The Norton Commando 850 was somehow always more than the sum of its parts.
1975 Norton Commando MKIII
Engine: 828cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 77mm x 89mm bore and stroke, 8.5:1 compression ratio, 60hp @ 5,900rpm
Top speed: 115mph (est.)
Carburetion: Two 32mm Amal Concentrics
Transmission: 4-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, Tri-Spark electronic ignition (points and condenser stock)
Frame/wheelbase: Dual-downtube steel cradle frame/57in (1,448mm)
Suspension: Telescopic forks front, dual Girling shocks rear
Brakes: Single 10.7in (272mm) disc front and rear
Tires: 4.10 x 19in front and rear
Weight (wet): 519lb (235kg)
Seat height: 31in (787mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3gal (11.ltr)/40-50mpg
Price then/now: $2,895/$5,000-$15,000
“I got out of the Army in 1976,” says Ken Armann, proprietor of Ken Armann British Motorcycles in Campbell, California, and owner of this 1975 Norton Commando Mark III. “My mother-in-law gave me the money to buy a bike. She was an incredibly special woman.”
The bike Ken bought was a 1975 Norton Commando 850 Mark III Electric Start. Ken was working at FedEx and commuting 100 miles a day, and the need to keep that bike running with as little downtime as possible — leaving the bike at a shop meant no way to get to work — induced Ken to learn to work on his Norton. He soon learned he had a knack for keeping the bike fixed. “I put 120,000 miles on that bike before the camshaft went flat. I swapped bottom ends and sold the bike to Carl Johnson. That was 29 years ago, and he still has it.”
The Norton Commando was somehow more than the sum of its parts. The engine was derived from one designed shortly after World War II, and in an era of 5-speed transmissions it had a 4-speed gearbox and a 6-volt electrical system, all housed in a stiff, light frame designed by Dr. Stefan Bauer, a Rolls Royce engineer with no previous experience designing motorcycles. That unlikely combination resulted in a bike that can still, 40 years later, keep up with much newer machines on twisty roads. Thousands are still on the road.
The Commando had its genesis in the early 1960s, a time when the British motorcycle industry was starting to fall apart. For years, British factories had made their profits on the simple, low horsepower, ride-to-work bikes purchased by working people in England and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. This business model started to change after World War II. Like all British manufacturing companies, the motorcycle factories were pushed hard to export to help pay off Britain’s war debt. Triumph, BSA and Norton found a ready market in the United States. They also found that Americans were interested in horsepower and handling, not economic operation, so British factories started producing more top-of-the-line bikes.
Through the 1950s, the considerable profits made by Brit bike manufacturers were distributed to their shareholders, instead of being plowed back into the business. As a result, the factories lacked the equipment to upgrade product or to produce at a faster pace. By the late 1950s, the average working Brit was finally able to afford a car, and those who continued to motor on two wheels increasingly had a choice between the home product and oil-tight Japanese imports, which had bright lights and electric starters.
The bottom started to fall out of the industry. The first to head for the bankruptcy courts was conglomerate Associated Motor Cycles, which had insisted on continuing to manufacture economical but outdated and slow singles that no one wanted any more. One of AMC’s brands was Norton, whose big twins and Manx racing singles were the only bright spot in the whole AMC morass. AMC unraveled, and what was left was bought in September 1966 by Dennis Poore’s Manganese Bronze Holdings. Poore first renamed the company Norton Matchless Ltd., but later changed the name to Norton Villiers.
When AMC went belly up, its Norton subsidiary was manufacturing the Atlas, a 750cc twin housed in the famous Norton Featherbed frame, as well as several versions of a 650 twin. The Atlas, with excellent Roadholder forks, was fast and handled like a dream. It would also shake the fillings out of your teeth.
The Atlas’ speed and handling made the bike popular with American riders, but its shortcomings — particularly excessive vibration — were hurting sales. In a bid to keep the Atlas competitive, Poore hired Dr. Stefan Bauer from Rolls Royce and tasked him to do what he could to improve the Atlas before the 1967 Earls Court motorcycle show in London. Aided by engineers Bernard Hooper and Bob Trigg and working on a shoestring budget, Baur went to it.
