Death Valley on a Dunstall Norton Commando

Scrapheap challenge: Riding a 1970 Dunstall Norton Commando, rescued from an auto recycling yard, across Death Valley

It takes a peculiar kind of faith to ride a 35-year-old Dunstall Norton across Death Valley.

It takes a peculiar kind of faith to ride a 35-year-old Dunstall Norton across Death Valley. Or a peculiar kind of insanity — you choose.

Photo by Phillip Tooth

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Dunstall Norton Commando

Years produced: 1970-1974
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 68bhp @ 7,000 rpm
Top speed: 125-135 mph
Engine type: Four-stroke, overhead-valve parallel twin
Weight (dry):  172.4kg (380lb)  
Price then: $1,500 (1970, est.)
Price now: $3,000-$7,000
MPG: 55-65

Simmering heat. Blistering sun. And a Dunstall Norton Commando that’s stood in a scrapyard for the last three years. Welcome to Death Valley.

Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth. Air temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit are common and ground temperatures are usually 50 percent higher. Five hundred and fifty square miles of Death Valley is below sea level, and rain rarely gets past the barren mountains that soar two miles above the valley floor into clear blue skies. The heat may be merciless but the scenery is stunning.  

If you want to ride through this desert landscape you need a bike that’s properly prepared and with a gas tank big enough to take you at least 150 miles between fill-ups. You should prepare yourself mentally and physically and carry enough water so that if you do break down you can survive until help arrives.

So much for theory. Here’s the reality. The Dunstall Norton Commando I was going to ride only had 5,269 miles on the Smiths clock, but it had stood in Jerry Turner’s San Francisco auto recycling yard for at least three years. Jerry is a kind-hearted Californian who’s competed in desert races since he was a kid. He has a can-do attitude that is infectious. And I was about to be infected.

He brushed off the desert dust, kicked the tires, fitted a secondhand battery and topped up the gas. The Dunstall started after a couple of swings and a peek in the oil tank showed the straight 50 lube was being pumped around. "You’ll get through Death Valley okay," said Jerry as he slapped me on the back and waved me away. I never doubted his word. Not for a second.

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