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Bike Profile - Posted 22nd November 2010

Norton Commando 961 Sport Review
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This should have been a full-length test ride of the new Norton Commando 961. However, Rowena Hoseason managed to put it out of action in record time...

You've been waiting longer than originally anticipated for this 'first ride' review of the new Norton Commando because, as is the way of me and motorcycles, things didn't go exactly to plan. The Commando 961 Sport has a fairly strict running-in procedure, as you might expect of an air-cooled, pushrod operated OHV parallel twin engine. So for the first 300 miles we've been riding it at engine speeds under 3500rpm - that's only halfway to redline, some 3000rpm below where max power is produced and 1700rpm away from the moment of max torque delivery. In short, life at 3000rpm is not exactly interesting.

Please, try not to lick the screen... Norton Commando 961 Sport

After 300 miles the book says you can up the running-in stakes to 4500rpm. This takes the engine deep into its torque curve, which peaks at 5200rpm at around 90Nm, and should make riding life much more interesting and give a better representation of how we can expect the motorcycle to perform in the longer term. So the plan was to scamper past the 300 mile mark and tell you all about the next 200 miles. But then reality intervened…

The 961 wasn't delivered until the end of September, which meant that running-in would take place during our busiest month of the year, when a great long string of shows and autojumbles takes a big bite out of our available riding time. Even so, we rattled off the first 300 miles reasonably quickly, following the recommended practice of riding on minor roads at a variety of engine speeds using all the gear ratios. That method takes a lot longer than simply sitting on a motorway with the throttle wedged open, but should ensure that we get maximum performance and durability from the motor in the long term.

It's real! It exists! It's outside, on a road! Norton Commando 961 Sport

Then it absolutely hissed down with rain for a couple of weeks; apart from the days when deadlines loomed and we were chained to the keyboards, in which case the weather was glorious. The 961 isn't going to be a preserved-in-aspic motorcycle; it's going to be a regular ride for the RC Crew and readers should see it in action at various events next year. But we're not completely insane: I don't choose to ride a motorcycle costing £12k in foul weather (we have an Enfield Bullet for those occasions…).

Finally, we got a dry(ish) day at the start of November when I confidently expected to add another hundred miles to the total and could discover what the engine's mid-range performance might be like. Here goes!

It's so clean! It's so... Norton! Norton Commando 961 Sport

Or not.

Not with a broken split-pin sticking out of the big fat (180/55) rear tyre.

At first we didn't spot the split-pin and I kinda leapt to a worst-case scenario conclusion, imagining that there was something ghastly wrong with the rim or the valve, or that a spoke had come adrift in the worst possible way. It's not that I'm paranoid (well, mebbe only a tiny bit); rather more that I'm still faintly astonished that the new Norton concern have managed to continue development of the 961, put three versions into production and have started delivering customer bikes. I'm vaguely waiting for the bubble to burst, and I keep expecting the worst. In this case the worst was nothing more sinister than a rusty chunk of metal getting far too friendly with a hunk of expensive rubber.

Fixing a puncture isn't beyond the wit of even this woman, but the 961 is of course a thoroughly modern motorcycle. So it has no centrestand. And you'll observe from the photos that the exhausts curve underneath the engine, leaving little scope for a car jack and milk crate arrangement. RealMart made a witty suggestion involving a hoist and a mattress, but he's 250 miles from RCHQ and so is safe from the fallout of the explosion which would inevitably occur if we dropped our brand new, twelve-thousand-pound motorcycle while trying to take out its rear wheel.

Paddock stand and mattresses not shown...

So we called Kenny (acemotorcycles.net) who came and took away the 961; fixed the puncture, fitted bobbins and supplied a paddock stand. Which means it'll probably never get another rear puncture in its entire life!

However, none of that little escapade enlightens you in the slightest and I'm aware that many faithful RC readers have been waiting for months to hear what the bike is actually like to ride. So while this isn't the overview I'd hoped to write, I can share our initial experiences and impressions.

For those who don't know the background story, I'd advise you to grab a copy of RC11 (available here: https://classicissues.com) from February 2005, where we test rode the earlier incarnation of this bike. At the time is was called the 952 Commando and was being prepped for production by Kenny Dreer's business in the USA. When Dreer was unable to find the necessary funding to proceed, the design of the bike plus the trademark and other rights were eventually bought by Stuart Garner in the UK.

Garner began a publicity campaign, continued development and started to build actual motorcycles at a new Norton Motorcycles HQ at Donington's enterprise park. Menard Competition Technologies - involved in Ducati's GP motors during the 1990s as well as providing F1 and Nascar engines - took over engine development, while chassis components were sourced from high-spec providers.

