Richard Seymour (top, left) and Dick Powell were the men who designed the rotary-engined Norton F1. Here, in this exclusive interview, Dick recounts the story and tells us how the F1 went from the drawing board to production reality...
Back in the late-1980s / early-1990s, the rotary-engined Norton F1 was pretty much the most exotic superbike in the world. Yes, there were others, like the Honda RC30, Yamaha OW01 and the Bimota YB4, but none of those machines had what the Norton F1 had - a 588cc liquid-cooled twin-rotor rotary engine that revved like crazy, producing a frenzied 85bhp and pushing the bike to a top speed of 225kph. The F1's successor, the F1 Sport was even more powerful and racing versions of the bike notched up many race wins, including a particularly memorable win at the 1992 Isle of Man TT. With its Spondon-designed aluminium twin-spar chassis, PVM wheels, Brembo brakes and adjustable WP suspension, the Norton F1 definitely wasn't messing around - it meant business.
We've always been big fans of the Norton F1. Apart from its rotary engine, we also love its styling - the F1's fully-enclosed fairing and its iconic black, gray and gold 'John Player Special' paintjob make it stand out from from other 1980s/1990s machines. The bike was designed by British designers, Richard Seymour and Dick Powell of seymourpowell, a London-based industrial design outfit that was set up in 1984. We thought it would be fascinating to get their take on the Norton F1 now, about 25 years after the machine was launched. So we sent them a few questions, and here are some excerpts from what Dick Powell, co-founder of seymourpowell, had to say about the legendary Norton F1:
On how it all started
Seymourpowell officially started in 1984. Both Richard and I were at the Royal College of Art. Our first motorcycle client was Yamaha, for whom we did many projects during the '80s and early-'90s, including building full-size working prototypes of concept bikes. We also worked for BMW, and later created the world’s first hydrogen-fuelled motorcycle called ENV.
On their love for motorcycles
I have had a full license since I was 16 years old and have been riding bikes ever since. I have three bikes - a Honda RC30, a Yamaha R1 and a KTM Adventure. Richard too has been a biker all his life!
On how they got started working for Norton
Our first contact with Norton came via The Design Council, which was running a service for the industry called FCS (Funded Consultancy Service), whereby a company could commission design work and have a significant part of the cost funded by the government. This was before Norton had officially launched their air-cooled Wankel engine bike, and they were in the process of developing the water-cooled Wankel engine. We were asked to consider the design implications for the water-cooled engine but, in the event, we went back to them with a full strategic report outlining what they should be doing.
That report sat around for a while until the business, verging on liquidation, was bought by Phillipe Le Roux. He turned up our report (he said he found it in a drawer!) and saw much common sense in it.
On problems with the Wankel rotary engine and how they dealt with those problems
Norton’s Wankel engine, in both air-cooled and water-cooled versions was hampered by poor breathing. Air that eventually ended up being mixed with fuel had to pass through a labyrinthine route which included passing through the middle of the rotor shaft. This both constricted the incoming air and made it far too hot. On our first visit to Lichfield with Le Roux, we met Brian Crighton who, in his own time, was trying to develop a racing version of the engine. Brian’s brilliant idea was to put what he called an ‘exhaust ejector’ on the exhaust; this was effectively a venturi whose low pressure dragged the necessary cooling air through the internals which, in turn allowed air for the carbs to arrive unrestricted. This simple device released masses of horsepower (from memory, almost doubling the engine output). Our strongest recommendation to Le Roux was to make Brian’s personal project into a formal part of Norton strategy: that they go racing to demonstrate the technology and underpin the later launch of a sports bike.
We also put them in touch with Spondon, who had built chassis for SP before, and the project took off with the results that everyone knows about. But, the immediate and urgent need was to get the water-cooled engine into a viable motorcycle with a ready market - this being the police bike, which later became a consumer machine called the Commander. We recommended that because Norton already had a close relationship with the Police (some air-cooled bikes had already been supplied to them) and no dealer network was needed to start generating some cash.
Following the police bike, we got the go ahead to start on the sportsbike. By then, the racing team had been formed with JPS sponsorship.
