Agnes the Norton Commando 850
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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.
Although Commandos were as fast off the line as any bike of the early 1970s (a Norton 750 came in first in a March 1970 Cycle magazine seven-way test), they were popular more for their superior handling than their outright speed. In an era when many bikes had to be muscled through a corner, the Commando was famous for its ability to change lines at will. Even with less horsepower than some of the competition, a Commando was easier to ride fast, allowing the rider to shame rivals on more technologically advanced bikes.
The future of the marque seemed rosy, but in 1972, Norton made a mistake. Trying to increase horsepower without spending money it didn’t have, the company introduced the “Combat” engine. Running a 10:1 compression ratio versus the original engine’s 8.9:1, the 65 horsepower Combat — 7 horses up on the first Commandos — needed a stronger bottom end, but didn’t get it. Warranty claims for main bearing failure flooded in.
Norton engineers fixed the problem by fitting new “Superblend” main bearings and lowering the compression ratio, but the cost of dealing with the claims hurt Norton’s bottom line, and the bad publicity ate into sales.
A new 828cc version billed as an 850 appeared in April 1973, achieved by increasing the bore from 73mm to 77mm. All 1974 Commandos were 850s, and 1975 saw the final version of the Commando, the Mark III. With disc brakes front and rear, the shift lever moved to the left to comply with U.S. homologation legislation. This last version featured a large, restrictive airbox along with vernier-adjustable Isolastics. These changed the task of tightening up loose Isolastics from an evening job to a 15-minute procedure. Many Commando owners retrofit the adjustable units to their older machines.
The Norton Commando 850 Mark III also came with an electric “starter.” Norton opted for a four-brush Prestolite starter (the same unit used on Harley Sportsters) but corner-cutting at the factory changed the four-brush system to the barely functional two-brush unit that was sold to the public. Some sources say the starter was downgraded to ease strain on the starter drive train. Whatever the case, the units were typically referred to as “starter assists” because of their feeble capacity.
Unfortunately, this was symptomatic of the internal turmoil Norton was then suffering. Despite respectable sales, Norton was losing money. And when the British government demanded a loan be repaid and refused further export credits, Norton stopped Commando production. The last Mark III rolled off the line in 1977.
Almost a Norton girl
Meanwhile, our girl Maya grew up tall and slender, and started modeling. Still pining for a Norton, she wrote the company, enclosing her portfolio and asking about modeling for the then-famous “Norton Girls” ads. Norton’s advertising director wrote back, telling her she wasn’t buxom enough and her skin wasn’t the right shade for the sector of people they were selling to. “I went to the [Andover] Norton factory in 1991, and the guy was still working there. We had a discussion about it. He apologized with a red face,” Maya says today.