Wheels: Master and Commando
In addition to death and taxes, the life of a farrier, a person who shoes horses, includes another certainty: At some point, an ornery client will deliver a potentially lethal kick. When that time arrives, a farrier’s second hope—the first is that the horse misses—is that the kick connects early in the swing; such a blow carries less impact than a strike delivered at the end of the kick, known as the flick.
As a farrier, Kenny Dreer—now the president of Norton Motorsports and creator of the forthcoming 952 Commando, a high-performance, $20,000 all-purpose machine designed to take on tracks, highways, and mountain roads—was fortunate enough to remain relatively unscathed. For five years after receiving his farrier’s certification in 1988 from Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Ore., he made barn calls, using sugar cubes and soothing words to mollify the horses while he shoed them. Despite his caution, a horse once chomped on his shoulder, and another kicked him in the gut with such force that he was catapulted into a nearby berry bush.
However, that blow was minor compared to the metaphorical kick Dreer received three years ago. It was delivered at the flick by Ollie Curme, a general partner at the Massachusetts venture capital firm Battery Ventures and the primary investor in Vintage Rebuilds, the previous name of Dreer’s company. Dreer had constructed 47 versions of the Norton Commando VR880, powerful custom cruisers built using original Norton frames and engine heads, and the two men were arguing about the company’s next bike, the model that would eventually become the 952 Commando.
Dreer believed that with the new bike he could resurrect the legendary British brand founded by James Lansdowne Norton in 1898. In the company’s heyday during the 1960s and 1970s, Nortons dominated racing circuits such as Isle of Man and later became favorite collectibles before production ceased in 1976. Curme, disagreeing with Dreer’s grand plan, withdrew his funding and left Dreer broke. “I was in a cash free fall,” says Dreer, recalling how he used to disguise his voice when he answered the phone in case a bill collector was calling. “I can’t believe how fast I fell. It was like having a jet pack on your back going down the Grand Canyon.”
For Dreer, a lanky, balding, high-strung 56-year-old who used to outrun police cars aboard his bike in his native Philadelphia, money and motorcycles have always been repellent elements, like oil and water rather than bread and butter. In addition to initially losing his funding for the 952 Commando, Dreer did not make a cent of profit from the sale of his VR880s (the cost of sourcing vintage materials and fabricating new components exceeded the price of each machine), though the bike was featured on the cover of Cycle World magazine in 1999. But his financial misfortunes began much earlier, when he worked for a Honda motorcycle dealership in the 1980s, and sales of Japanese bikes plummeted through the floor. For someone who had spent so much time around horseshoes, Dreer was not blessed with a lot of luck.
Today, Dreer curses the viruses that continually infect his laptop and shakes his head about the unpaid $2,200 bill he charged a shipping company two years ago for damaging the precursor to the 952 Commando.
But for the first time in Dreer’s life, this machine that has long pulled at his heartstrings while pillaging his bank account could make him some money. Indeed, if all goes according to plan, Dreer should become wealthy enough to buy the casa in Mexico for which he has been pining.
From its headquarters in Gladstone, Ore., a suburb of Portland, Norton Motorsports plans to release 100 models of the $20,000 limited-edition signature series 952 Commando by the first quarter of next year, build 400 additional bikes in 2005, and reach 10,000 motorcycles by 2008. “The potential for this to work,” says Paul Gaudio, director of product design and development for Norton, “is so huge.”
Curme, an executive who prefers dark suits and once feared for his safety during a Harley ride to which he brought his VR880 (instead, scores of tattooed Harley guys hailed his Norton as the most beautiful bike they had ever seen), has an eye for this kind of potential. Several years ago, on his recommendation, Battery invested $7 million in Pixelworks, an Oregon company that produces chips for flat-panel and high-definition televisions. The firm’s return was $200 million.
Curme first met Dreer in 1998, when he purchased a VR880 from him. Suspecting that he might not be alone in finding these stylish British performance bikes appealing, Curme wrote Dreer a personal check for $250,000 worth of venture capital. Since then, he has issued more than $5 million of his own money to the motorcycle company. “The design of the bike really resonates with me, but it’s still a business,” says Curme. “I’m not doing anything with Norton that isn’t good business. For every dollar I put in, I expect a nice return.”
Curme may be a businessman, but Dreer is a dreamer. He envisions one of his bikes on display in a case at Portland International Airport. He hopes the Northwest city someday will call itself the home of Norton Motorcycles International, just as Milwaukee does with Harley-Davidson. “Is it money that motivates me? Nah,” says Dreer. “I want to win. I don’t know why I’ve been chosen to carry the Norton flag. I feel a tremendous honor to be upholding the legendary status of the marque.”
