Agnes the Norton Commando 850
The Norton Commando 850 was the last of the line for Norton, but was it the best?
The Commando proved popular from the beginning. Norton dealers found a ready audience in the baby boomers just coming of age, and sales of Commandos took off.
Photo by Nick Cedar
1975 Norton Commando 850 Mark III
Claimed power: 60hp @ 5,900rpm
Top speed: 115mph (observed)
Engine: 828cc OHV air-cooled parallel twin, 77mm x 89mm bore and stroke, 8.5:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 460lb (209kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3gal (11.3ltr)/ 40-50mpg
Price then/now: $2,495/$5,000-$11,000
Stand in the parking lot of a favorite meeting place for the local motorcycle crowd and listen. A seasoned enthusiast can tell you what bike is sliding around the last bend well before its headlight comes into view.
A high-pitched shriek announces a performance two-stroke on redline. A basso profundo roar says a Buell is arriving. A baritone hum, echoing off the canyon walls like a jet fighter coming in for a landing? It can only be a Norton. “A Norton has a comforting monotone hum, like a C130 Hercules cargo plane,” Maya Lai says, adding, “Nothing sounds like a Norton.”
Maya should know. She heard her first Norton when she was a young girl. A neighbor had a new burgundy and silver Fastback Commando, and let her ride on the back — the only passenger he would carry. There were motorcycles in the family, as well. Maya’s twin brother, Ken, had small Hondas, and Maya wanted to ride them. “I wanted to do what Ken did,” she says, but Ken didn’t think she was capable of riding his bikes, so he wouldn’t let her.
Ingenious and mechanically oriented — and clearly quite stubborn — Maya figured out how to hot-wire Ken’s bikes and ride anyway. One day, Ken caught her. “Well, Twin,” Maya recalls him saying, “If you want to ride a bike, you’ll have to learn how to fix it.” So Maya lugged a broken 160cc Honda up to her room, took it apart, put it back together again and brought it back downstairs. It ran, and Maya had a motorcycle to ride. But what she really wanted was a Norton Commando like her neighbor’s.
Why the Norton Commando
The Norton Commando story began when British motorcycle conglomerate Associated Motor Cycles, which counted among its brands AJS/Matchless, Francis-Barnett, James and Norton, fell apart in 1966. Norton was one of the more successful of AMC’s brands, the remains of which were gathered up by Dennis Poore of Manganese Bronze Holdings. Poore took a hard look at what was left. The Norton Atlas, a good seller in the U.S., had a powerful 750cc vertical twin engine, but it put out almost as much vibration as horsepower. Poore decided to continue the Norton brand by civilizing the Atlas.
With money too tight to develop a new engine, Poore’s team focused on chassis improvements. Engineer Stefan Bauer — formerly with Rolls-Royce — supervised Norton engineers Bernard Hooper and Bob Trigg in developing a new frame that would isolate the rider from the Atlas engine. The final result was the now-famous Norton Isolastic system, which used a clever rubber mounting system to minimize vibration, especially at speed.
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