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Norton Commando 961 First Ride

Friday, September 24, 2010
There are few certainties in life. Death, taxes - and now a brand new absolute: if you like retro bikes you will lust after a Norton 961.

The reason is simple. The Commando is quite simply the best retro bike in the world - and by a handsome margin. It has all the grace and poise of the best classic machines and looks svelte and lithe compared with Triumph’s rather plain, sensible, mass appeal Bonneville.
Norton Commando 961
The Norton Commando has an aesthetic appeal that's only exceeded by its strong performance and superior design. 

Just walking round the Norton is a joy. The Commando has an elegance which only a few motorcycling icons manage. In terms of harmony, it challenges the F4 MV Agusta. As a perfect example of function driving form, the 961 reminds me of a Matchless G.50 Grand Prix bike or the iconic 1938 Triumph Speedtwin.

If first appearances are impressive then things only get better with closer examination. There are two ways of looking at footpeg brackets machined from solid billet. One, the sensible approach, is to dismiss them as an expensive and unnecessary affectation. The other is to stand back, smile, and think they look absolutely gorgeous. Why do you ride a bike? As a cheap way of commuting to work - or for that tingle in your loins which comes from motorcycling lust?

The 961 began life as a project under the leadership of Oregon-based American, Kenny Dreer, with Paul Gaudio as Design and Development Director. Dreer was a hardcore Norton fan with an excellent reputation for restoring, and improving, the original Norton Commando. The 961 was
Norton Commando 961
The Norton Commando has a 961cc Twin engine and can catapult riders over the century mark with the flick of a wrist. Norton Commando 961
his idea of a modernized Commando and, conceptually, he certainly understood the heart and soul of the big Twin.

Unfortunately, making a bike in series production is far from being a simple matter and although several versions of his Commando were produced, the bike was still a long way from the marketplace.

When Stuart Garner bought Norton in 2008 the Dreer Commando needed a complete re-design, although still holding faithful to the original idea. Ex-Triumph designer, Simon Skinner, went through the bike from the front wheel to the back so that the Commando could be put into production. Now, the 961 is very much the finished article.

At the heart of the bike is a surprisingly clever engine. The 961cc - hence the 961 name - Twin is no technical tour de force, but captures the spirit of British big Twins and improves on the feeling in a way which is as special as a cross plane Yamaha R1.

The power output belies the performance. Despite making only 80 horsepower, the Commando zips up to an indicated 110 mph - maybe a shade over 100 mph in actuality - with the merest flick of the wrist. In this respect, it is far more willing than the Ducati Sport Classic, which is its direct competitor, and the Norton simply slaughters the Triumph Bonneville.

With peak power at a tractor-like 6500 revs, the feeling is that there is always lots of spare surge instantly available. Rarely has so little power provided such a satisfying riding experience.

Norton Commando 961
The Commando is extremely smooth thanks to 270 degree firing intervals in addition to a gear-driven balancer shaft.
Simon Skinner reports that the Commando manages a shade over 125 mph on the test track and this leads to an inevitable question: if the Commando will run up to a solid 100 mph effortlessly, how fast do you really want to ride on the road?

Peak torque of 90nm comes in at only 5200 rpm and this means that, ridden gently, the Norton is effortless. It simply doesn’t feel like an 80 hp machine and in the real world, on real roads, with real radar and State Troopers, it is going to keep up with anything.

Norton’s UK Sales Manager and British Superbike star, Chris Walker, raced a Commando at this year’s Thundersprint and simply massacred everyone, so there is no doubt that the bike can really get a move on. It’s also surprisingly smooth. The engine runs at 270 degree firing intervals and this, combined with a gear driven balancer shaft, makes the 961 smoother than the Ducati - and vastly better than any original British Twin.

However, what is really clever is that the bike still retains a hard edge. Ride a Bonneville and the experience is much more subdued. The current Bonnie is smooth, calm, easy to ride and so, so tolerant it’s becoming emasculated.

The Norton isn’t. Yes, the bike is civilized, but it is still very much a nightclub doorman - albeit now without the facial stubble, using under arm deodorant and wearing a clean shirt.

Norton Commando 961
Our test Commando had been through some harsh mileage, yet the motor was still crisp and both the fuelling and engine mapping were ideal.
Norton Commando 961Norton Commando 961
The motor is monstrously over-engineered and looks as if it would last a million years. This is what Norton is chasing: a bike which you want to ride because it looks beautiful, but one which will let you ride because the damned thing isn’t always in bits on the garage floor like a typical British classic.

