even when much use was made of the slick five-speed gearbox. But the single felt respectably lively and didn’t need much space to put 100mph on the speedo.
True top speed is probably slightly over the ton mark, but equally importantly the Norton was also happy to cruise at 80mph and more without any real problem from vibration. The C652SM felt at least as smooth as I recall the F650, and considerably less rough than Bimota’s Supermono, which housed the same balancer-shaft equipped engine in a tubular aluminium frame and shook horribly at high revs.
The difference is probably due to Dave Pearce’s experience of building over 100 racing singles using a wide variety of engines. ’Every engine is different, even ones with similar balancer shafts and almost identical bore and stroke,’ says Pearce, who also designed the MuZ Skorpion single’s chassis. ’They’ve all got their own best way of being mounted. The BMW is very strong, even when it’s raced, and also very smooth so it’s ideal for this bike.’
Tigcraft’s wealth of singles racing experience also showed itself in the Norton’s handling, which was every bit as sharp and precise as you’d expect from a lightweight machine so closely related to a successful competition bike. At speed it was totally stable, but at the slightest flick of the bars the C650SM effortlessly changed direction, its firm and well-damped suspension keeping a very taut feel and passing on lots of feedback.
On a cold winter day the roads started out damp and never dried sufficiently to let me test the Norton’s handling to the maximum, let alone the ground clearance. But the bike’s fairly narrow Metzeler ME1s (110/70 front, 130/70 rear) stuck to their task, and the single was good fun despite the weather. My only problem came when the damp sole of my boot slipped off the rubber-covered footrest as I put too much weight on it while hanging off the bike in a slow right-hand corner luckily without causing a big moment.
Braking was good, the big front disc and four-pot caliper, plumbed with braided hose, proving powerful enough to slow the lightweight Norton efficiently with a little help from the 220mm rear disc. The single’s only real chassis-related drawback was that not only did it not have much steering lock by roadbike standards, but during tight manoeuvres the bars also tended to stick slightly at full lock due to the design of the lock-stops. This will be rectified on the production bikes.
Other dubious prototype details were the gaps between frame and sidepanels (which will also be modified), the rather hard-to-use spring-loaded sidestand, and the lack of mirrors or a centrestand typical of a racer on the road. Most details were good, though, including the 19-litre fuel tank and sidepanels which were neatly hand-made in aluminium, although production parts will be plastic if demand reaches the initial target of 100 bikes.
Seifert, who as the German importer gained experience of homologating Norton’s rotary roadsters a decade ago, has also ensured that details such as indicator positioning and seat length will not cause problems when he takes the C652SM for TuV testing in the near future, with a view to starting production in the spring. Tigcraft will make all the frames and may take on extra staff to produce the complete bikes too, although Seifert is also considering a couple of other options, both in England. (Ironically, the single is unlikely be sold in Britain, at least officially, for legal reasons.)
Wherever it ends up being built, the initial response has been positive enough including a handful of firm orders to suggest that the C652SM will definitely go into production soon. And although a few details still need tidying up, at a price of about £7000 the single looks good enough to be a success. The firm’s Canadian owners seem as uninterested as ever, and there is little prospect of bikes once again being built at the Shenstone factory. But thanks to Joe Seifert, Norton is showing signs of life once again.
Get Carole Nash bike insurance for the Norton C652SM.
Engine Water-cooled single
Claimed power (bhp) 47bhp at 7500rpm
Compression ratio 9:7:1
Transmission Five speed
Front tyre 110/70 x 17in Metzeler ME1
Rear tyre 130/70 x 17in Metzeler ME1
Front wheel 2.50 x 17in; spoked, aluminium rim
Rear wheel 3.50 x 17in; spoked, aluminium rim
Front suspension 41mm Showa telescopic (prototype), adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension One Showa damper (prototype), adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake Four-piston Brembo caliper, 320mm disc
Rear brake Single-piston Brembo caliper, 220mm disc
Fuel capacity 17.5 litres
Current price £7,000