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Bike Profile - Posted 17th October 2011

Norton Commander 588, Part One
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Roger Slater knew next to nothing about rotary-engined Nortons, but that didn't stop him having one shipped halfway around the world. First impressions were favourable...

This Norton Commander is a 1989 model. It arrived in installments: the cycle came in from Holland as a big pile of parts, and the engine came in two months later. Despite my many years of experience with Brit and European old iron in general, this resurrection was quite a challenge. Virtually everything about the Norton is different from what I am familiar with. Richard Negus, previously the MD of Norton Motors, is an absolute gem. His patience in promptly answering all my novice questions is most encouraging and a big help (thanks Richard).

Are they trying to imply that the Norton is as reliable as a Jaguar?... Norton Commander 588 Brochure

In the main, I arrived at the conclusion that the bike was designed and built by enthusiastic riders. It incorporates all sorts of thoughtful nice touches. The engine alone displays many years of very patient development. The inlet system of air cooling the rotors is a work of art. Fresh air does not enter at the carburettors, but instead it goes through two big air cleaners directly into the bowels of the engine. It whizzes through the finned centre of the rotors, then up into the box frame plenum chamber, and finally into the carburettors and back for a second circle into the engine via long tubular manifolds.

Click to embiggen this image... Norton Commander 588 Brochure - Click to image enlarge

While passing through the plenum chamber, a small amount of lubricating oil is carried with the air. This condenses on the inner walls where it collects in the bottom. This collection is sucked out by a suction spigot on the left side inlet manifold to assist in oiling up the left plug of new or reconditioned engines, such as this one. A very neat plastic tank has been mounted in the vacant left side battery carrier. Simply, the frame scavenge oil is now sucked into the plastic container where it is periodically tipped back into the oil tank.

A clever arrangement?...

In addition to this strangeness, the throttle butterflies are situated up inside the engine. Throttle cables which don't go to the carburettors seem very strange to novices like me who are new to the wonderful world of Norton rotaries.

There are two batteries, one each side of the main frame, a police spec requirement. I ordered a pair of the recommended size which were allegedly of GEL type construction and claimed to be spill- and leak-proof, complete with warrantee. After 62 early test miles both batteries were piddling acid from around the terminals. Four emails were ignored, the seller refuses to answer his phone and fails to return calls. The crooks and con men still lurk among us!

I fitted an American-made Odyssey battery on the right side and will use the left carrier to hold a spare oil container. With the long mileages I expect to ride, the single gallon oil tank may run out at a little over 3000 miles. Silkolene two-stroke oil is certainly not available on the road unless pre-arranged.

The bike displays all sorts of proper engineering such as taper roller bearings at the head stock and swinging arm. The head race adjusters use no force, just above finger tight with a clever little locking tab. Vane type cush drives on primary drive and rear wheel. Rear chain running in oil bath. Adjustable foot controls and rests, the list goes on.

Hacksaw attacks this bit...
Wankel bits on Right Now......

The lines of the bike are quite stunning, lovely integration, fine fit and finish. Here however there is the refreshing requirement of careful alignment of parts by a time-served mechanic to get all joints nicely matching. So different from the plastic fantastic bend-and-force-to-click-together, computer designed and robot assembled Lego-type Honda bodywork.

On the down side, I found small annoyances that probably would have been rectified with better funding that ensured further production with the inevitable fine tuning that comes with it. The bike perhaps could be said to have cycle parts that were perfectly up to snuff in the 1970s but were somewhat long in the tooth into the late 80s when the Commander came into production. The Yamaha front end and Triumph originated gearbox are examples of this: both perfectly adequate but it would have been nice to have Brembo brakes and high end European suspenders.

Operating the reserve fuel tap is accomplished only after removing the right side bodywork! My 1959 Ariel Leader cured that nonsense with a small extension through a neat little aperture in the sidepanel where the fuel knob was operable…

Note red bag containing knickers and Jesus boots... Norton Commander 588 on the road

Luggage capacity is on the skimpy side, with only enough space for just riding kit to cover differing weather conditions, no room left for toothbrush, knickers and Jesus boots. Near the end of the Commander's production life came the larger capacity, detachable, industry-leading Krauser panniers. Conversely, I do prefer the nice integrated looks of the standard luggage over the more bitty Krausers.

What appear to be nice, convenient locking 'glove boxes' on each side are only access points for electronics on the right and coolant tank on the left. Differing keys for these is also an irritation but common at the time.

Lamp controls are somewhat quaint. The white driving lights, fog lights, spot lamps, whatever, only illuminate when the handlebar light switch is in the OFF position. Eh? It's a bit like switching off your computer by clicking START. The rear 'bad visibility' bright tail lamps have a dedicated on/off switch but will only function when the headlight switch is on dip… Confusing.

I finally got it all sorted and went out for a short wobble round the local lanes. WOW! This is different; so smooth, and that ripping calico basso profundo exhaust note is so different from anything else.

Next, it needs a proper shake-down test ride…

Traditional proud owner photo... Norton Commander 588 on the road


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