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Norton Commando: the models, the rivals and the verdict

The Norton logo evokes fond memories for many

Norton started in 1898 and was building bikes by 1908, but the Commando didn’t appear until 1967 when it was unveiled to the world at the Earls Court Motorcycle Show.

The Norton-Villiers company revealed the overhead valve pre-unit, parallel twin as a 750cc and it immediately got rave reviews. It won MCN’s Machine of the Year award for five consecutive years between 1968-1972, so it must have been good!

Despite the company being sold several times over the last 120 years or so, the Commando has often appeared in the range. And it’s still in it now under Stuart Garner’s ownership.

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1968 Commando

The first Norton Commando was an appealing package

The first Norton Commando was introduced as a production model in 1968. Its styling, innovative isolastic frame and powerful engine made it an appealing package. The Commando outperformed Triumph and BSA twins and was the most powerful and best-handling British motorcycle of its day. The frame made it much smoother than the Atlas. It used rubber bushings to isolate the engine and swing arm from the frame, forks, and rider.

A new version of the engine was released in January 1972, known as the Combat engine. It produced an Impressive (for the time) 65bhp, although reliability suffered, with frequent and early crank-shaft main-bearing failures, sometimes leading to broken crankshafts. This problem was solved by using a heavier duty type of roller bearing later in 1972

The firm enjoyed on-track success with the Commando and in 1973 Peter Williams won the Formula 750 TT on a heavily modified JPS Norton Commando.

1975 Mark III Norton Commando

The 1975 Norton Commando Mark III went up to 850cc

The 850cc Mark III Commando was launched in 1975 with an electric starter, isolastic head steady for improved vibration absorption, left side gear change and right side foot brake (to comply with United States vehicle regulations) and a rear disc brake.

There were just two models in the range; the Interstate and Roadster. The specification remained unchanged until October 1977 when the bikes went out of production. In 1975 the company went into receivership and redundancies were announced for all of the staff at the various sites. At Wolverhampton a committee was formed in an effort to continue production, but the factory closed anyway.

NVT was saved when the Small Heath/Meriden part of the company was subsidised by Industry Secretary Tony Benn, but this did not include Commando production.

Norton 850 racer shed build

Original Commando models are still race prepped and entered into classic events now. Shed builds like Paul Swanwick's 850 racer feature upgrades to engine, exhaust, gearbox and primary drive but are still instantly recognisable as a Norton.

2010 Norton Commando 961

Under new ownership, the Commando 961 gets a new leash of life

As squabbles over the Norton name and who owned which trademarks delayed any significant new Nortons for many years, American Kenny Dreer produced the Commando 961 in 2000. The bike combined Norton Café Racer styling with new tech, including carbon fibre wheels and a cho-moly tubular steel frame. Production of the bike stopped in 2006, due to funding problems.

Stuart Garner acquired the rights to the brand in 2008 and set up a new factory within the grounds of Donington Park in Derbyshire. At the time there were three models revealed; a limited-edition Commando 961 SE, a Café Racer and a Sport model. The engine was a 961cc, fuel-injected, air-cooled parallel twin that produced 79bhp.

Production was slow in the early days as Garner fought to establish British suppliers, but he managed to take many of the processes in house and delivery times improved by 2012.

2015 Norton Commando 961 Mk2

Improvements to the Norton Commando came in 2015

Although the basic elements of the bike are the same as its predecessor, it is noticeably updated (particularly the brakes and seat), the new Titanium grey colourscheme is mature and classy and it is also conspicuously more refined in terms of build quality and finish over the early ‘MkI’ bikes. Better, classier, an unchanged price and Norton itself more established, suddenly a 961 doesn’t seem the leap of faith it once was.

This updated Commando now has die-cast (rather than sand) crankcases; Nikasil (rather than steel)-lined cylinders; an uprated crankshaft (all of which improve running and reliability) plus a significantly updated gearbox, with new bevel-cut gears to improve shifting and reliability. The engine is now also available with black-finished barrels and/or head.

The 961 SF and Café Racer variants have always been fitted with top notch suspension and brakes and as these have improved, they’re now fitted to the MkII versions which feature the latest radially-mounted Brembo Monobloc calipers, now finished in graphite, compared to the gold two-piece radial Brembos fitted to earlier versions. The Mk II also has the latest, more compact, Brembo brake and clutch master cylinders.

In 2019, Norton unveiled a special edition of the Commando made in partnership with watch maker, Breitling. Norton made just 77 of the Commando Breitling Sport, which featured teaks to the paint, styling and seat and cost £17,950.

2018 Norton Commando 961 California

The Norton Commando California gets a more laid-back look

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.

Norton's owner Stuart Garner explained the decision to build the California to MCN at the time: "The idea came about between me and Simon Skinner [head of design]. We looked at what was right for the brand from an image position, and from an engineering position.

"The California just seemed right, and it will appeal to another type of Commando fan, too as it's the first Commando with high bars. We’ve already got a café racer and a more upright roadster– but this gives us something else again and it just looks perfect for the period.

"Riders have become less hell-bent on speed in recent years, and a bit more lifestyle focused, and this meets that desire head-on."

2018 Norton Commando 961 Street

The Norton Commando Street came after a TV show customized a bike

Norton built 50 limited-edition Commando 961 Street models. Born out of the vision of Henry Cole and his bike building buddy Guy Willison (of The Motorbike Show fame), it’s a superb reimagining of the 961 platform.

The new Street costs £17,950 and has a new tank, seat, tail unit and bars, while it also boasts a glut of factory parts to complete the high-end look. The beautiful and tail unit are hand-crafted in aluminium, while the seat is a bespoke item made of Alcantara and stitched with a diamond pattern. The bars are black Renthal Fatbars, which are nicely accentuated by the polished top yoke and bar clamps, while the official factory carbon headlamp cowl, fender, chain guard and numberplate hangar all add a bit of classy bling, too.

Norton Commando rivals

The Norton roadster has had many rivals come and go over the decades but the main protagonist has been Triumph.

The British rivalry has stood the test of the time and even now the 1200cc Triumph Thruxton is probably its closest rival. The Triumph is more refined and powerful, but the Norton still wins on exclusivity and character.

BMW's R nineT range is also a more modern take on the retro theme. The boxer twin produces a lot more power (110bhp versus the Commando's 79bhp). And there are five versions of the Beemer to choose from to suit every taste and pocket.

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