Charles and Fred Norman started their frame making, enamelling and metal plating business (Kent Plating & Enamelling Co) in a garden shed just off Jemmett Road, Ashford, Kent on their return from France at the end of the First World War. In the 1920's they started producing cycles and went on to produce many thousands, they acquired a larger premises in Victoria Road. In 1935 they had a new factory built in Beaver Road, the company was renamed Norman Cycles Limited. Many cycles and mopeds were exported under the Rambler trademark to Central America, Malaya, Canada and other Commonwealth countries. Fred had been a fighter pilot in the First World War, he was also a member of the RAF Association, Fred presented Guy Gibson the legendary leader of 617 Squadron on the Dambuster Raids with the lightweight motorcycle for riding around his home airfield (RAF Scampton).
The Nobby Norman range of childrens cycles and Norman Invader sporting cycles were very popular in the 1950's. The factory sponsored a number of professional cyclists including Les Pantry who were used in Norman publicity and promotions. Less well known were the tradesmen's cycles, tricycles and special circus bicycles built to order. The factory did have a competition side, Karl Pugh, Brian Butt, Gerry Mills, Clive Mills, Don Barret, G. Russel, Ray Peacock and Sid Wicken were entered by the factory in the Scottish Six day trials in the early 1950's. The Scottish Norman agent Ian McIntyre won the 125cc SSDT class outright in 1953. The successes of the 1953 team were celebrated in the 1954 sales brochure, 1955 was to be the factories last year at the Scottish. The Norman B2C, B2CS & B4C were produced mainly for off road riders in club competition. They were very popular and successful in the South East of England. Derek Minter the famous road racer was loaned machines by the factory and featured in publicity for the road going models. Derek used to enter a special factory twin cylinder trials machine in winter trials competitions. A range of lightweight motorcycles, autocycles and mopeds were produced from 1938 to 1961. The first motorised Norman's were the Motobyk autocycle and 125cc engined lightweight motorcycle. During the Second World War small paratrooper's motorcycles and the Rudge autocycle were produced alongside the cycles. In 1943 the rights to the Rudge autocycle were acquired and were manufactured and sold under the Norman brand. Ron Butler formerly of Rudge Whitworth joined Norman Cycles as Sales Director.
The first model available after the war was the lightweight model. The post war range consisted mainly of autocycles and 122, 149 & 197cc single cylinder Villiers engined motorcycles. In 1955 a 250cc British Anzani engined twin cylinder machine was launched. In the 1954 Norman's started to plan moped production of 40-60 machines per day, they went on to produce thousands of Norman Nippy and Lido mopeds. The first Nippy was built under licence from the German Achilles company and was in fact a Dutch made Germaan Capri. In 1957 the Achilles Company was acquired, the presses and some of the former employees moved to Ashford, this resulted in the Lido moped. Norman Cycles were acquired by Tube Investments (TI). This brought membership to the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA). The factory spent a week every year at the proving ground with a vanload of bikes and a hand full of factory personnel. The Belgium road caused frame failures just below the headstock, resulting in tapered tubes being fitted into the cast iron headstock castings. In fact a number of bikes returned under warranty with broken frames were used by Karl Pugh and the factory to develop the off road bikes in the early 1950's.
Normans were involved in developing the Armstrong leading link forks. Normans bought the rights and licence to produced the Mk2 leading link fork at Ashford when Armstrong stopped making them at York. Normans supplied E Cotton Motorcycles (Gloucester) with these forks until the factory closed. The factory had a small but talented experimental department led by Ron Brittain, other members included Gerry Mills, Michael Turner and Andrew Chapman. They tested various engines in Norman frames, including the 242 & 322cc British Anzani engines, Excelisor triple, Villiers 3T with electric start and even adapted an air cooled engine to water cooling. Much testing work was carried out experimenting with different carburettors and jetting. The factory was justifiably proud of their frame craftsmen, the machines were well produced and very well finished by state of the art electrostatic enamelling machines. 1958 saw the introduction of the B3 Roadster fitted with the Villiers 2T twin cylinder machine, this model was a huge improvement over the troublesome TS Anzani model. The British Anzani engine struggled with modest performance and overheating, due to its poor air cooling, originally a marine engine designed for water cooling. Journalist John Thorpe tested the B3 machine during 1958 and suggested sporting alterations to appeal to the younger rider, this resulted in sports versions of the B2 & B3 introduced for 1959, complete with red tanks, fly screens and optional alloy rims and high compression heads.
