Norton Motorcycles – was it a fraud from the start? Part one

You’re about to read the first in a series of interviews relating to the Norton story. The story is not a good one for the UK motorcycle industry.

I first wrote about Norton in SuperBike magazine back in 2012, expressing my concerns. Stuart Garner called me a couple of weeks later and tried to give me the hairdryer treatment. He sounded like a posh schoolkid that had hidden his marbles in his bag and then blamed me for stealing them. My doubts of Stuart Garner’s ability to run a motorcycle brand like Norton have never gone away.

The mainstream Norton story relates primarily to pension fraud, you can read about that in detail in the Guardian. If you’re tired of reading, you’ll also be able to watch various ITV pieces on the same subject. I played a small part in helping those mainstream journalists understand the oily nuts and bolts side of the Norton business. During my research I’ve spoken to current and former employees, from the shop floor to the boardroom. A former accountant, Stuart Garner’s former PA, a burned business partner, an investor, multiple Norton buyers, Norton franchised dealers in the UK and on the other side of the planet, various Norton racers and Mr Stuart James Garner himself. Everything I’ve written is the result of speaking to the people involved, some were happy to be named and others weren’t. That’s their choice and I can respect that. It makes sense to me to start the story in 2008, when Stuart Garner bought into Spondon Engineering, prior to buying Norton and bringing it back to the UK.

You can read each of these interviews and make your own mind up as to whether Stuart Garner made a mistake thanks to Brexit and has only recently ran into trouble. Or is it possible that he’s planned every single element of the largest frauds the UK motorcycle industry has ever seen, and he began doing so back in 2008?

The former business partner.

Stuart Tiller is a 74 year-old engineer and one of the founding two members of Spondon Engineering. Spondon had a legendary reputation for fabricating some of the very best motorcycle chassis on the planet, they started back in the late sixties and were the kind of business that didn’t need to advertise, the quality of their work did all the talking for them. Stuart Tiller knew the Garner family well. Tiller met Stuart Garner when he was a gamekeeper, they would eventually became business parters. 

JH: Take me to the start of your relationship with Stuart Garner.

ST: I’d known Stuart since he was an apprentice gamekeeper. I knew he was sharp and I had no reason to ever think that he was what he’s turned out to be. The business association started in 2008 when my former business partner Bob Stevenson, who has unfortunately passed away now, wanted to retire and sell his shareholding. Selling the shareholding in a 50/50 limited company is a nightmare, nobody wants to do it. Garner and I used to see each other on a regular basis as we were in the same shoot together, he would ask me how the business was going and I’d keep him up to date. When he asked me one day early in 2008 how business was, I said “Well I’ve got a bit of a problem at the minute, my partner wants to retire and sell his shareholding.” Stuart immediately expressed an interest in buying the other half of Spondon. I said “You don’t know bugger all about motorbikes or engineering, where are you coming from with that?” He just said he wanted to diversify. In hindsight I would have been better off flicking through the Yellow Pages and picking any name at random and I think I would have been better off.

JH: So Stuart doesn’t own Norton at this stage?

ST: No no! I bought him that. We’ll get to that.

JH: Oh dear, okay go on.

ST: I said “Right, okay. The business needs some young blood, I don’t expect you to get your hands dirty.” At that time Spondon had money in the bank and some exciting plans for the future. Stuart asked what I meant about the plans and I said “You want to diversify and have always been wittering on about a brand name that you can build on. I happen to know that the Norton brand is for sale and I know where it is.” Stuart’s eyes lit up. “Really!” He said. I spoke to Bob and said that I had someone that had expressed an interest in buying his shareholding, but I also said that he’d want to buy it as cheaply as possible while Bob would want as much as he could get.

JH: As is the way.

ST: Quite rightly so. I said to Bob that I wasn’t going to interfere, that I was happy to introduce them to each other and would be happy for Mr Stuart Garner to buy Bob’s share of our business via our solicitors. And that’s what happened, Stuart agreed to pay my partner a fair price for his share.

JH: How much did Stuart agree to buy half of Spondon for?

ST: It was something like £360,000, which Bob said he was happy with as that amount would see him through. I thought the garden was looking rosy. We went to the solicitors office, Bob with his, Garner with his and me, I had to be there to witness everything and sign it off. After some toing and froing, Garner got his cheque book out, wrote on one and passed it to Bob. As he handed it over he said “I’ll give you that now and in 12 months time I’ll give you the same again.” Bob’s solicitor took one look at the cheque and said “Hmmm, well this is no good is it Mr Stevenson!” The cheque was for ninety grand. I thought ‘Well, that ain’t what we’ve been talking about’. However, Bob stood up and said “Where do I sign?.” I was gobsmacked.

JH: So he was ready to take the cheque for 90 grand?

