Thrux­ton & Com­mando go head-to-head

Motorcycle News (UK) - - Front Page - By Phil West MCN CON­TRIB­U­TOR

Thirty years ago the no­tion of a mod­ern Nor­ton and Tri­umph com­pet­ing to be Bri­tain’s best café racer was unimag­in­able.

Sure, in the 1950s and 60s the pair, ei­ther in­di­vid­u­ally or mar­ried into a Tri­ton – the ul­ti­mate café racer of the day – ruled the roost. But by the late 80s Bri­tish bikes lived on only in the mem­ory of old men or as relics in the club scene or clas­sic mag­a­zines. In­stead, for the ma­jor­ity of mo­tor­cy­clists, the ‘here and now’ on two wheels then was ex­clu­sively Ja­panese, Ital­ian or, less so, Ger­man and Amer­i­can. How times have changed. Resur­gent Hinck­ley Tri­umph may have been sell­ing bikes since 1991 but only re­cently have they been recog­nised as one of the most dy­namic and fastest grow­ing of all mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers. What’s more, 2016, af­ter a cou­ple of years in the dol­drums due largely to the credit crunch, saw the John Bloorowned con­cern back to its bril­liant best.

This year has not only seen new, up­dated and now Euro4-com­pli­ant ver­sions of its class-lead­ing Speed Triple su­per-naked and im­pres­sive, three-cylin­der ad­ven­ture bike, the 1200 Tiger Ex­plorer – it’s also wit­nessed the launch of an all-new ver­sion of its most fa­mous ma­chine of all – the Bon­neville.

The new retro road­ster, which is avail­able in three guises, novice-friendly Street Twin, clas­sic road­ster T120 and café racer Thrux­ton, has so far re­ceived al­most unan­i­mous uni­ver­sal ac­claim and is al­ready prov­ing a best seller. But it’s the top-spec R ver­sion of the Thrux­ton that has many drib­bling most and has truly taken a resur­gent Tri­umph into new ter­ri­tory.

With up­rated Öh­lins sus­pen­sion, mod­ern, switch­able en­gine modes and en­hanced de­tail­ing and cos­metic

touches in­clud­ing retro-style tank straps and ‘Monza’ filler cap, the 96bhp R is a more stir­ring and in­volv­ing ride than any Bon­neville be­fore it.

Yet, de­spite its mass-pro­duced sales dom­i­nance, Tri­umph are not the only Bri­tish re­vival suc­cess story. In re­cent years there’s been a host of his­toric Bri­tish mar­ques that have been brought back from the dead. And while some may have ques­tion­able cred­i­bil­ity and oth­ers, such as Brough Su­pe­rior, Hes­keth and Match­less, are yet to pro­duce more than a hand­ful of ma­chines, one does stand out.

Nor­ton was bought and brought back from US own­er­ship by East Mid­lands busi­ness­man Stu­art Garner in 2009, and in the years since has gone from lit­tle more than an as­sort­ment of le­gal doc­u­ments and a part-built pro­to­type to, to­day, a truly im­pres­sive pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity on the edge of Don­ing­ton Park where up to 20 ret­rostyle 961 twins are hand-built ev­ery week, mostly for ex­port.

In ad­di­tion, the firm’s rac­ing am­bi­tions are fi­nally bear­ing fruit with a sev­enth in this year’s Su­per­bike TT with the Aprilia V4-pow­ered SG5. That ma­chine is now the in­spi­ra­tion for an all-new, in-house V4 pow­ered £40,000 road-go­ing su­per­bike set to be un­veiled at the NEC Show in Novem­ber.

Both firms then, are not just in­creas­ingly suc­cess­ful but are ar­guably in stronger po­si­tions than ever with bikes that are the envy of the world. So, to find out, not nec­es­sar­ily which is best but what you get with each, what their strengths and weak­nesses are, we de­cided to take their lat­est and great­est clas­sic Bri­tish café rac­ers on a ride of dis­cov­ery through Eng­land’s ‘green and pleas­ant’. Here’s what we found out.

A 1960s re­vival

I still have to pinch my­self to be­lieve this is hap­pen­ing. As some­one whose mo­tor­cy­cling ap­pren­tice­ship was mostly in the 1980s, a time when mul­lets, white pad­dock boots and Ja­panese mo­tor­cy­cles pre­vailed, the very idea that by the early 21st cen­tury not one but two Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cling firms, and not just that but ones with the names Tri­umph and Nor­ton fes­tooned on their flanks, would again be grab­bing the at­ten­tion of the mo­tor­cy­cling world is, I think, sim­ply in­cred­i­ble. A bit like the no­tion of hav­ing a Bri­tish pre­mier class GP win­ner again, too.

Se­ri­ously, how­ever, al­though the

‘ Thirty years ago the no­tion of a mod­ern Nor­ton and Tri­umph com­pet­ing was unimag­in­able’

re­vival of th­ese two firms is in it­self hugely im­pres­sive, what truly beg­gars be­lief right now is that each are, on face value at least, pro­duc­ing such sim­i­lar ma­chines. With the ar­rival of Tri­umph’s Thrux­ton R and the im­prove­ment and re­fine­ment of Nor­ton’s 961 Com­mando Café Racer into MKII guise last year, both firms’ retro rac­ers are now closer than ever – or at least, that’s how it ap­pears.

