Bikes You Should Know: Norton Commando

BYSK-Norton-Commando Bikes You Should Know appears weekly as part of Two Wheel Tuesdays. Since Hooniverse primarily caters to automotive enthusiasts, this column focuses on historically or culturally significant motorcycles that are likely to interest a non-riding audience.

The Norton Commando is thought by many to be the ultimate expression of the classic Britbike, the high water mark of Britain’s original motorcycle industry. In fact, in a survey of readers by Old Bike Journal magazine in the early 1990s, the Norton Commando was voted THE single most desirable of all classic production motorcycles from anywhere in the world. Even though I was a Triumph Bonneville man myself, I am unable to refute that reputation; by any objective measure it was bigger, faster, racier, more sophisticated, more popular, and more steeped in mythology than just about anything else England produced prior to the disintegration of that country’s manufacturing sector in the mid-1970s. Perhaps more than any other bike, to ride a late-model Commando is to understand why even today generations of riders still wax lyrical about the magic of big British twins.


Rolled out in late 1967, the Commando wasn’t a clean-sheet design; very few British bikes were at that time, and Norton had older designs and less money to spend than others. The Commando’s engine was the same 750 twin that Norton had been selling as the Atlas for the better part of a decade. The forks and brakes were familiar, too. What really set the Commando apart was its new “Isolastic” frame, which addressed customers’ most common complaint about the Atlas (and lots of other British bikes) — vibration. The new Commando frame was equipped with the most sophisticated vibration-damping design the motorcycle market had seen up to that point because, frankly, it needed all the help it could get. All parallel twins are inherently un-balanced, and the 360-degree crank configuration of nearly all British bikes was an especially vibration-prone configuration. The concept of internal balance shafts within the crankcase to smooth out big pulses hadn’t yet come into vogue, and the Commando engine was just as harsh a paint-shaker as the Atlas. What the Isolastic frame did was simply isolate the entire drivetrain from the rest of the bike with large rubber donuts, so the rider (and the light bulbs!) didn’t feel the brunt of the thrashing going on down below. The Commando was also restyled from the Atlas’s somewhat staid, traditional look. The engine was canted forward, the tank was sleeker, and the seat was a swoopy affair with a prominent fiberglass tail piece.


Commando-models-matrixThe Commando was an immediate sensation. Here, finally, was a bike that could keep up with (and often walk away from) any stock production bike in a straight line, go through turns with the freight-train predictability Britbike fans worshiped, and yet was comfortable enough to ride side-by-side, mile-for-mile with long-distance tourers such as the BMW R-series boxers. The Commando would remain a popular and respected platform for more than eight years. Along the way, the brakes were changed from outdated drums to state-of-the-art discs, and the motor was punched out to become the Commando 850 (in reality, 828 cc displacement). Norton invented a whole raft of variants that capitalized on the Commando’s wide-ranging competencies. Rather than go into a long dissertation on the many models produced, I will refer readers to the accompanying chart and just say that the differences were mostly related to the design of the exhaust, handlebars, seat and fuel tank. Those truly interested can delve deeper at the Norton Owners Club website. Not everything was dreamy for Norton owners, however. There were plenty of unpleasant faults, missteps, and glitches along the way. The biggest fiasco was 1972’s optional “Combat” motor. By this time, the Commando’s straight-line performance was lagging behind newer bikes such as the Honda CB750 four, the new BSA/Triumph Triples, and Kawasaki’s Mach IV 750 two-stroke. Norton desperately wanted to keep pace. Unfortunately, the design of the Commando’s motor was still based firmly on 1950s technology, tracing it’s lineage back to the 1948 500 Dominator. The optional higher-performance Combat motor was a bridge too far, and failed crank bearings were epidemic. The overstressed Combat configuration quickly went away, and displacement was increased the next year across all models instead. In reality, the 850 was no more powerful than the 750 it replaced, but it was still a much-improved motor, with a number of reliability improvements that stemmed from addressing the Combat motor’s issues. In its final 1975 guise, the Commando received a new US-mandated left-side shifter and a Lucas electric starter that was poorly engineered and clearly not up to the task of cranking the massive Commando motor to life. Right to the end, the transmission was separate from the crankcase and had only four speeds, something even Triumph and BSA had managed to address. It didn’t matter, really. The British motorcycle industry was in a shambles and everyone around the world knew it. As the British motorcycle industry contracted, the various bankrupt companies were repeatedly merged into increasingly amalgamated management structures. In 1974, the decision was made to consolidate motorcycle production at just two factories: the Norton factory in Wolverhampton and the former BSA plant in Small Heath. The ousted workers at Norton’s Andover plant and the Triumph plant in Meriden organized sit-in strikes which paralyzed production everywhere. Andover closed anyway, and Meriden workers famously won the rights to soldier on manufacturing Bonnevilles until they, too, would eventually go under nine years later. From 1976-78, Norton-Villiers-Triumph swept up the ashes of Norton by sporadically assembling a total of about 1,200 more Commandos out of parts that were leftover when production stalled in ’75.


At the risk of being cornball, “It was the best of bikes, it was the worst of bikes.” While the Norton Commando was indeed the apogee of British bike development, it is a microcosm of  the British motorcycle industry. It was was a rewarding bike to ride, but less rewarding to own. Its increased capacity and innovative vibration control could only do so much to disguise its outdated origins. Even its updates were out-of-touch with the market: the Isolastic system required careful, time-intensive calibration to work properly, and the electric starter was more of an “electric assist” than a push-the-button-and-go convenience. In a world of effortless Hondas and pack-mule reliable Suzukis, the Norton was still a problem-prone, maintenance-intensive anachronism. Today, Nortons are cherished heirlooms, because the kind of owner who is drawn to them now loves the constant tinkering they demand as much as the stirring sound and amazing feel of riding them. Don’t be surprised to hear a Commando owner tick off a mile-long list of frustrations with their Norton, then immediately respond with a very pointed and profanity-laced denial should you ask to ride it. That should tell you something about the Commando right there. Unfortunately, you’d have to successfully convince one of them to let you have that ride to understand it fully.  

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