The Five-Stroke Norton
Sometimes you kick the bike. Sometimes the bike kicks you
By Peter Egan October 31, 2016

Commando is a four-stroke motorcycle, but this is not always the case. Let me explain.
Several months ago, I awoke on a warm and sunny morning—perhaps the first really nice day of spring—and decided to take a motor­cycle ride. Pondering the many options in my vast four-bike collection, I decided it was time to get my 1974 Com­mando out of its winter mothballs and fire it up.

I unhooked the battery tender, topped up the oil, adjusted and oiled the chain, checked the tires, and put on my leather jacket. I turned on the fuel taps, tickled the Amals until they wept, flicked on the key, and kicked.

Nothing. So I kicked it again. And again. Finally it started, but it immediately died. About five times in a row. Oh, boy. I was getting hot and tired, so I took off my helmet and jacket. After a few more kicks and stumbles, I took off my sweatshirt.

My friend Ed Zender always says that if a Norton doesn’t start in about two kicks, there’s something wrong and you should stop kicking and fix it. I figured the idle circuits were probably gummed up from sitting all winter, but cleaning your carbs is not a fun job on a nice spring morning.

“One more kick,” I said to the Norton imperiously, “and then I’m taking another bike.” The Commando probably sensed from the tone in my voice that I meant business. Big mistake. I was soon to learn that you should never threaten a Norton.

I leapt into the air and gave it one more mighty kick and the whole right side of my body went instantly numb, as if someone had thrown an electrical switch. My right arm and leg seemed to have carbonated ginger ale running through them, and my right jaw and eyelid felt as though they’d gotten a massive novocaine injection at the dentist’s office. Even the right side of my nose was numb and the left side felt normal. Right down the middle.

“Well, this is not good,” I said aloud, surprised to find my speech quite normal—assuming that a small-town Wisconsin accent is normal. My balance was okay, too, and I could walk. Sensing an imminent hospital visit, I walked up to the house, took off my clumpy motorcycle boots, put on some comfortable loafers, and made a few phone calls. Barb was gone for the morning, volunteering at a no-kill cat shelter, and our neighbors were at church, so I drove myself to the local hospital, only 6 miles away on a country road, which was faster than calling an ambulance.

Long story vastly shortened, they checked me out and sent me on to the Madison, Wisconsin, VA Hospital, where the neurology department did a brain scan and determined I’d had an ischemic stroke (blood clot) in the reptilian core of my brain and then gave me a big injection of TPA, the miraculous clot-busting drug. Within 12 hours all the stroke symptoms had gone away, except for some residual numbness in my right hand and forearm. After I’d spent three days in the ICU, they let me go home. They said that except for the small matter of having a stroke, I was one of the healthiest 68-year-old Vietnam vets they’d ever seen, but they gave me some parting health tips anyway:

Cut down your salt intake
Walk every chance you get
Don’t kickstart big motorcycles

“They have bikes now that start with these magic little buttons on the handlebars,” the doctor explained. “You should try one.”
When I got home, I sat in my workshop all evening, looking at the Norton and brooding. Could I really let it go? I’d spent an entire winter restoring the thing, and it looked beautiful. But as my old friend George Allez likes to say, “It’ll look just as beautiful in someone else’s garage.”

When it finally fired up, I was wringing wet and out of breath. I put my head down on the tank, heart pounding and right arm tingling like a Lucas voltage regulator.

In the morning, I called ace British-bike restorer Dale Mattison, who’d rebuilt the engine for me, and asked if he could get the bike tuned and starting well so I could sell it. He said, “Just clean the carbs, and it should start right up after a few kicks.”

“The trouble with that advice,” I said, “is the ‘few kicks’ part. I don’t think the VA will take me back for a second miracle cure.”

So I trailered it down to Dale’s Cycle and he cleaned the carbs and did a full tune-up. When I picked it up, of course, I imme­diately broke my own vow by starting it (first kick!) and taking a ride. It ran beautifully and sounded great. As usual. Maybe I’d been too hasty in thinking of selling it. The stroke was probably just a strange anomaly…

The next day, I decided to risk all and take another ride. The Norton started immediately, and I was soon coursing down the green, winding roads of the Wisconsin countryside, listening to the lovely beat of that big twin. Then I missed a turn I’d intended to take and stalled the engine while making a U-turn in the road. The pavement was off-camber, so I pushed the bike slightly uphill to a flatter spot, where I could set it firmly on the centerstand and give it a kick. It was a hot, muggy day. The Norton started briefly then spit back and stopped, so I foolishly tickled the carbs and flooded it slightly. It took six more kicks to clear it. When it finally fired up, I was wringing wet and out of breath. I put my head down on the tank, heart pounding and right arm tingling like a Lucas voltage regulator.

As I rested there, a favorite last line from a James Joyce short story called “Araby” popped into my head: “Gazing into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity, and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Also salty sweat, in this case.

When I got home from the ride, I called my friend Bill Hall who’d gotten back into bikes recently and was looking for a nice Commando. He drove his pickup truck over a few days later and bought the Norton. It started first kick for him.

The next morning, I headed down to a shop called Team Triumph in Janesville, Wisconsin, and ordered a brand-new Triumph T120 Bonneville. It’s a beautiful silver and red and has one of those magic buttons on the handlebars.

Sometimes a moment comes when you need to count your blessings and move on. Also, there are worse things in life than having a doctor’s prescription to purchase a new motorcycle you were looking for an excuse to buy anyway.

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