#322 The Body Electric

Those who kick their motorcycles run the risk of being kicked back. Which hurts. So stop being so Old School about that quirky Commando.

When I park my Norton Commando at a bike meet, it’s often greeted with “nice bike” by the skateboard and café-racer kids; and if I’m in a cheeky mood, I’ll goad them: “If you can start it, it’s yours…”
As one of my favourite humourists, PJ O’Rourke once wrote, age and guile beat youth, innocence and a bad haircut. My 850’s cylinder head has been planed a couple of times, bumping up the compression. Spinning the big twin via the tall-geared kickstarter requires planning, technique, courage and commitment. Planning and technique, to set the pistons just after top dead centre for maximum crankshaft momentum, and to “tickle” the Amal carburetors the right amount; courage, to overcome fear of a backfire or kickback; and commitment, to invest your whole body weight into the swing. If you’re tentative, it knows—and it will bite you.
More feared than big twins are big singles, like BSA’s 500 Gold Star or Velocette’s Venom Thruxton: get the starting procedure a tiny bit wrong, and the beast will snap your fibula and toss you carelessly over the handlebars.
So I used to think I was on a pretty safe bet with my kickstart challenge. Then Yamaha announced they were re-introducing their “Sport Heritage” SR400 into the US (no date for Canada yet). Re-introducing, because the only difference between the 1978 original and the 2016 model is fuel injection and a catalyzer.
“Virtually unique among today’s street bikes, there’s no push-button starter,” goes the marketing copy. “The SR400 is equipped with an easy-to-use kick starter as the only means of getting the engine running. That will draw smiles from old-school motorcycle fans and appeal to more modern motorcycle enthusiasts who value authenticity in their motorcycle.”
And while the starting process is similar to the Norton, the SR400 benefits from an automatic exhaust valve lifter that eliminates the need to “back up” the piston; and the fuel injection will ensure that just the right amount of gas is presented to the combustion chamber. No such conveniences on the Commando, so I think I’m still safe. However…
It’s not hard to guess the nominal age of a TV channel’s target audience by the commercials. I watch CBC Newsworld from time to time, and the programming is peppered with ads for walk-in tubs, electric stair lifts, incontinence pads, joint pain remedies and nutritional supplements. I think I have a few more years before I need a mobility scooter to get around; but at several stages during our golden years, we all have to choke down pride and grudgingly acknowledge the expediency of extra-corporeal assistance. The bonus is these devices can also extend the enjoyment of our chosen pursuits—like the boom presently being enjoyed by makers of electric-assist bicycles.
And in spite of regular trips to the gym, I’ve found the Commando harder and harder to start as years go by. Knees that have been bent, battered and hyperextended over the years don’t take kindly to the loads imposed by kickstarting a big twin, especially if it spits back. But I don’t plan to stop riding it anytime soon. Fortunately, some enterprising boomer-watchers have come up with options for us.
In the Westcoast British Motorcycle Owners Club, member Dave Charney was the first of the kickstart klatch to break ranks. He sourced an electric start conversion for his 850 Commando from French motorcycle electrics specialists Alton. The $2,500-ish kit includes a new inner primary case, new alternator and a powerful starter motor. A couple of hours for the install, and the starting problem was, as my Brit buddies say, “sorted!”
Another convert to electric start is Langley, BC’s Jim Bush. He considers that the Alton kit on his Commando is a safety feature. Previously, in the event of a stall, the time taken to re-start his Commando on a busy city street at night could easily invite a rear-ender…
Alton isn’t the only company offering electric start conversions for Commandos. Restoration specialists Colorado Norton Works also have a kit that includes a belt primary-drive conversion. I can’t speak to the CNW kit but the company has a good rep. Norton also built an electric-start Commando of their own for one year, the 850 MkIII of 1975. And in spite of jokes about its effectiveness, I know several MkIII riders whose electric start works just fine. But it does add about 25 pounds to the otherwise lithe Commando.
Even the fearsome BSA Gold Star has been tamed. Phil Pearson Engineering (bsagoldstar.co.uk) in England will sell you an electric start kit for about the same as the Alton Commando outfit. And there’s also a kit available for the mighty Vincent V-Twin (thevincent.com).
So is the SR400 a harbinger of more rearward glances into motorcycling’s oil-smeared past? I don’t think so. Kickstarting a bike is fun when everything works right. But if you can’t start it, a motorcycle is no more use for transportation than a boat anchor.

If you can read this…
I just watched a 15-minute docu-drama on YouTube called “Babes Ride Out,” sponsored by the GoPro camera people. The movie raises a number of issues, and I plan to examine these in a later column. I’d really appreciate your input, though—“babe” or not. Go to youtube.com and search “Babes Ride Out,” then leave your comment at cdnbkr.ca on the “contact” page. Thanks.

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