There was a stack of professional frustration for me during Stuart Garner’s tenure at Norton. Most of it I vented on here but the one area that I’ve barely mentioned is what riding the actual bikes feels like. Stuart was always very, very careful when it came to letting journalists ride his bikes. I can’t stand MCN exclusives at the best of times, so seeing them get ride after Norton ride over any of the other motorcycle media outlets was definitely one of many driving reasons for me to tell the Norton story that I told.
I’m fairly confident that I’ve ridden almost every new bike made by every manufacturer that matters since late 2005, apart from a Norton. Casting doubt over Stuart’s masterplan in 2011 and writing about it equalled a one way ticket to the naughty step at Donington Hall for me and it just never happened. Once the cracks started to appear in the V4 story/chassis/swingarm, you couldn’t have paid me to throw a leg over one.
That was then and this is now, though. I’m writing about the Norton V4SV today with the benefit of having ridden one myself. There are some obvious caveats that come with this road test. First and foremost has to be the levels of scrutiny that the V4 has been under prior to the media test recently. I can’t think of a single bike that has had so much attention ahead of a press ride. Typically I’d see the covers pulled off a new bike at the Milan bike show in a November, I’d then get an invitation to ride it sometime between Christmas and late March and the bike in question would be in your local showroom a few weeks later. The V4 Norton however, has been around for years, seemingly having been ridden by just one journalist from just one media outlet. Six years of anticipation is clearly too much, especially when you consider the journey the V4 has been on between now and the NEC show in 2016 when the covers were pulled off the first iteration.
So the 2022 Norton V4SV was on the back foot as I put my leathers on next to it. An out of date backfoot it is too if you compare it to current equivalent bikes from rivals. Two hundred horsepower and an electronics suite the size of a sofa doesn’t grab headlines anymore so there’s little chance any potential customer (new or old) is going to get excited about the 185bhp that awaits them on the SV. Three simple riding modes is about all you can choose from so in terms of software features and benefits, there are very few.
Wheels, brakes and suspension are pure premium though and there’s no denying the SV is a pretty looking bike. Approach it from any angle and you’ll find you’re drawn in for a closer look. The work that TVS Motors has done to rectify the multitude of wrongs goes largely unnoticed as it was mostly open heart surgery that was required. Externally, the V4SV is a pretty little brute.
My ride was on closed roads and involved real world riding conditions rather than the throttle chasing flat out favour that track riding sometimes does for a sports bike. I got to experience the heavyweight clutch at it’s worst, the slight reluctance to turn in at slow speed and the annoying sidestand that I couldn’t quite get to. None of these minors would put me off the SV though. The sense of occasion starts when you stick the key in your pocket and doesn’t stop until you’ve finished arguing with the sidestand at your destination.
Fuelling is crisp and the gearing is short, 100mph requires two gears which is a bit of a novelty for a large capacity sports bike. I like how involving that made the ride, it reminded me of how most modern sports cars only seem to have two pedals and gearshift paddles on the wheel now. I’m all for progress and new technology but pulling gears around on a stick in a car makes me feel more connected to the drive, in the same way that the short gearing on the SV made me feel like I was a crucial part of the performance.
It didn’t matter if I was doing 25 or 165mph, the Norton V4SV made the kind of sound that reminds people like me why we have zero interest in football. Always on the friendly side of offensive, the SV announces every pop of every drop of fuel with pride and I love that. The suspension was too firm for me and I suspect will be too firm for most road riding owners. If this was mine I’d enjoy searching for a setting with tools rather than with buttons and have no doubt that there’s a setting that would suit me better in there somewhere. As it was, I just got on with it.
The faster I went the more accomplished the V4 felt but there’s more to this bike than just performance. We’ve been waiting for a homegrown fully faired sports bike in this sector of the market for what feels like my entire career. The Triumph 675 Daytona was the Lotus Elise of the British bike industry, lightweight but lacking the punch that a litre class machine packs. This 1200cc V4 finally delivers but rather than being a track focused apex magnet, I picked up the feeling that the SV was developed with road riding at its heart. I promise not to keep using cars to simplify my feelings, but the V4SV reminds me of the TVR Sagaris. You wont remember a Sagaris winning races but if you’ve seen and heard one out there in the real world you’ll know what I’m getting at. The level of performance available is more than enough to get you into and out of trouble no problem, but it’s how it makes you feel that’ll make you want an SV more than anything else. This V4 is loud, better than you think at doing what it does, looks incredible and makes you feel like Reggie Kray. It was developed as a road bike at the Isle of Man TT races rather than at some sun kissed super smooth race track near Bologna. I’ve ridden every blend of S1000RR, Panigale and RSV4 and genuinely loved them all, I’ve no doubt been quicker on them too, particularly the BMW. The Norton V4SV serves up a slice of patriotic performance that simply can’t be engineered in or qualified in a brochure. I’m aware that BMW and Ducati do the same, but it’s nice to finally know that we’ve got our own style when it comes to large capacity sports bikes. That style is fast, loud, well stitched and finished with a level of polish that you get with a pair of Grensons or a trip to George Bamford’s in Mayfair.
