Norton Commando: The quintessential British Superbike
“Even in basic form, the Commando embodies an extravaganza of delectable qualities that leave riders talking in a lengthy series of superlatives,” gushed Cycle World magazine after testing Norton’s sensational 750 Commando when launched in 1968.
“Undoubtedly, never before has a motorcycle offered such smoothness combined with such power. Certain fabled machines, such as the Vincent and Ariel Square Four, have earned places high in the list of all-time great motorcycles. No one should be surprised if the Commando acquires a reputation that will allow it to join that select band.”
The Norton Commando won the UK’s prestigious Motor Cycle News ‘Machine of the Year’ award five times in succession. Its good looks, brutally powerful parallel-twin and innovative Isolastic frame ensured it had the measure of contemporaneous British rivals in styling, performance and handling.
And like many ancestors, highlighted by the legendary Manx Nortons, it was successful in competition.
All of which contribute to the Commando being one of the most enduringly desirable models in the collectable motorcycle market.
It’s estimated that around 55-60,000 of the original Commandos were produced from 1968 until the demise of the embattled Norton marque a decade later; a company with a rich history dating back to 1898.
During that tumultuous period, the Commando was produced in 750cc and later 850cc displacements in a variety of models. Norton also had to overcome engine failures and other chronic engineering problems including frame-cracking.
The marque’s history and passionate following also ensured its modern-day revival, which will all be covered in this review.
Associated Motor Cycles (AMC), which in 1953 added Norton to its stable of famous British marques including AJS, Matchless, Francis-Barnett and James, went bankrupt in 1966. It was purchased by Manganese Bronze Holdings, which already owned Villiers Engineering, to form Norton-Villiers.
The new management commissioned an overdue replacement for Norton’s venerable 750cc Atlas model, that was scheduled to debut at the 1967 Earls Court motorcycle show and enter production in 1968.
A design team under former Rolls-Royce engineer Dr Stefan Bauer was established to develop the new machine, based on a more powerful version of the Atlas engine complete with Norton’s quaint pre-unit (separate) four-speed gearbox.
With his R-R background in automotive refinement, Bauer created an innovative frame design called Isolastic (a name perhaps partly inspired by BMC’s Hydrolastic suspension) that combined a rigid large diameter top-tube backbone with car-like rubber-mounting of the engine and gearbox.
The latter was to insulate the rider from the parallel-twin’s chronic vibrations, which according to Cycle World could “cause nuts and bolts to fall off, light bulbs to shatter and tachometer and speedometer to break.”
However, early testing showed that distortion of the engine’s rear rubber-mounting under hard acceleration caused the chain driving the rear wheel to jump off the engine’s drive-sprocket.
This problem was solved by allowing the engine, gearbox and swing-arm to move as one unit independent of the frame, by attaching the swing-arm to the engine/gearbox mountings.
However, accurate tolerances in the Isolastic mountings had to be maintained with the use of shims, as being too tight could cause frame-cracking while being too loose could trigger wayward handling.
With conventional telescopic forks, coil-over rear dampers, 19-inch wheels and drum brakes, management wanted a noticeably different appearance to its predecessors to stimulate sales.
This was achieved by tilting the engine so that the normally-vertical cylinders were leaning forward, which also slightly lowered the centre of gravity. And there was new fiberglass bodywork, with a stylish tank and side-covers plus one-piece tail unit and seat; the front of which integrated with the rear of the tank in a wrap-around design to optimise rider comfort. Wet (kerb) weight was an agile 195kg.
Britain’s sportiest two-wheeled offerings at the time included the Triumph Bonneville T120 with 650cc inline twin (46bhp) and BSA’s Rocket Three with a 740cc inline triple (58bhp). In the US there was Harley’s Sportster XLCH with its thumping 883cc V-twin (55bhp), Italy had the Moto Guzzi V7 Sports 750 Special V-twin (45bhp) and in Germany there was BMW’s latest R96US powered by a 600cc ‘Boxer’ twin (42bhp).
Into this mix came Norton’s first Commando - the Fastback. Its Atlas-based 750 engine retained the same bore and stroke but with raised compression, two Amal 30mm concentric carburettors and an alternator replacing the previous magneto/dynamo, it produced a more than competitive 58bhp at 6500rpm.
This was a seriously fast motorcycle for its time. The first example to arrive in the US reportedly reeled off a series of blistering low-13-second quarters and clocked a top speed of 117mph (187km/h). And at a road race meeting soon after, it set fastest lap and beat quality fields in both production and GP classes – straight off the showroom floor!
Unfortunately, the Commando’s powerful engine specification also suffered numerous main-bearing failures, which were cured by introduction of a more rigid crankcase and a change of bearing design.
Late 1968 also saw the ominous Tokyo debut of Honda’s groundbreaking inline four-cylinder 66hp CB750, which shook motorcycling to its foundations and spearheaded a Japanese assault on the global superbike market in the 1970s that would hasten the demise of long-established British and European marques – including Norton.
Four new variants included the 750S, a scrambler-style tailored for the Southern Californian ‘desert sled’ craze with high-mounted off-road exhaust system and eye-catching paint.
The new R model had more conventional styling, as did the new Roadster with conventional low exhaust pipes and upward-angled mufflers. The Roadster would prove to be the most popular Commando model. Norton also released the Interpol variant, in response to demand from various police forces.
1969 brought reports of catastrophic frame failures around the steering head. US legislators threatened to ban Commando imports if the structural problem had not been quickly addressed by Norton-Villiers.
The Commando Mk2 Fastback offered engine refinements plus alloy hand-levers with integrated switchgear and improvements to the stand, chain guard and Isolastic frame bushes.