The motorcycle that was unveiled at the 1967 Earls Court was all silver — tank, bodywork and frame — except for the seat, which was orange. Behind that strange color combination was a fast, good-handling bike with the vibration problem licked. The 745cc engine came from the Atlas, with the cylinders tilted forward from vertical, as in the older twin. Carburetion was via twin Amal Concentrics and a diaphragm spring clutch operated the 4-speed gearbox that had been developed by AMC engineers before that company failed.
This old school drivetrain was housed in a frame that was as state of the art as could be achieved in a short time and on a limited budget. It had a massive top tube on top of a braced duplex cradle, but instead of being bolted to the frame proper the entire drivetrain — engine and transmission plus swingarm and rear wheel — was attached to a subframe that was isolated from the main frame by large rubber insulators. Trademarked as Isolastic, this setup quelled engine vibration almost completely, making the new Commando one of the smoothest machines on the market.
Dressed in more subdued colors, the Norton Commando went on sale in April 1968, and was a hit. The original Commando, with an eared seat to cushion the pilot’s knees and a cylindrical tailpiece, was joined by several other models including the Roadster (with a small tank, a conventional seat and a chrome rear fender instead of the tailpiece) and the 1971 Commando SS “street scrambler” with high pipes.
The late Sixties and early Seventies were the heyday of the motorcycle magazine, and Superbike shootouts were a staple of Cycle magazine. In a March 1970 matchup, the 745cc Commando went heads up against Harley-Davidson’s 883cc XLCH Sportster, Honda’s CB750 Four, the 500cc Suzuki Titan (a little out of its league), a Kawasaki 500cc Triple, a BSA 750cc Triple and a Triumph 750cc Trident. Against this competition the Norton got plus marks for light weight, the best quarter-mile times, ease of riding and a light clutch, but a severe markdown for its drum brakes, which were not up to the task.
A disc front end was introduced in January 1972, and that year also saw the introduction of the high performance Combat engine with a 10:1 compression ratio, up from 8.9:1. Unfortunately, the Combat’s main bearings often crumbled under the strain. Warranty claims swamped the factory and gave the Commando a bad reputation as a “Not-run.” The eventual fix was to increase the bore to 77mm for a cubic capacity of 828 cc, and reduce the compression ratio to 8.5:1. Superblend barreled roller bearings kept the lower end in one piece, despite the pounding that most Commando riders gave their bikes. After October 1973, all Commandos were built to this specification.
To some extent, Norton successes on the track made up for the Combat debacle. Paul Smart and Mick Andrew came in second and fourth in the 1969 Isle of Man TT Production class, and that same year Andrew won the Hutchinson 100 Production Class and Peter Williams took fourth. Seeing opportunity, Norton started selling a factory-built production racer, which had good success in regional competition. John Player Cigarettes sponsored a factory team, and the apex of Norton achievement occurred in 1973 with Peter Williams’ Formula 750 Isle of Man TT win.
Another assist was given by an advertising campaign featuring gorgeous blonde women draped over their Nortons. The implication was that Nortons were sexy. Apparently, this was not simply advertising puffery: Recently, a rider wrote to Cycle World to explain why he hated Nortons: In the 1970s, his girlfriend disappeared at a rest stop with a Norton rider, never to be seen again.
Through the early Seventies, Nortons sold well, despite the antiquated engine and the lack of an electric start. Yet Norton as a company was not meeting expectations. Norton Villiers had, at the urging of the British government, taken over BSA and Triumph, which turned out to be a major mistake. BSA had collapsed from the mismanagement of its earlier owners and Triumph was only half a company, the other half having formed into the Meriden collective producing Bonnevilles.
To make matters worse, Britain was experiencing massive inflation and an energy crisis. Management decided to pare the product line down to the Roadster and the Interstate, which featured a larger gas tank, a long plush seat and different side covers. They also decided to give the bike some significant upgrades.
