Three decades ago, bike sport fans witnessed the beginnings of a golden era of British racing – that of the JPS-liveried Norton rotaries – which, for a few brief years, blew all-comers away. We’ve not seen anything quite like it since.
The first sign something big was coming came in late 1988, when Steve Spray blitzed October’s Powerbike International at Brands Hatch on a red, blue and silver prototype.
But it was the following year that things really took off. With new JPS livery (a by-product of the Brands wins) and a full-time, two-man team of Spray and Trevor Nation, the black and gold bikes swept all before them.
In May 1989, Spray won Norton’s first F1 British Championship round at Mallory Park, a feat he repeated at Donington, Snetterton and Cadwell with Nation never far behind. While the duo were equally dominant in the parallel 750cc Supercup series, Spray winning again, seeming to fend off easily the challenge of Terry Rymer and Carl Fogarty aboard the Yamaha OW-01 and RC30 respectively.
And all of that, helped by an upsurge in TV coverage, whipped crowds into a frenzy, fuelled an unforeseen surge in attendances, prompted the sales of thousands of black and gold JPS paddock jackets and baseball caps and propelled Spray to MCN’s Man of the Year award.
The success continued into 1990 and spread into road racing, particularly the Isle of Man TT, before tailing off in 1991. While in 1992, Steve Hislop delivered a last hurrah and arguably Norton’s greatest win (it’s been voted the TT’s greatest ever moment), by storming to Senior victory aboard his ‘White Charger’.
And although the JPS team folded at the end of that year, Norton rotary racing success continued with Colin Seeley’s Duckhams squad in 1994 before the bikes were finally outlawed the following year.
No mean feat for a racing project, which, quite literally, was originally born out of a shed...
Who developed the first Norton rotary race bike?
The Norton rotary racer story is essentially that of one man – Brian Crighton. Although by the mid-1980s the then struggling Norton concern had been developing road going rotaries, largely for the police, for over a decade, nobody had considered them as racers. Until Crighton.
A former racer, he joined Norton’s service department in 1984 before being promoted into R&D a year later. And it was here his ideas about the rotary’s potential took hold.
"I wanted to go racing but no-one wanted to know," he said later. "I was convinced I could up the power from the 92bhp the best engines were giving to around 120 and eventually it was agreed I could work on a racer provided I did it in my own time and own expense – working evenings and weekends."
Which is exactly what Crighton did. With an engine from a scrapped police Interpol and working out of the caretaker’s shed at Norton’s Lichfield base, Crighton’s masterstroke was coming up with what he called the ‘exhaust ejector’ which, similar to two-stroke expansion chamber theory, used the notoriously hot rotary’s exhaust venturi to drag cooling air through the engine’s internals in turn allowing air for the carbs to arrive unrestricted.
The effect almost doubled the rotary’s power output and also made it incredibly loud, although for racing purposes that didn’t really matter...
A shed-born hero
But Norton themselves still weren’t convinced. "I told them this engine could go well in racing but they thought I was mad," Crighton continued. "I couldn’t get anyone interested until it did 170mph at MIRA. It all went from there. They kicked the caretaker out of his house and let me have that as the race shop."
With official backing progress was now swift. A new bike, dubbed the RC588, was built in six weeks around a new Spondon racing frame (replacing the crude, Interpol-derived chassis of the first prototype which had such vague handling it was dubbed ‘Walzing Walter’). And in its debut race at a Darley Moor club event in August 1987, with Malcolm Heath at the controls, it came third.
Spurred on, development continued through 1988 with new riders Simon Buckmaster and Trevor Nation but it was substitute Andy McGladdery who gave the RC588 its first win at Carnaby that August. After that, results went into overdrive with Nation winning at Mallory, Cadwell and Darley before the season finale at the Powerbike International at Brands.
"We had a spare bike and I invited Steve Spray to try it," Crighton remembers. "He’d never ridden the rotary before and it wasn’t set up for him but when I asked after practice if he wanted to change anything he said everything was fine – ‘Just fill it up with petrol’. He then went out and won the race!"
"It’s a cracking bike, a super job," Spray told MCN at the time. "It’s quick and it handles well. It’s like riding a two-stroke in that when you close the throttle it keeps running. The idea seems to be to get it into top as soon as possible and it will rev away from there..."
