Uncommon Commando: 1972 Norton Fastback LR

Norton built some 400 Commando Fastback LR models with a larger gas tank for Australia. But did they build any using the Combat engine?

1972 Norton Fastback LR 750 Combat Commando.

Photo by Robert Smith

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1972 Norton Fastback LR 750 Combat Commando
Engine:
745cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 73mm x 89mm bore and stroke, 10:1 compression ratio (8.9:1 stock), 65hp @ 6,800rpm (56hp @ 6,500rpm stock)
Top speed:
115mph (est.)
Carburetion:
Two 32mm Amal 932 Concentric (two 30mm 930 Concentric stock)
Transmission:
4-speed, chain final drive
Electrics:
12v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase:
Dual downtube steel cradle w/Isolastic engine mounts
Suspension:
Norton Roadholder telescopic forks front, twin shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes:
10.7in (272mm) SST disc (8in/203mm TLS drum stock) front, 7in (178mm) SLS drum rear
Tires:
90/90 x 19in front, 100/90 x 19in rear (4.10 x 19in front and rear stock)
Weight (dry):
398lb (180.5kg)
Seat height:
29in (736.6mm)
Fuel capacity:
4.7gal (180.5kg)

Australia has a land area larger than the 48 contiguous states, yet its population is fewer than 25 million people (although it has 74 million sheep!). As a result, population centers are often far apart, which means if you’re riding a motorcycle, you need a good fuel range.

Australia was an important export market for Norton-Villiers, so the company decided in 1971 to make a Commando based on the Fastback model that could run over 200 miles on a tank of gas. They called it the Fastback “LR” — for Long Range. According to the UK Norton Owners Club, only around 400 were made (though quite a few more than that now exist …) and most went to Australia.

The standard Fastback was the first of the Commando model line. Launched at London’s Earls Court Motorcycle Show in late 1967, the Fastback’s fiberglass fuel tank was molded so that “ears” on the front of the seat flanked the rear section of the tank, eliminating the old-fashioned tank-mounted rubber kneepads. It looked sleek and modern.

To create the Fastback LR, the seat was shortened and the “ears” eliminated. A new, larger, steel gas tank based on the Interpol police model (but without the indentation in the top for the police radio) was used. The tank design derived from the earlier 750cc Atlas, but with a modified base to fit around the Commando frame’s tubular spine versus the Atlas’ “slimline” Featherbed frame with its dual top-tubes.

Production begins

The first Fastback LRs were produced in 1971, and production ran sporadically for two years, during which time the Combat engine was introduced in the Roadster and the new Interstate models for the 1972 model year. As has been widely documented, the Combat engine was, in most cases, something of a ticking time bomb. To make the Combat, the basic 56 horsepower, 745cc Commando engine got strengthened cases, 32mm (instead of 30mm) Amal carburetors, a compression boost to 10:1 from 8.9:1 and the hot 2S camshaft for a jump to 65 horsepower. There was also a revised breathing system, and a roller bearing replaced the timing side ball bearing. Combat spec Commandos also got the Norton-Lockheed front disc brake, and were distinguished by black-painted cylinder barrels.

Unfortunately, the extra power was found higher up the rev range, which increased flexing of the two-main-bearing crankshaft to the point where galling of the roller main bearings occurred. Combat models were soon returning to dealers for warranty repair. The factory’s solution was to replace the main bearings with “Superblend” roller bearings from German maker FAG. These used barrel-shaped rollers that allowed for crankshaft flexing. The Combat specification was dropped for 1973, and the 745cc engine was replaced later that year by the 828cc “850” engine, which produced 58 horsepower, but with much less stress.

So all this begs a question: Was the Combat engine ever fitted to the Fastback LR, or even the regular Fastback?

This is where things get a little murky. There is no evidence, either in the form of period photos or specs, that Fastbacks or LRs were ever fitted with the 1972 Combat engine and its associated black cylinder barrel and disc brake. But it seems unlikely that the forever cash-strapped Norton-Villiers company wouldn’t have “mixed and matched” from the parts bin, given the ease with which parts from the various Commando variants could be interchanged. That said, the 1972 Norton catalog lists the Combat engine for the Roadster and Interstate only.

So were any Combat Fastback LRs produced? If they were, certainly not in any quantity. Every Commando ever built can, with relative ease, be fitted with the seat, gas tank, mufflers, side panels and wheels from any other model. That makes it almost impossible to determine if a Fastback LR left the factory that way.

To further confuse the issue, there are suppliers like Ross Thompson Metal Finishing  who make gas tanks based on the Atlas but with the base section from a Roadster. There’s no intent to deceive here, but they do look to the average punter like a LR tank. So if you really want a Fastback LR, you can always make your own. Which is exactly what Norton aficionado Colin Kelly did.

Colin Kelly’s Combat Fastback LR

Norton fanatic Colin Kelly decided to build a Fastback LR around a basket case Combat Commando he acquired in 2011. According to Kelly, acquaintance Ron Douglas found it “in a damp shed in Cumberland, British Columbia, sitting for many years in non-running condition with a severe gearbox issue.”

Ron parked the bike in his garage and left it there until Kelly finally convinced him to sell it. “The bike was all there, but it had been fitted with incorrect parts from other years, including a Triumph oil-in-frame rear mudguard,” Kelly says.