On the design brief given to them by Norton, for designing the F1
The brief was to turn the race bike into a sportsbike, using as many off the shelf parts as possible. What we hadn’t realised at the beginning was that a road machine could not use Brian’s power liberating exhaust ejector for reasons of noise (anyone who witnessed the racers can testify to that!) and emissions (a consequence of using oil mist for lubrication). So the promise of a high performance sports machine was neutered before we started and that, more than any other single thing, dogged the bike thereafter. Beyond that, we wanted to keep as much of the racer as was possible including, of course, the Spondon chassis, the rotary engine and ancillaries. Apart from the bodywork, most of the other bits came from various Yamahas I think!
On the Norton F1's fully-enclosed fairing and its futuristic design
We had recently done a ‘Futures' study for Yamaha and identified a growing trend toward aerodynamic enclosure. From memory, I think Honda’s first CBR600 had just been launched and, around the same time, their CBR1000F and, of course, Bimota's DB1. Both Richard and I rode Bimotas (me an SB4 and Rich an HB2), both of which had one-piece bodies, which covered the real tank. All these bikes pointed towards more and more aerodynamic bodywork as a future direction. Additionally, bodywork was a good idea to keep mechanical noise at bay and, looking ahead, allowed for future bikes, which could capitalise on existing internals with investment only needed for bodywork variations.
We felt that just doing a straight race replica was not the right thing to do for Norton. For a start, we didn’t now how successful racing was going to be and tying sales to race track success seemed risky. And second, the Japanese were all over that, so it would be hard to compete with them on price. We felt the bike deserved a new identity which was more Porsche than straight race-replica; more sophisticated in the sense that, being expensive, it needed to sell to bikers who wanted something a bit more exclusive and less race honed (like a Bimota or, back then, a Ducati).
The original vision was for a very enclosed bike where the form of the rider was visible, as if moulded into the bodywork. The rear hugger was quite groundbreaking, tidying up the airflow exiting the engine and from under the bike. To the designer’s eye, this served to integrate the bike into one whole, seamless form.
On the response to the F1 when it was launched
I remember the launch at Earls Court (we built the show bike) where there was a huge buzz about it. And yes, it was thought to be contemporary but not, I think, too radical. We were immensely proud of it (and still are!) We won a Design Week Award Best of Show for it and Richard did a brilliant ad, titled ‘Son of a Bitch,’ which Norton got cold feet about and barely ran. There was a strong feeling that the bike represented a new start (again!) for Norton and there was a will for the business to succeed, and a national fervour for that helped, it must be said, by success on the racetrack.
On his own experience of riding the Norton rotary-engined racebike
I remember well showing up at Mallory, where they were testing, to ride the race bike where, under the worried gaze of Brian and the amused gaze of Trevor Nation, I lurched around Mallory in my ACU novice’s pink jacket. I hadn’t ever ridden a bike on slicks and I hadn’t ever ridden with a reversed gear-change, but I had done track days at Mallory and knew my way around. With Brian’s instructions to not bin it ringing in my ears, I still managed to lock it up going into the hairpin (that reverse gear change!) but managed to enjoy a few laps at a very modest pace!
On his thoughts on current Norton motorcycles
I love the new bikes - they have captured the zeitgeist of the times where the retro '50s and '60s based café-racers are finding a market with people who want to capture some of the magic of a former time. Retro trends tend to reach back to a point in time just beyond peoples’ direct personal experience. Norton need to bear that in mind when thinking about what kind of bike to develop - they clearly understand this, and the difficulty of competing with brands with huge facilities and capability!
On how doing a similar project for Norton now would be different from how it was back then
If the F1 had had the power of the race bike, it would have been a completely different story - winning on track would have translated to sales, but there was no denying that it was underpowered for what it purported to be. And this at a time when buyers were really beginning to understand that they could have a real racer on the road. So yes, doing a similar project for Norton now, it would be completely different!
On some of his own favourite motorcycles and what excites him about possible future developments in the world of motorcycling
I love the design and engineering of the Ducati Panigale and, for the same reason, Honda’s exclusive RCV. I think that the most important development in all future vehicles (not just bikes) will be batteries. They will get lighter, smaller and ever more powerful with, eventually, recharge cycles which make them a viable alternative to petrol as the technologies mature. That’s exciting for designers, as the architecture (or packaging) is completely different and that, in turn, will bring exciting new opportunities!
We thank Dick Powell for sharing his thoughts with Faster and Faster and we wish seymourpowell all the best for their future work. And, someday, we hope to see a rotary-engined, seymourpowell-designed Norton F2 superbike in a showroom somewhere nearby...!
Here's a road test of the Norton F1 by Performance Bikes magazine