TAKING THE RIDE
DAILY LIFE ON A NORTON COMMANDO
Is it weird that the vintage-bike owner’s proudest moments come when impressing others who own the same kind of bike? Well, call me a weirdo for being so satisfied that a Norton guy at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel, California, this past May said, “Damn, that thing sounds great.”
All it was doing was idling, but it was a beautiful sound and a great moment. We just want our bikes to be loved and our mastery of the fickle machine to be known.
I have found myself loving my 1974 Norton 850 Commando more than a lot of other vintage bikes, especially when I’d like to get there without, ahem, stopping. Nortons combined the traditional qualities people love about British parallel twins (beautiful design, compact dimensions, and a fine sound) with lots of power and torque and sublime smoothness thanks to Isolastic rubber engine mounts. My bike made 47 hp and 45 pound-feet of torque on the Cycle World Dynojet 250 dyno. And it’s delivered magnificently on the road.
The best thing of all that there were many Commandos made, so prices have remained sane.
As is the case with most combustion-powered vintage love objects, modern solutions abound to improve reliability and running/turning/stopping quality. I tend to enjoy the period riding experience, so I stick with minor and largely invisible modifications.
While there are lots of engine performance parts available, I left mine stock since mine’s got just 20,000 miles. Switching to Amal Premier carburetors, which look like factory units but offer material and design upgrades that improve performance and tunability, perked the bike up quite a bit. Electronic ignition options abound; Boyer has been the traditional choice, but Pazon (as used by Peter Egan on his former 850) has a great reputation. Some years ago I opted for the Trispark unit and have been very happy with its performance and idle-stabilizing circuitry. And no one is the wiser.
The original Lockheed front disc brake master cylinder has an inordinately large-diameter piston and therefore offers all the feel of a mahogany block and not much mechanical advantage. I bought a Miles Vintage Brake master cylinder the company sleeves to 13mm. The good part is it looks perfect and offers significantly more braking power at the pads with far lower effort. The bad part was my first unit’s Delrin piston was machined too close in tolerance to the bore and in hot weather or sunlight would expand and seize (locking the front brake!) until it cooled off. I liked the master enough I bought another one (the piston is now a smaller diameter) but was not delighted to pay for two of them.
There are many other options like more elaborate brake replacements, belt primary drive conversions, suspension upgrades—more than can be covered here. Companies such as Colorado Norton Works (look it up and be lost in the shiny bits…) make extensive resto-mod parts, and Andover Norton and others offer abundant parts and technical support. But even with my simple mods, the Norton will run 75 mph all day long and return 45 to 50 mpg without skipping a beat or even breathing hard.
And it idles so nicely that even other Norton owners are impressed.
The profile that launched a thousand dreams… The Norton Roadster is burned into the world's motorcyclists' brains and hearts. It still makes a great daily rider and in many ways is still more pleasurable to ride than the modern 961 equivalent, though the latter is much higher performance.