If the marketing department is today’s mother of invention, then opportunity is her obstetrician. Such was the case with the “R” and “S” model Norton Commando.
Norton Commando concerto: variations on a theme
In spite of being launched just a few months before Honda’s game-changing 750-Four, the Norton Commando was one of the most successful motorcycles ever produced in Britain. Best known are the Roadster and Interstate models, built from 1971/2 until production ceased in 1975. But between the first Fastback Commando of 1968 and the final electric-start bikes, the factory built a number of short-run variants, now highly collectible.
The earliest Commandos were built at the old Matchless factory in Plumstead, South London. With the Plumstead site slated for redevelopment, assembly moved to a new facility in Andover, Hampshire (on the famous Thruxton circuit), while engine manufacture went to the Villiers factory in Wolverhampton, West Midlands.
This presented an opportunity to tidy up the Norton Commando engine. Principally, contact breaker points were moved from a chain-driven jackshaft behind the cylinders (where the magneto had been on the 750 Atlas) to the end of the camshaft—simpler and less prone to wear. The new Wolverhampton motor became the 20M3S, while production of the old 20M3 “jackshaft” engine stayed temporarily at Plumstead pending the plant’s closure. (The numbering scheme works like this: the 750 twin engine was Norton’s Model 20, and the Commando engine the Mark III version; hence 20M3.)
The fibreglass bodywork and general styling of the original Fastback Commando, while distinctive and racy looking, was somewhat unconventional. So, for 1969, two new models were introduced: The Commando “R” and “S.” In motorcycling, 15 minutes of fame are equivalent to one season in the sales brochure. The R and S models lasted barely all of that. But each made a valuable contribution to the Norton Commando’s unlikely and remarkable eight-year production run.
The more conservative “R” model was in essence, a transition model from the Fastback to the Roadster. It used up the remaining 20M3 engines, with the side-mounted oil tank and sausage shaped mufflers from the Fastback, but was fitted with a stylish new fibreglass gas tank and a conventional dualseat. All R’s had grey side panels regardless of gas tank colour.
The Norton Commando S made a radical styling statement. Its five-inch headlight wore a chrome “halo” attached to a special top triple tree. Side panels colour-keyed to the metalflake-painted fibreglass gas tank (the same tank as the R model and later Roadster) covered a central oil tank. Gone were the sensible shrouds and gaiters from the front forks, exposing slender chrome tubes with token dust excluders. Chrome exhaust headers wove around the frame downtubes exiting on the left and sweeping along the side of the bike, with chrome heat shields. Chrome also anointed the fenders, rear damper shrouds, chain guard and seat trim. Gaudy, maybe… Subtle, no. The R model ended with final closure of the Plumstead factory in 1969, but the S model lasted into 1970.
A Norton Commando Today
I MEET TONY AND JIM, owners respectively of R and S model Commandos, at Wendell’s coffee shop in Fort Langley, BC. Tony found his R model as a basket case, advertised in a local buy & sell paper. His initial survey of the machine concluded that it must be a 1969 Roadster. But the Roadster wasn’t built until 1970 … After researching the R model, Tony’s restoration went fairly smoothly, though he did have trouble with the rider’s perch. “The bike was pretty complete when I got it,” he says. “The most difficult part was sourcing the correct seat.”
The outrageous tank paint is a close match to the original “fireflake” red. “I like the older style touches, like the twin leading shoe brake,” says Tony. “The early models—like the R—also came with a narrower front tire, so they’re a little quicker handling.” Tony has also heard from various sources that the R came with a different profile camshaft. “This one is a really strong motor. It makes great power,” he says, especially compared with the 1971 Roadster he also owns. “I also prefer the sound that you get from the earlier style Dominator exhausts. They’ve got a deeper, throatier sound.”
Bush’s 1969 S model was rescued from an abandoned chopper project. Most difficult parts to find, says Jim, were a usable centre stand, the correct silver metalflake tail light housing with Lucas reflectors, and the plastic trim caps for the front fork pinch bolts. The last items are still AWOL. Jim’s fastidiousness for originality extended to retaining the less-than-adequate, frame-mounted tubular centre stand and the direct drive rear hub. Jim owns to a small number of deviations from stock: the aforementioned trim caps; flexible plastic rocker oil feed replacing the crack-prone stock steel lines; vernier-adjustable Isolastic mounts; improved rear muffler mounting; extra gusseting on the frame seat loop; and a 3.25-inch front tire in place of the now unavailable three inch type.
The restoration took just three months—though Jim spent more than 10 years accumulating the right parts!
“The R was the initial step at “consumerizing” the Norton Commando,” says Jim. “The S took it all the way with the naked front, high level exhaust pipes and peashooter mufflers.” Bush’s S retains the stock 19-tooth countershaft sprocket and direct-drive back wheel—early Commandos have no transmission shock absorber, though later models have one in the hub. “Great for quick starts,” says Jim, “but tough on chains and sprockets.”
“There’s an incredible feeling of instant power and performance, and it’s different from anything else you’ll see,” says Jim. “It’s a Sixties hooligan in a sequined suit!”
– Robert Smith , June 2011 (issue 272)
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