Dealer Hallets of Canterbury entered a two-rider team in the 1959 & 1960 Thruxton 500 mile races. Les Hatch (Norman employee) and John Punnet (Greengrocer) rode a factory prepared B3 Sports, engine was specially tuned by Villiers. The B3 Sports was more or less standard, they came 2nd in the 250 class in 1959. The result boosted the Norman order book by £10,000 over night. One of the early sports twins sent to MIRA was entered on the way home in a club race at Brands Hatch by the tester Les Hatch. The Ashford bypass (now the M20) had just been built and Les Hatch tested one twin at 90mph. Inspired by the Italian machines on display at the Milan motorcyle shows the distinctive Italian styled B4 Sports 250 twin was introduced in 1961. A revised sub frame was developed, which was gas welded for the first time. A traditional Roadster version with heavy side panels was available, along with B4C trials and B4 Scrambles versions. Both offroad machines were fitted with 250cc single cylinder Villiers engines (Villiers specification 226D).
Production in the motorcycle works could average twelve machines a day (sixty per week). Nippy's appeared off the moving production line every two minutes, more often than not all the men would be employed assemblying Nippy's. Following the Thruxton Success in June 1959 and introduction of the Nippy Mk IV for 1960, 1960 -1961 saw record production 1000 motorcycles and 3000 mopeds per annum. The B4 model was only meant to be a transitional model until the duplex framed B5 was introduced. The B4 shared many parts with the earlier B3 range. Ron Brittain developed the prototype B4 Sports, he used the first model as a personal hack, and this was painted all black. The second prototype (Andrew Chapmans personal transport) was eventually painted black and ivory, the tank design similar to the final production model. Andrew Chapman was a very keen young chap at the time, he tested prototype No2 at an indicated 100mph, which was quite an achievement in 1960.
The B5 prototype was tested at MIRA in 1961, where the Norton Featherbed (duplex frame) copy duly snapped just behind the head stock, where Mr Fink (TI Reynolds) said it would. This frame was jig built and gas welded, Normans had only just starting to abandon brazing frames together. The prototype B5 used the leading link forks and 2T from the B4. The frame was repaired but development went no further. The production B5 machine was to be fitted with many Italian parts, Mival made a 250cc single four stroke with overhead cam, they made many other components including 8" alloy brakes which were better than the British parts being supplied to our industry. It would have been fantastic to see Les Hatch and John Punnett entered at Thruxton and in club racing on screaming 250cc OHC four strokes. An Orange and white Mival four stoke model arrived in Ashford, just before closure.
Normans had been working increasingly closely with the Italian Mival company towards the end. Mival were a well respected machine tool company, who built their own range of motorcycles up to 1968. A nippy was sent out to Italy where they turned it into a sort of sports moped, with vastly increased performance. This Nippy had the 98cc Sachs engine and was ridden hard down Chilham Hill by my informant at 68 mph with his wife on the back. Apparently the Sachs engine was far superior to the Villiers 3K. The Mk 3 Nippy with Norman badged Mival engine was designed down to a price, the price being the same as a high specification cycle. Tube Investments (TI) had owned Normans from 1953/54, TI used the monopoly of the cycle tube business to acquire Normans. TI formed the British Cycle Corporation to incorporate all their separate cycle brands Norman, Phillips, Hercules & Sun. In 1960 Raleigh were acquired, they were given control of the TI cycle business, which then controlled 75% of the UK market. 1959 was a high point for motorcycle/scooter sales, from 1960 sales slumped, throughout the 1950's UK cycle sales were rapidly declining due to the popularity of small cheap cars. Raleigh consolidated all the TI cycle/moped/motorcycle interests at their Nottingham plant, Normans, Phillips, Hercules and Sun's factories would close.
Fred and Charles Norman retired and the Ashford factory closed on 30 August 1961. The new outfit soon starting losing large export orders to the USA and Commonwealth Nations, which Norman had been so successful in winning. Raleigh transferred parts for the B4 motorcycles and some mopeds to Smethwick (Birmingham) and Nottingham and carried on marketing the machines until late 1962. From May 1962 these machines were made to order in small batches and had the RN (Raleigh Norman) prefix to the frame number. The B4 Roadster was marketed until June 1962, the Sports model until late 1962. Rumours persist that some B4 Sports models were assembled with 4T engines after this time. In 1962 Raleigh marketed the Nippy V and Lido 111 as Normans (Prefix 1N Nippy & 2N Lido) but they were essentially Raleigh models produced by Motorbecane in France. Some Nippy IV's were sold by Raleigh.