1975 Norton Commando 850 Mark III

The Norton Commando 850 was somehow always more than the sum of its parts.

| January/February 2017

1975 Norton Commando MKIII
828cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 77mm x 89mm bore and stroke, 8.5:1 compression ratio, 60hp @ 5,900rpm
Top speed:
115mph (est.)
Two 32mm Amal Concentrics
4-speed, chain final drive
12v, Tri-Spark electronic ignition (points and condenser stock)
Dual-downtube steel cradle frame/57in (1,448mm)
Telescopic forks front, dual Girling shocks rear
Single 10.7in (272mm) disc front and rear
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:

“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.

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