3rd - Triumph Bonneville
4th - Norton Commando
5th - BSA Rocket 3
In 1937 Edward Turner effectively ended the reign of the single with the creation of the Triumph Speed Twin. This soon became the British industry standard, forcing other British manufacturers to follow suit. Norton responded with its own version, the 500cc Model 7 in 1948, and over the next 27 years this design grew to 600cc, 650cc, 750cc, and finally 850cc.
During that time the company changed hands several times, being absorbed by AMC in 1953 and becoming Norton-Villiers in 1966. The final gasp for Norton was the merging with Triumph before it also went into receivership, in 1975.
With Norton-Villiers came the instigation of a thorough revision of Norton’s biggest twin, the 750cc Atlas, and the new Commando was a remarkable success.
With its long 89mm stroke pumping 73mm pistons, the Atlas set the industry standard for vibration during the 1960s.
Large-capacity parallel-twins – especially the 360-degree type like the Norton Commando, with both pistons rising and falling together – vibrate extraordinarily, but in a single plane. So, lacking the resources to completely design an all-new engine, Norton created the ingenious Isolastic system, which isolated the rider from the vibes by rubber mounts.
At the same time the engine’s cylinders were inclined forward. This was a shift away from the dated look that harked back to the Norton singles, but the design was still rooted in the past. Valve operation was by pushrods and rockers and there was a separate four-speed gearbox, joined together by a triplex primary drive chain. Oil leaks were part of the package.
The first Norton Commando of 1967 was a hit. It was light, offered good power, excellent handling, and above all it didn’t vibrate, except while idling. Although the rider was immune from the vibration, the 750cc engine was shaking just as much as ever underneath, loosening exhaust headers and carburettor float bowls.
Even when the Japanese 750s arrived, the Norton remained popular because of its superior handling. With vibration effectively quelled, Norton then felt justified in increasing performance, to the detriment of reliability. The company’s tooling was totally obsolete and incapable of sustaining manufacturing accuracy and consistency.
For Norton this was the beginning of the end, the quest for more power just exacerbating the problems. In 1972 the 750 became the Combat, a high-compression 47.8kW (65hp) 750 that destroyed main bearings even before the engine was run in. Then, to maintain performance levels, the engine grew to 850 for 1973. With milder tuning and some significant engine improvements, the 850 was stronger but still suffered indifferent build quality. By this stage the weak front drum brake had made way for a single disc, and by 1974, with the Mk IIA 850, performance reduced again with restrictive silencers.
The Commando’s final call was with the Mk III of 1975, when an electric start was added. This also featured a left-side gearshift for the first time, and a rear disc brake. Unfortunately the electric start was a disaster, not only adding weight but also barely able to turn the engine over when cold. A few continued to be built out of spare parts until 1978 but the Commando was basically finished in 1975.
Although it was always obsolete, the Commando still possessed endearing qualities – a torquey twin-cylinder engine, moderate weight, excellent handling, and – above all – timeless, well-balanced styling. Not particularly rare or exotic, the Norton Commando exemplifies the archetypal British motorcycle.