Thus the 961 Sport uses Bosch fuel injection, Brembo Goldline brakes and Ohlins suspension, although the oil-bearing, tubular steel trellis frame, 17-inch spoked wheels, five-speed cassette gearbox and many of the ancillary components are made specifically for the Norton. The majority of these items, even down to the throttle bodies of the fuel-injection system, are manufactured in the UK. The CNC machines in Norton's workshops buzz away busily, sculpting brackets and fork yokes and even dipsticks from hunks of gleaming billet. This is motorcycle manufacturing as a kind of high-tech cottage industry; Small Heath it ain't.

Engine shaped holes waiting to be filled Norton Commando 961s awaiting completion at the Norton factory

When we visited the Norton Donington facility they were prepping half a dozen customer bikes while also sending machines to overseas markets for type approval. There was a notable absence of any engines and indeed engine supply problems caused a hold-up in the delivery schedule. Our bike was delivered five weeks later than its due date, which was five months after the initial order had been placed. Norton are now assembling the engines themselves in-house in a bid to speed up supply of complete bikes: the machines are hand-built for each specific order and choosing a different colour scheme or asking for an alteration to the standard spec can cause delays.

Before carping too much about delivery delays, we should remember that it is a considerable achievement to bring a new model of British-built motorcycle to the market. Indeed, when we placed the order back in April, my suspicious self only gave it a 50/50 chance of being fulfilled. Launching a new business in the middle of a recession is a brave move. Manufacturing a new motorcycle in Britain is akin to building a snowman amid the fires of hell. Trying to resuscitate the Norton marque, after so many previous ill-fated (and some half-assed) attempts, is a creditable, if unlikely, enterprise.

That our Norton 961 Sport exists at all is an accomplishment.

The big surprise is that our Norton 961 Sport is, in its own right, an accomplished motorcycle.

An accomplishment, yesterday...
Commandos on Right Now......

It doesn't feel like a lash-up, like someone's garden shed special, or like a top notch parts-bin project. I've ridden quite a few one-off bikes, racing specials and very many machines which have been customised and 'developed' by their owners. They never quite live up to their promise. Creating a machine with its own identity, which functions as a whole rather than a collection of components, is trickier than it seems. With the 961, Norton have fashioned an original, new model which succeeds in feeling like a 'proper' motorcycle. It has an integrity of its own.

I hate to mention the word 'Hesketh' in here because the 961 couldn't be less like that lumbering V-twin if it tried, but it's worth saying that the Hesketh always felt as if it would be quite nice… when it was finally finished. The same goes for the last of the Norton rotary line, the water-cooled models (but not the earlier air-cooled ones; the forerunners Interpol 2 and Classic probably spent too long in development and could have been brought to the market sooner; oh the irony…). The F1, Commander and Hesketh V1000 feel to me like nearly-finished motorcycles which were sold to the public part-baked. The 961 Sport by contrast has been cooking for a lot longer, on both sides of the Atlantic. While it still has some rough edges, and we don't know anything about its high mileage durability, I'd rate it as 'al dente' right now.

Physically, the 961 is tiny by the standards of modern motorcycles. It's a little bit taller than an original Commando but slimmer across the saddle than most old Brits, so I (with a 30-inch inside leg) can get both feet flat on the floor. The 961 carries its mass quite low, so is very easy to roll around at low speeds. In this respect it is quite like an old Brit - it's not bulky or built-out as is the fashion with current roadster models and is light and easy to lift from its sensibly-positioned sidestand.

However, shuffling about in car parks is hampered by the restricted steering lock - think of an old fashioned café racer and you'll have the right idea here. U-turns and parking involve a fair bit of faffing and a wide turning circle. My right heel keeps clipping the hydraulic cluster, too; just as well it's protected by one of Norton's nifty brackets.

Heel plate protects Brembo master cylinder...

The fuel-injection is set lean - very lean - for the first 500 miles, which means that the engine has to be coaxed into idling on cold days. In practice, this means pretending it's an old clunker and keeping your hand on the throttle to raise the revs for the first five minutes. There's also an infuriating stutter at around 2000rpm which caught us out on a couple of occasions - if you're trickling in traffic then it's easy to stall. I ended up adopting the practice of delaying upward gearchanges to keep the revs as close to the 3500rpm ceiling as possible, and yanking the clutch when rolling to a halt. It's a somewhat undignified method of low-rev riding and feels far too reminiscent of managing an old Brit with a blocked jet and no tickover. Feedback from other owners suggests that the fuel-injection system is re-mapped at the first service and the problem goes away. I do hope so.

That stutter is interrupting what is otherwise a very peppy, free revving engine. Only iron will and self-discipline are keeping the revs down, believe me; the 961 seems perfectly happy to pull hard above three grand. Unlike old Commandos, the 961 is not rubber mounted in the frame and uses a balance shaft to smooth out the parallel twin vibes. There's naff-all in the way of a flywheel effect to speak of, so anyone hoping for a traditional Brit thumper will be disappointed. This is no stump-puller; it's not like an 850 Interstate, an 883 Sportster or an 850 Guzzi V-twin of yore. The lovely, lazy 850 Commando belted out its peak torque at just 3000rpm, which makes for a very different riding experience. Mind you, the Combat-engined 750 Commando delivered its 54bhp at 7000rpm - 500rpm beyond where the 961 delivers its 80ish horses.

