Friday 14 December 2018

A Norton Commando obsession

Since its winter and there’s not a lot of exiting stories to tell I thought I’d run over where my Norton Commando obsession came from and developed;
I first caught the Norton bug when I was in my mid teens, I remember the motorcycle police riding around on their Norton Commandos in Perthshire and loved the sound and look of thesewhat seemed to be at the time massive bikes. My first big bike was a BSA Road rocket which fell to bits every time I took it out, my twice weekly run to the college in Dundee almost always involved some pushing and returning home with less bits on the bike than when I set off. A friend at the time was selling a Commando to buy a new fangled GS1000 and offered it to me for £650, after scrambling around another friend lent me enough for the deposit and finance was obtained to buy this 4 year old Commando complete with Dunstall rearsets, 2 -1 -2 Exhausts and a half fairing. That bike (BNC64M) got thrashed regularly, ridden through all weathers and was from memory never maintained, I probably owned it two years and coming back from the Iron & Steel Rally in Scunthorpe it consumed almost a gallon of Castrol GTX on the 350 mile trip. A rally was looming in the peak district at the start of December and there was no way I could fix it before then (I had neither the ability, facilities or finances) so I did the sensible thing and traded it in to Mr Bloy for his own Mk1 Guzzi Le Mans which was at the time the price of a small house. The salesman (The bearded stripper for those that may remember) was a genial and incredibly dodgy character who filled out the Hire Purchase forms and asked me to sign, I never was sure if I actually got anything for my Commando.
Getting ready to leave the Iron & Steel rally, Dunstall fairing had been ditched by then due to numerous crashes!

The Guzzi I have to admit didn’t endear itself to me immediately and I was wishing I’d bought one of Sandy’s brand new Mk3 Nortons which he was selling at £999 at the time if i remember rightly, anyhow, we eventually bonded, I started racing which improved my mechanical skills a bit but I always wanted another Norton. In the April of 1981 I found myself with some spare cash (very unusual as the racing kept me completely skint and usually in debt up to my eyeballs)   I remembered George Peddie had a Commando and went to visit him, long story short I came away with MVD944L and some money as George refused my first offer saying it was too much, what a gentleman.
If I remember correctly it was a Tuesday and I had a course in Stafford the following Monday, George had started to overhaul it but had lost the wiring loom and the sidepanels, (that’s the bits I remember anyway)  I obtained a wiring loom, rewired it gave it a check over and topped up the oil tank as it was pretty empty, I got it running and took it for a celebratory lap of Perth, sitting idling outside the Police station I could smell oil, I looked down and the bike was doing a passable imitation of the Torry Canyon (An oil tanker  that sunk in the 80’s) This was my first experience of wet sumping, my first Commando was probably never more than 12 hours between start ups so I wasn’t aware of the issue, I got home, emptied out the excess oil, cleaned the mess up as well as I could and felt quite happy with myself and so started a very long relationship with this wonderful bike.
On the way to Stafford the following week I stopped off at Jacksons of Chorley , a wonderful emporium of all things British and bought a couple of second hand sidepanels, the bike was complete. Over the years it’s taken me to over 20 Countries and always got me home, thats not to say there hasn’t been some serious roadside maintenance from time to time. Broken Chain on the motorway just outside Glasgow where a good Samaritan saved me by going home to find me an old bit of chain and joining links (now I always carry joining links) Burnt a valve on the way to the TT trying to keep in front of all my pals jap multi’s on a very hot day, still got me home.

Repairs in a supermarket car park in Cherbourg, I made new French friends who helped me, thats what happens.....
 I even raced it at Beveridge park once after I’d had a big blow up on my race bike and couldn’t get it fixed on time, I crashed at the Snake in the final practice session, I deserved to, I was being a total loony on a bike with half worn TT100’s and apart from wiring the drain plugs no other preparation (The scrutinisers did make me take the rack off the back) The last complete engine rebuild was after an epic trip to Romania, a 5000 mile trip that proved its too long to go without an oil change! As I write this its almost finished after a major overhaul, funnily enough just finished rewiring it also, the old loom was pretty knackered after almost 40 years and I reckon 160 thousand miles, looking forward to wearing it out again as soon as Spring comes.
MVD at Draculas Castle, Brasov, Romania
And on Holiday in Ibiza visiting fellow Norton friend Lolo