However, reality often interrupts Dreer’s dreams, which is what happened when he wanted to take his company in a different and more costly direction. When he assembled the VR880s, Dreer complemented the original frames and engine heads with modern parts and branded the bikes as restored Nortons to circumvent EPA and DOT emissions requirements. Curme wanted Dreer to ramp up VR880 production and build eight per month, selling the bikes as well as aftermarket parts he had developed. Dreer was not interested. He cited the difficulty of sourcing original frames and heads as well as the design and performance limitations these parts imposed. Instead, Dreer wanted to design and build an entirely new engine and motorcycle—the 952 Commando—a process that would carry a multimillion-dollar price tag.
At the time, Vintage Rebuilds was snared in a trademark lawsuit that would eventually cost the company $4.5 million in legal fees. In 1999, two weeks after publication of the Cycle World story, Dreer received a hand-delivered cease-and-desist notice from the Aquilini Investment Group, a Vancouver real estate company that claimed ownership of the Norton brand name. Aquilini argued that Dreer, who renamed his company Norton Motorsports in 2000, did not have the rights to brand the VR880 with the Norton Commando name and Norton insignia. Dreer eventually won the case, four years after it was initiated, but the attorneys’ costs, along with Curme’s decision to withdraw his firm’s investment, threatened to shut down the company. “In the venture business, when you’re working with start-ups, you always have the question of whether you should continue to fund,” Curme says. “The big part is figuring when to cut your losses. It’s not a big emotional thing for me. It’s a business decision. I cut it off and quit throwing good money after bad.”
Several of Dreer’s friends called Curme to tell him how great the 952 Commando would be and to plead with him to change his mind about the funding. Curme told them that he did not care, that if the bike were going to be that good, Dreer should be able to find someone else to fund it. But after several months of not speaking with Dreer, Curme’s curiosity got the better of him. He dialed the number for Norton Motorsports, expecting the phone to be disconnected, but instead it rang, and Dreer answered. While eluding bill collectors and continuing design work on his new bike, he had been selling parts to keep Norton afloat. His unpaid employees peeled potatoes in the kitchens of local restaurants and painted houses to pay their bills. In Curme’s experience, start-ups almost always folded when venture funding dried up. Yet Dreer’s phone line still worked, and that was enough to convince Curme to take another chance with him. “I figured this guy is scrappy, and he’ll make it work by hook or by crook,” says Curme. “So I started funding again.”
Curme’s money, however, was not a panacea. From the outset, Dreer’s business had been essentially a one-man shop churning out custom motorcycles, unbound by the constraints of time and cost. To evolve into a full-fledged manufacturer and launch the 952 Commando as a production motorcycle, the company needed to hire people with experience bringing products to market.
During a local investor meeting for Norton last year, Dreer was reintroduced to Gaudio, a former product design and development director for Adidas who had launched his own consulting firm in Portland, designing medical equipment, sporting goods, robotic components, and other products. Ten years earlier, Gaudio, a motorcycle enthusiast who raced and tinkered with his own bikes, had asked Dreer to restore a classic BMW racer. Dreer’s price was too high for Gaudio, but this time the two struck a deal: Gaudio became an investor and a consultant for Norton Motorsports in September of last year, and three months later, he quit his business and joined the Norton staff on a full-time basis. “All those times I was working on a medical device,” says Gaudio, “I was wishing it was a motorcycle.”
Gaudio’s first task was to work with Dreer and shift the design process of the 952 Commando to CAD software, with which the company had no experience. Dreer still prefers wrenching to mouse-clicking, but the realities of modern manufacturing require that the work be done on a computer. An entire engine can be designed using the three-dimensional SolidWorks program, and if one component is altered, all the affected parts are highlighted. By using CAD, Norton has reduced the time and dollars that used to be spent designing, fabricating, and tinkering with actual engine components. Also, most of Norton’s suppliers require CAD files.
However, Norton has yet to make the transition from boutique builder to production manufacturer. The company plans to sell the Commandos for $20,000, but presently, Curme says each bike will cost the company $35,000 to construct. To turn Norton into a profitable business, Dreer and his team must reduce the cost of producing each motorcycle to $5,000 or less. Otherwise, Norton will join Indian and Excelsior-Henderson as once-prominent marques that were temporarily revived before again sputtering, shuddering, and shuttering. “He has to get it out,” Curme says of the 952 Commando. “The burden is on Kenny.”
