The motorbike industry can often seem like the forgotten man in the world of zero-emissions transport.
While companies such as Harley Davidson are ploughing forwards with electric bikes, there are plenty of other manufacturers who are dragging their feet with moving away from internal combustion engines (ICE).
However, storied British motorbike manufacturer Norton has recently won funding from the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) to help start its move over to electric power. Auto Futures caught up with Norton CEO Robert Hentschel to find out more.
A Changing Landscape
“The world is electrifying, which is why it is incredibly important to have a plan besides the internal combustion engine – we all must look ahead,” says Hentschel.
“Demand for electric motorcycles and EV mobility solutions has become internationally significant and the UK has its own net-zero ambitions. Whilst motorcycles are not currently considered within the 2030 ban timeframe, there is an increasing focus on alleviating pressures on mobility infrastructure: pressures like congestion, and parking, as well as the overarching air quality concern.”
As a result of that surging demand, Norton applied for, and won, “significant investment” from the APC. With that funding, Norton has created a new 30-month project to create an electric motorbike that blends Norton’s history with racing performance, touring range, and lightweight handling.
“Securing the APC19 funding now has meant we can lead the electrification journey through our ‘Project Zero Emission Norton’; a project that aims to expand our ever-growing engineering capabilities and develop world-class electric motorcycles,” explains Hentschel.
Describing the funding as a “momentous occasion” for the company, CEO Hentschel, believes that the project will put Norton in the driving seat for bike electrification.
“As a brand, Norton Motorcycles has innovation and design at its heart, and the funding will allow us to inject this integral part of the company’s DNA into the production of a world-class electric motorcycle, as well as evolve the capability for EV development in general,” he explains.
However, transitioning the company from ICE to EV will not be easy.
Skills and Training
“There is a recognised skills shortage in the UK and Project Zero Emission Norton intends to address this issue,” explains Hentschel.
Of course, that skill shortage is not unique to the UK. However, upskilling a workforce is a very different proposition for Norton compared to large multinational companies such as Volkswagen.
“There is a race for talent with this emerging skillset, and with our position in the marketplace, we feel comfortable we will succeed. One element of continuing this journey is to train our people: transforming their mechanical background into an electrical and mechatronic one. We have the ability to train and upskill our employees, whilst at the same time building a global facing supply chain from the UK in the context of this funding,” says Hentschel.
“Providing jobs and upskilling opportunities is a major focus for Norton and we have invested significantly in our team. In the last year alone, we have created more than 150 new jobs, with a further 250-300 direct jobs and another 500-800 indirect in the supply chain predicted over the next three years. Part of the job provision expansion also includes growing the apprenticeship programme with local education industries to provide career opportunities for the local community.”
However, Norton isn’t working alone in its efforts. As part of Project Zero Emission, the company is working with a vast range of partners to ensure its bikes, and its staff, are up to the task.
“All our world-class partners share the same vision for innovation in the production of electric motorcycles and they are the leaders in their field,” says Hentschel.
“Delta Cosworth will design the battery pack, while HiSpeed Ltd. will bring motor and inverter design and manufacturing skills. Formaplex Technologies has expertise in precision composites manufacturing, and M&I Materials will support on applications of dielectric cooling with its MIVOLT fluids. Indra Renewable Technologies specialises in revolutionary vehicle-to-home charging technology, and WMG, University of Warwick, majors on battery technology, modelling, and toolchain development.”
The overall goal of the project is not to produce a bike that is a radical departure from Norton’s current offerings. Despite the swap from ICE to electric requiring a significant rethink for the company, Hentschel believes it isn’t the right time to start throwing babies out with the bathwater — history has to count for something.
Building the Electric Norton
“As a brand, Norton Motorcycles has innovation and design at its heart, and the funding will allow us to inject this integral part of the company’s DNA into the production of a world-class electric motorcycle, as well as evolve the capability for EV development in general,” Hentschel says.
“The goal is to produce an electric motorcycle that bridges the gap between an EV and ICE, making it comparable with the same weight, performance, and real-world touring range through deep integration of battery, motor, and chassis, alongside extensive use of composite materials to create a lightweight solution.”
Of course, we’re still two-and-a-half years away from seeing what an electric Norton would look like in practice but, according to Hentschel, it should be some machine.
“It will be a vision of modern luxury that has been beautifully designed to not only excite existing riders but also inspire new ones. Our aim is to build a range of electric products that blends Norton’s design DNA with uncompromised performance, touring range, and lightweight handling.”
Looking to combine those three aspects is unprecedented territory for an electric motorbike, according to Norton. When the funding was announced, the company proclaimed:
“Electric products to date offer either range or performance, as the weight and size of the battery compromise vehicle design. However, using the extensive engineering and design experience within the Norton team, this project looks to eliminate that compromise while simultaneously delivering race performance and touring range.”
We’ll have to wait and see whether Norton can live up to its ambitions.
Promisingly, though, the company will not need to completely retool its production line to accommodate the new bikes.
“Our production line is flexible and can be adapted to suit the production of various vehicles, including electric motorcycles,” explains Hentschel.
“There will be some equipment adaptations required to suit the production of electric motorcycles, along with the acquirement of new equipment for the production of cells and battery packs. However, this equipment will complement our existing facilities to enable the production line to remain flexible.
More to Come?
Of course, while Norton is working on developing an electric motorbike, it won’t completely abandon its ICE bikes.
“As an automotive manufacturer, we are aware of our responsibilities to support the UK government in its mission for a net-zero automotive future,” says Hentschel.
“In the meantime, we have recently launched and opened order books for our reengineered V4SV superbike. Our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Solihull was the base for this project.”
“Our new V4CR prototype revealed at Motorcycle Live in 2021 received exceptional customer feedback. New models require 30 to 40 months of development from concept to delivery, which is why our shorter-term objective is to maintain production continuity by re-engineering and developing existing Norton models. Then, in the medium term, will come all-new designs that will re-define the Norton brand.”