Riding High: 1974 Norton Commando Hi-rider

We take a look at a very original 1974 Norton Hi-rider, one of the most unloved of all the Commando variations.

1974 Norton Commando Hi-rider

Photo by Nick Cedar

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1974 Norton Commando Hi-rider
Engine:
828cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 77mm x 89mm bore and stroke, 8.5:1 compression ratio, 60hp @ 5,900rpm (claimed)
Top speed:
115mph (modern test)
Carburetion:
Two 32mm Amal Concentrics
Transmission:
4-speed, chain final drive
Electrics:
12v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase:
Dual downtube steel cradle w/Isolastic engine mounts/57.2in (1,453mm)
Suspension:
Norton Roadholder telescopic forks front, twin shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes:
10.7in (272mm) disc front, 7in (178mm) SLS drum rear
Tires:
4.10 x 19in front and rear
Weight (dry):
421lb (191kg)
Seat height:
31in (787mm)
Fuel capacity:
2.3gal (9ltr)
Price then/now:
$2,500 (est.)/$3,000-$14,000

“The Hi-rider is an important part of motorcycle and Norton history, whether you like the styling or not.” — Chuck Bohn, proud Hi-rider owner

Most motorcycle factories believe in evolution in design. Bringing out something completely different is risky — if the public doesn’t like it, management has to explain the flop to angry shareholders. Yet despite the risks, every once in a while something unique and unexpected sees the light of day. The English Norton factory made its name building sport and sport touring bikes, but in 1971 Norton did the unexpected: the company introduced the Hi-rider, a factory custom inspired by the chopper craze and designed to appeal to the American cruiser rider.

According to British journalist and author Mick Duckworth, in the late Sixties Dennis Poore (the controversial owner of Norton, whose Manganese Bronze Holdings company purchased Norton in 1966) took a trip to the United States, where he observed the budding chopper scene. Returning to the Norton factory, he instructed engineer Bob Trigg and the design team to design a Norton that looked like a chopper. U.S. sales were very important to Norton, and Mr. Poore apparently thought that a Norton that looked like a chopped Harley-Davidson Sportster would help sales. Most observers thought that people who wanted a chopped Sportster were very unlikely to accept a substitute made in England, but they weren’t in charge. So the factory staff designed a chopper-style motorcycle around the Norton Commando. The marketing department named it the Hi-rider, and it appeared on salesroom floors in 1971.

At this time, the Norton factory had been building its Commando, with several variations, for three years. The Commando was popular with riders who were interested in sport touring, road racing and fast riding on a twisty road. The bike had first appeared at the London, England, Earls Court show in September 1967. It combined the factory’s venerable but powerful 745cc parallel twin engine, tipped forwards in the frame and fed by twin Amal Concentric carburetors, with a new frame designed to both isolate the rider from vibration and provide rock steady handling through any kind of turn. The frame was complemented by Norton’s highly regarded Roadholder front fork.

This was a bike made for hard, fast riding, not cruising. In Cycle magazine’s 1970 test of seven Superbikes (a word coined shortly before by an unknown journalist) a Norton Commando S won the acceleration test over a BSA Rocket 3, a Harley-Davidson Sportster, a Honda CB750 and a Kawasaki H1, among other contenders. Testers also found the Norton easy to ride at speed. “Handling is extremely light and precise for a big machine,” Cycle said.

Cost cuts

Although the Commando sold well worldwide, the Norton factory was in a precarious financial position due to mistakes and missteps on the part of previous management and was making many engineering decisions on the basis of cost. For example, the Isolastic rubber mounts that kept the rider’s fillings from shaking out of their teeth were originally supposed to use a vernier adjustment system. Due to cost considerations the vernier system was replaced with shim adjustment, but changing the shims for the rear Isolastic meant taking a lot of the bike apart. The vernier setup was finally installed on the 1975 and later Commandos.