Both are 60s-in­spired, ace-barred café rac­ers; both are pow­ered by par­al­lel-twins held in tubu­lar steel, twin shock frames; both have Öh­lins rear shocks and multi-ad­justable front forks; both use wire wheels and high spec Brembo ra­dial brakes and, fi­nally, both have scal­loped tanks and a sin­gle seat. They’re so sim­i­larly specced you’d think they’d been sep­a­rated at birth.

Ex­cept they haven’t. Quite the op­po­site in fact. In­stead th­ese two bikes are about as dif­fer­ent as they get, chalk and cheese, but more of that later.

The start of our Bri­tish ex­plo­ration be­gan with a ride on the Tri­umph from MCN’S HQ along some of the best bik­ing roads and through some of most glo­ri­ous coun­try­side this na­tion has to of­fer. Head out from Peter­bor­ough roughly north-west and ac­com­pa­nied by Liam, it’s around 60 miles: a lit­tle A1 fol­lowed mostly by the sweep­ing A606 then A6006 around Rut­land Wa­ter be­fore head­ing on to Mel­ton and more be­fore ren­dezvous­ing at Nor­ton’s fac­tory at Don­ing­ton Hall.

It’s a glo­ri­ous jour­ney, one I’ve done dozens of times be­fore and, hav­ing now com­pleted it twice on the Thrux­ton R, I can’t imag­ine a more en­ter­tain­ing bike to do it on.

The bril­liance with the Thrux­ton R is that it’s just so damn easy to get on and ride. Al­though sig­nif­i­cantly more po­tent, es­pe­cially in this R guise, than the old Bon­neville from 2000-2015, it’s lost none of that bike’s com­pletely un­in­tim­i­dat­ing user-friend­li­ness. So while the new, low seated, 900cc Street Twin vari­ant, from just £7350, is in­tended as the true novice-ori­en­tated ver­sion with a soft 54bhp, there are still strands of that bike ev­i­dent in this 1200cc, 96bhp, £11,700 Thrux­ton R.

And on the whole that’s a good thing. The R may sound, on pa­per, like an ex­treme bike, but it’s re­ally not. It’s just the most po­tent, well-equipped and most per­for­mance-ori­en­tated ver­sion of a bike that starts out as a pretty soft, bud­get-priced, novice-friendly puppy.

As such, the rid­ing po­si­tion, with clip-ons cru­cially above rather than be­low the top yoke, is a gen­tly cant­ed­for­ward road­ster gait rather than true café racer: im­me­di­ately nat­u­ral, com­fort­able and well thought out but in no way ex­treme. More SV650 than S1000R.

The con­trols are all light, sim­ple and in­tu­itive, with even the flick­ing be­tween the three en­gine maps – Rain, Road and Sport – a sin­gle-switch dod­dle. And al­though larger and slightly more ag­gres­sively styled than the old Thrux­ton, the new­comer’s still a mid­dleweight-sized bike and a fairly light and slim one at that.

And all of that makes the R com­pletely un­threat­en­ing and plea­sur­able to ride. You get on and just go. There’s noth­ing cum­ber­some, im­pos­ing, com­pli­cated or un­com­fort­able; it steers as in­tu­itively as a learner light­weight and that twin de­liv­ers one, long elas­tic band of pre­dictable ‘go’. Sure, in Sport mode, with the full 90+ horses re­leased, there

is a bit of ‘pep’, but it’s fun rather than thrilling, pleas­ing rather than pokey.

That chas­sis, too, is lovely. With up­rated Öh­lins shocks, multi-ad­justable Showa USD fork and posh Brembo ra­di­ally mounted brake calipers, not to men­tion a few cos­metic up­dates, the R de­liv­ers a plush but con­trolled, fault­less ride. And all of that makes the R great fun be­cause it’s easy to thrash, easy to en­joy, and yet it’s also a bike which looks great and at­tracts ad­mi­ra­tion wher­ever you go.

Ex­cept… on this oc­ca­sion we were go­ing to Nor­ton and that sort of di­rect com­par­i­son with such a hand-built, pre­mium ma­chine as the 961 Café Racer im­me­di­ately shows up the Tri­umph, even in this R spec, for be­ing the more mass-pro­duced, bud­get-con­scious, ‘faux’ clas­sic that it is.

Don’t get me wrong, some as­pects of the Thrux­ton are ex­quis­ite – the clocks that clev­erly blend ana­logue di­als and sub­tle LCD info, for ex­am­ple. But for my £11,700 (a not in­sub­stan­tial price that’s now closer to the Nor­ton than ever) too much else an­noys. The ‘Monza-style’ flip filler cap, for one, is plain nasty and re­minds more of some­thing I’d ex­pect on a Royal En­field. The tail light is a pas­tiche of a clas­sic Lu­cas item, as is the one on Honda’s CB1100 but the Honda’s is far nicer. The R’s ‘pol­ished top yoke’ is a mass-pro­duced, stamped out item rather than metal art. I could go on.

