A laying-on of hands brings a dormant Norton Commando back from the dead and on the path to a whole new life.
It starts, as many of the best stories seem to, with a knock at the door. Outside is my biker neighbour Cindy. Do I know anything about British motorcycles, she asks? It turns out her friend Carol recently lost her middle-aged brother to illness, and Carol has been appointed executrix.
Among the possessions she has to dispose of is a British motorcycle that’s been parked for a year or more. Not knowing much about powered two-wheelers, and having been slighted by a cynical low-ball offer from a dealer, Carol turned to Cindy for help. Cindy’s efforts to get the bike started with a new battery had stalled—literally. I ask if I can take a look.
Sulking in the darkness of Cindy’s garage is a tired, untidy and slightly incontinent 1975 MkIII Norton Roadster, the last iteration of the Norton Commando line—or of any Norton with pistons for that matter, until the recent UK rebirth under Stewart Garner.
The MkIII is desirable for its electric start, conventional foot controls (brake on the right) and dual disc brakes. But it also suffers from the factory’s “hush” kit consisting of an ugly plastic airbox and restrictive “black cap” mufflers. This Commando has been rode hard for 40 years, and put away wet more than once. Yet it’s remarkably original, even down to the crossover pipe on the headers—usually the first part that breaks and gets replaced.
Cindy tells me the engine turned over fine on the electric starter, but apart from a tentative cough, refused to fire. Then the starter quit.
The battery is new and the connections look good. I turn on the fuel, “tickle” the Amal carburetors to fill the float bowls with fuel (“Didn’t know you had to do that,” says Cindy.), and press the start button a few times. Nothing but a “click-clack” from the solenoid.
I’ve been around vehicle electrical systems long enough to know that those symptoms can mean any one of a number of issues, including: loose or corroded battery connections, a burnt-out solenoid, or a bad starter motor. And my rule about batteries is: change the battery. If that doesn’t work, change it again…
The light in Cindy’s garage is failing, so I offer to shake down the Norton Commando in my own shop instead. First, I try to turn the engine over with the kickstarter, and it’s pretty obvious the crankcase is full of oil. Neither is there any oil in the oil tank.
The Commando’s gear pump is particularly prone to “wet sumping” in spite of the MkIII having a non-return valve in the oil feed. All the 850s, though, have a superior breathing system, which makes it relatively safe to start the engine when it’s wet-sumped—unlike the earlier 750 engines, which risk blowing out the crankcase seal. The 850’s breather and oil scavenge system just dump the excess oil back into the tank—if you can overcome the extra crankshaft drag. But it does put extra load on the starter—leg or electric.
I decide to play it safe (it’s not my bike after all) and drain the crankcase, then refill the oil tank. Then I take a jumper lead directly from the battery to the starter motor to confirm that the starter motor is working. It’s not. That solves the mystery of the clicking solenoid.
So I pull the starter motor (just three screws) and remove the end plate with the brushes. Sure enough, the brush wire has separated from the terminal. These would have been spot-welded in the factory, but this one has been repaired with soft solder. It’ll have to be replaced, but I can probably make a temporary repair. Out with the soldering iron.
With the starter back on the bike, I turn on the fuel, tickle the carbs and press the starter button. The Commando burbles into life. (It would have roared, but for the black cap mufflers.) But it’s running.
Now comes a dilemma. Though Norton built more than 100,000 Commandos over eight years (and shipped plenty of them to Canada), they’re quite valued among Brit-bike fanciers, mostly for their modern-highway-capable performance. My 1974 850 Roadster will cruise comfortably at 120 klicks, and as long as you have the knack, it’s a reliable starter too. But the MkIII is especially prized for its “electric leg.”
Carol was uncomfortable about listing the bike on the local online marts or eBay. But I also wanted to get her a fair price. I could have listed it through our local British bike club, but I’ve seen the kind of feeding frenzy a barn-find bike can generate among the members. What to do…
I contact a couple of pals to see if my valuation is about right, and one of them puts his hand up: he’s looking for an electric start Norton Commando for his wife. We agree on the valuation, and he makes Carol an offer—which she accepts—for just under twice what the “dealer” was prepared to offer. Everyone’s happy.
Within 48 hours, an email arrives from my pal. Attached is a snap of the Norton Commando on the bench, stripped down to the bare frame. The engine is in excellent shape after 31,000 miles, he says, with the bores showing no wear. My pal will fit new rings, freshen up the head, replace the worn-out primary chain and sprockets, buy new tires, have the fasteners re-plated, and give the alloy cases some elbow grease. His wife, a Triumph Thruxton rider, is pleased as punch, and can’t wait to ride it.
So another Commando rolls out of the barn and on to the road in plenty of time for the International Norton Owners rally at Quincy, California in July 2016.