FIFTY YEARS OF NOR­TON COM­MANDO

HALF A CEN­TURY OF GLORY, TINGED WITH THE THRILL OF UN­CER­TAINTY

Cycle World - - News - By Peter Egan

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...

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