Norton Tire, founded by Louis Pallot in Miami in 1924 and grown into one of the nation’s largest independent tire distributors after his retirement by his sons Norton, Ronald and their brother-in-law Howard Katzen, came along at the right time.
As Katzen’s wife Barbara Pallot Katzen, Louis’ daughter, wrote in a Miami Story article in the Miami Herald in 2011: “The Norton Store, named after my oldest brother, did well with all the new highways going south and people following the sun.”
By the end of World War II, the Norton store that survived the 1926 hurricane and thrived in the shadow of the Orange Bowl had a second outpost on 15th and Alton Road in Miami Beach, one of the first area businesses to rent cars to tourists, Pallot Katzen said. As tire production ramped up after the war, Norton, which sold, serviced and wholesaled tires, soared.
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By the mid-1950s, Norton Pallot had already joined his dad in the business, followed by brother Ronald. Katzen was also on board as the company’s vice president in charge of purchasing, distribution and marketing. All three, including Barbara, who met her husband at a friend’s Sweet 16 party, had graduated from the University of Miami.
At the time of its sale to Goodyear Tire and Rubber in 1986, Norton had ballooned into a 37-outlet, family-owned chain with 400 employees and sales of $50 million in 1985.
“The trio of my two brothers and husband showed as much capacity for hard work as Louis Pallot did in the early days,” Pallot Kazen wrote in her story.
The business had its trying moments. Norton’s headquarters at Northwest 27th Avenue and 54th Street erupted in flames during the McDuffie riots on the evening of May 17, 1980. The burning of Norton Tire became a visual symbol of the racial tension and violence that gripped South Florida.
Katzen, alongside his family, kept Norton running without closing a day despite the loss of its 80,000-square-foot facility. He died July 31 at his Coral Gables home. He was 82.
“The youngest of the group who ran Norton and the first to go,” his wife said. “He lived a healthful life. He exercised and was eating the right foods. We thought we would both live into our 90s but cancer came along.”
Still, Katzen inspired a legacy of positivity and good memories, she said. He was “a people’s person” who made fast friends, showed an interest in everyone, and lived to whisk his family aboard the boat to fish and sail after his retirement. For the 62 years the Katzens were married, it was a life marked by hard work and a time for play.
Katzen was a member of Coral Reef Yacht Club, Ocean Reef Club, Fisher Island Yacht Club and a previous commodore at Matheson Hammock Yacht Club. “He retired in his mid-50s so we had a lot of years together to enjoy each other and our children and our grandchildren,” his wife said.
Katzen was born in the Bronx on Feb. 4, 1935, and moved to Miami Beach at 10. At 13, he worked as a newspaper boy, selling subscriptions for the old Miami Beach Sun. In the late 1940s he won a trip with fellow news boys to Havana on what would be his sole visit to the island. But the excursion also inspired a lifelong love of travel and adventure.
“He grew up fishing off the MacArthur Causeway bridge. We spent all of our married life boating. Biscayne Bay was like our front yard. True Miamians,” his wife said with a chuckle.
When Norton was torched, Katzen and his wife had been away for the weekend, in Boston, for their son Bruce’s college graduation. As they landed at Miami International Airport that Sunday, they saw the main headquarters, warehouse and business center, burning to the ground as acrid, black smoke billowed. Norton’s $10 million headquarters, fed by bubbling rubber and underground fuel tanks, would take six days to burn out.
“That was the image that flashed around the world,” historian Marvin Dunn told the Herald in 2015, on the 35th anniversary of the riots.
All that remained in the rubble was a charcoaled safe that contained some of the company’s accounts receivable and payable records. Katzen, with some employees, returned days later with a crowbar to pry it open. Took hours to crack the hot safe.
Through it all, Katzen “had this innate goodness that people felt,” his wife said. “Life has its bumps. We have good times. There’s a wedding in six weeks — my grandson Zachary. There’s always something to look forward to in life.”
Katzen’s survivors also include his children Lynn, Bruce and David; grandchildren David, Zachary, Brynn and Alli. Services were held. Donations in his honor can be made to Temple Beth Am, Greater Miami Jewish Federation, Jewish Museum-FIU and University of Miami Alumni Association.