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NORTON COMMANDO 961 California (2018-on) Review

Published: 08 September 2018

Norton’s most relaxed motorcycle to date

Norton Commando 961 California

Norton’s most relaxed motorcycle to date

Overall Rating 3 out of 5

To celebrate the Commando’s 50th anniversary, Norton released a limited run of 50 California models in 2018. These were simply a Norton 961 Commando with higher bars, chrome around the headlight and polished Öhlins forks.

Each one carried a number plaque on its top yoke and came with an option of exhaust styles. The California is a non-limited run of this bike and aside from Euro4-compliant pipes, gold rather than polished forks and a black headlight, it is identical and costs the same £16,500.

The Norton California is a great summer bike

You don’t ride a Norton, you experience one during a journey together. And this emotive input between the bike and rider creates a very clear distinction between it and one of its more mainstream rivals.

There is something very special and visceral about thumping along back roads

When the sun it out, there is something very special and visceral about thumping along back roads with a motor that feels, sounds and vibrates like a motorcycle from yesteryear. Refinement certainly has its place, but every now and then it is nice to be taken back to the roots of what makes two-wheels such an engaging experience – as long as the experience is backed up by modern reliability and handling.

The Norton California's clocks

And riding a Norton is an experience you seldom have to sample on your own, well not when you are stationary…

Anytime you stop on the Norton California its stunning looks and iconic name on its tank instantly draws admirers. Filling up with fuel takes fifteen minutes – two to fill the tank, thirteen to talk to someone about the bike. When you ride a Norton you need to add extra time into your day, but it is a sacrifice worth making and does the ride justify its high price tag?

The finer details needs to be improved to justify their price tag

Nortons aren’t polished mass-produced machines in the way a Triumph Bonneville or Triumph Thruxton is. When you ride a California you know it has been (for better or worse) hand-built by someone in the UK. To some this gives Norton’s range more spirit and soul, to others it means a machine not to be trusted.

Norton’s build quality and attention to the finer details needs to be improved to justify their price tag as the quality of components they use deserves to shine, but overall there are still far too many rough edges on a bike that costs so much.

Ride Quality & Brakes 3 out of 5

It is easy to forget, but the Norton’s chassis was designed by Spondon while the suspension units are Öhlins finest and the brakes made by Brembo. With this in mind it should be no surprise the Norton rides well.

The forks are plush in their action and so are the twin shocks once you have tailored their settings to your weight. The California is more than happy at a brisk pace, but ground clearance limits too much enthusiasm.

Styling it out

The high bars really suit the Norton’s air-cooled motor’s character and although the pegs are set slightly on the sporty side, it’s a comfortable riding position. Once you get on the gas the engine’s vibrations are a little irritating, especially through the pegs, but the agricultural feel of the lumpy big twin is in character with the bike.

The Norton California celebrates 50 years of Norton

It’s not a slow motor with a good spread of torque, however it is the bewildering array of noises ranging from clatters to pops it emits that is so odd. Refinement isn’t top of Norton’s priority list and it feels like an old air-cooled Ducati in its rawness…

Irritations aren’t far away…

Riding a Norton can be a frustrating affair as it has some ‘quirks’ that ruin the fun. The fuel-injection hunts on small throttle openings before clearing its throat and delivering an instant wallop of power at 1% more throttle opening, making smooth riding tricky.

According to dealers this is due to the motor being strangled to meet Euro4-emission regulations and a de-cat link pipe, set of race cans and new map removed this trait - but that’s another £1300! Other manufacturers seem to be able to sort their fuel injection out, why can’t Norton?

The steering lock is abysmal as the California shares the same sporty chassis as the Commando, the pegs fold up and stay folded up (you can remove a ball bearing to stop this) and the exhaust’s collector box hits the ground over the smallest of bumps.

Engine 3 out of 5

The California runs the same air-cooled 961cc parallel twin as the rest of the Commando range and it makes an identical 78.8bhp with a fat 66.4ftlb of torque. It’s far from a refined motor and vibrates and emits a staggering array of sounds that vary from a clatter to a pop, but according to dealers in its Mk2 guise it is far more reliable than the older Mk1 motor.