ST: Yep. I couldn’t believe that he took it it, he just signed, got up and walked out. Unfortunately by this time Bob had become and alcoholic and just wanted to put his hands on some money, it was ten to six and the pub was nearly open. Twelve months later when Bob hadn’t got the other ninety grand. I phoned Stuart up and said “If this money is not in Bob’s bank within the week, I will be paying him out of money from the Spondon accounts.” Stuart borrowed the remaining money from his father, so Bob got his money.

JH: The full £380,000 or just the £180,000?

ST: Just the £180k. I was staggered. I knew what figure Bob wanted for it originally but I’d just gone through an expensive divorce and couldn’t afford it. Me and Bob had been in business together for forty years, longer than both of our marriages. We’d both worked hard and had never diddled each other.

JH: So to clarify, the deal was struck at £180k on the day and Stuart would eventually borrow the second half of that from his dad?

ST: Yep

JH: So what happened in the short term at Spondon after the deal was signed?

ST: Off we went again, we had a good start. I got Brian Crighton involved because we’d worked together and raced together for years. I knew Brian was pissed off in the job he was in so I brought him on board and we built two prototype rotaries in very quick order. One day Garner suddenly announced that Michael Dunlop was going to ride it at the TT. We said “You what!”

JH: I attended the TT press conference on the Island and interviewed both Stuart and Michael about them racing in 2009. The feeling from other racers was that Stuart had no idea how to get the bike to the grid anyway.

ST: Well I never went to the Isle of Man. I was so against it and said I was having nothing to do with it. I said that bike was not a bike for the Isle of Man, it was a short circuit bike. I said the geometry wasn’t right and it hasn’t been tested anywhere near enough.

JH: It had been sat in a shed hadn’t it?

ST: Oh no, we ran them. We ran both bikes with Lee Dixon and his brother at an unlimited meeting at Donington, at one point they were first and second the first time they’d ever turned a wheel but they were by no means ready for the TT. I asked Stuart if he was demented. I said “Why are you not listening to us two guys (Brian Crighton and Stuart Tiller) who between us have over 80 years of experience? You’re going to make a snap decision that puts another one of the Dunlop’s lives in jeopardy on a bike that hasn’t been tested round the Isle of Man? You are mental, I want nothing to do with this!” That was the start of the demise, that was me realising that Garner wasn’t too tightly wrapped. One or two other things persuaded me and my new partner to look closer at what he was up to. She was doing the books for the company at the time and something wasn’t quite right. But I couldn’t put my finger on it, I was running the business and drawing a wage, I couldn’t see what it was that he could be doing. How naive was I. 

JH: When did you realise things weren’t as they should be?

ST: By late 2009 I knew that we were in trouble, but I didn’t find out what he’d done to me and Spondon until 2011. It was actually Stuart’s father that told me. He informed me that he thought that Stuart had had me over. I said “I don’t see how he can! I’m a fifty percent shareholder in Spondon which is a limited company. I was running the company day to day and Stuart never came any where near it. What can he do?” Garner’s dad just said “Stuart, you need to do some checking”. We got in touch with Companies House and the Land Registry, to my horror It turned out that almost immediately after buying Bob’s share, Stuart had charged the entire assets of Spondon Engineering, including my shareholding, to Tudor Capital Management for £1.2 million. Without my knowledge. This £1.2 million was the money he took to America and used to buy the Norton brand with.

JH: Aggghh. Oh no. I didn’t know that bit. 

ST: We were ruined. When we eventually found out we were faced with the prospect of being destitute. You tell me how one human being can do this to another.

JH: And you had no knowledge of the financial charge placed on Spondon?

ST: None. Handily the pages of the documents that were filed that were supposed to have been signed by me were all missing when we asked to see them.

JH: So you think that Stuart Garner forged your signature?

ST: I do, how else could the paperwork have been filed and why are those particular pages missing from records?

JH: So how did things develop enough for Stuart’s dad to be sat in your office telling you that you need to take a closer look at what his son was doing to your business?

ST: I knew the whole family and had known them for a long time. Stuart and his father didn’t get on, they used to fight like cat and dog. Eventually Stuart bought the family firework company (Fireworks International) off his father. I knew that company was phenomenally profitable because when we were discussing the way forward for Norton in the early days, Stuart told me initially he had the wherewithal to throw three million pounds at the project straightaway. I said that with the team we had around us we could definitely do something with that kind of money in the way of prototyping and getting models built. I said the Commando project as he had it was a load of crap and I was proved to be right when we opened one up and it had two different pistons fitted in it. Not long after this, Garner had stationary printed that showed me and Brian as directors and shareholders.

JH: So you had a shareholding in Norton?

ST: No, that was a complete myth. Stuart just had them made for me and Brian. Brian left when companies we worked with started pointing out defect after defect with the (Commando) bike. Stuart didn’t want to know and wouldn’t rectify any of them.

JH: Why do you think that was?

ST: Money! He just didn’t want to spend any money. This is what makes a joke of the case he’s up against now, where he’s waiting on the tax relief on his development budget.

JH: Yes, apparently Stuart has spent nearly thirteen million pounds on R&D?