Outside Norton’s nondescript tan warehouse, the reverberations of an engine revving inside echo above the whoosh of traffic on Interstate 205. A preproduction model of the 952 Commando is running on a dynamometer, the engine sounding like a NASCAR block as it progresses through the gears. With wires snaking through its frame and a gallon jug of WD-40 strung to its right handlebar, this is the lone 952 Commando in existence. (Norton has since started construction of 12 additional preproduction bikes for testing.) While specifications have yet to be finalized, the centerpiece of the 952 Commando is its 952 cc twin-cylinder engine, which will deliver just under 70 ft lbs of torque and generate from 80 to 90 hp. “It will yank your arms out of their sockets when you twist the throttle,” Gaudio promises.
Prodigious power has always been the goal, but Norton was determined to build a simple block. Not only will this engine be easy for owners to maintain, but its relatively straightforward design will enable the company to keep design and production expenses to a minimum. The cost-conscious approach still troubles Dreer, who has enlisted manufacturing experts such as Yehoram Uziel, CEO of the metal casting company Soligen, to serve on his technical advisory board. “This is far from easy,” Dreer admits. “But it’s persistence and dedication. We’re so close to the Holy Grail that we can’t give it up.”
Indian and Excelsior-Henderson are just two of many motorcycle brands that have stumbled. Even high-end Italian marques Aprilia and MV Agusta have suffered recent financial woes. The model to which Curme aspires is that of Ducati, a once-shaky Italian brand that, with an infusion of American management and capital, has transformed itself into a mainstay in the motorcycle industry. Yet Curme, whom Dreer calls “The Great Eviscerator,” would not be afraid to once again close his checkbook—an action that the venture capitalist does not believe was necessarily detrimental to Norton the first time he did it. “Sometimes the less capital you give a company, the better it turns out,” he says. “Necessity is the mother of invention. The ugly side to venture capital is that if you give a company lots of money, they get fat, dumb, and sloppy. They don’t get it done.”
In other words, Curme did not kick the former farrier in the head when he cut off his funding; he gave Dreer a kick in his backside, though it was definitely delivered at the flick.
Kenny Dreer faces several uncertainties in his attempt to revive the once-proud Norton motorcycle brand. But in Jeff Cole, owner of C and J Racing Frames, he has just the man to lay a solid foundation. After all, Cole’s first foray into custom frame building, more than 30 years ago, involved another leap of faith—over the Snake River Canyon for his then-client Evel Knievel. More important, Cole, whom Dreer has enlisted for the 952 Commando project, forged the frames for some of the finest bikes from Norton’s glory days.
Cole began his career as an Indy racecar builder, working for and learning from his cousin and 1957 Rookie of the Year, Don Edmunds. After nearly eight years under Edmunds’ tutelage, Cole decided to strike out on his own—without competing with his mentor. “We had some race people come around the shop,” Cole recalls, “and they said, ‘I wish someone would do something with motorcycles. No one does anything with motorcycles; it’s always racecars.’ ”
Shortly thereafter, in 1970, Cole cofounded C and J with high school friend Steve Jentges. Now located in Fallbrook, Calif., Cole’s shop has produced custom frames that have dominated the dirt bike racing circuit for nearly four decades. C and J frames have hoisted riders ranging from Brad Lackey in the early days of motocross to current AMA champion Chris Carr. One of Cole’s frames even garnered a best overall victory in the Baja 1000.
C and J’s corporate clients over the years have included Harley-Davidson, Honda, Kawasaki, and most notably Norton. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cole built frames for the factory’s dirt bike racers, such as David Aldana and Alex Jorgensen. It was this previous involvement with the brand that brought Dreer to Cole’s doorstep.
Cole is now finalizing four prototype frames for the new Norton motorcycle. “Kenny turned me loose on ‘you build it the way you want to build it,’ ” he says. “He only asked that I remain true to the look and feel of a Norton.” C and J’s proposed frames are constructed from 4130 chrome moly, a material used on aircraft and racecars that is stronger and lighter—but nearly four times more expensive—than mild steel. While the forthcoming 952 Commando utilizes the traditional dual-shock setup, a single-shock system that Cole first developed in the 1970s is also in the works.
Cole, who describes himself as “probably the oldest frame builder in the nation,” continues to oversee production at C and J, but he plans to spend more time working from his shop at home. In the latter years of his career, he aims to focus less on mass-produced modern bikes and more on one-off restorations. For now, however, he is more than happy to help revive a legendary brand.
C and J Racing Frames