On the 50th anniversary of the mighty Norton Commando, we look back on the rich legacy of a storied marque.
It would be almost a quarter century ago—the first time I rode my old BSA Victor to a meeting of the Westcoast British Motorcycle Owners Club. Those were more flexible times, and the meetings, at Falaise Park Hall in East Vancouver, were lubricated by bottled beer, and usually concluded with a ride to a pub.
So when the ringleaders took off for the appointed destination one evening (the now defunct Side Track Pub under the Alex Fraser Bridge in Delta), I stomped the ever-reluctant Beezer into life and set off in pursuit. Too late: the Bonnevilles and Lightnings had disappeared, and my nascent knowledge of local geography didn’t extend to the Side Track’s location. Next meeting, a senior club member took me aside: “Better get a Norton Commando,” he said, “then you can ride up front with the big boys…”
Fifty years ago this year, Norton-Villiers first displayed the Commando at the Earls Court show in London. It was radically new in styling and engineering: moulded fibreglass gas tank with “fastback” tail section; orange seat with “ears” that wrapped around the tank; and a rubber-mounted powertrain. (Much less innovative, it has to be said, was the Commando’s aging parallel-twin pushrod engine.)
The story’s been told many times, so I’ll skip the details, but the Commando came about from expediency. Norton needed a new bike, and the only engine they had was the bone-shaking 750 from the Atlas. But by isolating the drivetrain from the frame using single-plane rubber mounts, the engine’s teeth-loosening vibration was tamed. The result was the most successful British motorcycle of the 1970s, with at least 100,000 built.
The Commando also dominated the production class at the TT through the early ‘70s with factory development rider Peter Williams coaxing it to ever more speed. His most successful innovation: the first perimeter beam frame, known as the “monocoque.” The fuel-carrying frame spars eliminated the need for a gas tank and lower frame rails, significantly reducing frontal area and drag.
But the Commando was the last full production Norton until the company’s revival in the 21st Century. That the brand survived the doldrums for 35 years is a testament to the legend inspired by James Lansdowne “Pa” Norton.
And it was 110 years ago that Pa Norton entered a motorcycle of his own design in the inaugural Isle of Man TT (multi-cylinder division). As did many motorcycles of the time, the Norton looked more like a heavyweight bicycle with a motor attached than a purpose-built machine.
It wasn’t until 1908 that Pa developed his own engine, so the 1907 TT bike used a Peugeot 45-degree V-Twin engine with automatic inlet valves. (While cams operated the exhaust poppets, the vacuum created by the descending pistons opened the lightly sprung intakes.) Drive to the rear wheel was direct from the crankshaft via a leather belt. There were no clutch or gears—but a set of pedals was added for “assistance…”
With thoroughly modern equipment like a Bosch magneto and Binks & Barlow carburetor, the Norton produced around 12 hp yet weighed less than 200 pounds, making it pretty sprightly for its day. It certainly went better than it stopped, the rim brakes reported as being largely ineffective. Rider Rem Fowler won his class, completing 10 laps of the 15-mile “short” mountain course at an average speed of over 42 mph—in spite of six sparkplug changes and a puncture repair!
Fowler’s TT winning bike can be seen at Britain’s National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull, Warwickshire—or can it? In spite of claims to the contrary made by the NMM and at least one motorcycle magazine, it’s doubtful the Museum’s bike is the actual one Fowler rode, but more likely a collection of period parts assembled in the 1950s. Fowler did actually inspect the show bike before he died, and couldn’t confirm its provenance with any certainty. Not only that, but the NMM bike was extensively damaged in the Museum’s 2003 fire, and restored by vintage specialist George Cohen to a finish almost certainly better than the factory would have achieved.
But regardless, the 1907 machine is the bike that launched Norton’s success in racing, leading to its dominance of the TT races in the inter-war years.
As the US presidential inauguration approaches, I’m reminded that in 1907, Frank McNab started manufacturing motorcycles in a factory in Byfleet, Surrey, England. Over the next 14 years, Trump motorcycles set many speed and endurance records at the nearby Brooklands race track. The company also produced road machines powered with JAP, Peco and British-Anzani engines.
Perhaps most famous was the 1100cc “90 bore” Trump-JAP V-Twin racer campaigned by a Colonel Stewart between 1912 and 1921, before he switched to a British-Anzani eight-valve engine. Trump motorcycles closed its doors in 1923 on McNab’s retirement due to ill health.