With a four-and-a-half gallon fuel tank, the Commando is intended to be ridden - not merely polished and admired.

Our test bike was Norton’s slave machine and had lived a hard life under constant testing. Even so, the motor was crisp and both the fuelling and engine mapping perfect. On this early machine, first gear selection was less than ideal: useable but not up to the standards of Ducati or Triumph. Simon Skinner reports that the machines which have gone on sale are much more rider-tolerant.

The clutch is hydraulically operated and Skinner has got the master cylinder absolutely perfect. The action is smooth and feather-light, and will be a delight to use all day.

The chassis is a typical British design, but modernized. Because the engine is dry sump, the oil lives in the top spine of the frame. This is simple, effective engineering and has worked perfectly on many British designs.

The suspension is one of the few things not made in Britain. Both the front fork and rear shocks come from Ohlin and they are quality items. I just loved the twin shock swinging swingarm, and the 961 handling is a treat.

Our test bike had the BST carbon fiber wheels. These are practical, road legal items, but give a rather strange feeling to the front end. It’s not a bad, or dangerous, sensation but simply odd. Simon Skinner feels that the conventional wheels give a nicer feel - although clearly they lack the super trick kudos of the carbon items. I agree with him.

Norton Commando 961
The Norton Commando 961 provides an exhilarating ride that matches the bike's sporty styling. 
One aspect of the bike which you will either love, or maybe learn to hate, are the 320mm Brembo front discs with radially mounted callipers. The 961 weighs only a shade over 400 pounds and two fingers on the front brake is roughly the equivalent of sticking a scaffold pole through the front wheel. I loved the power but these are brakes which need to be used with a degree of circumspection. It will be interesting to see what the middle-aged “Born Again Biker” makes of these on wet roads.

There is another challenge for the unwary. With only 30 degrees of steering lock on the bike, this is just a shade on the conservative side for maneuvering around parking lots. Again, it’s not a problem but I guarantee that it will catch out a few 961 owners in the early days of their ownership.

By contrast, what is an utter delight is the bike’s nimble feeling. It is wafer thin and because the engine is mounted low, the 961 feels much lighter than its 400-plus pounds. The bike can be trickled around, feet up, at almost zero miles an hour and builds on the pleasure of riding the Norton. With a 55-inchwheelbase, the bike feels as maneuverable as any of its classic progenitors.

Norton Commando 961
The tail section on the Commando is one area that really shows off the Commando's unique design.
In summary, this is a bike which you need to sell one, or maybe both, of your kidneys to own. It looks stunning, handles impeccably and has a motor which is so much better than the retro opposition that it deserves to be in a separate class.

The downside is that the Commando is not cheap now and never will be. Expect to pay something over $20,000 to own a 961 before Christmas. The other factor may, or may not, be a negative: with only three dealers slated for the whole of the U.S., Commando owners are going to have to buy into the whole Norton lifestyle - and that will include basic maintenance done at home, 1960s style. Norton owners are going to love the whole package so expect to be evangelized by Commando disciples at every bike event in America.
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MotoLocoPat -I likey  January 1, 2011 11:37 AM
It's a fantastic looking bike with what appears to be very capable real world performance. Although great to have the suspension and brakes are possibly overkill for the power on tap and it seems that it might have been a good idea to have offered two versions... a standard with some good Kayaba suspension and standard brembos and then this one with the Ohlins and top line brembos.

Seems like it would be very similar to my Ducati S2R1000 in performance with nearly identical power and while I love my 2006 looks the new Duc's with the cast aluminum frame bits and the angular headlight has gotten over into that trying to sell to the kids area and turned me off from any new Duc's.

