We don't hear much about Norton during the first war. Triumph and Douglas we know were busy building some 18,000 machines each for the forces, but others lagged well behind. A gaggle of makers - among them P&M, Clyno, AJS, BSA, Scott, Sunbeam, Rudge, New Imperial, Royal Enfield and Rover - contributed machines to the effort, but counted in hundreds, rather than thousands.
Norton's activities during the war probably paralleled those of many small manufacturers. (Small? Too right! Bob Holliday gives less than 100 as the number of Nortons produced in the year leading up to the outbreak of war.) Lots of talking to make up for the very small output of machines.
In the July 30, 1914 edition of The Motor Cycle, James Norton was outlining plans for the 1915 range, with (for the first time) dropped top tubes, non-flush lugs and sidecar lugs for all models. Just to prove that not all announcements are to believed, there was talk of a "350", a two-stroke, and the planned finish was to be "probably black and gold". An interesting dating point is the comment: "A three, or possibly four-speed, gear box is to be fitted to touring models, and experiments are at present being carried out with various types of gear."
By Christmas 1915, Jas. L. Norton was back in print, this time with a long-ish letter extolling the virtues of the Norton motor. He was right - it really is a rather nice motor when compared with contemporary offerings. Easy to keep clean, large cam and bearing surfaces, long stroke...the letter reads like advertising copy, and was accompanied by an illustration. Notice the "total absence of interstices for the lodgment of dirt"?
The 4 h.p. Colonial Model Norton - shown at the top of this page - was announced with much fanfare in the November 30,1916 edition The Motor Cycle. Quite a departure from the usual Norton product, the "Big Four" featured a high ground clearance frame (a whopping 6 1/4 inches under the crank case), a Sturmey Archer 3-speed gear box, and a new tank, upswept at the front and cut away to allow easy access to the valves. Motor-wise, the 82x120 mm (633 cc) unit was much as before, but with roller bearings on the mainshafts, extra finning on the valve pockets, and an internally-ribbed piston. Much was made of the general robustness of the model, and its suitability for "colonial conditions". But with the war in full swing, it is unlikely that the target was the civilian market.
In The Norton Story, Bob Holliday tells a marvellous story about Big Fours produced first for the Russian Army, then after 1917 for the Allies. Apparently at war's end, most of these remained in store - still in their crates but looted of small items like magnetos and carburettors - and were bought back by Norton for conversion into 1919 models. Holliday puts the number at "hundreds"; another source has the armed forces holding 232 Nortons at the armistice.
In January 1919, Norton announced that the Big Four (in either standard form - probably much as shown above - or as a TT model) and the single gear 3 1/2 hp (490 cc) with either B.S. or B.R.S. motor would be "delivered shortly". My mind's eye conjures visions of scraping together belt-drivers from basically pre-war bits, and hastily making good a pile of unused war-production Big Fours. I guess only a fly on the wall at Norton Motors, Ltd., Phillips Street, Aston, Birmingham, would really know what went on.