The Long Wait: The 2015 Norton 961SE

U.S. buyers waited a long time for the 2015 Norton 961SE, but was the wait worth it?

2015 Norton 961SE

Bob Jones' 2015 Norton 961SE

Photo by Stephen Clark

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2015 Norton 961SE
Top speed:
130mph (test)
961cc OHV air-cooled parallel twin, 88mm x 79mm bore and stroke, 10.1:1 compression ratio, 80hp @ 6,500rpm (claimed, at crankshaft)
Weight (dry):
414lb (188kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
4.5gal (17ltr)/NA

In 2008, British businessman Stuart Garner announced the rebirth of Norton Motorcycles. Initial production was set to start in mid-2009, with delivery of U.S. bikes to follow in late 2009 or early 2010. U.K. market bikes began trickling out of the Norton factory in 2010, but critical EPA certification for the U.S. market didn’t come until late 2012, and it wasn’t until October 2013 that the first batch of Norton Commando 961s landed on our shores.

Vintage motorcycle enthusiast Bob Jones wanted one of the new Nortons, so in February 2011 he put down a $3,000 deposit on a 961SE, hoping to take possession that year. 2011 stretched to 2012, then 2013 and 2014. In May 2015, 51 months after tendering his deposit, Bob finally got his new Norton Commando 961SE.

The backstory

Not every enthusiast is as patient as Bob. Indeed, many early would-be 961 buyers pulled out after waiting a year or two. Yet Bob was somehow inextricably bound by a desire to own one of the new Nortons, a desire fueled by his interest in classic British bikes, starting with a Triumph Bonneville and eventually a small collection of vintage Nortons.

“I became intrigued with motorcycles in the mid-1950s, when my uncle would ride his Harley from Redding, California, to our home in the Bay Area. He would take me for the occasional ride when my father wasn’t around to object, and I’d spend hours during his visits sitting on his bike in the backyard, dreaming of my own adventures,” Bob recalls. “Unfortunately, my father was very opposed to me having anything to do with motorcycles, so the closest I came in my youth was a pull-start Tote Goat-type machine that I’d ride around our two acres.”

Family life at an early age postponed motorcycling until Bob’s mid-30s, when he bought a Suzuki TS-125 dual sport, followed by a 750cc Kawasaki Vulcan, then a Harley-Davidson Springer and a Harley Road King. “My interest in vintage British motorcycles was inspired by memories of missed opportunities as a teen and young adult when my friends were mostly riding Triumphs,” Bob says. “I couldn’t dismiss the image of the husky looking Triumph Bonneville from my memory; I really enjoyed the Harleys, but the Triumph kept calling my name.”

One day, Bob saw an ad in the Salt Lake City, Utah, newspaper for a 1970 Triumph Bonneville, and brought it home. The bike was original, and ran well once cleaned and tuned up, although old accident damage meant he had to replace the fork tubes and rebuild the front end. “In the process of sourcing parts for the Triumph, I met Jeff Smith, who owned a British motorcycle repair shop right down the street from my business,” Bob says. “He introduced me to the Utah British Bike Club, and I felt like I’d finally found my place in motorcycle life.”

With the Triumph done, Bob began looking for a new project, so he asked Jeff if he had anything. “Jeff likes to keep his bikes and doesn’t easily part with any of them, project worthy or not,” Bob says. “But I was persistent, and one day he called me to look at what he found in one of his sheds. It was a 1974 Norton 850 Commando Roadster, with only one side panel remaining to bear evidence of the original metallic blue paint. There was no cylinder head, no gas tank, no seat, and most of the rest was in sad shape. On the plus side, he said he’d include replacements for most of the major missing parts. I had asked for a project, so I paid the man and took it to my shop.” It was a complete nut and bolt restoration, with a few custom mods thrown in to suit Bob’s tastes, and except for paint work and cylinder boring, Bob did all of the work himself.

The 961SE

That was in the early 2000s, around the same time Oregonian Kenny Dreer of Vintage Rebuilds was making a name for himself for his custom Norton restorations and the limited-edition VR880 Commando hot rod. Bob took notice, and followed Dreer’s attempt in the mid-2000s to revive the Norton marque. Dreer managed to acquire the scattered Norton trademarks, along the way setting up Norton Motorsports and working tirelessly on a redesigned, modern interpretation of the classic Commando, the Norton 952.

