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Bike Profile - Posted 18th November 2011

Norton Commander 588, Part Two
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Last time, Roger Slater took delivery of a rotary-engined Norton tourer. Now he takes it on its first long-distance trip and can tell what really needs fettling...

After enduring a series of teething problems - mainly to do with oiled plugs - and generally setting up the rotary Norton to better accommodate my geriatric frame, it was time for the Commander's maiden long-distance voyage. My destination was Mount Baker in the Cascade range, located in the fine state of Washington. This is an annual, mid-August event held by the most excellent Washington Vintage Motorcycle Club. All we had to do was to congregate at the farm of club president Bill Stevens and his charming wife Rozie.

Mount Baker is an extremely scenic forty mile climb from the farm. It's 10,775 feet high so it can be a challenge due to unpredictable weather. There is year-round snow at the top but hopefully none on the road. On the return to the farm we were all treated to a very fine BBQ with all the fixings, most enjoyable. It is only a rumour that the Commander might win the best example in the 'rotary engine' classification of the concours competition…

It was all going well until the bike on the left rolled off its sidestand... Washington Vintage Motorcycle Club Rally

My chosen route from Spokane was the slow but most scenic route west to Grand Coulee of Dam fame, and then north-west across the mid-state, remote tumbleweed zone to pick up the marvellous 'Cascades Scenic highway' up and over the mountains. I took an overnight stop just this side of the mountains at the charming little western town of Winthrop.

By the time I reached my second nights' digs in coastal Bellingham I had a more rounded view of the bike and further adjustments which would be required. The speedo was 10% fast, and the foot brake a tad too high. There was lots of coughing and spluttering at cold start up (and the bike was no better!). Even after a brief stop for a photo or map scrutiny, the engine was a bit irritable until the rotors were fully back to temperature. A weak-mixture flat-spot which appeared just off idle was ever-present and irritating. The biggest disappointment however was the lousy gearchange and dragging clutch which rendered neutral very elusive. This despite the hydraulic clutch conversion: it would have to be rectified.

The radiator did a good job of keeping things cool on the long mountain climbs but in traffic the fan seemed to be struggling as temperatures shot up appreciably until on the move again. The suspension was very nice and BMWish tourer smooth. The smoothness of the engine was mesmerising, as was the bike's ability to slow-march through little towns in top gear and pull away so smoothly as the 30 sign passed by. That was a real boon because of the lousy gearchange.

Bavaria? No... Norton COmmander 588

In Bellingham I changed to a pair of extended nose NGK plugs from the standard items used so far. These did show a definite improvement in slow speed running. At my final overnight stop, 300 miles from home, I opened the gap of these plugs from 025" to 032". I have found many times in the past that this little dodge can camouflage off-idle flat-spots. it worked again in this case, to the point that the problem was almost totally eliminated once engine was fully warmed up.

On the big fast sweepers coming off the pass into the pretty Bavarian town of Leavenworth I explored the excellent high speed handling of the bike. Of course, the nice soft cushy suspenders were a little pressed at such undignified exuberance…

Leavenworth? Yes... Norton COmmander 588

Leaving Leavenworth, I used both hands to open my jacket ventilation zips because of heat. As the bike bled off speed on a closed throttle, the bars started to flutter. Within the split-second it took to place my mitts back where they should have been, the bars were getting close to a full-blown tank-slapper. What the heck was that all about?!

Further experiment as I rode on indicated this only occurred at 43 to 47mph. Nothing at all if at least one hand was resting on the bar. Exercising a very light touch with the fingertips of both hands, a slight tremor could be felt that waxed and waned in a regular cyclic pattern of about three seconds wavelength. Most odd.

The tyres were new Bridgestone B45 of the correct recommended size and pressure. I have used these excellent tyres for years on all sorts of stuff. They would cure the inherent steering wobble of the Earles fork equipped BMW models. So this weave will get some serious attention.

Roger is still smiling despite having apparently lost his little red bag...

On my early exploration potters round the lanes, I had formed the impression that the Commander's fuel consumption was horrendous. On the long maiden voyage I discovered that the fuel gauge lied like a politician. At just under a quarter full it would hardly take three gallons. The tank does not hold six US gallons as claimed: it is only five to dry out on reserve. The gauge and or sender will need to be sorted.

Wankel bits on Right Now......

As it turned out, fuel consumption for the 932 mile trip was a most pleasant surprise at 48.6mpg for a high, 40.3 for a low, (messing about in Bellingham and storming Mount Baker). The average was 44.5mpg with 2.5 pints of Silkolene going up in smoke. Note that this is the anaemic US gallon that is 20% less than the Queen's own version.

Overall, I would describe myself as dead chuffed with the bike. After the niggles are sorted it will be a very fine bit of kit indeed.

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