Norton also released the Production Racer, with less than 200 hand-built to meet homologation requirements for production class racing. It was effectively a full-house race bike legal for road use. With 12bhp more than the stock Commando it could top 130mph (208km/h) and soon earned the nickname ‘Yellow Peril’ given these speed demons all shared the same colour.
In the March 1970 issue of Cycle magazine, in which the world’s contemporaneous superbikes were compared, a Commando ran a rapid 12.69-secs standing quarter that was slightly quicker than Honda’s CB750.
The Mk3 Fastback brought a metal fuel tank, larger front tyre and unswept exhaust pipes with reverse-cone megaphone silencers.
A new Hi-Rider model was an attempt to tap into the Easy Rider ‘chopper’ craze, equipped with high ‘ape-hanger’ handle-bars, ‘banana’ seat with backrest and rear ‘sissy-bar’ plus a small headlight and fuel tank. Although it remained in the line-up for several years, sales were slow.
The short-lived S model was replaced by the even shorter-lived SS before Norton abandoned the scrambler scene. Also available was the Fastback LR (Long Range) equipped with a shorter seat to accommodate a big 18-litre fuel tank, which logically was aimed at the Australian market where most were exported.
In the same year that Japanese manufacturer Kawasaki unleashed its astonishing DOHC inline four-cylinder 82hp 900 Z1, the latest Commando Mk4 Fastback was released along with an updated Roadster and new Interstate model, characterised by a big 24-litre fuel tank that was soon increased to 25 litres, making it ideal for long distance touring. The front drum brake was also replaced by a single disc across the range.
In response to Japan’s ever-increasing power outputs, all Commandos were now equipped with the more powerful ‘Combat’ engine derived from the Production Racer, which with larger 32mm carburettors, hotter camshaft and higher compression produced 65bhp at 6500rpm.
Due to the higher output and quality control problems during manufacture, the Combat engine also proved unreliable, with numerous main-bearing and piston failures that kept dealers busy with expensive warranty claims.
The problems were soon resolved, but the fact these flaws were not detected until after the Combat went on sale gave an insight to Norton’s archaic and increasingly troubled work practices. It also served to highlight Japan’s product superiority which eliminated the constant tuning, fiddly maintenance, oil leaks, dodgy electrics and suspect reliability which had long characterised British bikes.
Solving the Combat’s problems and increasing market competition ensured Norton-Villiers was in a perilous financial position by 1973, when it merged with the equally-challenged BSA group (BSA and Triumph) to form Norton Villiers Triumph. It was the last roll of the dice for the ailing British motorcycle industry, in the face of Japan’s rapid global dominance.
The fifth and final version of the 750 Commando Fastback was offered in 1973, along with new 850 versions of the Roadster, Interstate, Hi-Rider and Interpol variants.
The 850 was designed to solve the reliability issues which had haunted the Atlas and Combat programs, including a stronger bottom-end and pistons, longer cylinder-retaining bolts and revisions to eliminate the Commando’s infamous oil leaks.
With a slight bore increase to raise displacement to 828cc along with lower compression, the 850 produced 60bhp at 5900rpm. The slight drop in power was compensated by increased torque from the relatively long stroke of the undersquare engine, which improved acceleration and general response for road use.
The Mk2 850 Commando line-up included the Roadster, Hi-Rider, Interstate and Interpol. Export-bound Mk2A versions of the Interstate and Roadster had quieter exhaust systems and larger airboxes to meet tougher European noise requirements.
A John Player Norton limited-edition was also released, equipped with bodywork that replicated the factory’s contemporaneous Formula 750 racers backed by tobacco giant John Player & Sons. Based on the Mk2A 850 Commando, around 200 examples were produced with a choice of 750 and 850 engines. A short-stroke version introduced for the race bikes was also an option.
Most of these rare machines were shipped to the US, with a high sticker price of USD$3000 (about $23,700 today) which was $500 (or $4000) more than a standard Commando.
The Mk3 850 range, which comprised only the Interstate and Roadster, was also the last of the original Commandos which ironically was also the most reliable and oil-tight of the breed.
A rear disc brake replaced the venerable drum and left-side gearshift/right-side brake controls along with new exhaust systems and air-filter boxes complied with the latest US mandates.
Numerous refinements included an electric engine-start (only seven years after the Honda CB750!) but Norton wisely retained the twin’s mechanical kick-starter given the electric version’s unreliability.
The Isolastic frame was enhanced, along with higher capacity electrics and a new hinged and lockable seat. The final Commando was also the heaviest (223kg dry) and one of the slowest (105mph/169km/h) of the breed.
Not that it really mattered, given that Norton Villiers Triumph inevitably fell into the hands of receivers. 1976 was the last full year of Commando production, with assembly of remaining bikes completed in 1977 along with production of spare parts before the original company was liquidated in 1978. It was a sad end for this two-wheeled British icon.
Given the Commando’s global following, numerous enterprises were established in the 1980s and 1990s to keep the famous Norton marque alive and cater specifically to the needs of Commando enthusiasts, with rebuilds and/or enhanced recreations of the classic British twin.
One of those was US-based Vintage Rebuilds. Visionary proprietor Kenny Dreer commissioned design of a successor called the 961 Commando (961cc air-cooled parallel-twin) but due to a lack of funding it failed to reach production before Vintage closed in 2006.
However, in 2008 UK businessman Stuart Garner bought the commercial rights to the Norton brand and Dreer’s design. In 2010 production commenced of a heavily-revised version of the 961 Commando in a new factory at Donington Park in the English Midlands.
By 2020, though, the company had gone into administration and was acquired by India’s TVS Motor Company. In 2022, the new owners shifted production to a new manufacturing facility at Solihull near Birmingham (the original home of Norton), where it continues to produce hand-crafted Commando variants.