There was no money to build bikes that were really different from each other, but the company was able to economically introduce different models of the Commando by using different mufflers, seats, fenders, tanks and side panels. The original Commando, eventually called the Fastback, had a cone-shaped tail, a long tank and a seat with ears that stretched over the rear of the tank and were intended as knee pads. This was soon joined by two other versions, the R and the S, both with smaller gas tanks and normal seats and rear fenders. The S had high- level pipes on the left with reverse-cone mufflers.

Not all the changes were cosmetic. Commando success allowed the factory to install some mechanical upgrades. The ignition points were moved from behind the timing cover to the front of the timing cover, the headstock bearings were changed to sealed ball bearings, and a cush drive shock absorber was added to the rear hub.

The now-familiar Roadster was introduced for 1970. It was almost identical to the S, but with low pipes. At the same time, the original version of the Commando was renamed the Fastback, and a new version of the Fastback with a larger tank became available. To meet demand from competition enthusiasts, Norton started building the Production Racer, with assembly done at its race shop at Thruxton. The racer featured items that would have been desirable on the road machine, including a disc front brake and an optional 5-speed gearbox.

The Production Racer was a natural outgrowth of the Commando. The Hi-rider was not. The Hi-rider featured ape-hanger handlebars, a smaller, 5.5-inch (146mm) headlight (from the SS model), a one-of-a-kind seat with a large, padded backrest, and a small capacity gas tank, also from the SS model, that held just 2.3 gallons (9 liters) — not the sort of thing you would want to ride in your quest for lap time improvement. Chuck Bohn, the owner of this bike, describes it as a “Sportster on steroids.” Commentators have theorized that the person who designed the bike was indulging in illegal substances, and Cycle magazine described its looks as “hilarious.”

Looking back

Although the Hi-rider was the second-most expensive Commando (after the Production Racer), surprisingly, the bike sold. There apparently were quite a few people who liked the idea of a Norton chopper, a lot of whom were in the American Midwest. Writer Ian Falloon says the Hi-rider was so popular in the country’s center that Norton sales increased 44 percent west of the Mississippi River. Despite the jeering of the magazines, the Hi-rider sold well enough to make it into the 1972 lineup.

At this point, Norton made a major mistake. In a bid to keep the Commando’s aged twin competitive with increasingly powerful multi-cylinder offerings from Japan, compression was raised from 8.9:1 to 10:1 and carburetors enlarged from 30mm to 32mm, raising output to a claimed 65 horsepower at 6,500rpm, up from 56 horsepower at the same revs. The crankcase was strengthened, but the increased power created crankshaft flexing that hammered the main bearings. Making matters worse, the mechanical advance unit on the Combat engine, as it was called, would stick fully advanced, and a poorly designed crankcase breather setup resulted in the oil foaming in the crankcase, starving already stressed main bearings of lubrication.

Predictably, the main bearings on Combat engines failed. That is, unless the pistons came apart first, which happened as well. Norton was hit hard with warranty claims and the company’s reputation suffered badly. Financially, it was a double whammy.

Yet the Hi-rider — which never got the Combat engine and as a result never blew up — continued to sell well enough to make it into 1973. All Nortons for that year had an improved engine with Superblend bearings that did not fail, and a better auto ignition advance unit.

At the end of 1973 the poor old vertical twin engine — originally a 500cc when first introduced in 1949, and steadily enlarged because Norton could not afford to replace it — was bored out to 77mm, raising the cubic capacity to 828cc. The compression ratio was lowered, a spin-on oil filter was added and engine breathing was improved. All models got the front disc brake that cured the poor stopping that many testers had repeatedly complained about. Hi-riders built between 1971 and 1973 have the 750 engine, while later Hi-riders have the larger engine, referred to as the 850.

