Norton Commando: 850 Versus 961

Clash of the Commandos: Classic Norton Commando 850 vs. a new Norton 961

Two Norton Bikes

1973 Norton Commando 850 and 2011 Norton Commando 961 Sport

Photo by Alan Cathcart

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1973 Norton Commando 850

Claimed power: 53hp @ 6,200rpm, 48ft/lb torque @ 5,000rpm (at gearbox)
Top speed: 122mph (period test)
Engine type: 829cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin
Transmission: 4-speed
Weight: 415lb (dry)
MPG: 45-55
Price then: $1,879

2011 Norton Commando 961 Sport

Claimed power: 80hp @ 6,500rpm, 66ft/lb torque @ 5,200rpm (at crankshaft)
Top speed: 130mph (test)
Engine type: 961cc air/oil-cooled OHV parallel twin
Transmission: 5-speed
Weight: 414lb (dry)
MPG: 40-50 (est.)
Price now: £12,745 ($20,112 as of 11/18/2011)

As retro becomes ever more chic, looking in the rearview mirror at our Britbike yesterdays has become increasingly commonplace these days — think Triumph Bonneville or Scrambler, any Royal Enfield Bullet, the eight-valve Métisse duo just unveiled at the 2011 Goodwood Revival in England, and especially the Norton Commando 961.

And at Norton’s Donington Park factory, owner Stuart Garner’s men are finally ramping up production of this new interpretation of the classic Norton Commando after England’s business secretary, Vince Cable, unlocked the key to the money vaults, enabling bank loans for Norton to scale up manufacture of a bike that’s eagerly sought by enthusiasts of The Way It Was all around the world.

Just how was it?

A key element for modern re-creations of much-loved models of days gone by is how faithfully they recapture the spirit, as well as the looks, of the original. That’s been a no-brainer with the Royal Enfield Bullet, essentially a further development of the original, whether built in Redditch, England, or Madras, India. But Triumph’s twin-cam multi-valve Bonneville owes little to its pushrod two-valve 1960s namesake that debuted more than 50 years ago, other than its overall architecture and clever John Mockett styling. So in applauding the creation of the new Norton Commando 961, how much are today’s customers for such a bike being seduced by the undoubtedly spot-on styling concocted by American Commando specialist Kenny Dreer, who created the prototype in his Oregon workshop before Norton was purchased by Garner? How closely does riding today’s two-valve air/oil-cooled Norton pushrod parallel twin — with its 270-degree let’s-pretend-I’m-a-V-twin crankshaft — compare to the 1970s original of identical format, but with a traditional two-up 360-degree crank format? MC 

Order the January/February 2012 issue of Motorcycle Classics to read more about the Clash of the Commandos, including a road tests by Alan Cathcart. Contact Customer Service at (800) 880-7567 or contact us by email.