SHAKEN & STIRRED
It’s the fastest and most technologically advanced production bike ever to roll off a British production line and we rode it first!
I say, that’s a very bright-looking bike!” exclaimed the husband of the 50-something couple as they walked past where I’d stopped for a coffee. “What is it?” Before I could answer, his smartly-dressed wife did it for me.
“I know!” she said eagerly. “It’s the new Norton that I saw a programme about on the BBC, after the Isle of Man TT last summer. I was hoping to see one of them one day – how does it go? It looks very fast!”
After reminding myself to never judge a book by its cover, I had to admit to Mrs Diana Williams that, yes, the new Norton V4-SS is indeed very fast, and to husband Ray that its trademark chrome paint scheme is indeed very bright – it makes the V4-SS such a visual standout that any owner can’t help but make an impression by their bike’s sheer presence, even before they light up the engine.
The Norton 1200 V4, the first all-British hypersports model ever to reach the marketplace, was unveiled at the Birmingham Show in November 2016, with the debut of not one, but two versions of the hand-built, UK-designed 1200cc Superbike – one of which immediately sold out. But since then, the world has waited with increasing frustration to see just what this amazing-looking motorcycle is really all about, as the planned start of production got progressively delayed in best European small-volume manufacturer fashion.
But last October, without any fanfare, Norton finally began delivering examples of the limited-edition 1200 V4-SS priced at £44,000 ($80,000), all 200 versions of which were already sold before its launch to customers eager to acquire the ultimate performance motorcycle bearing the name of Britain’s most historic sporting brand. Since then, production has gradually ramped up, and Norton owner and CEO Stuart Garner summoned me to the firm’s Donington Hall HQ to become the first person outside the company to actually ride the V4-SS.
As he handed me the key to number 001/200 – which Stuart Garner is keeping for himself – I asked him why Norton was so late in starting deliveries of the V4 models.
“It was all about the engine,” he said. “I can’t over-emphasise how big a job it is designing and developing an all-new motor, especially a 1200cc V4 giving 200hp-plus. But for me, the only way of bringing Norton back right was to develop our own engine – we couldn’t have had anybody else’s in it.
“We’ve been racing the Aprilia RSV4 motor in our TT bikes, but that was only to get Norton back in racing where it belongs, and to learn about designing a chassis to harness that sort of performance. But after that we had some supplier issues, then the engine calibration proved another headache. I wouldn’t say it was more difficult than we’d expected, but we didn’t want to get it wrong.”
By the way, Norton’s Aussie ace Josh Brookes finished fifth in the 2018 Senior TT on the Norton SG6 in its final outing with an Aprilia engine. John McGuinness will be racing a lighter version of this V4-SS in this year’s TT, but with its Norton V4 engine tuned to deliver more than 240hp!
After the 200 examples of the V4-SS have all been built by what’s expected to be the start of June, Norton will then start work on the 300 units of the less-costly Norton V4-RR. Priced at £28,000 ($51,150), it will use a cast-aluminium frame and swingarm rather than the SS’s hand-fabricated chassis, but is otherwise identical. Both versions are powered by the same all-new Euro-4 compliant liquid-cooled 16-valve 72º V4 engine with chain-driven DOHC developed by Norton at Donington Hall, after an initial collaboration with leading design consultants Ricardo Motorcycle ended in 2016, and Norton’s Head of Design Simon Skinner [see sidebar] took the entire project in-house.
Measuring 82 x 56.8 mm for an exact capacity of 1200cc, the V4 engine is claimed to produce in excess of 200hp at 12,500 rpm, with maximum torque of 130Nm delivered at 10,000rpm – even more than the meaty 122Nm Aprilia RSV4 1100 I’d been riding round the Mugello GP circuit just four days before my Norton ride. It features titanium valves, a six-speed cassette-type gearbox and slipper clutch with two-way autoblipper and powershifter, plus dual injectors per cylinder and a constantly variable-length intake system. There’s a full ride-by-wire throttle controlling the front and rear cylinder banks independently via Norton’s own ECU, which offers a choice of three riding modes – Road, Race and Rain.
“The V4 is entirely our own, and owes nothing to Aprilia,” says Simon Skinner. “It’s allowed us to create an incredibly compact package. For a 1200cc 72º V4 it’s incredibly tiny, yet the riding position means taller riders are comfortable, too.”
