When it debuted in 1968, the 750 cc Commando was Norton’s swansong. It was the last of the company’s big twins that dated back to the 500 cc Dominator of 1949, and its ingenious “isolastic” rubber blocks separated the rider from the potential discomforts of the vibration-prone engine, gearbox.
Norton certainly had its share of financial troubles at the time, but the new Commando nevertheless created enormous interest, largely thanks to its styling. The forward sloping engine, the fastback bodywork and the upswept megaphone exhausts gave it a racy, aggressive look that resonated with a lot of riders.
It was a looker, but the Commando also very much delivered in the performance department. The OHV parallel twin made 58 bhp at 6,800 rpm and could prople the 418-lb bike to a top speed of 117 mph. Handling was quite good thanks to the featherbed frame and Motor Cycle News readers voted it bike of the year five years straight from 1968-72.
Unfortunately for Norton and indeed all British bike manufacturers, there was a problem coming from the East. The Japanese invasion, spearheaded by the Honda CB 750 with its bulletproof reliability, electric start and disc brakes, was fully underway and setting the stage for the 1970s. Norton responded by enlarging the engine in the Commando to 828 cc in 1973 and offering “Combat” engines that featured a 10:1 compression ratio. That harmed the durability of the engine’s bottom end, though, in some unfortunate cases to as little as 1,000 miles. An electric start didn’t help matters, and neither did the John Player Special race replica, although it was an absolutely gorgeous machine.
Norton racers did develop some ingenious answers to their power disadvantage. For example, Peter Williams made a lightweight monocoque frame, in which the motion of the swing arm actually drove the fuel pump. The fuel was housed in saddlebag fuel tanks low down to help the center of gravity and Williams won the 1973 Formula 750 TT on a Norton.
As Triumph struggled through the strike-prone Meriden workers cooperative in the 1970s, Norton soldiered on until ceasing production in 1978. The Norton name was saved, however, and applied to an extraordinary series of world-beating rotary-engined TT racers, which were built from 1990-91 and have been sporadically revived. Oregon entrepreneur Kenny Dreer also built 50 excellent retro Nortons from 1999-2003.
The climb in Triumph Bonneville prices does not seem to have affected Norton Commando twins, which remain quite affordable. As always, it is best to buy from long-term, knowledgeable owners and to befriend a good mechanic who knows Nortons well. They may be high maintenance, but plenty of old timers will tell you they’re worth it.