Which leads us to the Nor­ton, which, in many re­spects and de­spite its sim­i­lar spec, is ac­tu­ally the di­rect op­po­site.

If the Tri­umph is the mass pro­duced, ul­tra re­fined ride whose de­tails slightly dis­ap­point, then the Nor­ton – all of them in fact – is the be­spoke, ul­tra­ex­clu­sive piece of metal sculp­ture whose ride and en­vi­rons slightly dis­ap­point too. Or rather, they used to.

There was a time, not that long ago, when Nor­ton were a fledg­ling, barely es­tab­lished con­cern with a hand­ful of staff op­er­at­ing out of a draughty tin box in­dus­trial unit at the for­got­ten end of the Don­ing­ton pad­dock. No more.

Since early 2015, the new Nor­ton HQ is as im­pres­sive as is imag­in­able: a plush, leafy fa­cil­ity ad­ja­cent to the stately Don­ing­ton Hall com­plete with slick sales and mar­ket­ing suite for prospec­tive cus­tomers to view bikes, drink cof­fee and talk spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Staff and com­pleted bikes are ev­ery­where and the ser­vice depart­ment is busy and happy.

Nor­ton’s bikes have moved on apace, too. While the orig­i­nal 961 trio con- tinue, now com­pris­ing SF, Sport and Café Racer, a host of re­fine­ments and im­prove­ments re­cently have led them all to now be badged 961 Com­mando MKII. Ad­di­tion­ally, the re­cent road ver­sion of the ‘Featherbed-framed’ Domiracer, the Dom­i­na­tor, has be­come Nor­ton’s best seller while the ea­gerly awaited, all-new V4 su­per­bike – and I’ve seen its ex­quis­ite, jewel-like frame – is set to be un­veiled at the NEC.

For the mean­time, though, the back­bone of the Nor­ton range re­mains the 961 and its ap­peal is as strong, if not stronger in MKII form, than ever.

Ev­ery­where you look, al­though not high tech, high per­for­mance or with much by way of so­phis­ti­cated en­gi­neer­ing, the Nor­ton pleases the eye. As a lump of metal it’s as glo­ri­ous and tac­tile as mo­tor­cy­cles get while the cy­cle parts sim­ply show­case the best of ev­ery­thing, bet­ter even than the R spec Tri­umph.

The Tri­umph has Öh­lins shocks, but the Nor­ton’s are ob­vi­ously bet­ter. The Tri­umph’s gold USD fork is ac­tu­ally Showa, so of good qual­ity with full ad- justa­bil­ity, but the Nor­ton has pukka Öh­lins again. In short, the Nor­ton is just a nicer ‘thing’ with our test bike en­hanced fur­ther by the ad­di­tion of Nor­ton’s ‘Black Chas­sis Pack’ which, for £495, com­prises black an­odised yokes, black top nut, clock sur­round, black han­dle­bar ris­ers and more.

Com­pared to the Tri­umph, the Nor­ton’s also the larger, more man­sized ma­chine. Al­though as slim as the Thrux­ton, the 961 is less pla­s­ticky with a more hefty, hand-crafted, ‘hewn-from-solid’ feel. The Nor­ton’s not crude, but it is fairly sim­ple and there’s a sense that, while the Tri­umph has done 100,000 de­vel­op­men­tal miles, the Nor­ton’s done barely a frac­tion of that.

But now, when you ride it in this MKII form, there’s a sur­prise again – the Nor­ton’s nowhere near as crude and clunky as it once was. Sure it’s not as easy and wel­com­ing as the Tri­umph but there’s a ma­cho ap­peal to that. The Nor­ton’s rid­ing po­si­tion, with proper ace bars, is more ex­treme, its steer­ing lock more re­stricted, its side­stand more awk­ward. While on the move, the clonkier gearchange and more bristly de­liv­ery re­quires more rid­ing, more con­cen­tra­tion. Open it up though, and al­though not bal­lis­ti­cally fast by any means (the 1200 Tri­umph fairly eas­ily out­runs the 961 Nor­ton), the Com­mando truly makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. By di­rect com­par­i­son, the Tri­umph, though fun, is a bit soul­less.

Maybe that says it all. The Nor­ton is the more vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence, the more au­then­tic piece of metal for the more com­mit­ted or en­thu­si­as­tic rider – and it also costs more. But the Tri­umph is the one I was rid­ing home af­ter a long day and I was glad of that, too.

‘As a lump of metal the Nor­ton’s as glo­ri­ous and tac­tile as mo­tor­cy­cles get’

New Tri­umph is classy and ex­cit­ing yet easy to ride and has­sle-free

The hand-built Nor­ton is al­ways go­ing to have that ex­tra ex­clu­siv­ity

Qual­ity com­po­nents and mass pro­duc­tion for the sweet-han­dling Thrux­ton

More man-sized than the Tri­umph but nei­ther café racer is ex­actly huge

Top-spec Öh­lins and clev­erly con­cealed liq­uid cool­ing for the Tri­umph

MCN’S West and Mars­den head off hunt­ing for Mods…

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