It will be a stuggle to see my way to a 20K bike though..... 15K though and I'd be putting my nickles together
Big Sven -Ah... at last...  December 16, 2010 10:35 AM
My first thought on seeing Frank's article was, "Oh no, not again." But on close perusal I'm actually rather impressed. The Norton looks functional, looks well-made, looks like it would be a very ridable bike, panniers, windshield, Europe, and those Top Gear alpine roads await! The engine seems a complete redesign, only keeping the rough overall look of a Norton. I knew guys whom motocrossed Norton sidecars and I wasn't impressed at the old engines, not over 600cc soft-tune roadbikes, anyway. My only quibble is the rear light, I thought it had to be seen from the sides, too? I'd be nervous riding at night with that light. I assume the blinkers and mirrors were removed for the photoshoot. Now, there's that Euro-millions lottery ticket.....
Paul Smietanka -MODERN HISTORY  December 9, 2010 03:11 PM
Why is a competent, minimalist standard labeled retro? Everything has a purpose and nothing on the bike that doesn't. What could be better than that? This is never ment to be an owner's solo ride.
Hats off to catalyst Kenny Dreer and closer Stuart Granger. I have a '70 Commando in the garage but when it is all said and done I'd rather have this 'new' piece of history.
B. Keller -from his previous reviews  October 22, 2010 09:17 PM
I can't trust anything this guy writes.
David Croft -Mr  October 17, 2010 05:22 PM
What a beautiful looking bike. Nortons were always a bit more mysterious than BSAs or Triumphs and never approached the quantities sold by those two companies in the past. I could never afford such a machine but wish the company well. Perhaps there are enough people around to pay the price. Norton need to primarily secure their financial viability, I hope they can move into quantity production and bring the price down. Who owns the BSA name these days? - I'd love to see them re-born too and made in Britain.
Bill -$20k ???  October 16, 2010 09:09 PM
For real? Lol. Seems like a great bike, but in this day and age (when there are Triumph Street Triple R's for $10k)...this is a flop waiting to happen. Sorry...but there just isn't ENOUGH buyers in this tiny niche (classic/nastalgia/modern performance) market to sustain a company. There are already loads of "cafe racer" type bikes out there already that would easily smoke this thing for WAAAYYYY less $. List?: Ducati Monster 796. Triumph Street Triple R. Aprilia (take your pick). etc. The list goes on an on. Slap some clip on's and them and you're done. ANY of these would easily outperform the Norton in EVERY way. I'll take 2 Triples and you can have your 1 Norton. :-)
Oh...and no dealer support? Good luck with that.
Gunther -sweeeeet  October 5, 2010 07:43 AM
I wish I had the money to spare, but I'm sure there are plenty of pleople who do. It's a shame so many people look at performance only, because this will have more than enough for most riders. I've seen guys on old diversions humiliate riders on the latest and greatest sportbikes on the track. Sure you will be faster on a faster bike, but does it really matter? This bike will probably be more fun to ride on the streets than a similarly priced high end sportsbike and draw more crowd when you park it. And chances are you can still stand up straight after 400 miles.

The price is very good considering the exclusivity and the parts used, though dealer network will put people off. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but that's the point.

Kudos to Norton, hope this bike will be a succes (
bluto -big twins...  October 1, 2010 06:20 AM
interesting! and very glad to hear there will be a dealer in S.F., that would work for me....anyone know if that will be Munroe Motors? Researched the other big twins mentioned by Big Ron and none worked for me...the Ducs have serious plastic tank problems, the XR1200 has a too small tank and is too heavy, test rode a new Thruxton and it felt really bland...sounds like maybe the 961 will work.
Shlema -Norton  October 1, 2010 04:06 AM
I think people who buys Norton should understand that they invest in creation of a "new" bikes. Norton are only people who now works with Wankel engine. And if they will have enough money it is possible that in future we will see bikes became more powerful and with lower weight. It is a good reason for spending money on a bike which, by the way, is good in it self.
Big Ron -Sweet  September 30, 2010 07:24 AM
Sweet bike; the people they are marketing can afford $20K but the lack of support is probably the bigger issue. I think getting parts could become an issue as well. I would have a challenging time picking between this, a Thruxton, HD XR 1200 or the Duc. Money aside I think I would have to go for the Norton. Incidentially Brass Balls makes a very interesting bike that looks similiar with a v-twin based on the FXR.
Sumanster -Very good-looking bike  September 29, 2010 10:20 AM
Lovely bike, and seems to be well-engineered too. I'm a bit surprised Frank didn't include a link to Norton's website (http://www.nortonmotorcycles.com/), where one can see them in street trim - they look good with turn signals, too! :) Speaking of lights, is that a Buell tail light in the rear cowl? Either way, it looks good.

I would've liked seeing more info on the engine. Was it only developed in the last two years after Stuart Garner bought the company, or was it already in development then? The Norton site doesn't mention a lot about it, but says it's a new engine developed by Norton and F1 engine builders MCT, is air-cooled, and has a 10.1:1 compression ratio, so I guess it runs on premium. At least the 4.5 gallon tank should allow plenty of canyon carving before needing to refuel (~180 mile range?).

