FIFTY YEARS OF NORTON COMMANDO
HALF A CENTURY OF GLORY, TINGED WITH THE THRILL OF UNCERTAINTY
There are many vintage British bikes, but why has the Norton Commando stood out as a cultural love object for so long?
For instance, when I first tried a sip of homemade corn liquor as a youth I thought it tasted like paint remover. But I tried some again recently and decided just the opposite is true.
Also, when the first Norton Commando was introduced in September of 1967 at the Earl’s Court show in London, I examined the photos of the new Fastback and immediately decided it was not for me. Too swoopy and radical, not traditionally British enough. “Repelled” is probably too strong a word, but the look of that bike drove me firmly back into the Triumph camp, where I normally resided, at least in my dreams. I owned a secondhand Honda CB160 at the time, which was all I could afford as a college sophomore, what with squandering perfectly good bike money on textbooks.
Now, half a century later, when I see a Commando Fastback at a vintage bike show, it stops me in my tracks and I find it to be quite a lovely thing, and if I were collecting Nortons I’d probably have to have one. But, at the time, that too-daring styling put me off, as it did many others. The Commando was initially a slow seller, despite its impressive superbike performance and the magical rubber engine mounts that gave it an almost unearthly smoothness (for a British vertical twin) on the highway.
In any case, it took the more conventionally restyled Commando 750
and then 850 Roadsters of the early ’70s to win my heart. I spent hours gazing at those full-color Commando ads inside the front cover of every major bike magazine, charmed by the pure elemental beauty of the bike and of course the beauty of the “Norton Girl” who stood alluringly nearby, pouting at me because I didn’t yet own a Norton. The Roadsters had a spare and rangy look about them, without flab or artifice. As with early Harley Sportsters, they were like the Chesterfield or Lucky Strike of motorcycles: pure nicotine, no filter.
Gears meshed in my febrile brain, and I knew beyond any doubt that I would eventually own a Commando. And in 1975 I finally bought one, brand new, by selling a dead-reliable Honda CB350 and using all the money I had in the world. It was, by far, the most expensive thing I’d ever purchased.
The dream wilted somewhat on my ride home from the dealership when the bike quit running at every single stop sign and stoplight. And during my first few months of riding, about six major things went wrong with the Commando, but none of them (I was told) could be covered under warranty. The dealer pronounced every failure a clear case of “abuse.” By default, I learned to fix everything myself and became a selftaught British-bike mechanic.
So you might say I owe the Commando for a free technical education—except for the parts, of course, and the cost of the Whitworth wrenches I still own.
Later that year, the Commando seized and bent an exhaust valve in Montana while Barb and I were attempting a ride from Wisconsin to Seattle, and we had to ship the bike home from Missoula in a Bekins moving van, continuing the trip by bus and train. I wrote a story about the trip and got my first article published right here in Cycle World.
So it seems I owe my journalism career to that Norton as well. If I’d bought a Honda, god knows what I’d be doing now. Possibly something useful to humanity. That or sleeping under a bridge.
Incidentally, that valve seizure in Montana was attributed to “abuse” and naturally not covered under warranty, so I learned how to install valves, guides, and pistons. Self-taught, again. The Norton was making me brilliant.
I sold the bike soon after that, chafing under the travel restrictions dictated by the bike’s apparent lack of long-distance stamina. I loved looking at the Norton in the garage, but I also wanted to go places far away and the Commando had an invisible bungee cord of doubt that kept me near home.
But that was a long time ago, and time either heals all wounds or causes Alzheimer’s because I’ve owned four more Commandos since then and just did a full restoration on another blackand-gold 850 Roadster about two years ago. It appears I’m addicted to them.
Friends have accused me of having a “love/hate relationship” with Nortons, but it might be more accurately described as a “love/hope relationship.” I know all their foibles but keep thinking that just the right upgrades to modern materials, electronics, and sealants will render them virtually as useful and reliable as any modern motorcycle. And I know people who have made that theory work for them. My friend Bill Getty, who owns a British parts business called JRC Engineering, has now put 130,000 miles on his 1974 850.
And of course Editor-in-chief Mark Hoyer has an 850 Commando that he rides everywhere with impunity—after a certain amount of (ahem) “sorting out.” He now swears by this bike far more often than he swears at it. And then there’s my old friend Brian Slark, who was West Coast service manager for Norton from 1969 to 1975, and he affirms that there is now “a fix for everything.”
The big question, of course, on the 50th anniversary of the Commando, is why has so much latter-day development time, expense, and sheer effort been lavished on a British twin that’s now half a century old? Along with the 1959–1970 Triumph Bonneville, the Commando has clearly emerged as one of the two most popular and venerated bikes of its era. It has a world-wide following and support network, not to mention a cultish aura of cool that seems to work on riders of all ages. Why so?
