Cycle World - - Norton Commando - By Mark Hoyer Pho­tog­ra­phy by Jeff Allen


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.

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