For a motorcycle which, from its birth, was a stopgap compromise, the Norton Commando was a huge success. There will never be a precise sales figure but Mike Jackson, who was Norton’s Sales Manager for most of the Commando’s life, estimates that something over 50,000 Commandos were sold – a truly remarkable total for a machine whose engine had been around, in one form or another, for 30 years before the first Commando was sold in 1968.
There is so much Commando history, and myth, that whole books regularly appear about the bike, but in this story I am going to concentrate on the early 750s, which for my money are both the best looking, and the most pleasant, of all the Commandos.
Early Commando 750s are some of the best looking, and most pleasant of all the Commandos.
First the Commando’s bloodline. Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, every British manufacturer looked at Edward Turner’s Triumph Speedtwin with unbridled envy. Turner’s 498cc Parallel Twin ticked every box in the whole motorcycle manufacturing spectrum. It was light, smooth, fast accelerating and drop-dead gorgeous from every angle. That was one side of the coin.
On the obverse face, there was nothing complicated or difficult to manufacture or design. The Triumph Speedtwin was a simple, push-rod, Parallel Twin which was perfectly suited to the limited manufacturing capabilities of the austere years in post-war Britain – and every motorcycle company wanted one.
BSA hit the market with its A7. Matchless weighed in with the G9 Super Clubman and Norton commissioned Bert Hopwood to design its take on the Parallel Twin. To be fair to Hopwood, he was operating in the tightest of straightjackets.
In his book “Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry,” Hopwood described his first day at Norton: “Not even during the wartime blitzes did I have to work under such difficult circumstances; the whole Norton building was such a slummy shambles sandwiched with machines and parts, and men and vermin, in a noisy conglomeration.
“My space was not too bad. After all, it was reasonably quiet and did not let in all that much rain.”
Hopwood began work as Norton’s Chief Designer on April 1, 1947 – April Fools Day – and was immediately tasked with producing a new Twin. He had worked with Turner at Triumph and so he knew the Speedtwin’s strengths, and weaknesses, very well. In fact, although Hopwood was not a great designer, he did draw a neat, single overhead cam, twin-cylinder engine which would have made a competitive race bike, as well as a state of the art road machine. It would have been superior to the Speedtwin in every way and just possibly a lifeline for Norton.
However, this motor was killed by a three-pronged attack of internal politics within Norton, a lack of engineering capability and a severe shortage of funds for new tooling. Instead of the new cammy Twin, Norton forced Hopwood to produce a conservative 497cc, push-rod Twin. It was this engine, which was still around in 1967, having been bored and stroked out to 750cc and now rejoicing in the name of the Norton Atlas.
Norton was eventually absorbed by Associated Motorcycles, who owned a whole garage full of iconic brands led by Matchless and AJS. Along with the rest of the British motorcycle industry, utterly inept management brought the whole empire to its knees and, in 1967, British entrepreneur Dennis Poore bought the ashes of this once great company for what wasn’t much more than two balloons and a goldfish.
The jewel in AMC’s very dented crown was the Norton brand. Racing had ruined the company with over 90% of the factory’s very limited R&D budget being spent on competition machines just after WWII – at a time when the Birmingham factory desperately needed a new range of road bikes. However, World Championship success had kept the Norton name alive in the buying public’s eyes, so this was the brand that Poore decided would be his flagship.
The problem was that the only flag Norton had in its locker that was half worth putting onto any ship was the painfully old-fashioned Norton Atlas – still powered by the grandchild of Hopwood’s 1947 push-rod Twin.
Norton aficionados will tell you that the Atlas is a rooty-tooty-shoot-from-the-hip-git-them-longhorns-amovin etc., etc., real man’s motorcycle. Sadly, it’s not. In fact, it is a rough old thing and not a patch on either the BSA Golden Flash or Triumph’s super sexy Bonneville. You can’t blame Hopwood because, at 745cc, the Atlas was vastly too big to be smooth and, mounted in the Norton Featherbed frame, the center of gravity was also too high for good handling. In fact, with 1960s tires, the Atlas would really snap out of line when ridden hard.
Dennis Poore looked at what was on offer in terms of engineering ability at AMC – and promptly hired his own staff. There was not exactly an overabundance of talent in the British bike industry, so Poore headhunted his chief engineer, Dr. Stefan Bauer, from Rolls Royce which was knee deep in world leading designers. He turned to Austin cars for development engineer Bob Trigg and moved Bernard Hooper and John Favill from the Villiers engine company which Poore already owned.
The Commando was launched in 1967 at the Earls Court Bike Show.
Bauer took one look at the Atlas engine, housed in the Featherbed frame, and threw up his hands in despair. Not only did the bike look very dated – this was the end of the “Swinging ‘60s” and everything had to be cutting edge – but a 30-year-old engine, in a 28-year-old chassis didn’t look much like a guaranteed sales success either.
Not that the bad news stopped with the Atlas. AMC had spent a lot of time and money on the Norton P10 project and, in many ways, this was far worse than Hopwood’s Parallel Twin. On paper, the 800cc P10 was a thoroughly modern engine with a unit construction, five-speed gearbox and double overhead cams. In practice, it was a disaster. The ludicrously long cam chain was almost impossible to fit on a production line and stretched in use; the engine leaked oil and it didn’t make any more power than the Atlas. In short, its primary value was as scrap metal.
