Rounding the corner to my desk a few months back, I couldn’t help but notice managing editor Landon Hall staring at his computer with a bemused look. Like most of us (and maybe more than some), Landon’s constantly on the prowl for that next unexpected treasure, the bike you didn’t know existed and suddenly discover you just have to have. Lighting up Landon’s screen was a Craigslist ad showing a dog-eared but seemingly complete 1974 Norton Commando 850 Hi-rider. The ad said it was a non-runner, but also said the engine wasn’t stuck and, rarity of rarity with such offerings, it had a clear title. For $1,500.
In the past few years Commandos, once relatively cheap and plentiful, have steadily increased in value. I paid $600 for my last Commando, a 1975 electric start, in 1990, but since then they’ve become investments, with good examples now regularly selling for $7,000-$10,000, blue chip stocks carefully tucked away for future trading. That’s too bad, because the real value of a Norton is in riding it; the Commando is hands-down one of the greatest motorcycles of its era, blessed with fine handling and a torquey parallel twin that pulls like the proverbial train. Persnickety as they can be, a good Commando is one of the great joys of life.
Over the years, Landon’s listened ad nauseam to me and Tech Q&A man Keith Fellenstein extol the Commando’s virtues, and last year he finally got his first ride on one, piloting the RetroTours 1973 750 Fastback during our inaugural Ride ’Em, Don’t Hide ’Em Getaway at Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania. That ride set the bait, and Landon started the hunt for a Commando — but what to do when you have Cadillac tastes on a Pinto budget? The answer, it seemed, had just shown itself on Craigslist. “Should I call?” Landon asked. “If you don’t, I’m going to,” I replied. An hour later, he was the proud owner of a crusty, but complete, Commando Hi-rider.
Solid as it looked on first blush, the subsequent tear-down uncovered the toll of years of neglect. The front forks were worn out, the steering head bearings looked like they’d been sitting in water for 10 years, the cylinder head exhaust threads were stripped, and the brake hydraulics were, predictably enough, completely trashed. The Isolastics were actually okay, but once taken apart, do you really want to put 43-year-old rubber back in service?
The transmission shifted through the gears just fine, but a peek inside revealed watery goo in place of gearbox oil. Further inspection suggested replacing all the bearings and seals, not least the original Portuguese-sourced layshaft bearing, a component famous for failure. That’s all been done, along with replacing the steering head bearings, the fork tubes, fork seals and lower fork bushes, the wheel bearings, and most of the hydraulics. Ditto the Isolastics, the rear updated to the “vernier” adjustable type introduced for 1975, and the cylinder head’s been rebuilt, as have the carburetors. The oil tank’s been reinforced at its lower mount, a known weak point, the oil lines are all new, and he’s replaced most of the electrical connectors — not to mention all the control cables and dozens of other small parts. Oh, and a new Roadster seat and handlebars. That $1,500 Norton has suddenly become a bit more expensive, but that’s hardly a surprise.
While Landon was certainly hoping for a simpler and, yes, cheaper project, he’s hardly disappointed. He could have saved himself a lot of grief by buying an already running machine, but where’s the fun in that? In the end, it’s a journey, time and money well spent putting another Commando back on the road.