Classic Experience: Living With a 1973 Norton Commando 850

Some 55,000 Norton Commandos were built over the years. After riding one, we wish they’d built more.

Norton Commando

A 1973 Norton Commando 850.

Photo by Richard Backus

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1973 Norton Commando 850
Claimed power:
60hp @ 6,200rpm
Engine type:
828cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 77mm x 89mm bore and stroke, 8:5 compression ratio
Top speed:
122mph (period test)
Weight (wet):
462lb (210kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
3gal (11.4ltr)/50mpg (observed)
Price then/now:
$1,879 (1973)/$5,500-$8,500

Sample parts prices
Klempf’s British Parts

Muffler set:
$400 (original Norton)
Oil filter:
$8.50
Points and condensers set:
$38
Electronic ignition conversion:
$205 (Boyer)
Brake pad set:
$18.50
Valve cover gasket set:
$12.50
Top end gasket set:
$75

Service recommendations
Oil and filter change:
Every 2,500 miles
Air filter:
Clean/replace every 5,000 miles
Valve adjustment:
Check every 5,000 miles
Spark plugs:
Clean/adjust every 2,500 miles
Ignition timing:
Check/adjust every 2,500 miles

With an estimated 55,000 built, the Commando was the most successful Norton of all time. After spending a day with one, we think it’s too bad they didn’t build more.

The coming of the Commando

In many ways, it’s remarkable the Commando was successful at all. Introduced in 1968 and powered by the parallel twin developed 20 years earlier by Bert Hopwood (he’d helped design the game-changing Triumph Speed Twin in 1937), the Commando was in many ways the sad proof that the British motorcycle industry had been sitting on its hands while the Japanese and European competition blazed new trails. Where Hondas had overhead cams, four cylinders and disc brakes, Nortons had overhead valves, only two cylinders and, until 1972, drum brakes. The wave of the future they weren’t.

But that doesn’t mean they weren’t good bikes. When Norton decided — out of necessity — to continue with its old twin, it had the good sense to house it in a new frame, suspended by an entirely new isolating mounting system. Designed by former Rolls-Royce engineer Dr. Stefan Bauer, the Norton Isolastic system fixed the swingarm to an engine/transmission subframe, isolating the powertrain from the main frame — and the rider. It was brilliantly simple, and it transformed the rough and vibratory Norton 745cc twin into a smooth operator whose performance belied its aged origins. And while conventional wisdom said Norton had stretched the old twin beyond its limits, it was bumped up yet one more time, to 828cc in 1973, and proved up to the task.

Kenn Peters’ Commando 850

Old bikes tend to come with a story, and Kenn Peters’ 1973 Commando 850 definitely has one.

When another driver totaled his car in 1982, Kenn went shopping for a motorcycle. It was a sensible choice, because besides the cool factor, a bike was easier to park in San Francisco’s hip Embarcadero district where he lived. Kenn bought a 1973 Honda CB450, but when a pal on a bender crashed it on San Francisco’s famed Lefty O’Doul drawbridge, Kenn was left bike-less.

“I decided I wanted a BMW, then a Triumph,” Kenn remembers. His search took him to well-known San Francisco British bike dealer Munroe Motors, where he found a Bonneville. “I asked if they had anything else, and I went out back and there were like 200 motorcycle out there and one was just glowing. I walked around it and I looked down and it said ‘Norton’ and I thought, this is the bike I’ve wanted all the time.”

Kenn rode it home to the loft he shared with fellow biker roommates Otmar (Laverda Jota) and Hilde (Moto Guzzi LeMans), who made his first few days with the Norton memorable for all the wrong reasons: “They would sit in the window and laugh at me trying to start the Norton,” Kenn says.

“I was pretty crazy on it,” Kenn says. “I popped a wheelie once at the same time a guy ran in front of me, and I slammed on the brake and chipped a tooth on second gear.” Kenn nursed the Norton home, where he enlisted the help of a homeless speed freak mechanic, letting him live in the loft for free in exchange for help rebuilding the Norton. “He’d worked at Mean Marshall’s and Munroe’s. He split the cases, put in new bearings — I seated the valves holding the head in my lap.” Impressively, the engine hasn’t been apart since. “He did the silk thread thing on the cases [laying a strand of silk thread on the sealing surfaces], and they still don’t leak today.”

