Flight of the phoenix
Robert C. Herman's 1975 Norton Commando after restoration.
On Sept. 15, 2007, I celebrated 25 years of owning my 1975 Norton Commando. In that time the bike and I rolled through a litany of adventures and misadventures, our relationship sometimes harmonious, sometimes not.
During those years I owned many other motorcycles, but they’ve come and gone like phases of the moon, useful or interesting for a time, but eventually tossed back to the marketplace. All except the Norton, which despite its idiosyncrasies and functional obsolescence never bored or annoyed me enough to cut the cord. When it was good, it was very, very good. And when it was bad … well, it is a Norton, after all.
Of the 20 or so motorcycles I’ve owned over the past 40 years, the Norton Commando I bought on Sept. 15, 1982, has been the only keeper. In good times and bad, laying down an oil mist at speed or gathering dust in a dark corner of the shed, it has been more than a motorcycle. It’s been a companion, a friend, a confidant. And it’s been through hell and back – literally.
On the evening of March 11, 2006, I took a phone call from ace Norton builder Jim Comstock. My bike was in Jim’s Pueblo, Colo., shop for minor repair and maintenance work. He said, simply: “Last night my shop burned down, and I’m afraid your Norton was totally destroyed.” Jim never was much for small talk. Hanging up the phone, I settled in to let the reality of his statement pry its way into my world view. That took a while, as my mind kept trying to reject this insult. If you’ve ever taken a late night call to learn that a close friend has suddenly died, you understand.
After a few days, I went to find what was left of my bike: Buried under charred rafters amid soggy heaps of rubble, it was barely recognizable. My first view of the wasted Norton was one of the most depressing sights I’ve ever laid eyes on. That ruined lump couldn’t possibly be my beautiful Norton! After clearing a path through the wreckage, I dragged the carcass out of the burned-out building, hauled it to a storage shed and drove home in a funk.
The end and the beginning
The story might have ended then and there, but for the ceaseless commiseration, encouragement and haranguing of my Norton Colorado chums (the local, unofficial Norton club), who convinced me the severely damaged Commando could be brought back from the ashes. If only to get these guys off my back, I retrieved the crusty hulk and hauled it up to Gary Bolduc’s place in Denver for a tech day we’d scheduled. With mixed feelings I unloaded the Crispy Critter, its bare front rim grating on the concrete garage floor as I wheeled it in place. It was like Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen; grimy bits and pieces dropped off the rusted chassis as I pushed it along. In cruel irony, the image of my bike in its pre-burnt glory stared back as Miss April in the club calendar on Gary’s garage wall.
The scent of catastrophic fire permeated the air. People avoided the bike as if its bad fortune might be contagious. Looks of pity and distaste were turned our way. My own demeanor was somber as I tore the bike down. Disassembling a grimy, burned-up motorcycle is not fun, and at that point I wasn’t entirely certain it was worth the effort. The work dragged with my spirits, and by the end of the day I hadn’t completed the teardown. I tossed heaps of junk and rubble into the back of my pickup, leaving an indelible aura of bad juju in one corner of Gary’s garage. I then drove to Bob Martin’s house a few miles north in Broomfield to drown my sorrows. In the morning, Bob helped me complete the teardown. I’d started the weekend with a burned-up bike in my pickup bed and ended it with a truckload of grimy parts. This is progress?
On the way home I dropped the chassis and several boxes of parts at the powder coater, at Bob’s expense. It was his generosity, more than anything else, that drove the restoration process. How could I possibly fail to honor his incredible gesture of friendship and support? I had to rebuild the Norton. And though I’d never tackled a full, frame-up restoration, in more than 20 years with this bike my oil-stained fingers had touched every bit of it at one time or another. I knew the machine as well as I knew my own aging body.
After the powder coating was done, I visited Doug McCadam at Doug’s Nortons in Dolores, Colo. We cracked open the engine, and Doug was astonished at the fine condition of the bottom end, which hadn’t been exposed to daylight since it left the factory in 1975. Bearings and journals looked good, and even the notoriously soft Mk III camshaft looked fresh after 40,000 miles. Doug insisted I leave the blackened cylinder head and crankcases with him for cleaning and detailing. Some weeks later I returned to Doug’s shop, where I found a pair of cases and a cylinder head that bore no resemblance to the grubby parts I’d left there.
At some point I decided not to undertake the engine build myself. Anything I goof up on the chassis can be undone, but there’s a lot going on inside that big parallel twin, and I knew just the man to build it right — Jim Comstock. No one builds a better Norton, and after all, it was his fire that destroyed my bike: The least he could do was help me make it whole again.
Time passed. After agonizing over a paint scheme, I delivered the tank, side covers and a quarter fairing to R&T Auto Body in Pueblo, Colo., for repair and paint work. These guys did a great job on the same bike a few years back, and I wanted them involved in the restoration process.
Seasons changed. The powder-coated chassis and parts languished in my “temporary garage.” (Yes, although I live 8,000 feet up in the Sangre De Cristos in the Rocky Mountains, I don’t have a garage. Besides, assembling a motorcycle under a tarp builds character.) Finally, I began working on the chassis: I pressed in new steering head bearings and assembled the triple clamps and forks. The night before, a bear had ripped the door off my tool shed, and parts were strewn about. I searched for parts I knew were around here someplace, and ordered a truckload of small items from Art Xanders. Tragically, Art suddenly died while the order was pending, and I ordered more parts from other sources.
As demoralizing as the burned-up hulk had been, the inventory of clean, shiny components offered the promise of new life. Things were looking up. The Crispy Critter was evolving into the Phoenix, destined to rise from the ashes!