Unfortunately, in 2006, after developing the 952 into the 961, Dreer ran out of money, and in 2008 the brand returned to England after the rights to Norton — along with Dreer’s updated design, said to have been 70-80 percent production ready — were purchased by English businessman Stuart Garner. Using Dreer’s design, Garner began tooling up production for the new 961. Norton faithful around the world were elated, but also apprehensive, as Garner had no experience in the motorcycle industry. Then again, some pointed out, neither did John Bloor when he purchased the rights to Triumph in 1984.

“In December 2009 I was in Southern California, and my significant other Suzan and I rode my Harley-Davidson V-Rod to the Long Beach Convention Center for the annual International Motorcycle Show,” Bob says. “There was a large Triumph booth, and within it two prototypes of the new Norton 961s were on display, courtesy South Bay Norton of Lomita, California, at the time the exclusive U.S. Norton dealership. One bike had no engine internals, just the cases. I threw a leg over both and was impressed with the look and feel of the bikes, even if they weren’t moving.”

In 2010, South Bay Norton owner Matt Capri took a 961SE to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Piloted by rider and writer Alan Cathcart, the bike set a record in the 1,000cc Production Pushrod class, recording an average top speed of 129.19mph. Early in 2011, Bob read that South Bay Norton was taking deposits for the limited-edition Norton 961SE; 50 of the 200 to be produced worldwide were reserved for the U.S. market. “In February 2011, I called and sent a deposit for one of the bikes. By then the waiting list had grown to 50, making me number 51, so I knew there was no guarantee that I’d actually get one of the bikes. I let it ride however, and eventually I rose on the list as less-patient potential owners dropped off. I knew someday a Norton 961 Special Edition would be parked in my garage, but it proved to be a long wait!”

Waiting game

Necessary EPA certification for U.S. market bikes took much longer than Garner and Norton Motorcycles expected. Following initial production setbacks, in January 2011 Norton predicted U.S. EPA certification by April or May. They were off by a year and a half, with certification finally granted in November 2012. “I made many phone calls and visits to South Bay Norton, following up on the long, drawn-out saga. I know Capri got tired of answering my and others' inquires as to the status of the 961s’ EPA testing and an eventual delivery time frame,” Bob says.

In November 2012, Bob walked into the dealership, and sitting in the corner was the actual bike used for the just-completed EPA testing, with all the data collecting ports and other test devices still on it. The bike was about to be returned to England and the EPA paperwork was in the process of completion. “I sat on the Norton and had Suzan snap my photo, fairly comfortable that I might actually see my bike soon,” Bob says. In reality, it would be two more years before that would come about.

Finally, in May 2015, 51 months after putting down a $3,000 deposit on the bike, Bob picked up his new Norton. “Initially, I was somewhat disappointed,” he says, “especially when I first started the bike and heard the rattle of the clutch and the whine of the gear-driven primary overpowering the nonexistent note from the exhaust! It took awhile for me to get comfortable, mostly because I didn’t like the sound, and my speeds and revs were limited while I followed the recommended break-in. Once the break-in miles were over I could test the performance, and I was very happy with what it could do, and after looking into the mechanics of the primary and clutch, I began to understand why they were noisy and decided my concern that something was mechanically wrong was misplaced.”

Something had to be done about the exhaust note, however. South Bay has developed an aftermarket exhaust system for the new Norton, so Bob bought their stainless steel Dominator Sport mufflers and X-pipe, and sent his bike’s ECU in for remapping. He’s more than a little happy with the alterations: “The change in the bike was dramatic not only in sound, but in performance and riding pleasure,” Bob says.

The noisy gear-driven primary and clutch has gotten quieter with use, and Bob loves the engine. “It loves to rev, seeming happiest above 4,000rpm, where it pulls strong from that point to near redline,” he says. Likewise, he thinks the handling is excellent, once the bike is understood. “It’s very stable at speed and in sweepers, but the frame geometry demands some aggressive initiation of hard turns. Once I learned how to handle it, the Norton became my favorite to ride on the twisty roads I prefer.”

Worth the wait?

As Bob sees it, the wait may have been something of a blessing in disguise. “In the end, I’m actually happy about the long four-year wait for my bike, because by the time they built it in March of 2015, most of the earlier manufacturing problems had been worked out, and I have so far enjoyed a reasonably trouble-free experience with it.”