Kenn rode the Norton for another 10 years, bringing it with him when he moved to Kansas. The demands of family and work limited riding time, and when the Norton started developing issues a few years back, Kenn let it sit while he focused on other matters. Eventually, a new wiring harness brought Kenn’s Norton back to life, and it also inspired Kenn to give his Nort a little freshening up.

That “little” freshening up ultimately entailed removing the engine to clean up the frame, followed by replacing all the transmission bearings, seals and gaskets, plus new Isolastic mounts up front and upgrading to vernier-style MkIII Isolastics in the back, a new exhaust system, a new TriSpark ignition system, modified carburetors, fresh rubber, and fresh paint on the tank and side covers. Kenn doesn’t like powder coat, so he rattle canned the frame black.

Out on the road

The results of Kenn’s efforts become obvious the moment you fire up his Commando. Fuel on, tickle the carbs (the modified Amal carbs use hard chrome Mikuni slides and there’s no choke), turn the key two clicks and jump on the kickstarter with the throttle just slightly cracked open and the 850 bursts to life immediately. The steady impulses from the TriSpark allied with the reworked carbs mean it will settle into an idle even when cold, and where other machines cough and sputter until warmed up, Kenn’s Norton is ready to take off as soon as the oil has circulated.

The right foot, one-up, three-down shift pattern can confuse new riders, but prior ownership (I rode nothing but Commandos for 12 years) apparently left an indelible mark in my mechanical memory, as my right foot falls naturally to the task. The transmission in Kenn’s bike shifts beautifully, engaging first with only a mild thunk after a somewhat hefty pull on the clutch. A twist of the throttle elicits a healthy bark from the twin peashooter mufflers, and feeding out the clutch you instantly feel the Commando’s strong suit: torque.

There’s a reason people love parallel twins, and this is it. Rolling on the revs and pulling up through the gears, the Commando surges forward. It has acres of torque with a rich, meaty power delivery that just begs you to feed it more fuel. It pulls cleanly literally from idle, and while redline is an indicated 7,000rpm the engine delivers its best power between 4,000-6,000rpm. An indicated 90mph shows about 5,250rpm, and it feels like it could hold that speed all day long.

Slowing down is a little less rewarding, the front disc only moderately effective even with a fresh brake hose and rebuilt brake caliper. Getting the pads hot helps, but the answer to a solid stop is just to pull harder. The rear drum grabs well enough, but it’s a little too easy to lock on loose surfaces. A balanced system it’s not, but it works well enough once you’re used to it.

Commandos are known for their handling, and Kenn’s doesn’t disappoint. Although it looks — and feels — small, a longish wheelbase (almost 59 inches) makes it rock-steady in sweepers, yet it’s surprisingly nimble in tight turns. Limited suspension travel translates a lot of road imperfections and it could benefit from a steering damper, but it rarely feels nervous. I didn’t travel any really bad roads, but Kenn’s bike reminded me of what I’ve always loved about Commandos: Light, powerful and blessed with fine handling, they’re one of the most enjoyable motorcycles you’ll ever ride.

Detractors will tell you the Commando was never properly developed, but they’re ignoring the strides made by today’s enthusiastic network of owners and suppliers. Parts availability is second to none, and Kenn’s bike is proof that with sensible upgrades they can be reliable and practical daily riders. MC

Get an insider's view of Nortons: Read Jack Manning: The Classic Bike Experience.

Norton parts suppliers:
Walridge Motors
Steadfast Cycles
Klempf's British Parts
Job Cycle

jhutbeer
9/11/2014 12:25:14 PM

One more upgrade Ken may want to do is to the front brake master cylinder. Putting in a smaller piston reduce the amount of effort needed to stop enough to make it feel like a modern bike. The stock 5/8" diameter piston is reduced to 1/2" giving about 50% more braking power. This can be done by either resleeving the stock cylinder, or replacing it. I chose to replace it with one off eBay from the Phillipines. Mine fits right on to the existing switch controls so you don't have to mess up your bike to use it. You can then return to "three finger stopping" and still feel in control!