ST: (Uncontrollable laughter) The only development that man took any part of was riding the odd bike around the carpark. I explained to him that the budget he’d supposedly set aside on paper would be gobbled up with jigging, fixturing, testing, prototyping, CAD and drawing. He said it wasn’t a problem. He didn’t spend a shilling. Not a shilling. The irony of that case at the minute is he is blaming the Inland Revenue but he hasn’t filed any accounts. I bet you diamonds when those accounts come to light, Spondon Engineering and Spondon Developments will be billing Norton hundreds of thousands of pounds in development costs that don’t exist. The two Spondon companies haven’t made a nut and bolt since 2013, they only exist on paper.

JH: Bloody hell. So you know that hand on heart you’ve not turned a nut since 2013?

ST: Not a thing since I walked out after what he’d done to me. I have it here in writing that he wanted me to stay on and run the company for seven hundred pounds a week! I just looked at him and said “Really?” My legal advisor told me to throw the keys on the table and walk out, he said “because he will do you again.” It was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had. 

JH: So that was it, you downed tools in 2013?

ST: Yep. The lads were charged with emptying the building, destroying the jigs and fixtures, nearly everything that I hadn’t already taken out went. Five of the staff hung around for two or three weeks more and then they left.

JH: Wow. So where do you think the money that he’s saying he put into R&D has gone?

ST: Well he’s never done any R&D with it has he! And whatever accounting records were being kept back then to show where it went will be a mess, my wife had to show his accountant how to do the PAYE. This was a chap that served jail time for VAT fraud and then came back to work for Stuart when he got out as the company accountant. The lack of due diligence by everyone from Government, banks, HMRC and everyone else is unbelievable. Garner’s accounts have been accepted from day one under the small business act. The accountant that prepared his returns can cover themselves with that wonderful statement on the last page of them ‘These accounts have been prepared from the information supplied by the client’. That absolves them of all responsibility. Eventually an accountant that Mr Garner thought he had in his pocket was then charged to carry out a proper audited set of accounts. He failed to do it and his summing up of the company was that Norton was not a viable company.

JH: So this is the same guy that had been to jail?

ST: No, an accounting company that used to prepare the accounts for Norton that were then passed to another accounting company in Derby for filing with Inland Revenue. I think those accounts have been fraudulent from day one. Nobody has ever done any kind of investigation, which I find unbelievable. The company is going to fold, without a shadow of a doubt.

JH: So including the missing pension money, I’ve got a figure owed in my head of approximately £27.5 million. Where do you have it?

ST: I think that’s conservative. 

JH: I’ve also confirmed that since 2008, Norton has registered 802 bikes in the UK, which equates to a build rate of approximately 1.2 bikes a week. Where would you have it?

ST: We’ve got it at just under 1.5 bikes a week, it’s likely that there has also been a few bikes sold that haven’t been registered. The profit margin on a build rate that low wouldn’t pay the electricity bill at Norton in the time it’s taken to build them. In my opinion the only way that the business has been able to operate is with money from the pensions and government loans.

JH: I’ve interviewed loads of associated parties, one of which is a Norton dealer in another country, he said he’s invested half a million dollars into getting stock on the shelves, has delivered around 40 bikes so far but has taken deposits for another thirty, how does that make you feel?

ST: Good God! 

JH: When did you last speak to Stuart?

ST: The day I walked out in 2013

JH: He’s not reached out or tried to speak to you?

ST: No, I think because he knows what I know and doesn’t want it out there.

JH: What do you think is the best possible outcome for this situation?

ST: I think the best thing that can come of this is that he’s put behind bars.

JH: And what about the worst thing that can happen?

ST: My worry is all the poor buggers pensions and lives he’s ruined while he might end up doing a couple of years in an open prison and come out to a hidden fortune. I don’t think the people that have stood by him will continue to do so as from what I’ve heard a fair few of them have gone on camera to tell what they know. He’s escaped so far because nobody has had the bollocks to stand up and be counted, I cant see how he’s going to escape this one.

JH: Before I started recording this conversation, you alluded to Stuart falling out with other people in his family over business?

ST: Stuart’s own brother, who I’ve kept in touch with for quite a long time told me that Stuart struggled to understand a balance sheet. He believes that turnover is profit, which it is if you don’t ever pay anyone. I can remember us getting into a heated conversation about business years ago, I was trying to highlight the need to keep good accounts and file them on time. Stuart said to me “I will take the Inland Revenue on anytime, because they are a bunch of muppets!” I explained to Stuart that the key to good business in engineering terms was to build a product that was second to none and provide it at a good price. I never used to have to advertise Spondon, our work spoke for itself. When you’re dealing with two generations of motorcycle racer, you know you’re doing a good job. There’s no better advert than that. What did I know, I’d only been doing it for 45 years.

Update 5th March 2020: continue reading in Part Two of Superbike’s investigation into the Norton fraud case

Stay up to date by subscribing to Superbike’s newsletter