“The ID plate was December 1971, the numbers indicating that it was from the first batch of Combat spec machines. I already had a genuine used LR gas tank that l bought over the counter from Les Emery at Norvil UK in 2005. Having a rare, genuine LR gas tank, plus a ’72 model Combat Commando, l decided to build a Combat LR.”

Kelly has restored a number of Nortons over the years, and is the International Norton Owners Association representative for Canada, so he knows his Commandos. He had a clear idea of what he wanted to build.

“The build period of the LR model and the Combat-spec machines overlaps,” Kelly says. “But it seems there is no official documentation or period photos to prove that any LRs were built using the Combat spec. The giveaway would be black cylinder barrels and the front disc brake.” The Norton-Lockheed disc brake was introduced in late 1971, and was only fitted to Combat-engined machines until adopted across the range during 1973.

As to whether any Fastback LRs were built with combat engines, Kelly admits it’s a “gray area, but entirely possible.” He’s talked with longtime Commando enthusiasts who believe that Norton did build a few, between 1971 and 1973. But if anyone knows for sure, they’re not saying.

The build

The Combat engine Kelly acquired was “basically sound,” with cylinder head, barrels and cases in good condition; but it had non-matching connecting rods, incorrect main bearings, high-compression pistons and the 2S racing cam.

Kelly rebuilt the engine with new Superblend main bearings, R&R connecting rods, new GPM pistons, and an “as new” used standard Commando camshaft. The top end was rebuilt with Kibblewhite valves  and bronze guides. The rebuilt engine breathes in through Amal Premier 32mm Concentric carburetors and is equipped with a Colorado Norton Works reed valve breather.

The only salvageable parts from the transmission were the gearbox inner and outer covers. Kelly rebuilt it with a good used shell and new gears, shafts and bearings. The outer primary chaincase was missing and the inner badly corroded, so Kelly used inner and outer covers left over from a friend’s electric-start conversion. “Other parts I had on the shelf,” Kelly says. “Having built many Commandos means I’m always stockpiling parts for the next build.” Kelly sourced a genuine used Fastback rear fender plus new Norvil side panels and tail fairing from Walridge Motors. The frame, forks, brakes and wheel hubs were all in good condition and only needed cleaning, polishing and painting. Wheel rims are flanged Akront, and Isolastic engine mounts are the vernier-adjustment type as used on the 1975 Commando Mark III. The front brake was also upgraded with an SST disc and sleeved-down master cylinder, plus stainless hose from Miles Classic Brake in Watsonville, California.

“I spent three years collecting the parts and finally built the bike over three months in late 2015, early 2016,” Kelly says. “The naughty part was ordering one-off peashooters with nothing inside — totally loud but also music to the ears. No other bike sounds like a well-sorted Commando.”

The Fastback LR’s shakedown run was a 1,000-mile trip from Courtenay, B.C., to the 2016 International Norton Owners Association rally in Quincy, California, but things didn’t go quite as planned. First the original speedometer and tachometer quit. Then, with just 40 miles to go, the LR suffered a minor piston seizure. “It freed up straight away and I completed the ride,” Kelly says, but he’s noted mixed opinions expressed on the Norton forums about GPM pistons. “l have used them on other bikes with no problems, but also once seized my 650SS using them, so l have now opted out. Andover Norton say they should be run with a larger clearance,” Kelly continues. “My response to that is that the pistons should be made slightly smaller — genuine equipment should be … to original specification. I thought that running the pistons in already used and honed-out bores would be enough clearance — and usually is in my experience.” A plug chop before leaving Canada showed the mixture was fine. But for insurance, Kelly lifted the Amal carb needles one notch to richen the mixture for the return journey. “l later changed to Hepolite piston copies from Taiwan with Hastings rings,” he says.

Kelly has been supplying sheet metal parts to Colorado Norton Works and Norvil for more than 20 years, so he made the tinware for his LR himself using stainless steel. That included the chain guard, air filter housing, muffler brackets and license plate holder. He can also provide parts for most British bikes from his own patterns and tooling. “I make all the sheet metal parts for my own rebuilds,” he says.

So whether Norton ever made a Combat-engined Fastback LR is still open to debate, but Colin Kelly has adequately demonstrated that if they didn’t, they should have!

A funny thing happened …

Kelly hails from Wolverhampton in Britain’s industrial West Midlands, a short motorbike ride from the traditional home of Norton Motorcycles on Bracebridge Street, Birmingham. So on a recent trip to the U.K. with friends he decided to make a pilgrimage to company founder James Lansdowne “Pa” Norton’s grave site in nearby Selly Oak. The guide to Lodge Hill Cemetery contained a full page on “Pa” Norton as well as a period photograph.

When Kelly and his pals found the grave site, it was in a poor state, overgrown with weeds and covered in garbage with no evidence of care or tending. They pulled up the weeds and cleaned up the site as best they could.

Back in Canada, Kelly reported his findings to the INOA, who contacted the Norton Owners Club in the U.K. Chastened, perhaps, the NOC executive managed to contact living members of the Norton family for permission to improve the grave site and rededicate it with a new headstone and memorial plaque. And in April 2017, a commemoration service took place at the cemetery, complete with a Salvation Army brass band! (“Pa” had been an officer in the Sally Ann.)

The story even made the news, with a feature in the local paper. Then Kelly got a call from BBC Radio Birmingham News for an on-air interview. “The irony is that I travelled 6,000 miles to visit the grave,” Kelly says. “The Norton Owners Club Shenstone branch is 10 miles away and never went there until after my visit and my report to the INOA committee.” MC