Come together, right now
In August 2007, I put everything back in my pickup and drove north for a Norton Colorado tech day at Bob’s house. This time the bad juju was gone. An air of sunny optimism (and all the shiny parts) drew spectators and willing hands like a magnet, and by the end of the day I had a rolling chassis with engine and transmission in place. It was nearly a motorcycle again!
Back home, I chipped away at the project. Winter returned, the bears hibernated and I wheeled the bike into our utility room while my wife wasn’t looking. I ordered Teflon-insulated wire in several colors and strung it every which way, fabricated a new instrument panel and fitted various subassemblies. Finally, I got my bodywork back from the paint shop, exquisitely executed and well worth the wait.
At some point I realized that if I really tried, I could get the bike running in time to celebrate the second anniversary of the fire. I began putting lots of hours into it, made another trip over to Dolores to work in Doug’s shop, bought more parts, and grew steadily more confident that a March 11 startup was in the cards. Back in the utility room, I finished up the wiring, assembled the primary drive and attended to details.
The Phoenix rises
When the auspicious day arrived, I loaded the Phoenix into my pickup and headed to Eric Bergman’s house in Golden, where half a dozen Norton Colorado members gathered to witness the first startup. Elation and trepidation battled for dominance as I poured high-test into the tank. A lazy oil leak and a loose chassis fitting or two reminded me that attention to detail isn’t always my strong suit. Had I neglected to snug up an important bolt? What would come back to bite me?
Because of an imperfect electronic ignition and inadequate battery, the startup did not go quite as planned. There’s not much in a motorcyclist’s life that’s more frustrating and demoralizing than repeatedly kicking away at an engine that refuses to come to life. And what can compare to the righteous glory of a high-compression engine (I’d opted for JE 79mm, 10.5:1 forged pistons, the same ones Kenny Dreer used in his 880s) that fires off on the first kick? These are the highs and lows of vintage motorcycling unknown to those who came up during the push-button era. I kicked and fiddled for hours. Trepidation won the battle, but elation won the war. Before the sun went down on March 11, I enjoyed my first brief ride on the newly resurrected Phoenix.
Over the next couple of weeks I sorted out the ignition with Jim’s help. Dustyn Bustos of H.e.l.l.s. Tooling in Denver built me a fine new seat, hand-stitched in saddle leather, from the Corbin Gunfighter that was on the bike when it burned. A phoenix bird is beautifully hand-tooled behind the bumstop. After a bit of jetting work, the bike was ready for a good romp. With just 300 local miles on the clock, I headed south with Jim to the annual Norton Flog in Silver City, N.M. During the 700-mile trip to Silver City, my engine fully broke in, spinning happily and pulling effortlessly at the least provocation. On our way back, we detoured into Arizona to enjoy the Coronado Trail, with some 450 turns in 100 miles! By the time I returned to my mountain home 1,600 miles later, the bike and I were good friends once again, and my rear tire was toast.
The Phoenix is a joy to ride, better than at any time in the 25 years I’ve owned it. With the big bore pistons, Boyer MicroPower ignition and single 34mm Mikuni carb, throttle response is immediate and great bags of torque are available at any time, in any gear. The big parallel twin emits a baritone growl that speaks of effortless power — not boasting, but promising to deliver the goods. And does it deliver! Running it through its paces, I keep poking the shifter looking for a higher gear. The new engine just revs that freely, belying its big pistons and long stroke.
The disastrous fire was a blessing in disguise, and my friends in Norton Colorado are now an indelible chapter in this great motorcycle’s history. The bike wears Rick Black’s horns, Eric Bergman’s fender, and Gary Bolduc’s welding prowess. Every time I ride it — every time I look at it, for that matter — it brightens my day. I have five or six other bikes leaning up against trees, waiting for me to build a garage: You can have any of them for a fair price, but as always, my Norton is not for sale.
This wasn’t so much a matter of restoring a motorcycle as it was about resurrecting a troubled friendship. After two years, it took just one good road trip to rekindle the deep affection that’s marked my 25 years with this motorcycle. The Phoenix and I are ready for another 25.
A good vintage motorcycle can do things a modern machine can’t — it can leave you stranded at the side of the road, for instance. I know that there will be frustrations and misadventures to come. It’s a Norton, after all. But when it’s good, it’s very, very good. You either understand that or you don’t. If you’ve read this far, I’m betting you do. MC
Bob Herman has been riding and wrenching on classic motorcycles since they were just called "motorcycles." He is the owner, with his wife Lisa Scalise, of Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Tours LLC. He can be reached through his website, www.RockyMountainMotorcycleTours.com, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (719) 256-4527.
Web extra: Bob Herman's lessons from the restoration process:
1. Keep pen and notebook handy as you work. Write down important stuff as you think of it.
2. Buy a parts manual at the start, not halfway through the assembly process.
3. Separate subassembly parts and keep them in well-labeled containers.
4. Keep hardware with its components, and replace any questionable hardware.
5. Wiring: tag all wires and draw a working diagram. Don’t lose the diagram!
6. Dry fit before painting fabricated, modified or new parts.
7. Prioritize tasks and have alternative jobs for when you are stalled on one step.
8. Have another bike to ride while this one is down.
9. Make it 90% as nice as you can. It’ll lose 10% as soon as you ride it anyway.
10. Walk away when annoyed, impatient or frustrated – the final product reflects your attitude!
11. Polishing alloy is a slippery slope. A shiny part contrasts with dull ones!
12. Have a good workspace, and try to accomplish something every day.
13. Keep bears out of your tool shed.
14. Do as I say, not as I did!
Restoration resources: Bodywork and paint:
• R & T's Auto Body, 719-545-0878
• Dustyn Bustos, H.E.L.L.S. TOOLING, 720-404-4536
• James Comstock, 719-544-4310
• Doug McCadam, 970-882-7670