▲ The 750cc Fastback. These first-of-type models are probably the best choice for investment bikes. But we prefer to ride 'em rather than store 'em. Meanwhile, if you're looking for a Norton Commando for sale, follow the link and see what we've got in the bag.
Isolastic verniers and tips
Spares and specialists
Manganese Bronze Holdings & Dennis Poore
Atlas and bad vibrations
The revolutionary Isolastic system
From Woolwich to Andover
Electric starters, discs, and left hand gear levers
Norton Commando prices
These fluctuate considerably depending on specific models with prices ranging between roughly £3,500 at the bottom end (for a rough example) to around a largely unrealistic £12,500 at the top end (2013 asking prices, note). Certainly, £5,000 - £5,500 should pick you up a decent "typical" 750cc or 850cc UK example, taxed and tested and ready to roll anywhere.
First-of-type Fastback models have risen considerably over the past two years. Once seen as ugly and even frumpy, the Fastback now has probably the best investment potential, followed perhaps by the Roadster and S-Type. Watch out for very early 1968/69 Fastbacks in original, unmolested condition.
John Player Norton (JPN) Replica Commandos are too rarely seen on the market to give an accurate guide, but expect to pay around £6,000 - £8,000 for a sorted example, with asking prices closer to £9,000 - £10,000.
These 850cc Mk2A JPN bikes were built in very limited numbers (around 300 is the often quoted figure). But there are plenty of "replica Replicas"; i.e., standard Commies converted to look like genuine JPN reps. The average buyer will be hard pressed to spot the difference, so check the provenance as carefully as you can. Top specification Production Racers and 750 Racers can fetch anything up to around £15,000 if the "right" name or names are associated with the bike.
Home brewed cafe racers and specials still command fairly high prices at around £5,000 - £6,000, with perhaps some cooling off towards the end of 2013.
Overall, examples at £7,500 - £8,500 aren't uncommon, but if you're selling at this price, expect only a trickle of potential customer and a slow sale—and the bike will need to be top notch.
Hi-Riders (ape hangers and "custom" seats) were once widely derided but are now gaining kitch favour. We've seen these change hands at around £6,000 for a reasonably clean one. Even poor examples appears to be fetching around £4,500 - £5,000.
The prices appears to vary little between 750cc and 850cc models.
Meanwhile, projects (at 2013 prices) start at around £2,500, but expect to pay another £4,000 - £5,000 to fully restore.
Overall, just buy with your eyes, and keep in mind that these are NOT definitive prices, but general observations based upon closely watching the market over the previous twelve months.
The high prices, note, are not always trade sales. It appears that private asking prices often surpass more realistic dealer expectations.
Norton: The ride of your life
£14.99 plus P&P
▲ Above: Manganese Bronze Holdings' and Norton Villiers chairman, Dennis Poore, lets
loose on a Triumph T150 Trident. Poore (1916-1987) was an Grand Prix racing driver and a a highly active entrepreneur. Charged with the onerous task of saving what was salvageable in the ailing British motorcycling industry, he made tough decisions and upset a lot of people. But should history remember him a little more generously? We think so.
Type: Air-cooled OHV pushrod twin
Bore & Stroke: 73mm x 89mm
(77mm x 89mm for the 829cc variant:
Power: 56bhp (claimed) @ 7000rpm
also quoted as 58bhp/60bhp @ 6800rpm
Compression ratio: 8:7:1
Transmission: 4-speed, multi-plate
Brakes: Front 8-inch twin leading shoe,
Rear 7-inch twin leading shoe
Electrics: 12-volt, alternator
Front suspension: Telescopic, two way damped
Rear suspension: Swinging arm,
twin shock absorbers/dampers
Wheels/Tyres: 4.10 x 19-inch front & rear
Weight: 420bs (dry)
Maximum speed: 115-118 mph
1. Rubber "Isolastic" engine mounts need
to be in good condition and accurately shimmed. A vernier adjustment system appeared in 1975 on the 850cc MkIII model which can be retrofitted to earlier bikes - but some machining to the front mount will be necessary. This system will save a lot of time and temper and is recommended.