All that probably explains why I feel more at home on the 961 than Frank does; if you're used to a gutsy throttle response from zero revs and rarely need to venture much above four grand then the 961's motor will feel a little limp at running-in speeds. However, the urgent tug on my right wrist suggests that life is going to be rather more interesting once we hit 5000rpm…

So this is definitely a modern engine with modern power characteristics, even though it carries a heritage badge and uses a superficially old-fashioned engine layout. It's been tweaked to suit the tastes of older riders, though, because the 961 delivers its power and torque at lower revs than other recent big twins - bikes like Ducati's Monster and Triumph's Bonneville peak at 7500rpm, while you'd need to rev Yamaha's TDM all the way past 9000rpm to hit its maximum. This suggests that once the running-in is complete I'll be able to knock the 961 into fourth and pretty much leave it there on country roads, surfing the torque curve between 4k and 5500rpm.

Gearchange lever is set at an inefficient angle...

Which brings us neatly to the matter of the gearchange. Yes, it's a weird way to position a gearchange lever. No, I dunno why they did it like that. (We'll ask, and report back). Yes, I understand that it was rather notchy on early examples. No, it's fine on ours. The gear selection isn't quite as crisp as you'd get from a mass production Japanese machine, but it's perfectly acceptable even while running-in. It needs a little extra pressure when changing down from top, and doesn't appreciate being 'ridden'; that is, putting pressure on the lever after you've completed the change. But it's far better than several gear selector mechanisms I've encountered in the past decade, including ones from Moto Guzzi, Royal Enfield, Victory and BMW.

3500rpm equates to just over 55mph in top, which explains why Frank was passed on the A30 by a chum who was not even going flat-out on his MT350. Oh, the ignominy. On my favourite twisting B-road I can maintain enough momentum to confirm that the 961 is beautifully balanced and extremely easy to turn in and flick out. It feels like an absolute flyer; smooth and supple. It's easy - very easy - to ride fast. You wouldn't want to take it on a VMCC run with your chums on their B31s. You would want to take it a very long way on sweeping single carriageways, unencumbered by luggage or any urgent appointments.

What this photo needs is more Norton logos...

Not that you would be able to carry much in the way of luggage, of course, or even a pillion. The 961 Sport was not intended to be a particularly practical motorcycle, and it ain't. The riding position suits me very well although I've come to agree with Frank's view that they need not have slimmed the petrol tank's waist down quite so far. My knees knock on the frame rails, it's so skinny, and another 50 miles of fuel would have come in handy. Also, the speedo markings drive me batty. They're in kph and mph and the speedo runs up to an unnecessary 160mph. This means that the graduations along the way are tiny, and 30mph isn't even marked. I'm guessing that the chap who designed the speedo dial has never actually ridden on British roads (or else he doesn't care if he trips the camera approaching built-up areas…)

Starter motor casing is rusting already...

The most disappointing thing about the 961 is that a strip on the starter motor corroded within a week of coming to Cornwall. We live near the sea, but that's not really acceptable on a machine which otherwise is beautifully finished. When the edge of every bracket is neatly chamfered, and the overall design is so confidently and tidily executed, you expect every component to achieve the same standard. We'll be pointing it out at the first service.

Brakes? Yes, it's definitely got some. Stops a darn sight better than my Dragonfly. Etc. Seriously, the 320mm twin, semi-floating front disc set-up might be overkill for my usual ride to Bude post office - but I fully expect this machine to be capable of ton-up velocities and it should have the stoppers to suit. I've seen comments that they're so ferocious they may be too much for old duffers used to sls drums, and indeed there is some culture shock transferring between the two. But I have form when it comes to nipping up the front wheel and meeting the kerb all unexpected like - and I'm pretty happy with the 961's brake. Very sensitive and progressive, even with new pads and discs. What's not to like?

Brembo brakes, Ohlins forks with rebound and compression damping adjustment; it's aproper modern bike...

Before I rode the 961, I was pretty confident that it would be easy to sum up. It's not. I can't simply say that it feels a lot like a Ducati Monster, or a bit like a Bonneville, or reminiscent of an old Commando or more like a modern Bimmer. It doesn't feel like any of those bikes in particular. It's not a lot like anything else.

The 961 is a motorcycle which feels like… itself. That too, in a world of identikit white goods, is another remarkable achievement.

-------------

The Norton Commando 961 Sport costs £12,495 on the road

Full spec and different model info can be found at:
www.nortonmotorcycles.com

Words: Rowena Hoseason
Photos: Frank Westworth, Rowena Hoseason, Norton Motorcycles


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