The troubled history of the revived Norton Motorcycles reached another fork in the road March 31 when Kenny Dreer's working capital ran out shortly before the lease on his Milwaukie, Oregon shop.
It's a one-two punch for the dogged entrepreneur who managed to wrest the U.S. Norton name away from non-performing hoarders in 2003 and built 50 excellent VR 880 models, which sold for $20,000 each.
These were based on 1970s Norton Commandos, with all their legendary shortcomings corrected. Dreer followed up by assembling a small, highly skilled crew to design a new bike from scratch.
The result was the 961 Commando, an 80-hp vertical twin first shown to the public at Laguna Seca in 2004. It's reviewed favorably in May's Cycle World Magazine, whose editor-in-chief David Edwards is a big fan of Dreer's efforts and owns a VR 880 himself.
"It's almost confusing," says Dreer ruefully. "A lot of companies go out of business because they can't get a product built right, and here we have a wonderful product and vindication from Cycle World Magazine."
Dreer intended his 961 Commando to compete with the 1,000-cc Ducati Monster, and testers call it a legitimate contender. However, the project has been an expensive one, with estimates of $8.5 million already spent and a further $10 million needed to begin large-scale production.
Startup costs can be significant. The four prototype 961s sport custom crankcases that are estimated to cost $60,000 a set and frames that cost $3,000–$4,000 to build. The plastic gas tanks cost $20,000 to make, but that includes tooling to turn out thousands more.
As one of the designers observed: "That's the trouble with a startup, you run full-speed towards a chasm, trusting the bridge will be there when you arrive. It's a shame Kenny never had the money. He had the dream."