Norton Commando


One particular bike has almost doubled in value in the last five years - the Norton Commando. GUY ALLEN offers up this comprehensive guide to get you one of Motorcycling's icons...

It's remarkable that a bike with a nine-year production run chiselled such a deep impression in the international motorcycle psyche. Meet the Norton Commando.

First shown at the UK Earls Court Show (then enjoying the sunset of its glory as the motorcycle expo to watch) in 1967, the Commando was built in something resembling volume from February 1968 to - several changes of ownership and factory later - October 1977.

For those not in the know, we're talking of a 750-850cc air-cooled, pushrod, four-stroke twin, claiming 65 horses in Combat form (58-60 in the cooking versions) and weighing in the region of 190kg. Nothing special by current standards, perhaps, but definitely not out of the performance goalposts.

BUT WHY?
So why did it etch itself into the local riding psyche? There's plenty of theories out there, one of which is it was the world's first street-legal superbike worthy of the name. Which is tripe. Owners of HRD/Vincents, which predate the Commando by a fair margin, have reason to take issue with that, for a start.

I have another, if less sexy and more complex, theory. First, Norton had (like Triumph) successfully spent decades etching its name in the UK-centric racing landscape and established itself as a romantic name. Second, the company had the good fortune to produce its best model ever at about the time when the western-world's motorcycle market was expanding at a phenomenal rate. Early baby-boomers were getting into it, and the late baby-boomers are now joining them in the retro rush - timing is everything. Third, they're cheaper than the super-desirable stuff (again, Vincent), easier to ride, and much more comfortable than other twins of the same era.

Don't underestimate the comfort factor - it's one that assisted Harley's successful leap from Shovels to Evos. Now you could say anyone who sees comfort as a factor in buying a classic motorcycle is a sook - or someone not dumb enough to spend a fortune on something that hurts them. Your call.

WHO DID THAT?
Okay, let's go back a step and see where the monster came from. Norton's history can be traced to the late 19th century, but it's the pre-WWII racing record on the 348-633cc singles which really made the marque's name. A who's who of racing of the time (Woods, Frith, Hunt, Walker) rode them and established the brand as one to beat across Europe. Post-war, things were tougher, but the record's still stunning with singles such as the 498cc Manx being the mainstay. Racing names such as Duke, Minter, Hailwood and Surtees added to the trophy cabinet. Though it irks me to say it, the win on Sunday sell on Monday philosophy has a proud history.

Herbert "Bert" Hopwood (who joined Norton in 1946) is a name you'll come across several times if you read the history of assorted English marques, andseems to be the father of the Commando twin. His influence came to bear with the design of a 497cc overhead valve twin, which hit the road in 1948 in Dominator guise. It was redeveloped many times, with surprisingly few cosmetic changes, and eventually grew to 828cc (badged as an 850 for the last Commandos).

THE WHO?
It's the late 1960s, WWII finished barely two decades ago (which means the middle aged-men running the company probably had some involvement) and you're looking for a tough and sexy name for your new, big, streetbike. What was the toughest, meanest, outfit of the war (assuming you only want to talk about the winning side...)? Commandos. Gee, now there's a cheeky name for a motorcycle.

The kids who buy it missed The Big One, but their dads might approve - who couldn't like something named after war heroes? Oh okay, their mums. Even better! Well, that's one guess on the thinking of the time.

In late 1967 Norton rolled its prototype Commando onto the Earls Court stand. It was silver, with an orange seat, and some weird green globular thing on the fuel tank that (according to reports of the time) was meant to represent the new corporate identity. They ditched the last bit, and the orange seat.

The 1968 production model (green bodywork, black frame and seat) ran a version of the existing 750 Atlas engine, but ditched Norton's previous premium frame - the McCandless Featherbead - in favour of a new item that included isolastic engine mounts. And this was the crux of the new model.

Both Triumph and Norton vertical twins (and later Yamahas, and others) became vibration factories in their own right as they grew from 500cc to 650, then 750. The stroke of brilliance in Norton's case was to isolate the engine vibrations by mounting the powerplant in flexible mounts (something which owners of some recent H-D models will be familiar with), hanging from what was then a massive two-and-a-quarter-inch top tube. Bernard Hooper and Bob Trigg were credited with the design. (We're told Trigg later moved to H-D.)

In original form, you got a drum brake at both ends, a rear cowl (then called the Fastback, or ducktail in modern parlance), plus the new frame and a variation on the familiar Atlas powerplant.