The big plan was to make an all-new Twin – water-cooled, electric start and unit construction – but, even if everything went perfectly, this was a two-year project and Poore needed something to sell immediately.
Bauer came up with an engineer’s solution by playing the weak hand of cards he had been given very carefully. It was impossible to eliminate the harsh vibration of the Atlas – and it really is coarse – but how about if you could hide it from the rider? Now that just might work.
The first step was to consign the Featherbed frame to the history books, where it belonged, and Dr. Bauer came up with a real peach of a design to replace it.
The frame which took place of the Featherbed after it had been consigned to history.
The heart of the bike was a huge, 2 1/4 inch (57mm) top spine which provided ample torsional rigidity. A Featherbed-ish duplex loop dropped down from the spine. This design enabled the engine to be much further forward than in the Featherbed and, in most cases, the nearer the engine is to the front wheel the better the bike steers. The Atlas engine could also now be canted further forward which was a huge styling aid.
Clever as the new spine frame was, the magic lay in how Bauer mounted the engine. In an act of sheer garden shed engineering genius, the good Doctor did no more than tie the engine, the separate gearbox and the swinging arm together in one contiguous unit isolated from the rest of the frame on a series of bonded rubber bushes – named Isolastics.
Norton Commando Isolastic mounting system.
If mounting the engine on rubber bushes was bold then tying the swingarm into the gearbox and engine, but not the frame, was ground breaking to the point of being reckless, or so many motorcycling experts of the time felt. To be fair, it was highly contra-intuitive. Swingarms were, and are, supposed to be precisely in line with the frame and how could this be done if they were mounted on bits of wobbly rubber?
Except that they weren’t. The bushes were almost solid and were kept precisely in place by polyurethane thrust washers which severely restricted side play. A perfectly set up Commando really does handle well and equally, once the engine is above 2500(ish) rpm, most vibrations don’t reach the rider.
As with so many British bikes, the devil is in the detail and what a naughty little imp the Commando can be. The load the thrust washers apply to the bushes is controlled by shims – extremely thin pieces of metal. Overload the thrust washers and it’s welcome to vibe central – under tension them and the Commando will wander all over the road like sophomores coming out of their first frat party. But, like Goldilocks, a skilled Commando tuner will neither over or under shim the bushes but will just perfectly hit the sweet tension spot at which point, the Commando really does work.
Not that Bauer solved all the problems on paper. Following his engineering drawings precisely, the first frames frequently broke and it took the development skills of Bob Trigg and Bernard Hooper to make the design work as a mass produced item.
The Commando was launched at the 1967 Earls Court Bike Show with a lovely silver paint job and a funny, rather new age, green blob on the tank. One can only presume that the designer was partaking of some herbal medicine when he sketched that one!
A perfectly set-up Commando really does handle well.
The seat was a very hippy, orangey-red and the rear of the bike had a lovely faired in tail unit. In my fluorescent pink shirt, flower tie and flared trousers I thought that it was great. The pipe smoking, Barbour jacket wearing, establishment motorcycle chaps recoiled in horror, condemning the new bike as not a real Norton but the spawn of the devil.
Had the aficionados stood back for just a moment, they would have realized just how wrong they were. For a start, there was the Atlas engine in all its oil leaking, vibrating, vulgar glory. The gearbox was a separate four-speeder and, heaven protect us, there was clearly no sign of an electric starter.
The front forks were standard Norton Roadholder, as was the front hub but with a hastily added twin leading shoe brake plate. In fact, the Commando was very much a traditional British bike in every way.
Ironically, this is why I am rather fond of the very early Commandos. Later manifestations of the bike start to become, dare I say it, slightly modern with left-hand gear change and electric starters. Or, more accurately, electric-but-only-on-a-very-good-day starters.
In the middle, the 828cc Combat engined bikes are harsh, vulgar things which swear a lot and spit on the sidewalk. Not my sort of motorcycle at all.
By contrast, the Isolastic system does work ever so well with the 750cc engine and can be refined even further with the addition of the later vernier adjustment. Electronic ignition, now retrofitted to almost every Commando in existence, means that kick starting is no longer the chore it once was and, with the passage of time, everyone agrees that these first Commandos really are rather good looking.
Finally, owning a Commando is a sheer delight. The bikes are easy to work on and the spares supply is the best for any classic motorcycle in existence. In fact, it is so good that you can still order a brand-new Commando either in standard form or modernized as the mood takes you.
Commandos are also good value. $15,000 will buy you a really nice 750 which will invariably have been well sorted out by now. The bike will steer and handle beautifully and will cruise all day at 70 mph – even two-up. In short, it is a lot of bike for the money and one which will be utterly depreciation proof too.
Thanks to Lawrence Rose of Classic Motorcycles Ltd (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- $15,000 will buy you a really nice Commando 750.
- Even though Norton aficionados recoiled at what they thought was little more than hell-spawn, the early Commando retained many hallmarks of classic Norton machines.
- Some features of the Norton Commando were garden-shed engineering genius.
- Ancillary parts that could be made attractive, were.