The Mark III Commando appeared in March 1975. It had disc brakes front and rear, and cylindrical capped mufflers designed to comply with EPA regulations. A new self-adjusting primary chain meant the gearbox was solidly fixed to the engine, and a shaft extended through the gearbox for DOT mandated left-side shifting. It also had an electric starter.
Yet in a strange cost-saving venture, the prototype 4-brush starter, which worked reasonably well, was replaced with a 2-brush unit that needed a little help from the kickstarter when the engine was cold. Norton aficionados swiftly renamed the item Electric Assist. A major improvement was made to the Isolastics. High-mileage Norton owners complained about the difficulty of shimming the Isolastics when they got worn. The front mount was easy, but the rear basically required taking the bike half apart to install new shims and was not a chore riders looked forward to. Unlike the new starter, the adjustable Isolastics worked as advertised, and installing Mark III Isolastics on pre-1975 Commandos is a popular upgrade.
Promised British government assistance never materialized, and when the British government recalled a massive £4 million loan Poore threw up his hands and called in the receivers. Mark III Nortons were built in 1975 and 1976, with a batch of 1,500 put together from parts on hand in 1977 and a final group of 30 assembled in 1978.
Norton was revived for a time, building a well-received Wankel-engined machine, until management wrecked the company with various schemes that did not pan out. Kenny Dreer in Oregon designed an updated Commando, but became embroiled in trademark litigation. Eventually, Dreer’s designs and the patents and trademarks were sold to English businessman Stuart Garner, whose new Norton Motorcycle Company is building a modern Norton with styling and handling reminiscent of the old Commando in Donington Park, England.
An estimated 55,000 Commandos were built over a not-quite-10-year model span, and a lot of them are still around thanks to the strong bond owners have with them. In his 1974 book, The Motorcycle World, Phil Schilling, then managing editor of Cycle magazine, tried to explain it: “A swift Commando wheeling down a mountain road could charm a rider and lull him into a fit of forgetfulness. He could forget that he kicked the motorcycle to life, forget that only four speeds lived in the gearbox, forget that oil-tightness was still not an English virtue, forget that the engine belonged to the 1950s. If the old school had any genius, it lay in beguiling riders into such fits.”
With all those Nortons on the road, it is possible to make money fixing them. Eventually, Ken Armann got tired of working at FedEx and went to acupuncture school. Unfortunately, he didn’t pass the test to hang out a shingle as an acupuncturist in California. Fortunately, everyone he knew owned a British motorcycle and wanted Ken to work on it, so he opened Ken Armann British Motorcycles in 1991 and has been busy ever since. “I actually do acupuncture on Amal carburetors,” Armann says. “Acupuncture needles are the best way to clean out Amal carburetor jets on the idle circuit.”
One day, a high school friend of Ken’s stopped by with a red Mark III Roadster. “He said it ran like s### and he wanted me to fix it. I chased down the half dozen little things that go wrong with a Norton. I synched the crabs and set the timing, the bike ran great, and I handed it back to the guy. Fourteen months later, the same guy called me and asked me if I wanted to buy the bike for a dollar. He said that he had no time to ride it,” Ken recalls.
When Ken forked over his dollar, that bone-stock 1975 Mark III Commando had about 8,000 miles on the clock. He has put in a Tri-Spark electronic ignition and upgraded the front brake master cylinder, but otherwise left the bike alone. The odometer now reads 11,180, and Ken has had no trouble; the bike starts every time. “Having a bike I got for a dollar is an incredibly fun story. I am incredibly blessed,” Ken says. MC
Ken Armann makes a living off unhappy British motorcycles. Despite this, he freely gives advice on how to keep your Brit bike happy and out of his shop. His top tips:
• The way to keep your Commando happy is to ride it often. That keeps the seals lubed so they don’t leak. A motorcycle is a system. Feed it and exercise it and change the oil.
• Don’t power-wash the bike. Water gets in the ignition.
• Keep a spark plug wrench and fresh spark plugs with the bike.
• Have the right air pressure in the tires. Should be 32psi in front and 34 in the back — more if gravity affects you more than it does the average person.
• Put sunscreen on your nose when out riding.