In 1987 we were on strike, the best 3 weeks I ever had working for BT, I had previously built a Trident T160 which I’d bought with a bottom end failure, I needed some cash because although being on strike is good fun, manning the picket line and antagonising the police, it doesn’t pay well, it doesn’t pay at all and my mortgage was due, the MCN had an ad for a JPN, despite being skint I had to call, the seller was in Kilmarnock and after a few minutes I realised It was Geoff Proven, fellow racer and Norton fan, The bike was in big lumps but all there, I rented a van and shot through with the Trident in the back, I got £600 and the JPN in exchange for my Trident, Geoff was happy, I was Happy, the world was good.
Because we were on strike it only took me a couple of days to build the JPN and surprisingly it ran. A few weeks later I seized it on a high speed blast through Glenfarg trying to beat my pals on a z900 and a GSX1100, will I never learn? The same night my race mechanic blew his 750 Commando up spectacularly trying the same trick, I found him sitting at the side of the road looking at the smoking hole in the back of the crankcases (It had just been rebuilt and hadn’t had its torque down of the barrels resulting in the barrels lifting and catastrophic failure)   The following year I needed a new bike for the Manx GP so the JPN was reluctantly sold to finance a new Yamaha.
After I’d stopped the racing nonsense I had an opportunity to buy a JPN replica based on a Mk3 Commando from fellow Norton man Gary MacKnight (actually we were at the Christmas Norton do and I bought it when I was drunk)  Thats been a good bike and has only let me down once by blowing a head gasket on the way to a rally, the cam went eventually so it got a full engine rebuild and its been good since, a surprisingly useable bike despite the clip ons and rear sets.
JPN at the Isle of Man (where else)
A friend had crashed his 72 Interstate, a genuine low mileage bike (7k miles from new) The frame had snapped through the main tube (I’ve re framed a couple of Commando’s before with this problem after accidents) I had a frame but was reluctant to part with it until  John had looked to see if he could get one elsewhere, he didn’t bother doing anything about it and left it strapped to his trailer outside for two years while he thought about it, I eventually managed to buy that one at midnight at a Guzzi rally after much alcohol, that is now a 750 Roadster.

750 Roadster last year en route to Belgium and France, great touring bikes
Out for a Sunday run
A few years later I bought a Mk3 Commando from a Colleague and used that extensively as well, I had the foot come off a cam follower and took the opportunity to do a full engine rebuild as the cam had suffered some damage also, I also has the primary chain snap on me on a German Autobahn which resulted in a roadside rebuild (Parts were couriered over by RGM the following day)  It then took me to the Belgian Begonia rally and heading home from the ferry at Hull just at Newcastle it spluttered to a halt, I had the shame of being recovered and stripped the top end just after I got home to see why it stopped, compression seemed low but in the end it was a fouled plug, anyway a good reason to clean up the top end and its been fine since!
Roadside repairs in Germany!
!  I have along the way managed to pick up a 750 fastback and a 750 drum brake roaster which are also giving me much entertainment, its becoming an obsession.
Camping in the rain and a Norton Commando, what could be better!
Fastback being readied for 2019
Finally this year I bought a Mk3 through a friend, the same owner for 40 years and “restored” Stupidly I never looked that closely despite the price tag being double the previous highest price I’ve paid for a Commando, this turned out to be a mistake. I’ve spent over £1000 to get it rideable, time will tell if the engine is ok but Springtime will soon reveal that.
After a lot of work and £'s, time will tell if its been a good buy
In summary, if you buy a Commando, anything can happen, cam’s go, parts wear out, buying new shiny parts is no longer cheap plus the quality of some parts is sometimes dubious but when they are going they are a most rewarding motorcycle to ride, sure they have their foibles but considering they started rolling off the production line 50 years ago I think they’re pretty damn good. You will also meet new and interesting people (slightly mad with a tendency to drink too much in my experience) If you have a modicum of mechanical ability they are relatively easy to maintain and a great bike to learn on (and learn you will) a handful of special tools and a bag full of AF and whitworth spanners and sockets will also be required.
Useful mods include electronic ignition, single Mikuni carb (or maybe the new Amal Premier twin carb set up is worth a go) They run well on Avon roadrider tyres, don’t run a different size rear wheel, it seems to upset the steering and they wobble more than normal so keep it 19” front and back or 18” Front and back (ground clearance suffers a little if you get carried away) I’ve dabbled with belt drives and generally they are good if set up properly but chains are also ok. Re sleeving the front master cylinder to 13mm is a good idea and makes the brake significantly better, a cheap regulator rectifier to replace the zener / rectifier is also worthwhile but wait until your old zener packs in (+ve earth zeners are almost impossible to get now)  The best mod though is ride the thing, its addictive, I have had Norton free years for various reasons (I also have a Guzzi and a long term travel fetish)   but I’m always glad to get back on one.    

Interestingly my £650 in 1977 is worth just under £4000 taking inflation into account, I think Commando prices have gotten a bit out of hand, are they worth it? I don’t know, I’d be very reluctant to pay the prices I see asked in some of the websites, its been my experience that no matter which Commando you buy it will need money spent on it, how much depends on your luck.