This rotary Norton bike project will spice up your weekend jaunts


The rotary engine may have been invented by a crazy antisemite who never finished his creation, but Felix Wankel sure made a lasting impression. While NSU, the German company with which Wankel originally developed his rotary design, went bankrupt in the long-term rotary-development process only to be absorbed by Audi, Mazda put a lot more effort into perfecting the recipe and created a legend in the process.

However, four-wheeled motorized creations don’t hold a monopoly on the rotary legend, as witnessed by this 1985 air-cooled 588cc Norton rotary project, which likely served as the inspiration for the 1987 limited run of 100 rotary-engined Norton Classics.

1985 Norton 588cc Rotary Racing Motorcycle Project
1985 Norton 588cc Rotary Racing Motorcycle Project

Before calling Jay Leno, note that oddballs like this don’t come up often for sale. Offered in the UK this Saturday, October 19, Bonhams estimates this Norton project to go for anywhere between $1350 and $2600. Once the hammer falls, it’s going to be a perfect contender for the Goodwood Festival of Speed, as well as a very hot bike indeed.

The original 100 air-cooled Norton bikes were much more reliable than Suzuki’s utterly complicated RE5s from the ’70s, yet Norton followed up with liquid-cooling as well in the name of the 1988–1992 Commander.

Though General Motors, Citroën, Mercedes-Benz, and many other big players abandoned their rotary dreams, Japanese motorbike manufacturers like Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki all kept going, believing that the low-vibration and lightweight Wankels would turn out to be the perfect bike engines for the ’70s.

1985 Norton 588cc Rotary Racing Motorcycle Project

In the UK, engineer David Garside at the former industrial combine Birmingham Small Arms Company had the same idea. Impressed by the single-rotor air-cooled Fichtel & Sachs rotary of the German Hercules motorcycle, he developed a twin-rotor engine on a B.S.A. frame. When in the early ’70s, B.S.A. became part of Norton Villiers, the rotary concept was kept alive by engineer Brian Crighton. Norton soon realized that the high heat output and emissions made rotary series production rather impossible, and so it was decided to use the lightweight design for racing instead.

As Bonhams explains, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Norton Rotaries did well, first with John Player sponsorship and later with Duckhams. Steve Spray won the TT Formula 1 Championship and Super Cup Series in 1989, followed by Robert Dunlop at the North West 200 in 1990. Steve Hislop’s 1992 Senior TT-winning ride aboard the Abus-sponsored Norton rotary is also worth a retrospective look.

Should you find yourself with a trailer and a couple grand to spare, you can pick up piece of rotary history, truck home, and have fun flinging around this racing project.

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