Against all odds, the Hi-rider still continued to sell reasonably well and lasted until early 1975. The 1975 Nortons were significantly upgraded, but it was a last gasp. Chronically cash-strapped, Norton was going down the tubes. Unable to afford the retooling to build an engine competitive with the products of its Japanese rivals, the Commando was looking increasingly archaic. In 1975 the Industry Minister recalled a loan for £4 million (almost $9 million U.S.) and refused to renew the company’s export credits. That was the last straw, and Norton went into receivership. Commandos were built — sparingly — through 1977, when the factory finally shut down.

Commandos live on

Archaic or not, the Commando continued to be popular. By this time, there were Norton owner’s clubs all over the world. Most of the people who continued to be interested in Nortons were the sport folks, and as a result a lot of Hi-riders were bought secondhand, stripped of their chopper bars and seat and turned into Roadsters for the better pursuit of canyon carving excellence. As a result, Hi-riders in their original garb are seldom seen. Chuck Bohn’s is one of the few in stock condition.

Chuck didn’t set out to buy a Hi-rider. In 2002, he had a 1971 Commando and was looking for a later model. A friend said his uncle was the second owner of a low-mileage 1974 machine that was parked in his living room. Chuck pursued the deal — and stopped dead in his tracks when he found out it was a Hi-rider. “I was a lot less excited.” The owner then sent photos of the extras that came with the bike — a Roadster seat and Euro-style bars with nice bar-end mirrors. He also had photos of the bike set up with the low bars and standard seat. Chuck chewed over the deal. “I thought, ‘It doesn’t look that bad,’ and handed over my cash. I rode the bike set up as a Hi-rider on a club ride shortly after I bought it, and found that people either love it or hate it. People who know Nortons say, ‘Oh, it’s a Hi-rider.’ People who don’t say, ‘What did you do to that beautiful bike?’”

The uncle who kept the bike in the living room had ridden it 10 miles once a month. Although he owned it for years, he had put only about 300 miles on it. Despite, or maybe because of, this minimal use, the Hi-rider was in excellent condition, and needed no restoration whatsoever. It had 2,400 miles on it when Chuck bought it and now has 8,000 miles on the odometer.

Shortly after Chuck bought the bike, he converted it to a Roadster. (“Everything but the tank and headlight,” he says.) He rode it on club rides. Then, in 2008, Chuck bought a 1975 Mark III Commando. The Mark III had significant upgrades, including the vernier Isolastic adjuster, an electric start, and a disc brake on each wheel. It also shifts on the left, like most modern motorcycles, while the pre-1975 Nortons shifted on the right. The Mark III was just too easy to ride, and Chuck was riding the Hi-rider less, so he converted it back to Hi-rider specs. “It takes about two hours. You have to change the brake line and the clutch cable and bleed the brake. It’s not something I want to do that often,” he says. Soon he started taking it to shows. “I rode it to one show and lost a point for having oil on the head,” he said.

A Hi-rider, like any Commando, can be ridden on a regular basis and at normal freeway speeds if the owner keeps up the maintenance. The many active owners clubs are a deep well of knowledge and most parts (with the possible exception of sheet metal) are a phone call away. Parts do vibrate loose, and the air-cooled engine needs frequent oil changes. One source of mysterious problems is the wiring harness, which can develop intermittent shorts with age. Another wear item is the Amal carburetors. If the slides are a sloppy fit in the carburetor bodies, the bike won’t idle. Sleeving the carburetors cures that problem.

Many owners convert over to synthetic oil, which keeps operating temperature down and lessens the frequency of oil changes, and add an electronic ignition, which eliminates point setting and condenser replacement.

A Hi-rider has the stock Commando forks and frame. The only difference as far as handling goes are the high bars, which, as Chuck says, take some getting used to. Although a Hi-rider doesn’t handle like a Norton Roadster — a bike that will go where you point it under any conditions — “it’s not that bad,” Chuck says.

“I am proud to own, show and ride my Hi-rider,” Chuck says. “It’s another kind of Commando.” MC