Norton Commando

Timeless British style

The Norton Commando. This one is a Roadster with an Interstate tank
Image: Wikipedia

Early British bikes have a timeless beauty about them; Italian and some American bikes are similar. When you look at them, it's easy to imagine a person designing and building them. Japanese bikes, with their generally superior technology, do not evoke the same feeling. The Japanese manufacturers have, from the very beginning, tried to engineer out as much human involvement as possible. It is this fundamental approach that has led them to be able to produce sophisticated products at highly competitive prices. Other manufacturers have had to try and streamline their manufacturing, or get left behind. The people who build Japanese motorcycles are just as passionate as anyone else, it's just that the processes involved somehow seem to leave less visible traces of this.

For those who can see beauty in things mechanical, and there are plenty of us, the differences can be slight but nonetheless, significant. The precision castings of a Honda CB 750 engine are no less appealing than the finning and polished alloy of a Commando, but the Honda's mufflers were joined with an ugly seam that detracts from it's otherwise nice lines. Small details yes, but it's the visual purity that gives British bikes their timeless appeal. It's this emotional overiding of practicality that makes us motorcyclists in the first place, and long may it be that way.

The Fastback is one of the most sought after Commandos

The Commando was really Britain's last stand. The Triumph and BSA triples were good performers but probably did more to lure buyers away from British marques than it did to attract them. A whole generation was bought up on British twins and thought if they were to buy a new multi cylinder bike, they may as well have an extra cylinder and buy a four. The Japanese had set new standards for bike ownership. It was no longer considered part of the deal to have leaking oil, vibration and suspect reliability.

The Commando battled on bravely though, it became increasingly more sophisticated as the years wore on. It was to gain an electric start, a disc brake and the engine was enlarged to 828 cc. One breakthrough that was uniquely Norton, was the introduction of 'Isolastic' engine mounting. The Commando's origins go back to the 1940's Model 7 Twin designed by Bert Hopwood. It evolved into the 650 cc Dominator and then the 750 Atlas before it became the Commando in 1967.

A 750 s or scrambler

As the twins became bigger, so did the vibrations. Norton Villiers Chief Engineer Bernard Hooper and assistant Bob Trigg, decided to tackle this problem by using rubber mountings for the engine, gearbox and swing-arm assembly, isolating the vibrations from the frame. A system some other manufacturers were to use in the years to come.

The Commando Production Racer
Image: Steve Carthy Motorcycles.com

The Commando was a sales success, it appealed as the ultimate British bike in an industry that was well past its prime. Instead of being the norm, as British twins had been for decades, the Commando became the alternative to the new Japanese 'normal'. The model run lasted 10 years until 1977. The first model Commando was the Fastback, it was closely followed by the 'S' scrambler that had two high pipes on the left side and a small 11 litre tank. There was also a 1970 SS model that had one high pipe on each side and a flat track style tank. They all had a four leading shoe drum brake.

The first model Fastbacks had the low Atlas type mufflers, these were replaced by upswept reverse cones on the 1970 model, called the Fastback Mk. ll. The early bikes had weak frames, putting extra bracing on the steering head solved this problem. The Mk lll version had a wider section front tyre and modified side and centre stands. The Mk. lV Fastback came out in 1972 and had a disc brake and indicators. The last Fastback was produced in early 1973 and there were none with the bigger 828 cc engine. The Fastback also had another variation. For two years, from 1971, a Long Range version was offered with an Atlas style tank. The seat also differed in that it did not have the forward facing side extensions. It's believed that only about 400 of this model were made.

The most forgettable of all Commandos, the HI-Rider

In an effort to bring their bikes closer to the competition, Norton released the 'Combat' motor in 1972. It had a 10 to 1 compression ratio and put out 65 hp at 6500 rpm. The 750 engine didn't like the extra stress and was prone to main bearing failures and broken pistons. A solution was found by lowering the general state of tune and modifying some of the engine components. The Roadster was introduced in 1970, it was basically an 'S' model with low pipes. For 1972, it had modified crankcase castings and a disc brake.

The John Player road bike
Image: MidAmerica Auctions

The Roadsters were fitted with the 828cc engine in 1973, and in 1975, there were more big changes including an electric start, vernier isolastic adjustment, left side gearchange, and a rear disc brake. Norton released the Hi-Rider, primarily for the US market, in 1971, but the less said about this abomination, the better. The 750 Interstate first appeared in 1972 and the 828 cc version in 1973. The earlier bikes had a 5.25 gallon tank but this was later reduced to 4.5. Production terminated in 1977 although a small batch was assembled in 1978.

Norton also produced a Commando Production Racer, heavily based on the similar one put out by Gus Kuhn. It wasn't powerful enough to be competitive and very few were sold. It's possible to buy replicas new but the originals are rare. In 1974, the John Player Special was released in an effort to cash in on the race bike success. The bike was a standard Commando with a semi representation of the race bike's bodywork and only about 200 were sold. They were possibly ahead of their time, as they seem to be more popular today then at the time of their release.

The Norton Commando has been a hugely popular bike, despite its drawbacks. The bike is pure pleasure to ride, with its relatively light weight, good power and brakes and nimble handling. As if that's not enough, it also has that unsophisticated elegance that only British bikes seem to have. The Commando and the Triumph Bonneville are probably the first bikes that come to mind when someone contemplates buying an old British bike. The fact that modern versions are popular today, largely with a different generation, tells us that there was something very right about them in the first place. As well as the new generation machines, exact replicas of the old Commandos, or the parts to build one, can be bought new. Classic beauty never goes out of style.

Written by Paul Harmon, 15-1-18

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