The loudest question being asked at the minute concerns the price. I didn’t think the V4 was worth £44k six years ago but the Crown Prince of absolute horseshit had no problem filling the order books and his pockets with your money back then, so what do I know? What I do know is that you can currently buy a three bedroom mid terraced house in Hartlepool for ten grand less than this bike would cost you. Conversely, you could also spend £40k on a silk lined crocodile skin biker jacket if you really wanted to. Both seem ridiculous to some and justifiable to others. Don’t question whether the bike is worth it based on power output alone because if that’s what we truly live and die by, why aren’t we all riding Suzuki GSX-R 1000s? This bike doesn’t have the modern tech that the competition has but none of the competition are a Norton and there’s a value in that one thing that certain people are prepared to pay overs for. I think the V4SV could cost ten grand more or ten grand less than it currently is and I wouldn’t be surprised either way. I know that after such a long wait, I’ve ridden the best possible version of the Norton V4 that there’s ever been and I’m certain that old era customers that have been waiting a long time will be just as happy with theirs as brand new customers will be with theirs.
Seeing the Norton V4SV being delivered to customers feels like it’ll be the end of a big chapter in the Norton story. It’s still too fresh for some to properly reflect but I think TVS has ripped the Band-Aid off at the right time, they’ve dusted themselves down and they’re ready to move on. I’ve said before that I’m committed to telling the Norton story and nothing has changed apart from the fact that there’s good news to share now rather than bad. Before I move on to some of that good news, if you’re an angry Norton customer my door is as open today as it was three years ago. I have no doubt that some of you have already decided that TVS Motors are doing all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. That’s your choice to make.
Consider though that TVS Motors has never sold a business that it has acquired in its 100 plus year history and you’ll get a feeling of how serious they are about Norton and the future. Now consider that TVS Motors recently committed to a £100m investment in Norton, neither of these things feels like the short term scheming of a hedge funded madman. I’ve met the MD of parent company TVS Motors. Sudarshan Venu isn’t just a fan of motorcycling in the commercial sense, he’s a passionate biker. I know this as within two minutes of meeting him, he was scrolling through his phone looking for images of him riding a V4 at Mallory Park, which he hired for a private ride while the ink was still drying on the Norton contract. I enjoyed his company as well as his actual company and hope to be able to tell more of his story later this year.
For now we can focus on the new Chief Commercial Officer – Christian Gladwell. I’ve previously spoken to interim CEO John Russell, as well as current CEO Robert Hentschel. Robert in particular has always been honest about his chosen specialised subjects. These are making businesses more efficient and approaching everything with the keen eye (and mindset) of an engineer. Christian’s job is to take what Robert has built so far out to the market and make customers want to hand over hard earned money for it. I met Christian via a Zoom meeting and felt like our first contact shouldn’t be one where I machine gun him with questions. I already know my Norton onions and just wanted to get to know the person that is going to be responsible for the next phase, the one where Norton rises from the scott-free ashes left behind by everyone’s favourite pension criminal. Christian’s CV is rich, he’s a modern business man with the clinical eye for detail that former military men possess with confidence. Previously CEO at M&P Saatchi, completely comfortable with digital and with a former commute through Silicone Valley, Christian will do things at Norton that new customers will love and some old customers will no doubt hate. I laid a few obvious traps about electric Norton Commandos but he wasn’t falling for any of them, he wasn’t hiding anything more than he should have been either though and seemed well read on the Garner era. Christian is a biker and seemed excited to get started at Norton.
And why shouldn’t he? On top of the £100m investment from TVS Motors, there’s the Cafe Racer version of the V4 to look forward to, as well as the reborn Commando 961. Bubbling away nicely behind the scenes is the Zero Emission project that Norton and select partners are working on. Speaking recently on this, Robert Hentschel said: “Working alongside our world class partners, we’re confident that project Zero Emission Norton will eliminate the current dispute between a conventional and electric motorcycle to create EV products that riders desire.” It’s bold statements like this that (engineering focused) CEO’s make that give CCOs like Christian sleepless nights. We’ve all got grandstand seats and the benefit of some fairly prickly hindsight while we watch Mr Gladwell go about his business. The bottom line is everyone is paying more than a passing interest and if the product is good, people will buy it. Personally, I’m interested in seeing how the dealer network will grow. I’m not entirely convinced that traditional bricks and mortar showrooms is the best way to go and given that there’s no commitment to tradition, Christian is primed to do something unique with Norton.
This is possibly the last time I’ll write about TVS Motors era Norton in the same breath as Stuart Garner. They don’t deserve to be dragged down anymore than he deserves any credit for their success, so I’ll do my best to keep them separate from now on. Like I said earlier, my door and my inbox is always open to anyone that wants to talk Norton. I maintain that there’s a gulf between a toxic person and a toxic brand and from where I’m sitting, new era Norton is on a path that Stuart Garner just didn’t have the legs, ambition, talent or the morals or the courage or the spine for. I don’t see the point holding TVS to ransom over mistakes they simply didn’t make. Whether you decide you want a £44k V4SV or not is up to you. I can’t afford one in much the same way that I can’t afford a three bedroom house in Hartlepool, or a coat made from crocodiles. I know which one of the three I’d ride home on if I could choose though.