Norton had always built heavy motorcycles. 500 cc machines, 600 cc machines. But in 1958 Norton released a 250 cc. That was actually a new engine in a hodgepodge of existing parts, but still. In 1960 the 250 cc Jubilee got a bigger brother: the 350 cc Navigator. Then Norton made the step to 'modern'. There was a starter motor. Flashing lights appeared. The Norton Electra was born. And recently we saw such a Norton for the first time. The Norton Electra was therefore not a top seller.
See what the Japanese do
By that time, Joe Berliner, the American Norton importer, was studying the brand new Hondas to understand the secret of their success. The Berliners imported various brands from the Old World. And they had a feel for the market. They knew what Americans wanted. And because the USA was such a large market, manufacturers were eager to listen to this importer. They were usually right. Of course, something went wrong. The wonderful Ducati Apollo V4 is the most tragic example of this. The Laverda 750 twins are another proof of American insight: Laverda was instructed "just like that, but then in large". And that 'one of those was Honda's CB77. Joe Berliner thought that motorcyclists apparently no longer wanted to touch motorcycles. So there had to be starter motors.
He converted two Navigators to electrical starters and started experimenting with them. He then reported his findings and wishes to the factory. The British agreed with the idea. For example, the Navigator received a Lucas starter motor that was conceived for the Triumph Tigress scooter plus some minor adjustments. Piece of cake!
With a starter motor the Navigator became the Electra and its displacement increased to 383 cc. The block supplied 25 pk. The frame was adjusted and finally got the Roadholder fork it deserved. And that starter motor? It worked as long as it wasn't too cold. The fact that the Norton Electra was actually a kit of existing things from different shelves plus a modified existing block? Well, the marketers saw no problem in that.
The Norton Electra did not steer as well as the Nortons with a featherbed frame, they dripped oil by nature. The Norton Electra's were not very economical. And they quivered quite a bit. Especially for English standards, the Norton Electra was a modern motorcycle with its block engine, starter motor and direction indicators. The electrical components on board such a Norton Electra were supplied by no less than 4 different brands. Oh yes: the block was mechanically quite noisy from the valve train.
The competition did better
The idea was that the new Norton should compete with the new Japanese in the redefined mid-range segment. But that was beyond value. Old skool Norton riders didn't like the electric starting. 'Other' motorcyclists opted en masse for the Japanese motorcycles drawn from the drawing board as one composition. They were modern and reliable. Add to that the fact that the Electras were too heavy and too high for average female use and that the utility value - in the time of the Norton Electras, motorcycles were still consumer items, not lifestyle fun things - was limited because no leg shields and luggage racks were supplied. Because sales in the USA were disappointing, Norton put the rest of the produced engines in the European market. But it was too expensive there. And so Norton Electras remained in motorcycle shops for a long time. And every year they stood a row further back in the showroom.
Only much later did Nortons get a starter motor again. The late 850 cc Commandos had starter motors. They often broke. Fortunately, the Commandos also had kickstarts.