I hate to say it, but by comparison the Bonneville almost looks like a UJM (not that there's anything wrong with that). If I had the money, I could see myself owning a new Norton Commando.
Mcguire` -sewer rat  September 27, 2010 01:18 AM
Nortons always were some of the classiest ride out there. 20 grand is not far off really, I have a 02 Aprillia RSV 1000R with the Ohlins suspension and OZ wheels and its new price was right at 21,000 new. That suspension package alone sells for about 7000 so that will up the cost of any bike. The Norton looks cool, Id like to try one.
Robert E. -Retro look and performance  September 26, 2010 08:54 AM
A good comparison for retro looks and performance would be a Ducati GT 1000. I think this bike is truer to a 70's Ducati in looks than the Norton is to a late 60's Commando. But the Ducati has performance to back it up as well. Top speed just under 130. 0-60 3.93 sec. Brembo brakes. Dealers throughout the country, and most importantly,a $10,999 price tag. On the other hand if it's ultimate performance and some exclusivity you're after, a BMW S 1000 RR will absolutely devastate anything out there for a starting price of $13,800. I wish Norton well, but I fear that it will have been only a noble experiment.
Brian -Randy + BigD  September 25, 2010 11:31 PM
Randy, yes many Ducati owners DO do their own maintenance. However many Ducati owners are racers and/or treat their bikes as such (most racers prefer to do their own work to assure it gets done correctly and from pride in their machine). A Norton buyer would be a far cry from a Ducati one. Also you AND BigD are quoting parts costs NEW (and/or parts counter). I believe I said if someone WORKS on their bikes (ie: can do more than slap on new parts). Take a look at StreetFighters. These are often home brewed (ie: pieced together) bikes that are modded by owners for performance. They are often done on the cheap because those owners (who WORK on their own bikes) know (or figure out) how to do it. A Bonnie COULD be built to perform as well (or at least close) to the Norton with a skilled person behind the wrench and a lesser $ tag.
Now I'm not saying the Norton is not neccessarily WORTH the money (it's worth whatever someone will pay), I'm just saying that Norton is aiming at a VERY small niche with a bike of that $ tag (yes, HD's often fetch way more...but theirs HD dealers everywhere for support) and almost ZERO dealer support. It's not a great recipe for success, that's for sure.
BigD -N/A  September 25, 2010 10:53 PM
It's hard to believe the number of people who scoff at the $20,000 price tag and swear it will doom the company. Look how many thousands of people flock to their H-D dealer and plunk down $20,000-$30,000 for 800 lb. machines that only make 64hp from 96" or 85hp from 110". Those bikes don't come with ANYTHING "special", like a chrome moly chassis, light wheels, Ohlins suspension, etc. The Norton is more like a two-wheeled, Porsche Cayman.
Can one make a Triumph into a Norton "killer"? Sure. Get the light chrome-moly chassis, all the trick engine parts, better brakes, better wheels, better suspension - oops, hiting well beyond the $20,000 Norton pricing.
Randy -3 dealers, deal with it  September 25, 2010 09:40 PM
"Umm....anyone that spends $20 on a bike is NOT the type to do their own work at home. Anyone that can rely on themselves (they certainly won't be able to rely on the 3? Dealers!)... would probably be able to piece together a similar bike for HALF of that price (if even that)."

I disagree. Having owned 2 and 4 valve Ducatis, and two late model BMW's I do all my own work, including the valve abjustments on the Ducatis. I'm active on Ducati and BMW forums and many owners of these expensive bikes choose to do their own wrenching, while totally capable of paying someone else to do it. Having said that I will also say that "piecing" together a custom bike is an act of creativity and skill. Not many have the time or ability to do that (well).

Randy -Really?  September 25, 2010 09:29 PM
"How about $9K Triumph Bonnie SE. Dump $4k into it in suspension/brakes/tune. POW! $13k Norton killer with dealer support in almost EVERY U.S. state. Hmm.... tough choice ;-)"

Well, it will still fall short of the 961 in every way. I owned a new "Bonney", that engine, short of a MAJOR big bore conversion, is a wimp. The bike is HEAVY, and you'll pay hell to lighten it up. The forks are beyond crap and can only be improved a little with emulators and springs (I tried). Shocks are a joke, replace right away. Brakes are only adequate for putt putting. The engine cases are bloated and will never look all that good. If you think 4k is going to buy new forks, good shocks, a swingarm, a big bore conversion, good wheels, good brakes, body work, etc, etc, etc, well I think you should do it and report back.

