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Bike Review - Posted 17th February 2014
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Norton Commando 850

Out of the archive comes a 15 year old story, in which Norman Ireland relates how he bought his first classic British bike...

Along with many others, I guess, I was first attracted to motorcycling by the Norton Commando. A chap down the road from my folks bought a new one; a K registration Fastback in 1972. It was bright red and the sight and sound of it filled me with awe and I immediately developed a yen for one. There were only a couple of barriers to my purchase: I had no money and I was only 13 years old. Still, some day…

By the time I was old enough to hold a licence the British motorcycle industry was moribund and Commandos were increasingly viewed as an arcane preserve of those who preferred the shed to the highway. Like so many others I bought Japanese and was to continue doing so for a number of years until I bought a Beemer. However, when visiting any motorcycle gathering over the years I must confess that resisting an ogle at a handsome Commando has proved difficult.

My decision to buy a Norton was made a year or two back, and I must thank Frank Westworth for the sound advice given in his book, The British Classic Bike Guide. This was both of a general nature: handy hints about buying old or classic bikes, and additionally, advice about buying Commandos in particular. My initial preference was a Mark3 Roadster which I think is the most elegant of the Commando range but I decided that I'd probably settle for an Interstate if a Roadster was not forthcoming.

Norton Commando 850

Eventually I spotted an Interstate advert which made me curious. '1975 Interstate, winner of Best Command award at NOC Day.' This I thought must be worth a look. As it transpired the bike was some distance from home so I would need to tax the goodwill of the missus to transport me there. And back, if purchase was not consummated. On the telephone the vendor took a direct line: no offers please. But given the distance involved he promised me first refusal. True to his word he kept the bike for me to view and predictably I could not refuse. The machine appeared to be in outstanding condition and there seemed to be a genuine reason for the sale.

Within an hour I was grinning my way back to London along a busy M4, delighted with that unmistakeable peashooter roar and generally getting acquainted with my new friend. The missus smiled too, probably with a sense that the weekly sorties to look at bikes had come to an end, for the time being at least. So we sped to the (small) shed.

The purchase was uncomplicated and the vendor was magnanimous enough to throw in some extra bits and pieces. These included a fitted cover (of the right colour) and curiously enough a 1991 edition of Frank's A5 magazine, featuring his advice on how to make a Mk3 850 Commando start efficiently utilising the much criticised electric hoof. Fortunately my Commando had already received the necessary modification and starts first time on the button. It did however come with a stepped seat and mid-western handlebars which just had to go.

I am not too familiar with Commandos and heeded the warnings in TBCBG about the perils of wrongly adjusted isolastics. I thought that my machine might benefit from a health check and service from an expert. Who better than Norman White to sort things out? White was a member of the original development team and test rider for Norton when the Commando was being developed. So I felt comfortable leaving my machine in his hands. His simple remit was to make my bike run and handle as a Commando should. (The tasty Domiracer seen behind my Commando in the photo below is one of Norman's creations).

Norton Commando 850

A couple of weeks later I collected the Norton from Norman who had been through it from back to front and had tested it thoroughly. He assured me that the bike I would collect would feel completely different from the one I had left with him. Reader, he did not lie or exaggerate. Among the improvements immediately apparent were a smoother idle and much crisper acceleration due largely to rejetting the carbs and fitting a 750 air filter. This also gave the bike the awesome induction roar which is central to the Commando experience.

The biggest improvement was, however, in the handling department. Thanks to adjusted isolastics and new swinging arm bushes the machine became a very competent handler and inspires great confidence on the twisties.

White's additional advice was to dump the original Norton Lockheed 'wooden' brake set-up in favour of something more modern of which he offered a choice. He also advocated a fatter front tyre than standard. But you have to stop somewhere and I decided I had spent enough (well, a lot) for the time being.

I also favoured getting to know the machine more intimately before undertaking any further modification so will probably re-visit the stopping dept in the future. I would entrust any additional work on my Commando to Norman who, in addition to being a Commando expert, took the time to consult with customers before proceeding with any work.

Norton Commando 850
Commandos on Now...

My conclusion is, I suppose, entirely predictable. Commandos are very special motorcycles indeed. This machine just emanates charisma and, despite its years, is as happy belting down a motorway as it is on any other road. I have revised my view on the Interstate model: the tank range is magnificent and panders to my unfaltering indolence.

It is true to say that Commandos are more work and more finicky than a modern motorcycle but the effort involved is far outweighed by the charm of the big twin once it is set up properly. Norton ace Peter Williams once asserted his belief that a motorcycle need have no more than two cylinders. I tend to agree with him.

I can't help feeling that every serious motorcyclist should ride a Commando for at least a short while, if only to sense why it won the bike of the year award for five consecutive years. If only the manufacturing tale had not such an untimely and sad end, Norton might have enjoyed the enduring success of Harley-Davidson.

*********

15 years later... a new Norton Motorcycle Company has taken up the cudgels and so it's once again possible to buy a Norton Commando; Norman White still offers servicing, repairs, rebuilds and spares for Norton Commandos, and we wonder what became of Norman Ireland's Commando. If you're out there, Norman, drop us a line (RCHQ at RealClassic.net) and fill us in on the missing 15 years…

And yes, we really did find this story lurking in a pile of paperwork dating back to 1999. So if you too are still waiting to hear from us after writing a story a decade ago - all hope is not lost!


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And for an alternative view of a 1979 R100, read Part I and Part II of Martin Gelder's R100S tale


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