Norton Commando 961 First Ride

September 24, 2010
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

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.

Facebook comments