While there is a good spread of torque, the fuel-injection hunts on small throttle openings before clearing its throat and delivering an instant wallop of power at 1% more throttle opening, making smooth riding tricky.

Build Quality & Reliability 3 out of 5

The California is based around the Mk2 Commando engine, which has a far better reputation for reliability than the fragile Mk1, which requires careful setting up or you face big bills. You get a two-year warranty as standard from Norton and according to dealers spare parts supply isn’t an issue.

However you are somewhat reliant on the actual dealer and some are more fastidious than others when it comes to checking the bikes over before they are released onto the road as Norton’s attention to detail on the production line can sometimes be questionable.

Reliability concerns

The California is based around the Mk2 Commando engine, which has a far better reputation for reliability than the fragile Mk1, which requires careful setting up or you face big bills. You get a two-year warranty as standard from Norton and according to dealers spare parts supply isn’t an issue.

However you are somewhat reliant on the actual dealer and some are more fastidious than others when it comes to checking the bikes over before they are released onto the road as Norton’s attention to detail can sometimes be questionable. MCN’s test bike, which was prepared by Norton, had one missing bolt resulting in the chain guard working loose…

Insurance, running costs & value 3 out of 5

With a price tag of £16,500 the California is a very pricey machine, however you do get a high level of chassis components not to mention that iconic name on the tank. The firm plays on the hand-built in the UK selling point and there is always a premium associated with exclusivity - just try buying a craft beer in London!

Equipment 4 out of 5

With Öhlins suspension front and rear, Brembo radial monoblock brakes, spoke wheels and a Spondon frame it is hard to argue against the California’s level of chassis equipment. In terms of electronics it is limited to just ABS, but that’s acceptable for a retro and makes it less fussy to ride.

Quality components count

It is easy to forget, but the Norton’s chassis was designed by Spondon while the suspension units are Öhlins finest and the brakes made by Brembo. With this in mind it should be no surprise the Norton rides well.

The forks are plush in their action and so are the twin shocks once you have tailored their settings to your weight. The California is more than happy at a brisk pace, but ground clearance limits too much enthusiasm.

Facts & Figures

Model info
Year introduced 2018
Year discontinued -
New price £16,500
Used price £15,500 to £16,500
Warranty term 2 years
Running costs
Insurance group -
Annual road tax £88
Annual service cost -
Performance
Max power 78.8 bhp
Max torque 66.4 ft-lb
Top speed 120 mph
1/4-mile acceleration -
Average fuel consumption -
Tank range -
Specification
Engine size 961cc
Engine type Air-cooled, 4v, parallel-twin
Frame type Tubular steel trellis
Fuel capacity 17 litres
Seat height 810mm
Bike weight 188kg
Front suspension 43mm inverted Öhlins forks, fully-adjustable
Rear suspension Twin Öhlins shocks, fully adjustable
Front brake 2 x 320mm discs with Brembo four-piston radial calipers. ABS
Rear brake 220mm single disc with two-piston caliper. ABS
Front tyre size 120/70 x 17
Rear tyre size 180/55 x 17

History & Versions

Model history

2018: To celebrate the Commando’s 50th anniversary, Norton released a limited run of 50 California models with tall bars, polished forks and a chrome headlight.

2018: With the limited edition models sold, the mass-produced California is released in late 2018. The chrome headlight is now black and the forks have an anodised finish.

Other versions

The Commando 961 Café Racer MkII features drop bars to give it a sporty look while the Commando 961 Sport MkII has slightly taller bars.

Owners' Reviews

No owners have yet reviewed the NORTON COMMANDO 961 California (2018-on).

Review your NORTON COMMANDO 961 California (2018-on)

Photo Gallery

  • Norton Commando 961 California
  • Just 50 Norton Californias will be made
  • The Norton California celebrates 50 years of Norton
  • The Norton California has special features like tall bars and Ohlins suspension
  • The Norton California's clocks
  • Norton California's twin Ohlins
  • The Norton California is based on a Commando MkII
  • The Norton California is a great summer bike
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