Fifty years ago, the crowd at London’s annual Earls Court show, then the most prestigious motorcycle show in the world, lined up at the Norton stand, gawking at a silver bike with an orange seat. A separate stand displayed the bike’s new and innovative frame, and a third display explained the trademarked rubber engine mounts —“Isolastics” — that kept engine vibration from annoying the rider.
That silver bike, dubbed the Commando, was the prototype of what became one of the most popular British motorcycles of the Sixties and Seventies. Fast, smooth and sexy, the Commando was somehow considerably more than the sum of its parts, and a surprising number of the possibly 90,000 built over a 10-year stretch are still on the road.
This year’s Quail Motorcycle Gathering featured a recreation of the Earls Court Commando that started it all, plus examples of every model produced during the Commando’s 10-year run. Accompanying the bikes were displays of period Norton ads, models dressed up like the Norton Girls and even one of the original Norton Girls!
“It seems like everyone has a Norton story,” says event organizer Gordon McCall. “When I was in high school, one of the maintenance guys had a 750 Commando. I was mesmerized by that bike. When he started it up, it looked like it was pirouetting on its center stand.”
Phil Radford has been running Fair Spares America, a parts supply for Commandos, for many years. “I’m now talking to the sons and grandsons of the original owners. They want to keep Dad’s bike on the road. Parts availability is better than when the bikes were being made. For a bike that hasn’t been built for 40 years, that’s pretty amazing,” Radford says.
Although the weather was unexpectedly cold and windy, that didn’t seem to deter the crowds. The pre-show Cycle World ride sold out, and ticket sales ($75 in advance) to the main event were better than ever, as more than 3,000 spectators gathered to take in the more than 350 motorcycles, scooters and bicycles on display.
The custom crowd included builders Revival Cycles and Bryan Fuller, whose café’d custom Motus won the event’s Industry Award, and the Yamaha Yard Built program. Kenny Roberts and Wayne Rainey were both on hand for interviews, and there was a charity auction, a tent housing the local Indian motorcycle shop, and kiosks for vendors of all manner of motorcycle gear.
Jeff McCoy’s 1968 Fastback received the special Norton Commando award, and Best of Show went to John Goldman for his ex-Tarquinio Provini 1957 Mondial double overhead cam 250 Grand Prix racer. If you missed the event, make plans to attend next year on May 5, 2018. MC