A modern replacement cylinder head-steady will also improve handling significantly. But getting the best from the Isolastic system will be largely a question of compromise which could involve a little (or even a lot) of trial and error. However, in general you should expect a little "lumpiness" up to 3000 rpm. Above 3200rpm, things smooth out significantly. If you still have lumpiness or serious vibes above this, something is probably wrong with the mounts.
2. Consider a steering damper to help stabilise high speed handling. They can be simply fitted to any model in the range.
3. Diaphragm clutches are generally light in action and rarely slip when set up correctly. But clutch upgrades are available.
4. A quality primary belt drive is a common modification. But we've got reservations with these.
Commando specialists & Spares
Mick Hemmings Motorcycles
Telephone: 01604 638505
Home of Mick & Angie Hemmings. Expertise, rebuilds and spares since 1974.
Norvil Motorcycles Company Ltd
96-98 Cannock Road, Chase Terrace,
Burntwood, Staffs, WS7 1JP
Telephone 01543 278008
Les Emery will sell you spares or build a ready-to-ride bike from brand new parts. Good tech back up too.
Andover Norton International Ltd
3 Old Farm Buildings
Standen Manor Estate
Hungerford, Berks. RG17 0RB
Norman White Racing
Thruxton Circuit, Thruxton,
Andover, Hants, SP11 8PW
Telephone: 01264 773326
British Cycle Supply Company
US and Canada based. Lots of interesting stuff.
US based British bike parts. Original equipment and custom parts.
▲ Above: They don't look all that wild to us, but the factory continued to obscure its product with an endless stream of "provocative" women. Rival BMW, meanwhile, kept pushing the strength, reliability and solidity of its product. And which one crashed? And which one survived?
▲ Above: NVT advert from 1974. Three years on, the bike would end its production run and the company would vanish into an industrial wilderness. But in '74, there were still (fading) hopes that the British bike industry could be saved. That same year, the workers at Triumph's Meriden factory went on strike following a proposed new wave of industrial rationalisation. The Commando was an ageing design. So was Triumph's Bonneville. Arguably, the logical choice was the T150/T160 Triumph Trident. But the T140 Bonnie won that battle, and in less than a decade, the newly formed Triumph Workers Cooperative was finished.
"The great affair is to move"
classic bike T-shirt
£15.99 plus P&P
▲ Back to the top
THE NORTON COMMANDO was a desperate bike for desperate times, a machine that came into existence largely through the efforts of a handful of very resourceful engineers who pulled a very shrewd rabbit from a very unexpected hat. If it sounds like a fairy tale, that’s because when this one came off the drawing board there was certainly plenty of fairy dust being sprinkled around Plumstead, south London—the new home of the firm which had vacated its historic Bracebridge Street site in 1962/3.
But this was 1967, the famous Summer of Love year when Procul Harem released “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, when the Beatles gave the world Sergeant Pepper, the year the Torrey Canyon ran aground in the Scilly Isles and Charles De Gaulle once again vetoed Britain’s entry into the EC.
Since 1952, the firm had been owned lock, stock and barrel by Associated Motor Cycles (AMC), a company formed by the Matchless Collier brothers who had acquired AJS in 1931 and later sunk its teeth into Sunbeam, Francis Barnett and James and subsequently found that it had bitten off more than it could financially chew (Sunbeam was sold to BSA in 1943).
Throughout the early 1960s, AMC had been fielding a range of decent enough and largely badge-engineered bikes that, for the most part, satisfied the demands and whims of its solid (or even stolid) boots and Belstaff customer base. Only, that base was shrinking rapidly in the new world order where the motor car was squarely in the ascendancy now that the rationing and privations of post-war Britain were all but forgotten.
Manganese Bronze Holdings and Dennis Poore
In 1966, struggling AMC finally bit the bullet and sold out to Manganese Bronze Holdings (MBH), an ambitious outfit (headed by Dennis Poore) that already owned Villiers and had its corporate fingers in more pies than Little Jack Horner. The result was a new firm called Norton-Villiers that, as part of its restructuring, had very disappointing plans for the other marques in its stable
But if MBH seriously thought it could boost the bank roll, it also knew that it had its work cut out. The factory was then fielding a range of worthy 650cc and 750cc twins built upon an ever-dependable 1947 497cc Bert Hopwood designed Dominator platform; bikes such as the 650SS and the 745cc Atlas (the biggest British parallel twin of its day).
