A Brief History Lesson on the Norton Commando.
by Walter Barlow
Walter Barlow shares with us a piece he wrote when he attended the first annual gathering of the Delaware Valley Norton Riders over 20 years ago.
After the disappointment of what the Commando has been reborn into (check out the Commando 961 recently featured for more), kick back and enjoy Walter’s write-up on what made the original Commando such a classic:
“OK, I admit I really like late-model Nortons.
The annual springtime Gathering Of The Nortons, put on by the Delaware Valley Norton Riders at Washington Crossing park in NJ. is one of my favorite motorcycling events of the year. It’s a pretty informal affair (well, from an outsiders perspective anyway. It probably takes all the organization that any good event does), no fee, no categories, no judging; just show up, park your bike, benchrace and ogle for a while, and then ride (pace and route at your discretion) up to the Ship Inn in Milford for lunch. The club has even provided free coffee and donuts for whoever wants them (what a concept!).
One of the best things about it is that, as far as I can tell, every bike is ridden to the event and pretty much everyone makes the 40 mile or so (depending on the route chosen) ride to lunch. Maybe they have an unwritten posing rule (good for them if they do), or maybe it’s just a matter of pride (good for them if it is). In addition to a wide variety of the expected Nortons, some other Brit marques are also represented, such as Velocette, BSA, Triumph, and Ariel.
I suppose I should try to explain my affinity for Norton, along with my “certain knowledge” (bias?) that, in it’s final form, it was the pinnacle of British motorcycling just before that country’s motorcycling industry went through it’s final convulsion and died of mostly self-inflicted wounds.
The Commando was introduced in 1968 with the Fastback model- a very pleasing if understated Cafe Racer style bike. It solved the vibration problem that pretty much plagued all large displacement motorcycles of the time with an ingenious system that rubber-mounted the driveline in the new frame. The system flat out worked, as Norton overnight went from a company with arguably the worst vibrating motorcycles to just about the smoothest. It combined this smoothness with the power and handling for which they had been justly know to create what was arguably the first modern (if I can use this term in referring to a bike with an engine that was pretty old even then) Superbike.
1969 was a seminal year in motorcycling- BSA/Triumph introduced their triples, Suzuki the Titan, Kawasaki debuted the Mach 1, and Honda landed the blockbuster 4. Meanwhile Norton freshened up the Commando with a Roadster and S model- small tank, bright metal flake paint, stainless steel fenders, bare fork legs, and high pipes (on the S). It was a dazzler, a really beautiful and well proportioned machine. A friend of mine bought one of the first ones in NYC. Shortly thereafter, he sold it to another friend of mine. It was the first motorcycle I ever rode on as a passenger as well as the first bike I ever rode solo (other then a Harley dresser that a friend of my father let me take for a quick putt down the block). I was absolutely blown away by the level of performance it gave (even though in retrospect I doubt that I rode it very hard the first couple of times), and this probably as much as anything hooked me at a very primeval level to motorcycling as a (so far) lifelong avocation. Can there be a better reason for liking a bike? I rode it quite a bit over the next 5 years, and was always impressed; mostly because I never seemed to outgrow it’s capabilities. With the Dunstall clip-ons and rearsets added, it really looked like the definitive cafe racer.
With all these cool and fast bikes, there was never-ending speculation among bikers as to what was really the hottest bike (boy- talk about the history repeating itself). To settle things, Cycle Magazine did what I think was a first- a Superbike comparison, adding to the above the H-D Sportster. They did empirical testing for braking, 1/4 mile, and lap times around a racetrack, combined with pretty insightful riding impressions. Bikes could be finely honed/tuned stockers, complete with factory reps doing the tuning, but they had to be legal. How would “my” beloved Commando, the oldest design by far of the group, fare against these modern wonders?
No worries, as “old tech” did just fine.
Braking - bad news first. The Commando had the worst brakes of the bunch, but keep in mind that this relative. It still generated .98G and stopped in 107′ from an actual 56mph (indicated 60).
Road course - comments from the test include “handling is extremely light and precise for such a large machine”, “dead secure”, “forks and shocks are perfectly matched to the chassis”, and “drifting the machine through the sweepers was easy and non-frightening”. Downside was the brakes, alternating between fading and grabbing, and the non-folding footpegs. Also, it was later discovered that the fuel valves were partially clogged from tank debris (ah, British quality control), which undoubtedly affected lap times. Still, the Commando posted a 44.5 second best lap, good for third (the Honda and BSA tied for 1st with a 44.9 second lap).
Quarter mile - then (and to a large degree, now) the venue upon which reputations are made. To quote Cycle the Commando “did everyone in the eye” with an 12.69 at 103.62, the quickest ET (next quickest was the Kawasaki at 12.81) and third best top speed (the Kawasaki had the highest, followed by the Triumph, both less then 1mph faster).
Not bad. In addition to making me feel good, I bet this comparison test sold a ton of bikes for Norton, as shortly after the comparison I started seeing a whole lot more Commandos on the street.
Just for historical perspective, Cycle again did a Superbike comparison in late 1982. The BSA triple, Suzuki Titan, and the Kawasaki 500 were out, being replaced by the Ducati 750 GT, and Kawasaki’s 750 Mach IV and 903. The Norton (Roadster this time) did pretty well, with an overall 5th place (3rd in braking- it now had a disc, 4th in lap time, 4th in 1/4 ET and speed with a 12.8 @ 105mph). Interestingly, it provide the second best “bang for the buck” (overall point score divided by cost). 1972 also saw Phil “Speedy” Read finish a very credible 4th at Daytona (who knows what might have happened without that fuel stop snafu). But clearly, time was not being kind to the old Brit.
As time went on, Norton evolved the basic design using mostly visual cues, into several models: the Roadster (probably their best seller), the Hi-Rider (a chopperesque model), the Interstate (a tourer), and two pretty limited-production bikes- the John Player Special (basically roadrace bodywork stuck onto a standard Roadster) and a Production Racer, which really was one. With these last two, you could argue that Norton was the first company to sell repli-racers. I can’t get off the subject without mentioning Paul Dunstall and his after-market parts for the Commando. Beautiful stuff, especially the dolphin fairing, rearsets, and Blair designed exhaust system. He also built an 810cc version of the Commando that had pretty amazing performance. And, though less well-known in the states, Gus Kuhn was also a noted builder and supplier of Norton goodies. And, of course, factory development rider Peter Williams who did so much good work and was a very good rider. Norton also has an incredibly rich racing history with a ton of continental wins and legendary Isle Of Mann performance.
OK, so much for the brief history lesson.”
(Articles, images, and excellent vintage ads from Walter Barlow and Dad’s Vintage Ads)
And because I can’t help sharing bikes for sale with you, here’s a lovely Norton Commando with some Dunstall goodies. Maybe Walter’s inspired you to pick one up?
This Commando is available in Plaistow, New Hampshire for $11,995
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