Bob is clearly a patient man, and philosophical about his experience and Norton’s challenge getting a new company moving. Yet he’s not completely willing to let Norton off the hook. “I have one real complaint with my purchasing experience, but it isn’t actually with the bike itself. It is with the Norton factory and the U.S. distribution network. The bike was purchased as a Special Edition, to be delivered as a numbered bike, one of the 50 SEs allotted to the U.S. market of 200 built worldwide. When ordered, I was told the Special Editions were also supposed to be the first 50 bikes delivered to U.S. customers." Unfortunately, a couple of things happened. “First, the EPA process took so long, the demand from the U.S. distribution network became so great the SEs were mixed into the total number of bikes being shipped to the U.S., rather than being built and delivered first. Second, the U.S. SEs were delivered without a Special Edition number or unique model plate of any kind, having only a Special Edition decal on the body and an SE designation on the MSO (manufacturer’s statement of origin). As a result, some of the appeal of being a Special Edition is, well, less ‘special.’ South Bay Norton says it will eventually be sorted out, with U.S. SE numbers and number plates to be issued.”

According to Norton Motorcycles and South Bay Norton, that fix is in the works, and special plaques designed to attach to a recess in the upper triple clamp underneath the tachometer will be sent to the 50 U.S. 961SE owners. MC

Finally Snortin’: But is it any good?

Riding Bob Jones’ new Norton Commando 961SE through the paddock at Miller Motorsports Park during the 2015 Bonneville Vintage GP, it’s hard not to feel special. In a moto-centric setting like this, people eyeing the Norton know they’re getting their first glimpse of a bike they’ve been reading about for years, and their appreciative smiles suggest they like what they see.

There’s no question the new 961 looks good, but the burning question on my mind is, what’s it like to ride? Moto scribe Alan Cathcart’s early reports on the bike were mostly positive. He faulted the shift linkage (later fixed) and found a few rough stumbles in the engine management system, but mostly he lauded the new Norton for its fine handling and meaty engine torque, requisite elements of a true British twin.

The revised exhaust and remapped ECU on Bob’s 961 induce performance pluses and minuses. Warmed up, it wails like the proverbial banshee, but getting the engine there takes a bit of finesse as it’s slow to catch when cold. The trick is to not touch the throttle on first start. Thumb the starter, and if it dies, do it again; after two or three half-starts you can grab some throttle and coax it into a lazy idle.

I don’t know what a stock 961 sounds like, but I’m sure it’s not like this. The pipes on Bob’s bike give the 961 audible authority, yet it’s slightly confusing because I expect it to sound like a vintage Norton with its traditional 360-degree crank. But the 961 has a 270-crank, like a Ducati, and as a result sounds more like a Duc than a Snortin’ Norton, especially as the revs rise.

Heading out for my 150-mile run, throttle response gets cleaner as the engine warms up, and by the time I’m out on empty two-lanes the 961 is running flawlessly. The parallel twin pulls eagerly and quickly, aided by a smooth-shifting transmission and a butter-light clutch. I’m still expecting it to feel like an old Commando, but as the miles build that thought melts away. It’s not an old Commando, and that’s not a bad thing.

Heading west on the old Lincoln Highway (now US 199) and up to the 6,496-foot summit of Fisher Pass (the locals call it Johnson Pass), the 961 shows it’s more than capable in the twisties. It’s not as quick and flickable as I expect (rake is fairly steep at 24.5 degrees with 3.9 inches of trail), but if you push it, it obeys and falls right in, carving corners with ease. Keep the revs over 4,000rpm and a flick of the wrist sends you hurtling forward, the Öhlins suspension doing a superb job of keeping the tires on the road and the rider in control.

The engine returns all the right sensations of strength, its ample torque (66ft/lb at 5,200rpm stock, probably more on Bob’s bike) making it easy to slingshot from one curve to the next. Running up to an indicated 110mph while pouring out of the other side of the pass into the desert, the 961 is utterly smooth and feels like it’s ready for more.

Whether it’s worth the $17,899 Bob paid is an individual call. Importantly, Bob has no regrets, and says the 961 has become his go-to bike whenever he wants a spirited ride. It satisfies his itch, and that’s all that really matters. — Richard Backus