Little did either know then just how important that result would be. Those two dominant Brands wins were witnessed by a John Player marketing executive and, within weeks, it was announced a new John Player Norton racing team, complete with iconic black and gold livery, would compete in 1989.
New personnel came on board while the bike itself was significantly updated with a new liquid-cooled engine to become the RCW588, now putting out over 135bhp.
And that extra power showed as the new all-black bikes simply obliterated UK racing in 1989, famously blasting past all-comers down the long Revitt Straight in Snetterton’s televised round in July.
Of course, not everyone was impressed. "I get a bit fed up when the Nortons come past on the straight throwing flames at me," Terry Rymer said at the time. "But it certainly keeps the crowd happy. This has been one of the best British seasons for years."
Yet it was also as good as it would get for Norton. At the end of the season ex-Honda Britain boss Barry Symmonds came in as team manager prompting a series of changes that meant that, although success continued in 1990, (Nation won the MCN TT Superbike Championship while roads specialist Robert Dunlop won both Superbike races at the North West), the team wasn’t as dominant as before. Friction led to the departure of Crighton in September, followed by underperforming Spray shortly after.
More changes came in 1991. Symmonds brought in Maxton chassis guru Ron Williams who designed a new NRS588 with an all-new Harris-frame while ex-GP rider Ron Haslam was signed to develop it. And although Haslam won first time out, Nation couldn’t get on with it and also left at the year’s end.
Things didn’t improve much the following year with 1992 the year of the Team Green Kawasaki ZXRs of John Reynolds and Brian Morrison, while Haslam’s season ended after breaking his leg at the third round.
But 1992 also saw Steve Hislop give the rotary probably its biggest success when he famously won the Senior TT – although, with no extra JPS backing available, his leased machine ran instead, thanks to Abus backing, in white livery.
And although JPS pulled the plug on the factory squad at the end of 1992, nor was it the end of the Norton rotary racer. Crighton had unveiled his own racer, the twin shocked Roton, in March 1991 and after struggling for 18 months to find backing, teamed up in 1993 with Colin Seeley to run a Duckhams liveried team.
After Jim Moodie grabbed second on one of his bikes in the 1993 Supercup, Seeley’s team dominated 1994 even more than the JPS bikes had before. Ian Simpson won the title, teammate Phil Borley was third with the duo scoring a massive 14 wins.
Yet just as quickly as the Norton rotary racers had arrived, they were gone, too. With no official backing available (the factory was by then being asset-stripped after being sold to Wildrose Ventures in 1993), Seeley instead decided to campaign Honda RC45s for 1995 while regulation changes soon after barred the ever-controversial rotaries from competing at all.
Crighton himself, meanwhile, continued to develop the rotary, was briefly associated with Stuart Garner’s reborn Norton concern, then, independently, unveiled his latest version, the track day CR700P, in 2017 with promises of an – as yet unseen – road version to follow. So maybe, just maybe, the Norton rotary isn’t quite yet dead after all...
How a rotary engine works
Norton’s rotary was a development of the German Sachs twin rotor Wankel engine, a licence for which was originally bought by Norton owners BSA-Triumph in 1972.
Its principle is that, instead of conventional pistons and con-rods rotating a crankshaft, it uses an eccentric, three-sided (trochoidal) rotor, driven by combustion pressure and geared directly to the crank, to create rotating motion. There are no valves. Instead, similar to a two-stroke, gases are drawn in, pressurised and exhausted by the rotor.
The advantages are threefold: It’s simple and thus compact and light; smooth and, with three power pulses per revolution compared to the one of a two-stroke and one every two revolutions of a four-stroke, it’s inherently powerful.
Disadvantages include high emissions due to unburnt fuel entering the exhaust, high fuel consumption and extreme heat generation.
On top of that, rotaries also suffered from confusion and inconsistency about how to measure displacement. While Norton measured their bikes at 588cc, the FIM at first decreed it should be rated twice that (ie 1176cc and ineligible for 1000cc racing) before relaxing it to 1.7:1 (or 999cc).
And even that was all before it was barred from production-based racing and the likes of Euro4 came in...
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