by Shawn Downey
Are you familiar with the infamous “First Thursday”? For those agoraphobics who prefer to ride their motorcycles within the confines of their basements (Don’t laugh. They probably log more miles than we do in a Minnesota riding season.) “First Thursday” is the meeting of motorcycle enthusiasts statewide at Dulano’s Pizza on Lake & Lyndale every first Thursday of the month.
The event draws quite an eclectic crowd of motorcycle enthusiasts and gives riders of all different backgrounds the chance to meet and discuss their true love (besides David Hasselhoff). Until recently, the event was hosted by the Norton Owners Club. Due to the expansion of the eclectic element, the Norton owners have removed themselves from the diverse group and relocated to an elite and clandestine meeting place. (If you really want to know where, send me 25 cents and a SASE. In return you will receive instructions for the secret handshake, a genuine Captain Crunch decoder ring, and directions to the new hallowed ground…assuming you can provide proof of actually owning and riding a Norton.)
In an attempt to fill the void of Norton enthusiasm, this month’s column concerns my favorite Norton model, the venerable Commando.
1966: Norton-Villiers Group purchases Associated Motor Cycles which was most notably known for owning the AJS and Matchless marquees. The acquisition is met with excitement from the motorcycling community. Bikers worldwide anticipate a new machine to be released at the Earls Court motorcycle show (equivalent to today’s Cologne). The Norton-Vllliers Group management looks to the engineering staff for an earth-shattering release. The engineering staff looks blankly back. Management returns the stare with a “deer in the headlights” gaze. “How about we grab a featherbed frame, give it one massive top tube, and rubber mount an Atlas engine slightly leaning forward?” says a Mr. Bernard Hooper. “Sold!” exclaims management.
1967: Norton-Villiers exhibits a new machine properly named the Commando. It revels in new patented technology known as “Isolastic Engine Mounting”. Rubber mounting the engine requires periodic shimming versus the other patented vernier system, but the public could not justify the additional cost for convenience. Tank and tail section are fabricated from fiberglass.
1968: April marks the first production run. John Q. Public finds that some of the early models are experiencing a frame bending problem. Oops! He also notes that these machines have been equipped with a timing plate. Imagine being able to time your motorcycle with a stroboscope!
1969: The slinky factor is removed from the frame. An “S” model Commando is introduced exhibiting a smallish two gallon gas tank and left-hand, high side exhaust that may have attributed to the slight increase in power. We see the Norton trademark the reverse-cone silencers for the first time.
1970: Relocation of the factory is headline news. March sees the introduction of the Roadster with its conventional exhaust system (the “S” model Commando was a fashion faux pas), and the new cush drive hub proved to have almost as much draw as the new “Yellow Peril”. The Yellow Peril is a production racer sporting a 10.25:1 compression ratio, 70 bhp at 6500 rpm and a disc brake. And the Dinah Shore show gets another renewal. What a year!
1971: A disc brake conversion kit is offered to all Commando owners, and a rear hub rubber cush drive is standard equipment in an attempt to smooth out the ride. Strife amongst the high level management becomes a catalyst for poor quality control. Motorcycling publications report shoddy production on many models but emphasize the Commando. Again, Oops!
1972: The MK4 is still in demand and is offered with a front disc brake, directional lights and a strengthened crankcase. The Roadster offers the same cosmetics but came equipped with an 850 engine and whole lot of attitude. European market demands create the Interstate, a landmark model yielding a five gallon gas tank, low handlebars, higher gearing ratios, and the Combat engine. The Combat engine produces 65 bhp at 6500 rpm but is not known for its reliability…piston tops fell off, main bearings failed after 1000 miles, and the rockers slammed against the heads. Oops, oops, oops! Then, Triumph-BSA merges with Norton-Vllliers to form the Norton-Villiers Triumph Group or NVT.
1973: Norton is reeling from financial disaster with the Combat engine. They drop the compression redo down to 8.9:1, fit Superblend bearings, add 32 mm carbs, and concentrate on the 850 engine. Yeah, yeah, I know. It is really only an 828cc bored out to 77mm. Some claim the cylinder walls are so thin you can see an outline of the piston.
1974: The Commando enjoys a brief success with the JPN, a full-fairinged Roadster with factory engine mods. It possesses dual headlights and an impressive track record. Peter Williams and Mick Grant finish first and second in the Formula TT. Norton even offers a short stroke version to those privateers intending to use the machine on the race track. Now there is but three Commandos: the 850 Roadster, the Interstate and the short-lived JPN. Limited models and publicized labor problems mark doom.
1975: NVT sees the light! They begin producing a motorcycle the market wants! It has a left sided gear change (never been a big fan myself, but hey, I have a mood ring), electric start, vernier adjustment to the Isolastic frame, a rear disc brake, high output alternator, an improved engine oil feed, a newly fabricated primary chain cover to stop the oil leaks, and no more fouling of the starter motor! But it is too late. The company is in such financial disrepair that even the government recalls its loans. By 1976, the company is in receivership. It produces 1500 units in 1977, and finishes the last 30 units in 1978.
Analysts have many theories as to what caused the decline of Norton and the Commando. Those theories include personnel issues, public perception, a staid aloofness, or even a pompous self-serving attitude that brings down such a great gathering of people. My take on the matter? Remember the Sneeches.