TRIUMPH v NORTON
Thruxton & Commando go head-to-head
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…