Sure, dump a load of money into a Bonney and what will you have? A Bonney, and you'll take a huge bath when you finally decide it's still not the bike you want it to be and sell it.

If somebody really wants a Norton 961 then the price is right. It doesn't have to be right or make sense to you. A Corolla gets you from A to B. A Mini or Porsche goes A to B too, but costs 2X or 4X or 8X. Do you think that Mini driver is thinking just A to B????

Brian -How about this?..  September 25, 2010 08:00 PM
How about $9K Triumph Bonnie SE. Dump $4k into it in suspension/brakes/tune. POW! $13k Norton killer with dealer support in almost EVERY U.S. state. Hmm.... tough choice ;-)
Brian -$20? 3 US dealers??  September 25, 2010 07:51 PM
"Commando owners are going to have to buy into the whole Norton lifestyle - and that will include basic maintenance done at home, 1960s style."
Umm....anyone that spends $20 on a bike is NOT the type to do their own work at home. Anyone that can rely on themselves (they certainly won't be able to rely on the 3? Dealers!)... would probably be able to piece together a similar bike for HALF of that price (if even that).
As much as I love this bike... it has neither the support or practical price of resonable bike ownership (20k to do your own maintenance??), nor does it have the exclusive "rich man's toy" price and prestige (such as a Confederate). Lose-lose.
I think this is a great bike, but it falls into one of those niches that cannot sustain a company.

Zooba -If I have to explain this....  September 25, 2010 11:20 AM
Lets not bother to explain riding a Norton on a mountain road on a Fall day. If you're not fortunate enough to have done it, nothing will convince you to spend $20K in this way. -- But, if you have, the only question is "What's my Credit Score Mister Banker Sir?"
Bilko -What a joke  September 25, 2010 06:10 AM
20k+ get real
Randy -Yes! Yes! Yes!  September 24, 2010 08:53 PM
I think the price is reasonable considering the quality of looks and function. BMW, HD, Ducati don't seem to have problems with selling $20K bikes. Looks of people buy chopper customs for 30-70K. BTW, I owned a 2003 Bonneville for a while, an OK bike to putt around on, but can hardly be compared with the 961 in any respect. This makes me consider cleaning out my garage...
Robert E. -Only Three?  September 24, 2010 03:21 PM
Only three dealers for the whole continental United States? At $20,000 that might be three too many. Triumph has the right idea. The Bonneville is a beautiful retro, with decent performance, and priced so almost anyone can enjoy. .
hipsabad -Back to basics?  September 24, 2010 01:15 PM
To my eye, this bike was much better looking and perhaps better functioning when it had the original RWU forks. If 'retro' is your game then there should be no functional need to jump on the upside down forks bandwagon, as, for example, a 2004 CBR600RR will show. You get lower unsprung weight into the bargain, as well. Realistically, the performance is fine for the market segment that's actually interested. The price, of course, is silly, and might doom the whole enterprise.
Morvegil -I want one  September 24, 2010 12:02 PM
Just make it cheaper. ,maybe Norton should partner with Triumph
Frank Melling -Not long to wait Dennis  September 24, 2010 11:52 AM
Yes, the 961 is something really, truly spectacular. Yes, you can have one in red - it's a deep metallic ruby red and looks stunning. Yes, you will be able to buy a 961 in the US before Christmas from dealers in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Currently, we do not have any video of the bike but we will address this soon.Finally, unless you do a lot of track days you will not be disappointed with the power, handling or brakes: the 961 is not an imitation sports bike but the real thing.
Dennis -Must.Have.One......Now.  September 24, 2010 10:59 AM
This is, without a doubt, the most beautiful bike in the world.
At least for a retro.
Is there a video or a sound bite for this machine? I would love to see and/or hear it in action.
I was hoping and dreaming that Kenny Dreer's bikes would come to market, only to have those dreams dashed when Norton USA went under.
While I'm glad that Mr. Garner bought the Norton package, I'm wondering if and how they would/can be sold here in America.
It took Triumph an awful long time to do what they have done and I wonder if Norton can mirror that success.
I sure hope so, I would sell all of my bikes(and anything else) to have this bike in my garage.
I know there will the usual comments about the retro trend, lack of performance, etc.
These types of bikes are about more than that and if you have to ask "why", you wouldn't understand anyway.
I want one.
In red please.