Then & Now, Locations Home & Abroad

March 9, 2020 in Articles

This months meanderings is generally about one particular manufacturer, but also crosses the paths of Farmfitters, Kubota, Countax, Husqvarna and Wheel Horse. Initially taking us into the 1960’s on a short trip abroad and then a trip back over to the UK all thanks to Google Earth and Street View. However, having researched this I think I need a real holiday. 

This article is also partly about looking up places on Earth and Street View and seeing if the location of your machines manufacture is still there. Suprisingly many factories still exist, we have found five relating to one company and they exist on Google Earth, read on to find out more….

Norlett 8hp Tractor (Image: VHGMC)

An article from 1969 informs us that a new but small enterprise had just been established alongside the King Baudouin Motorway in Belgium and one of the two parties involved was Norsk Lettmetall of Askin, Norway. This new setup (that is at this location) which was employing about 100 people was ‘to assemble lawn-mowers, light agricultural tractors and similar machines’, in fact their trade is listed as ‘Lawn & Garden Tractors & Attaching Tools’. Even more impressive is that Crown Prince Harald and Crown Princess Sonja of Norway participated in the inauguration of this new factory (source).

Any idea which manufacturer this small enterprise could be?

It’s a little bit of a trick question as there’s more than one company name associated with this factory. To start it is Amnor with this location being in Oevel, Belgium. One reason you may know this is as an outpost for the American Wheel Horse tractors and equipment with many UK Wheel Horse machines having the ‘Amnor NV B-2431 Oevel, Belgium’ identification attached to them. But there is another important name here….

The main company involved was Norsk Lettmetall, shortened this gives us the name Norlett which we’ve seen on countless machines in the UK. Amongst other machines, coming from the same Oevel assembly plant in Belgium some Wheel Horse tractors were badged as Norlett and painted gold. These were Norsk Lettmetall’s ‘Golden Blades’ range of horticultural and domestic gardening equipment. The three ride-on mowers they made out of Wheel Horses were the Scout, Ranger and Commander, all painted gold.

If you have a Norlett machine then the Oevel factory might be where it came from, or it just might not. The reason is that the Norlett group had manufacturing units in England, Belgium, Denmark and Norway. 

Norlett Versatiller 1000 and a Norlett tiller.

Perhaps, since the Oevel factory was sandwiched between the motorway and with the 25 mile long navigable Albert canal, maybe many a Norlett or Wheel Horse made it’s way down the waterway (pictured below) to the great port of Antwerp before heading across the sea to this country? Who knows, but it’s an interesting thought!

The navigable waterway, which can handle vessels up to 9000 tons and servicing a highly industrialized area leads through Oevel to Antwerp. Did the factory use this method of transportation? Or did they just use good old lorries and the motorway? ((C)2020 Google)

A few years later in the 1970’s and over in the UK, Norlett had been working out of a factory and distribution point (perhaps one of many) at Stadhampton Road, Great Milton, Oxford. The factory still exists, image below, although the road layout has changed. It is now home to Countax. 

The Norlett, Stadhampton Road premises, until 1975. Now occupied by Countax mowers and tractors. ((C)2020 Google)

In 1972 it’s reported that the Norlett Versatiller (tiller, pictured way above), Bushwacker (wheeled grass scythe) and Rapier (lawnmower) models were being assembled by Farmfitters LTD, their address being the above factory in Stadhampton Road before being taken over by Norlett in 1973. Up to 1973 Norlett owned 50% of Farmfitters. (see source 1973). 

Gold-painted Norlett Scout, it’s a Wheel Horse in disguise. (Image: VHGMC)

One of the 1975 machines that Norlett was distributing from it’s Stadhampton Road address was the Norlett Scout electric-start rider mower with 5hp Tecumseh engine, pictured right, this became a discontinued model by late 1975 and was not a big seller. The Scout retailed at £299 + vat, was ex-stock and dealers were being sought in some areas to sell this machine. Can we assume that the gold-painted ‘Golden Blades’ ride-on machines were therefore brought in to the Stadhampton Road premises from Oevel in Belgium before distribution or were they assembled at the Stadhampton Road premises? It’s often assumed that they were all built in Oevel in Belgium purely because they have an Oevel label attached. Anyone?

From 1975, bigger works, warehousing and assembly line were required for Norlett. It’s interesting that there is mention of an ‘assembly line’. These new premises were at Dormer Road, Thame, Oxfordshire, which is now home to Kubota, image below. In 1979 they were detailed as being ‘Distribution & assembly of horticultural machinery’ with their company as ‘Norlett (Norway)’. Two years later in 1981 Norlett was again expanding by creating new assembly lines in England (Dormer Road), Belgium, Denmark and Norway and had a total workforce of 340 employees. Lawnmowers were Norlett’s main machine and 90,000 units were being assembled each year across all plants.

Amazingly in 1980 it was reported that an order had been placed with Norlett of Dormer Road, Thame for 3000 rotary lawnmowers worth £250,000 to be exported to France. One thing I have found is that a lot more Norlett machines such as mowers and tillers were actually built in this country rather than being imported, in fact Norlett appeared to be exporting from here! 

The site of the Norlett factory and distribution depot. Dormer Road, Thame, Oxfordshire. ((C)2020 Google)

Norlett Professional Range Advert. A presumably original design but with input from Yazoo.  (Image: VHGMC)

Advertised in 1974 with the Norlett Professional logo as in the image,right, was an out-front mower created with input from Yazoo ZTR mowers.

We also end up with Flymo being involved with Norlett, this is after being acquired by the Electrolux Group in 1981. This created the company of  ‘Flymo-Norlett Commercial Products LTD’ in the UK.

This was headed by a Norlett Sales Team and the division formed at Flymo’s Newton Aycliffe, County Durham premises. The image below shows the 1990’s Flymo factory location today which is now Husqvarna, an earlier address gives a factory up the road at Redworth Way.

The 1990s Flymo factory location, now Husqvarna, later incorporating in 1981 Flymo-Norlett Commercial products Ltd with the ‘Professional’ range of equipment. Note there is an earlier location detailed as Redworth Way a short distance away. ((C)2020 Google)

There we have it a trip abroad and then through a few counties to find where Norlett worked from. And all from the comfort of ones own home.

It is surprising how many locations can be found online, either through maps, old photograph or archives. Do you have any images of old factories or locations? 

Additional: There’s an advert from Murdochs in ‘The Wicklow People’ May 14, 1960. This advertises newly introduced Norlett Rotary mowers; 2 stoke at £25; 4 stroke at £33. Norlett machines existed in the UK (and Ireland) from at least 1960. Reports state such as ‘tremendous sales’ for the mowers due to them being economical as well as their robust build quality. 

Note: Images/media are used for research/illustration purposes for non-profit only with copyright held by respective publishers where and as applicable.  

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