I put this question to Brian Slark this morning, and he said, “For one thing, it’s really the only classic British bike you can ride at current speeds and not have it shake apart. Also, it’s eminently tunable, with many upgrades available, and great parts availability as well.”
He also pointed out that the parallel twin is a compact, sensible, and generally
charismatic engine design for motorcycles and that nearly every major manufacturer is now building one for those very reasons. “Interesting,” he said, “that after all these years we’ve come full circle, back to the parallel twin.”
I asked him about Norton’s sketchy reputation for reliability and he said, “Well, when you own a bike you’re more aware of its problems. We tend to forget that a lot of Japanese bikes at the time also had serious problems: transmissions that packed up, crank failures, piston seizures, and so on.”
Fair enough. I had friends in that era who found the repair of worn Japanese bikes economically unfeasible and simply abandoned them. Conversely, I’d never heard of anyone throwing a Norton away.
But of course much of the Commando’s appeal lies outside the bounds of mere reason. There’s romance to consider.
The Commando is really almost an accident of history, an unlikely amalgam of old and new ideas put together as a stop-gap solution to the problem of rapidly advancing technical progress in the motorcycle market. Norton didn’t have enough money or engineering staff to design an entirely new engine, and many British bike enthusiasts (me included) didn’t want them to. We wanted something that looked more or less like a Norton Atlas but that didn’t shake as much or leak oil.
So Norton tilted the Atlas engine forward and adapted it to a new frame that isolated the entire drivetrain from the rider, using shimmed rubber motor mounts that allowed the engine to jump up and down but not sideways. Thus good handling was retained and the dreaded Atlas engine vibration no longer caused the screws in your sunglasses to fall out.
Use of the old Atlas 750 engine (mildly updated) allowed Norton to retain the charisma, torque, and sound of this venerable long-stroke twin while building a superbike that could go head to head in performance with the latest Japanese multis and Italian V-twins. Also, they took a bike already festooned with beautiful pieces and castings and added more, with a polished aluminum primary cover, stainless-steel fenders, and lovely steel footpeg brackets. The result was a bike of bone-deep beauty that I once remarked looked like a collection of exquisite paperweights, all harmoniously blended into one motorcycle.
And when the Commando was updated to an 850 in 1973, it got even more torque, much improved “Superblend” crank bearings, and a mild styling update of the seat and instruments, resulting in what is probably my favorite version, the 1974 Roadster. In black and gold, of course.
In 1975, Norton added an electric starter that was incapable of turning the engine over, so they called it a “starter assist” and changed the air cleaner and mufflers to a less traditional—but US compliant—design. But touches like this didn’t help much. It seemed the inability to make an electric starter that could spin the crank of an internal combustion engine was no longer amusing to customers, and years of indifferent execution of an essentially good design finally came home to roost. By the end of that year it was all over for a once-great company with a long tradition of racing excellence and classic beauty.
But the bikes are still with us, now as popular as they were when new—or more so. And they still have that heady combination of smooth locomotive power and untamed wild-animal spirit that’s not quite like anything else I’ve ridden. And the Commando is still my wife Barbara’s favorite motorcycle. It’s never been bested, in her opinion, for its combination of acceleration, sound, and sheer presence.
A heartfelt endorsement, coming from a woman who helped me push a broken Commando through the streets of Missoula, 41 years ago.
As a postscript here, I should mention that I no longer own that last black-and-gold 850 Roadster I restored. It turned out beautiful, but I suffered a stroke while trying to kickstart it for a first ride in the spring last year. Thanks to a clot-busting drug administered at the VA hospital, I made a complete recovery, but I soon sold that bike to my friend Bill Hall. Even though it was guilty of nothing but clogged idle jets, the bloom was off the relationship, and my doctor recommended I buy a bike with a starter button on the handlebars.
When I wrote about this last year, a couple of physicians weighed in and suggested that the Norton probably did not cause the stroke. More likely, I was already having one that morning, and the Commando’s failure to start saved my life because I had the stroke at home, 6 miles from a hospital, rather than out on a distant country road while riding alone.
It’s quite possible they’re right. In which case I can now thank the Norton Commando for my mechanical training, journalism career, and current good health.
And the ownership of all those Whitworth wrenches. Which I used just yesterday on a 1965 Triumph engine with low oil pressure and a rod knock.
Some of us never learn. And don’t really want to.
Illustrations and modeling of the never-produced Commando Mk 4 from the sketchbook of Mick Ofield, Norton employee 1972-'80. Merger brought parts sharing with Triumph models.
The first Norton Commando 750 Fastback brochure, complete with the Green Globe. Later Globes were redesigned with linear gradient. The Fastback was a leap in ’67 but still had a drum brake at the front, and much was carried over from the Atlas. More of...