WHAT, WHEN?
There are numerous variations on the Commando theme. For example, between the first bike and the 1972 Fastback Mk IV, there was an S, a Roadster, a MkIII SS, Interstate, an SS street scrambler to appease an American market that still wasn't appeased... it goes on. And there were a couple of Hi-Rider variations.

Fastbacks continued to 1973, 750 Combats had been around a while by then and are described by one history as "an unfortunate episode", while 850s had been in production for some time and took over the flag until the demise of the Hopwood twins.

Rob Smith, who has owned four, mentioned over coffee that most of the disc brake models ran the stopper on the right but, for no apparent reason, there was a batch that ran them on the left. Call it a practical joke from the shop floor.

A good resource for trying to make sense of all the variations is the UK owner site at www.noc.co.uk, which has some well-sorted historical information.

If you're cashed up, you can buy a new Norton today. The two alternatives are building one from the complete list of spares available in the UK - there are people who will do this for you - or the modern 952 remake of the machine by Kenny Dreer at Norton America (www.nortonamerica.com). Both are hideously expensive.

WORTH A RIDE, GUV?
Without doubt the Commando's distinguishing feature, that isolastic frame, is what makes it work. A decent four-stroke 750 twin is almost guaranteed to provide reasonable grunt, but having the vibration isolated (in a pre-balance shaft engine) makes it an unusually pleasurable experience.

The rest comes down to simple maths. It's small, slim, has enough power to make life interesting - how hard can it be?

Those in the know prefer the drum brake models which generally stop better than those using the truly awful Lockheed front disc. A 1972 example I rode some years ago, owned by journalist David Morley, has got around this by ditching the original disc and caliper in favour of a single Fireblade set-up. It's a good idea and looks surprisingly unobtrusive.

Whether it's a good ride often comes down to the individual motorcycle, its set-up, plus the rider's preferences. They can have sweet engine and gearbox, but the suspension on most examples tends to show its age by being relatively unresponsive by current standards.

Overall, a really little bike (physically smaller than some 250s on the market) with around 60 horses makes for an interesting package.

Parts are readily available, not all that expensive, and there's a lot of service knowledge out there. Owners say you can make it a reliable classic - which is code for don't even consider it as a day-to-day mount. But a well set-up one might be a trustworthy Sunday bike.

Well set-up is the catch, though. It seems to be the fate of Commando owners is to spend the first few months of ownership cursing and tinkering. To quote one: "The first few weeks, every time I rode it, it broke down."

As classic folk attached to any marque will tell you, this is a state-of-mind thing. If you want those cussed pre-wrapped features like reliability, look elsewhere. If a bit of a riding and mechanical challenge is you, you've come to the right place. And the Commando seems like one of the better options available.

COMMANDO FIXESThere are numerous bits of advice out there when it comes to making a Commando reliable and ride-able. Here is a potted version of the available wisdom:

Bottom end: Combat engines in particular were notorious for eating main bearings, though all models do it eventually. Without going into details, Superblend bearings have long been seen as the fix, though expert fitting is critical.

Isolastic mounts: They do flog out eventually and the later MkIII vernier versions (versus shim) are an essential fit.

Carburetion: Open for debate. Good twin Amals work okay, though there are Keihin set-ups available which claim more horses and more reliable starting. Some folk advise retro-fitting a single Amal Mk II concentric on the basis it's easier to tune, or a Mikuni.

Ignition: Bin the points and go for a Boyer electronic set-up.

Clutch: Various advice on this, but careful set-up with a bronze plate set seems to be the go.

Fuel tank: If by some miracle you have a surviving fibreglass tank, store it and replace - it's a fire hazard.

Front brake: Drums are okay and the stock Lockheed on disc models is poison - think about replacing it. Looking original is no good if you're doing it up a tree.

Riding position: Almost universally described as Gothic. Flat bars and rearsets are said to be the go. One owner describes this as changing the ride position from that of a classic bike to a modern sports-tourer. If you do that, he says, you will ride it like a modern bike and will be pleasantly surprised when it responds. (So long as you can get your head around the right-side gearchange - though left-side is available on later versions, and some earlier bikes have been converted.)

Head steady: Owners say a Norvil head steady and tightening down the isolastic mounts (this must be done with care - not for amateurs) will improve frame rigidity though you cop more engine vibration. Our take is leave it alone unless you're getting unreasonably competitive.

Front tyre: Some models may be carrying a 4.10 width, though a 3.60 (max) works better.

Dilihat: