1974 Norton Commando 850

Motorcycle enthusiast Dan Bockmier decided it was time to build a custom Commando that looks as good as it rides, stops and handles.

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by Nick Cedar

Dan Bockmier had a clear vision when he started working on this Norton.

“The concept for the bike occurred to me while pondering how conservative Norton was in terms of paint and style. They’re so unlike Triumph, for instance, who had different super sexy two-tone paint schemes every year. Norton was always about engineering and very little sizzle.”

A Norton Commando, one of the most powerful and best handling British motorcycles of the late Sixties and Seventies, may not seem very conservative at first glance. Not only does the bike easily keep up with modern traffic, but in the minds of many people, Norton is forever associated with the Commando advertising campaign, which featured sexy women dressed in the latest in mod fashion. However, look at a Norton, and you can see Dan’s point: The chrome and flash that marked contemporary Harleys and BSA’s just isn’t there. Dan decided he wanted a flashy Norton and set out to bring his dream into reality.

Dreams come true

Almost every special build motorcycle starts with a dream. A mental picture appears to the builder, which conjures up enough enthusiasm that he or she is inspired to create it in steel, paint and rubber. The trip from mental picture to finished product is seldom easy and often very expensive. The  dream has to carry the builder through setbacks and mistakes, up steep off-camber learning curves and down an often worrisome cash drain. That the project ever gets finished is sometimes a minor miracle.

Norton, one of the more popular English manufacturers, with a storied racing history, introduced the Commando in 1967. The original Commando had a long slender tank complimented by flaps on each side of the seat to cushion the rider’s knees and a tailpiece that ended in the rear light. This tank, seat and tailpiece design was known as the “Fastback.” Later, the Commando became available with several different versions of the tank, seat and exhaust system. The engine was detuned slightly and enlarged from 745cc to 828cc. All versions of the Commando are powered by a vertical twin engine, canted forwards in a frame with a heavy, stiff backbone, which is isolated from engine vibration by specially designed “Isolastic” rubber mounts. The combination of the torquey engine, stiff frame and excellent forks made the bike a favorite of sporting riders of the Sixties and Seventies. The bike was still popular when the Norton company collapsed in 1975 due to long-term mismanagement and failure to invest in the product, and it still boasts a large and enthusiastic fan club — including Dan Bockmier.

Dan continues explaining what he was trying to do: “There were only two occasions where Commandos showed some sizzle. They really went out on their longest limb with the Fastback body style. The later John Player striped Roadster was the only Commando Roadster ever that was not a simple solid color with pinstripes. I wanted to marry the horizontal lines of the Fastback to the horizontal lines of the John Player Norton paint scheme.” With that picture in mind, Dan went looking for a Norton to build into his vision of a Commando that would look as fast as it went. He also planned to upgrade the drivetrain and cycle parts, with the finished product to look like something the factory might build if it was still producing classic Commandos.

Dan likes both riding and working on classic bikes. “My favorite part of a motorcycle is the part between pristine and worn out.” He has built factory spec restorations, but most of his time in the shop is spent getting balky, leaky, used bikes (bought at bargain prices because they were so balky and leaky) to run smooth and be oil-tight. He also likes to build specials. This Norton is the latest creation to roll out of his garage.

Long-term affair

Dan’s love of classic bikes came early. When he was 16, his friend Mark would take Dan for rides on his Honda CB77 Superhawk.  “I thought motorized conveyance was a gift from Heaven. I wanted to get a car, but started thinking that since riding on a bike was so much fun as a passenger, I had to own one of these magical things.” A series of coincidences led to Dan trading a car he then owned for a 1960 Matchless 650 twin and $100. (“I explained to the buyer that I needed the $100 to buy another car.”) Searching for a source of parts for his new acquisition, Dan found that one of the few places to buy Matchless parts was right in his St. Louis hometown. Lee Cowie, owner of Motorsport, took Dan under his wing and gave him a thorough grounding in the care and feeding of British motorcycles.

The impetus for building customs came much later. Dan acquired a Ducati Supersport and built it up into a prize winning restoration. “I couldn’t ride the bike much because it had to be ready for shows. Eventually the bike became a bore, and I sold it. I dig the discipline of originality, but I wanted some departures. I would rather ride the bikes I build. I decided I wanted to build specials that look like they came from the factory.” Dan bought another Ducati and built it up into a special that embodied his vision of what he thought a Ducati should be. Later, he built a “rubber Manx,” a Norton Commando that looks like a Manx racer from the Fifties. “A full frame-off rebuild is a story of obstacles overcome. It takes patience and money. Plus I frequently get interrupted by the siren call of another bike that doesn’t need so much work.”

After the concept is in mind, the next steps to achievement of the dream motorcycle are, as Dan explains it, “First, acquisition of a donor bike. It’s important to get a bike with all the original parts so you can sell them to finance your project. Second, the scavenger hunt, to find all the things you need to make the bike what you want it to be. Third, deciding how far you want to go in terms of the teardown. Fourth: you finally get to ride it!”

The hunt begins

With the concept of a flashy Norton firmly in mind, Dan went out looking for a Commando that ran. Norton built a lot of Commandos and many are still in existence. He found a likely candidate, but the owner was having a dispute with a mechanic and the bike was at the mechanic’s shop. Dan gave up on that bike and was continuing the search, when George, the owner, called. He had resolved the problem. Did Dan still want the bike? Money changed hands and Dan hauled his new acquisition, a 1974 Mark IIA 850, back to his garage. At this point he got sidetracked by other projects. The Norton sat for two years.

“In 2019, I finally decided to get serious. I missed having a Commando. They are so torque laden and smooth. Plus, their exhaust note is intoxicating.” One of the pluses of working on Norton Commandos is that, due to the popularity of the bike, there isn’t much that is more than a phone call or a couple of computer clicks away — no searching though boxes at swap meets. Andover Norton is still in business making parts, and will happily ship from their factory in England to the U.S. Norvil, also in England, makes parts under license and was one of the main suppliers Dan used. Another major contributor to the project was Old Britts in Washington state.

Constant improvement

For the last 50-plus years, ingenious Norton enthusiasts have been figuring out how to improve the Commando, and, as a result, there are a lot of upgrades available. Many owners replace the original points with a Boyer, Pazon or Tri-Spark electronic ignition. Dan put in a Tri-Spark. The Isolastic rubber engine mounts are adjustable to limit the amount of play in the system. Pre-1975 Commandos were adjustable by shims, which are very difficult to replace. A popular modification, and one that Dan used on this bike, is to replace the earlier style Isolastics with 1975-style Isolastics, which are much easier to adjust.

Dan did all the wrenching himself. The crankshaft end play was within specs, and after a careful inspection, Dan decided that there was no reason to split the cases. “The bike was surprising. I was amazed how little it needed.” He did put in a proper crankcase breather check valve (another popular modification), fitted new pistons and rings and sent the head to Engine Dynamics in Petaluma, California for a valve job. Morgen Machine, in San Francisco, modified the Alton electric starter kit to work with a Norvil belt drive. “I wanted an electric starter in order to future-proof the bike. I’d like to be able to ride it when I am an old geezer and not to have to worry whether or not I can still kickstart it.”

Amal Concentric carburetors often wear bell-mouthed, from similar metals rubbing on each other. The cure, which will make the bike idle smoothly again, is to sleeve the carburetors, and AH Motorsports (Andy Hardan) in the Seattle area, is still sleeving Amals. When assembled, Dan was surprised to find that it was running a little lean, despite using the stock air cleaner. “When the slide is too lean, you hear a little ‘pop’ on acceleration. The cure is to put in a richer slide.”

Bodywork and more

With the engine parts in order, Dan turned to the suspension. “The front forks have the Covenant modification, which changes the position of the damper rod holes to produce a proper hydraulic stop. I also put in an extra long bushing from RGM. Otherwise, I left the forks alone. Norton forks are great.”

There is a fair amount of discussion in Norton circles about the best tire for the bike. Dan is in the Avon Roadrider camp. “I used a 90/90 front and a 100/90 in back to correct the Norton factory use of the same tire front and back. You get better geometry with the smaller tire in front. Rumor has it that Norton got a deal on tires from Dunlop if they would agree to use the same tire on both rims.”

The huge front brake is something of a find. “I learned about solid axle rear hubs that were being manufactured by an Australian retired to the Philippines, who was using local labor to produce parts for Nortons. He had several components on eBay and offered me a deal on two wheels rims, a rear hub and the front brake. The front rim was not drilled correctly, and I had to buy a correct rim from Buchanan’s. The rest of the components I bought from this seller are lovely.” [Visit here for these parts. — Ed.]

A new Fastback tailpiece showed up from Andover Norton in England. Unfortunately, when placed on the bike, it didn’t fit. Some research was needed. Dan learned that by the time the 850 models were introduced, Norton was subcontracting their frames to two different manufacturers. To further complicate matters a new frame specification, dictating a wider rear subframe, was issued around the same time. Norton used both types of frames inconsistently during the final years of production. This didn’t matter with any other version of the Norton besides the Fastback, but of course Dan was building a Fastback and the tailpiece needed the earlier slimmer subframe version of the frame to fit properly. Norton club member and welder extraordinaire Kim Williams fixed the frame so that the tailpiece fit. Another bump in the road was in the rear view mirror.

The metal tank was made in India. The original Fastback tanks were fiberglass, a material that degrades over time and exposure to modern gasoline. The India-made tanks can be solid and fit well, but the finish sometimes leaves something to be desired. “It required modification to the fuel cap filler neck and a million pounds of skim coat prior to painting to smooth things out.” Dennis Hodges (DK Designs, San Francisco) did the paint. “He’s really an artist and detail-oriented.” What looks like decals are actually spray painted on. Hodges has a machine that digitally cuts masks to match the original decals. Once the logos are painted on, he clear coats over everything. “It’s a nice flat effect and it turned out marvelously.”

Was the bike worth all the time, trouble and money? “I made fewer mistakes on this than on some other builds. It turned out to run almost flawlessly from the first trial run of the engine. I have 400 miles on the bike already. The suspension is dialed in and I have confidence in the contemporary front brake. It’s an immediate favorite and I am elated to be on a Commando again.” MC

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