Only, sales were falling and AMC and was rapidly losing ground, cash and prestige with a range that was looking old and stale when compared to, say, the rival offerings from Triumph and BSA. Moreover, the company's companion 250cc Jubilee and 350cc Navigator models had failed miserably in the marketplace and had sopped a lot of readies. Something new and exciting was therefore needed—and ideally in time for the 1967 Earls Court Motorcycle Show.
▲ Above: 750cc Roadster. The company didn't invent sexism in advertising. But the firm certainly hitched its wagon to the female exploitation roadshow. Did it really help sell bikes? Or just bring things down to a "lads" level? We know what we think...
To achieve this small miracle, the factory brought in four hired guns that included Dr Stefan G Bauer (from Rolls Royce), development engineers Bob Trigg (late of Austin) and Bernard Hooper, and John Favill (from Villiers who later worked for Harley-Davidson on the Evo engine).
There was little time to develop a brand new powerplant (the engineers had already been struggling with an earlier double overhead cam twin project known as P10, but had failed to make it sing and dance). The only real option, it was suggested, was to rework the existing 745cc Atlas powerplant—with a reputation for serious vibration.
With respect to the firm’s larger capacity twins at that time, the chassis orthodoxy began and ended with the Featherbed frame. The Featherbed, after all, had well-served hundreds of race winners around the world and was perhaps the most famous chassis on the planet. Moreover, traditional customers simply loved it.
▲ Above: Another shot of the 750cc Roadster. Minimalist design aimed largely at the US market. Plenty of these bikes have since been repatriated.
However, Dr Stefan Bauer, mining a rich seam of fundamental engineering principles (as opposed to sitting back on decaying racing laurels), was unhappy with the Featherbed and was quick to point out a number of its failings—not least that it did little to soak up the crippling vibrations pulsing out from every stroke of the Atlas’s crank; vibes that were becoming increasingly problematic as Bert Hopwood’s original 500cc design had been blown out of all practical proportions and had therefore became something of a Frankenstein’s monster.
These vibes, opined Bauer, could however be tamed/minimised with a new chassis; a chassis that would dangle the engine, gearbox and driveline from a single top tube and would control lateral (sideways) movement by a trio of rubber bushes placed at the top, front, and underneath. Torsional (or twisting) stresses would be largely controlled by the top tube itself. The trick was to allow the engine/gearbox/driveline sufficient fore and aft movement, but without allowing it to transmit the bruising vibrations through to the rider.
Exactly how much each member of the team contributed to this new “Isolastic” design isn’t clear. Suffice to say that between these highly talented engineers came the Norton Commando 750, claimed by some to be the finest British parallel twin ever, bar none.
▲ Above: The 750cc Interstate. Same basic machine, but with increased fuel capacity (and with yet another tart feeling around inside your trouser pocket).
From Woolwich to Andover
The bugbear with this Isolastic system, however, lay in the adjustment. Each rubber bush required careful and precise—and difficult—shimming. If too tight, the engine/gearbox/driveline would lock solid and send the vibes straight into the chassis. If too loose, the lateral movement would become uncontrollable and potentially dangerous.
But what’s with this driveline business, anyway? That’s simple. Merely containing the motor and (pre-unit) gearbox between three rubber mounts would leave these components pulling against the drive chain when under load. That in turn would overstress the rubber bushes creating various action/reaction problems. The solution, therefore, was to mount the swinging arm (and therefore the driveline) directly to the gearbox and suspend that with the three rubber mounts and the shock absorbers.
And it worked. Moreover, isolating the engine from the rider effectively liberated a lot of otherwise inhibiting power. Suddenly that old Atlas power plant, now canted forward at a racy angle, became a viable bag of bolts capable of carrying the roadshow forward until a modern (i.e. non pushrod) motor could be developed to see off the threat from (primarily) Japan and (secondarily) BMW.
