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
  • Dunstall

    Photo by Phillip Tooth
  • Cover from a circa 1970 Dunstall catalog.
    Cover from a circa 1970 Dunstall catalog. Note the Honda CB750 behind the Norton.
  • Death Valley on a Dunstall

    Photo by Phillip Tooth

  • It takes a peculiar kind of faith to ride a 35-year-old Dunstall Norton across Death Valley.
  • Dunstall
  • Cover from a circa 1970 Dunstall catalog.
  • Death Valley on a Dunstall

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.

Kurt Davis_2
2/19/2010 8:35:54 AM

Phillip, you experienced an awesome bike in an incredible part of our desert; now you know one of the reasons we live out here(besides the lack of people)... That said, you were fortunate to have your bell working on your bike-you DID have the bell on, right?!?!? Riding an older English or Italian bike out of the "recycle" yard into an area that punishes explorers ad inifinitum since time memorial is, well, like camping in the Sierras and stashing your peanut butter in your tent-an unforgettable adventure if you live through it.. Having ridden my '64 Bonneville through Death Valley in August, I can appreciate your ride,Phillip, but next time you may want to have a riding buddy with a reliable bike and preplanned timetable/route shared with a friend not on your life insurance policy... Great article!

Sven Sanburg_2
1/23/2010 6:51:39 PM

I assume the Death Valley article was to be an Adventure article. But to a seasoned motorcycle rider, the guy comes off as a complete idiot, of which there is no shortage out here in California. No one in their right mind, would A. Take a bike that has been sitting for years, without doing a complete torque check of nuts, bolts, rubber, chains, etc and a complete fluid change. B Then apparantlent ride alone on this vehicle to one of the most hostile environments in the world. C. Then not even have the common sense to ride in off hours when the temps are lower and to have a reasonable amount of water with him. If this author makes it through the next year I'd be surprised unless he takes the time to evolve. Death valley is not unfamiliar to me I have taken this ride many times with the SoCal Norton owners group. A group comprised of seasoned riders who tend to take care of their machines, yet are not afraid to wring them out.

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