I’ll say. Throwing a leg over the Norton immediately revealed the good-looking 817mm high seat adorned with the Union Jack on its tail, and with the filler cap for the fuel tank at its front, to be both comfortable and spacious even with the relatively high footpegs needed for ground clearance at full lean thanks to the mega-grip from the 200-section rear Dunlop Sportmax GP Racer mounted on the six-inch wide forged aluminium wheel (unpainted carbon bikes are fitted with BST carbon wheels as standard). More to the point, at 180cm in height, I could easily put both feet flat on the ground. This means that despite its sportsbike stance, the 1200 V4 is accessible for any size of rider, thanks mainly to the way that the exquisitely-crafted extruded aluminium spaceframe is narrow at its waist. This makes the Norton a woman’s bike, too – though when I tell you that this is very much a motorcycle with hair on its chest, please don’t consider the 1200 V4-SS to be remotely transgender. Far from it…
Because thumbing the starter button on the V4-SS is the entry ticket to a wall of sound that’s unbelievably butch, and comes straight from the MotoGP grid, thanks to the completely unsilenced titanium race exhaust fitted to the V4-SS models, but a paid-for option on the V4-RR. The exhaust note is unique – nobody else makes a 72º V4. After you’ve managed to learn not to be embarrassed about arousing people from an afternoon nap – and believe me, it’s not easy these days in PC-conscious Britain – you start looking for ways to make the Norton sing the highly distinctive two-wheeled aria that all V4 motorcycles produce.
Everywhere you go and at almost any revs higher than its fast 1700rpm idle, it sounds like the bike it undoubtedly is; a take-no-prisoners uber-Uberbike, and deadly effective in achieving it.
For sweet-shifting as the Norton undoubtedly is, with a perfectly dialled-in two-way powershifter which means your left hand stays clamped to the clip-on even in traffic, it has so much torque almost anywhere in the powerband that shifting gear becomes practically optional. It’ll pull off idle with hardly any clutch slip, then once under way you can gas it wide open in top gear from just 2500rpm upwards without a hint of transmission snatch – though below that the fuelling is a bit hit and miss.
With a 13,500rpm limiter, this means the Norton is more or less an automatic – and don’t imagine that it struggles to get going from such low revs, either. As soon as the ultra-legible TFT dash (which has three different graphics, one for each riding mode out of Road, Race and Rain) shows 4000rpm, the Norton surges ahead with explosive purpose – this is a musclebike that delivers on promises, and then some. I guess Skinner’s identification of Norton’s distant neighbours Aston Martin down the road at Gaydon as the four-wheeled equivalent is a valid one – but in that case they better get ready to build a bike for Daniel Craig to ride in the next Bond movie, for if ever 007 were to ride a motorcycle, it would have to be this one. The V4-SS is a torquey, powerful, but totally rideable gentleman’s express.
The 1200 V4-SS would be too much motorcycle for certain kinds of roads without the electronic assistance provided by the six-axis Bosch IMU/Inertial Measurement Unit. It gives the rider better control of this 200hp+ racer with lights, using one of the most advanced systems available, which features traction control, engine braking strategies, launch control and cruise control, plus a data logging system for use on the track, as well as an anti-wheelie programme – switchable, of course. A full-colour seven-inch TFT touch-screen dash monitors proceedings, gives access to the electronics, as well as hosting the rear-view camera’s display – though carbon fibre mirrors are there to satisfy EU regulations. It’s worth mentioning that the overall build quality of 001/200 was literally superlative, and despite having clocked up heaps of miles in Stuart Garner’s hands and others, it’s still achingly desirable – it wears the miles well.
It also handles superlatively, too, with the Öhlins fork especially well set up, delivering great feedback from the front Dunlop that allows you to take full advantage of the Norton’s appetite for turn speed, even with that grunty engine’s eagerness to rev, and meaty spread of torque. It’s super-forgiving, too – regular readers will know that I don’t usually boast about riding exploits, but I twice felt a front-end slide coming almost before it had happened, and was able to save them both with my knee before resuming normal service. There’s outstanding feedback from the chassis, which is also tuned to have just the right degree of flex to let it talk to you. Skinner deserves huge credit for having designed this exquisite-handling bike.
And that as much as anything else is the thing I came away most impressed with after riding the fastest and most powerful British bike ever built with a number plate. It seems literally amazing that a company – which until now had never built anything more exotic than an air-cooled 961cc 80hp pushrod twin – could have created this phenomenal motorcycle, which stands comparison with anything else in the marketplace, no matter how potent and beautifully styled.
It would already have been remarkable if Stuart Garner had commissioned the 1200 V4-SS from an outside supplier – as many European manufacturers already do. But to have entirely conceived, engineered, developed, styled and manufactured this fabulous motorcycle in-house at Norton, which by its very existence has elbowed aside brands like Ducati, BMW and Aprilia to clear a place for Norton at motorcycling’s top table, is incredible – but it has.
Please don’t think this assessment represents a furious wave of that flag on the side of my helmet, because that’s definitely not the case. Yes, I was the lucky one to have the first full test of the Norton V4-SS on British roads – but I know that when others after me get the chance to ride the British 1200 V4, their opinion will be the same. Despite that flag on my helmet, I freely admit I never saw this coming.
TEST Alan Cathcart
PHOTOGRAPHY Kel Edge