Nemesis and 952

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Some famous bike-building towns: Mandello del Lario, Milwaukee, Spandau, Hinckley, Gladstone...

Gladstone? Huh?

OK, it's not so famous maybe, not yet, but the Portland, Oregon suburb of Gladstone is where you'll find Kenny Dreer's Norton Motorsports Inc. The current custodian of this illustrious name is the first in more than a decade who can lay claim to having actually produced a motorcycle: the Commando-based VR880 Sport Special.

Dreer breezes into his office sporting a shaved head. "Like my new haircut?" A small man, Dreer nonetheless exudes presence in the room. He's in constant motion, bristles with energy and attitude, and possesses a voice that could easily hush any crowd.

The chain of events leading to Dreer's acquisition of the Norton rights started falling into place in September 1999 when Cycle World published a review of the VR880, and reprinted some of those classic 1970's Norton Girl ads.

"It wasn't me that threw the first strike," he says. "The V-8 Nemesis people sent me a cease and desist notice two weeks after that article came out."

"We hired an attorney and went the rounds. In two months we had a half-assed settlement - that they would back off and I would be permitted to run my business. But it never really died down."

The legal challenge sparked an idea. Like any Commando owner, Dreer knew the bike had essentially arrived at the dead end of a very long development line. In spite of beefing up key VR880 components, he was always chasing down the weakest link.

"You were buying these high-performance exploding bombs," Dreer admits. "We were just losing money on every bike, because you can't manufacture a new bike from an old platform...it had a higher degree of engineering, but still - a dead end street. The degree of reliability was marginal."

In 2001, Dreer concluded the creation of a new bike was the only way forward. That inevitably brought him into conflict with the marque owners. But with secure financial backing in place, he started the process...

Back in April 1998, newly formed Norton Motorcycles International announced its intention to build the world's fastest motorcycle, the 1500cc V-8 Nemesis. The company, a joint venture of March Motors International, Melling Consultancy Design, and Aquilini Investments had acquired the Norton name and intended to capitalize on it.

My phone rang. A local PR agency looking for Norton owners to appear in a video for the company engaged three of us to parade our Commandos before the camera and offer opinions on the new bikes. But that video and a glitzy Dorchester Hotel press launch in London were as close as the Nemesis ever came to being built. It was just the latest in the long, sad Norton saga James Lansdowne Norton's company always did better on the racetrack than the balance sheet. Out of capital in 1952, Norton was bought by Associated Motorcycles, which also went bust in 1966. Engineering magnate Dennis Poore bought AMC and created the Commando, Norton's most successful motorcycle. But when BSA-Triumph failed in 1972, the UK government forced a merger, creating Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT). With too much capacity, NVT planned a closing of the Triumph Meriden factory, home of the Bonneville. But the workforce staged a sit-in, formed a workers' cooperative, and continued building Bonnies - with a £5 million grant from Britain's new Labor government. Without its best-selling Bonnie, and with Commando sales winding down, NVT hit the skids in 1977.

Poore retained control of the Norton name and inherited a Wankel engine license (from BSA) for the rotary motor developed to power a range of limited-production bikes and the successful F1 racer. After Poore's death in 1987, businessman Philippe Le Roux bought Norton, but was unseated by a failed stock offer. Corporate raider David MacDonald acquired the company and parceled most of its remaining assets. In 1993, Vancouver's Nelson Skalbania picked up the leavings (the Shenstone premises and the name) with money borrowed from Aquilini Investments. Unable to refinance the loan, Skalbania lost ownership to Aquilini around 1997.

Aquilini VP Myron Calof brokered the NMI deal with March and Melling. Dependent on other sources of financing to survive, the Nemesis Project stalled after yet another failed stock offering.

In late 2001, Dreer started the process of acquiring worldwide Norton rights, buying out Andover Norton in the UK and Germany's Joe Seifert in the process. With marque ownership in his pocket, the next step became the bike itself, a completely new design sharing not a single component with the VR880. Dreer's starting point: the transmission, a Baker 6-speed unit based on the Harley Sportster and used in Buell racers.

"I said everything hinges around this gearbox." And, literally, as it turned out, everything does, because the casing forms the mounting points for the swingarm and determines the driveline.

"On a traditional English bike, the power comes in one shaft and goes out the same shaft on the same side. I said, you know, here's the answer. The power's coming in right there where it needs to come in, and it goes out the same shaft - but on the other side." Using the Sportster-based gear train allowed Dreer to fit a wide sportbike rear tire without shifting the driveline to one side.

His next consideration was the engine.

"A friend of mine brought over a bike, a Matchless G45. It has a center bearing support...it's a very narrow crank."

The three-bearing crankshaft would allow the 952 to achieve higher performance without the crankshaft "whip" that always plagued British parallel twins.

"We have a pressed-together crank supported by three 80mm ball bearings." Bore and stroke are 89mm x 79mm. The single camshaft runs on three roller bearings and can be replaced without dismantling the engine, while billet rockers run on needle rollers bearings. The "touring" 952 will have hydraulic lifters, while a "sports" version will use solid pushrods. A Gerotor oil pump circulates lubricant.

Dreer tried both belt and chain primaries before settling on a gear drive using a counterbalance shaft as an idler.

"We had a lot of trouble with belts blowing out. So I figured - well, hell - we'll do what the Manx did. We'll make a chain. But what happened was, I was having a difficult time quelling the 360-degree vibration. I said: priorities; we gotta make this thing smooth. Let's just put a counterbalance shaft in it."

Although derived from the VR880, styling was designed to give the gas tank a broader, more tapered look. Cycle parts are high-quality, bought-in components, but Dreer designed his own instrument panel and gauges.

He took the monoshock rear suspension prototype 952 (traditional twin shocks will be used in production) to Laguna Seca in July 2003 and wowed the press with it.

"When it was sitting out there at Laguna," Dreer effuses, "I can't begin to tell you how people's jaws were dropping. What we're doing is managing the demand right now."

"People love its litheness, its lightness, its muscular look, its forward leaning engine...and they really love the fact that we were able to maintain these design icons of the famous Commando. That's very important to me to be able to do that, but also important to integrate modern technology at the same time."

Norton is accepting orders for the 952 through its website, www.nortonmotorcycles.com.