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Bike Profile - Posted 29th August 2011

Norton Commando & Triumph Thruxton: British Twins?
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Chalk and cheese, or singing from the same song sheet? Martin Gelder rides two British parallel twin motorcycles that look the same, go the same, but don't ride the same...

If motorcycles have DNA, then parallel twins are British through and through. The universal Japanese motorcycle is an inline four, German bikes are boxers, the Italians have made sporty vee-twins their own and the eastern bloc was defined by the humble two-stroke single. The parallel twin is British Biking made metal.

Through the juke-box fifties, the swinging sixties and the glam-rock seventies, twins from Triumph, BSA, Norton and the rest provided the rasping soundtrack to motorcycling in the UK and around the world. When Triumph returned to the market in the early nineties we all asked when there'd be a twin added to the range, and in 2001 the 'Hinckley Bonneville' was launched. It's proved a popular model, accounting for nearly a third of Triumph's sales, but is it a worthy successor to the twins that defined British Biking during its boom years?

Separated by thirty years and several generations... Norton, Triumph, pub, sunshine. Perfect.

MadMike (a regular on the RealClassic Message Board) owns a 1972 Combat-engined Norton Commando Fastback and a visually very similar 2009 Triumph Thruxton. The Commando echoes the bike he had when the Fastback was a contemporary model, while the Thruxton provides him with the modern Triumph experience. We took them both for a spin round leafy Leicestershire.

The Triumph starts on the button, after it's whirred and whistled through its fuel injection priming preliminaries, and settles into a fast tickover while it warms. The Norton, as befitting a machine of its age and era, requires a more measured and deliberate approach. Tickle the carbs, set the air lever, find compression... and deliver a kick with commitment. Boyer and battery permitting, the Commando barks into life after the second or third kick. And it does feel like it's come to life; the Norton is mechanically quiet but you're never left in any doubt that it's running. Its engine dominates (I know, I'm sorry) proceedings and leaves you in no doubt that the heart of a motorcycle is its motor.

Spotless. Immaculate. 1972 Norton Commando Fastback

The Commando - in Fastback guise, at least - is a bike you sit 'on' rather than 'in'. The seat is firm, the reach to the bars long, and the footpegs are high and further forward than feet accustomed to modern bikes might expect. The Norton's footpegs and controls feel as though they're positioned for the convenience of the gearchange pedal and kickstart rather than being designed to suit the anatomy of the rider. The Triumph is a much plusher proposition; you settle into the seat and although the 'bars are lower than the Norton's they feel higher in relation to the bike's seat. The Thruxton's foot pegs are level with the middle of its seat rather than in front of the seat nose as on the Commando, allowing weight to be taken by the feet as well as the posterior.

Also Spotless. Also Immaculate. 2009 Triumph Thruxton

The Triumph's 865cc deliver a claimed 69bhp, compared to the 65bhp claimed for the Norton's 750cc. Triumph advertise a dry weight of 451lbs (205kg) for the Thruxton, and it feels chunky compared to the more spindly Commando when wheeled around. The Triumph doesn't have the top heaviness associated with the early Hinckley triples, it just feels more dense than the Norton. That extra weight cancels out any power advantage the Triumph might have, and on the road, in normal traffic and with an eye for speed limits and other traffic, the two bikes are closely matched on performance.

Mike's Fastback is fitted with the higher compression Combat engine, famed for its unreliability and 'explosive' performance. Mike, however, has had no problems with bike, and its crankshaft, con-rods and pistons stayed resolutely inside the engine cases throughout the test.

Lively and Spritely? 1972 Norton Commando Fastback

The Norton is lively and spritely, picking up its skirts and ripping along as the revs rise. It vibrates enough to let you know that you're not riding a multi, but the vibrations aren't intrusive or tiring. Mike prefers the frame's Isolastics (which isolate the engine, swinging arm and rear wheel from the rest of the bike) set to allow some vibration to be felt as a trade off for tauter handling and with the use of enough throttle to keep the chain tight the Commando handles well. It's nimble rather than secure or planted, but never unpredictable.

Sophisticated? 2009 Triumph Thruxton

The Thruxton's performance on the road is more... sophisticated. Its five gears are more closely spaced than the Norton's four, as you'd expect, but there's no need to dance up and down the 'box to keep the engine on the boil. The engine is fitted with a balancer shaft which allows very little vibration through to the rider, but enough of a thudding thrum sneaks out to let you know you're riding a twin. The engine is mechanically very quiet compared to the Norton, with little induction noise compared to the Commando. Mike's Triumph is fitted with a set of the factory's louder exhausts and these provide a throaty growl when the throttle is wound open. The Triumph holds the road well with no surprises, although the steering feels heavy at lower speeds.

Both would make great mile eaters. The Commando felt long-legged enough in top for swift A-road cruising to be relaxing rather than fraught and the Thruxton's riding position would make motorway cruising effortless. The Norton surrounds you with its noise; as you accelerate hard the induction roar matches the volume of the silencers. The Triumph tends to leave its exhaust note in its wake, a sensation possibly magnified by the engine's smoothness.

Crankshaft, con-rods and pistons stayed resolutely inside the engine cases throughout the test 1972 Norton Commando Fastback

The brakes on the two bikes provide perhaps the biggest difference in measurable performance. The Norton is fitted with a twin leading shoe front drum brake, the Triumph with a single perforated disc and a two piston floating calliper. While the Norton's brake is very good, the Triumph's provides a more consistent and predictable feel. If the Triumph were to catch the Norton during a spirited cross-country ride, I suspect it would be on the brakes rather than simply under power or on handling alone.

In performance terms, then, the bikes are surprisingly close. When it comes to the riding experience - what they feel like on the road - they are worlds apart.

Convenient? 2009 Triumph Thruxton

The Thruxton feels like a modern bike that is fitted with a modern twin cylinder engine; this is, of course, what it is. The Commando feels like a machine built at the end of a line of development that stretches back to the 1940s if not even earlier. It's a magnificent reminder of a bygone age, a bike that should have felt old fashioned when it was new in 1972, let alone four decades later.

It's a testament to the quality of the original Norton twin design - or to the conservatism of the British bike buying public - that the Commando kept selling in the face of contemporary competition from Honda and Kawasaki, and more particularly from Ducati, Moto Guzzi and BMW. The Commando feels a generation older than a Moto Guzzi T3 or BMW R75/7 of a similar age.

The 2009 Thruxton, on the other hand, would feel familiar to the rider of a mid-seventies Yamaha XS650. Better in every sense, of course, but familiar all the same. Something seismic changed in motorcycling as the sixties became the seventies - something more significant than just the arrival of the Honda CB750 and Kawasaki Z1 - and these two bikes lie on different sides of the great divide. If they share any DNA, it's from a long way back in the family tree.

They're both fantastic to ride. They're both stylish, and they're both reasons to be proud of British motorcycling. The Norton Commando has history, the Triumph Thruxton has convenience. Neither one is a substitute for the other, which is perhaps why Mike has both in his garage.

Words and photos - Martin Gelder

Which would you choose?
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