In 1969, production of the bike at the Woolwich factory ceased, and recommenced in Andover, Hampshire with the engines being assembled at Wolverhampton.
▲ Above: The Norton Commando H-Rider. This chopperised variant caught a lot of attention, but not all of it favourable. With its ape-hanger handlebars and banana seat ( a la Raleigh Chopper bicycle), the traditional marque customer blushed and avoided it. Today, good genuine examples are sought after.
After a spectacular entrance, however (with numerous track notches on its belt), things took a sudden downturn with the introduction of the 1972 Combat engine. With its hotter cams, high-compression gas-flowed head and beefed up bottom end, the bike looked good on paper - but considerably less good in the real world after main bearings regularly gave up the fight within mileages as low as 5000.
Not that the basic seven-fifty, with its racy inclined cylinders didn't have chronic problems that included rapid-wearing camshafts, broken valves, heavy oil consumption, fragile cranks (largely due to incorrect machining), and ignition problems.
But the Combat motor set a new standard of worry, and soon the company was back-pedalling its design and looking for a solution - which arrived largely in the shape of the now famous Superblend bearings designed like tiny barrels (as opposed to rollers) and capable of smoothing out crank-flexing/engine wrecking stresses.
The compression was dropped too along with other revisions that took the Combat out of a war zone that was costing sales and damaging the marque's reputation.
▲ Above: The 850cc Roadster. A little more harsh than the 750s, but still a true British classic.
Over the next few years, the designers further refined their sugar, notwithstanding a fairly useless electric starter that wound up the owners more than the hardware.
Suspension was improved. Drums brakes turned into disc (disc front in 1972/ disc rear in 1975).
The 750cc bikes went out of production in 1973, and the 850cc model arrived (actually 829cc). For many this bike was smoother and easier to live with, while diehards prefer the punchier - and arguably more charismatic - 750 machine.
But either bike is a joy to ride and still capable of kicking asphalt in a lot of modern faces, made better by the dozens of mods and upgrades that have carried this bike safely into the 21st century.
In 1975, left-side gear change and dodgy electric starters were introduced on the Mk3 850s.
By 1977 however, with the various domestic and industrial tides lapping on the shore of the British motorcycle industry, the last bikes were assembled (save for a few special constructions that appeared over the next few years).
Tops speeds of 120-125mph are frequently bandied about for these bikes, but you'll find few owners who'll straight-facedly admit to seeing those kind of speeds. More realistically, the oomph will have petered out at around 110-115mph, except in a rare instances in which some special magic seems to have been breathed on certain bikes.
But these classic machines are nothing if not full of character. They should be owned, or at least ridden, by everyone at some time in their lives.
▲ Above: When this bike was new, there was nothing else like it on the market. Forty-odd years on, there's still nothing quite like a Commando. Don't die until you try one.
▲ Above: Isolastic construction? Today we'd call it a USP (a unique selling point), and the firm banged that drum over and over in an effort to woo customers. But it's easy to forget that the Norton Atlas-derived parallel twin engine was one of the world's most powerful production power plants and capable of propelling this bike to 120mph, and beyond. The unlikely combination of the frame and the motor was the key to success, and the marriage proved that all power doesn't always corrupt.
▲ Above: That's Phil Read and Peter Williams piloting a pair of factory fresh John Player Norton Commandos. The two "Yellow Peril" bikes are the 750cc Racer and the 750cc Production Racer. Spot the difference? Well on the surface, the differences are obvious. But beneath the skin, they're actually much of a muchness and good for around 130mph. Both machines were worked on by the firm's Thruxton Race Shop. Both enjoyed a run of short-lived success. Both were built for homologation purposes. And both have been widely imitated. When buying, talk to the Owners Club (NOC) to check the numbers if originality is important to you. Definitely unsuitable for road use.
Neil Hudson's 1971 750cc Commando Roadster
▲ If you think building a motorcycle in tough, take a look at Neil Hudson's beautiful 1971 Norton Commando Roadster and read about the problems that some owner's face. It'll help you put your life in a fresh perspective.