Norton Commando 961 Café Racer | First Ride

Comeback commando

By Alan Cathcart, Photography by Kyoichi Nakamura

Since October 2008, when British businessman Stuart Garner acquired the rights to the Norton name from the previous American owners, he has moved quickly to return the historic marque to the marketplace. Garner almost immediately erected a 20,000 square-foot factory at the Donington Park race circuit, and then recruited a strong group of executives and engineers (many from the nearby Triumph factory) to push forward development of the first new Norton motorcycles sold to the public in 18 years.

Starting with a trio of prototypes American Kenny Dreer designed and built almost 10 years ago, Norton's Head of Design, Simon Skinner, first fit fuel injection, a catalyst exhaust and secondary air injection to achieve Euro3 compliance. He next made changes to reduce mechanical noise and vibration (both of which were issues on Dreer's machine), and re-engineered numerous components to be more appropriate for high-volume manufacturing. "Silly things like draft angles for castings, using metric tubing for the frame rather than inches-stuff like that," Skinner says. One thing that didn't change was the look of the bike. "Kenny got the styling 100 percent right," he declares.

We were the first representatives from outside the company to ride a new Commando on public roads, immediately after it passed homologation testing. We sampled the Cafe Racer version, which is muscular and purposeful-looking, with a big, broad-shouldered engine and a stylish flyscreen surrounding its halogen headlamp. The 961cc, pushrod parallel-twin is mounted in a chromoly tubular duplex cradle frame, with its fabricated backbone doubling as the oil tank.

At 32 inches, the solo saddle is low enough that most riders can reach both feet to the ground, and with footpegs repositioned lower and farther forward than on the prototypes, the Cafe Racer is more comfortable, even with its clip-on handlebars located beneath the upper triple clamp. Crank the powerful-sounding starter motor (maybe it's just got a big battery) and the nearly liter-sized parallel-twin rumbles to life, firing every 270 degrees and sounding great through an optional, "track-only" 2-1-2 exhaust. Mechanical noise isn't excessive for an air-cooled engine-on par with a Ducati Desmodue-and vibration is greatly reduced compared to the Dreer bike, too. The newest Norton vibes no worse, even at peak revs, than a 90-degree V-twin.

Indy racing specialists Menard Competition Technologies, which assisted with re-tuning the powerplant, altered the power delivery to be more linear. The bike now pulls strongly from 2000 rpm up, and 4000 revs is the gateway to serious acceleration. There's no point in crowding the 8000-rpm rev limiter because it pulls just as hard at 6500 rpm, where the peak output of 80 horsepower is produced. It's a very friendly and usable motor, encouraging you to surf the waves of punchy torque. Low-end fueling is especially good, suggesting Skinner & Co. took some time calibrating the EFI system, which consists of single Bosch injectors mounted above 35mm throttle bodies and managed by an OMEX ECU.

We were also impressed with Norton's oil-bath clutch, which is delightfully light and progressive, though it's paired to a disappointing gear-change mechanism that will almost certainly need to be revised for production. The angle of the direct-action lever makes upshifting difficult and frequently results in missed shifts. Norton's engineers are working on a solution, which will likely involve fitting a linkage to reposition the shift lever at a more convenient angle.

Handling of the C&J-built frames was a strong suit for the Dreer bikes, and the Brit-built Commando maintains essentially the same geometry and sweet steering manners, tipping easily into turns without falling into the apex as you trail off the brakes. An engine mounted near to the ground and forward in the frame provides a low center of gravity, which inspires neutral manners at any speed. The Norton feels agile yet stable, and compliant suspension lets you trust the bike completely over any surface.

Skinner lowered the swingarm pivot point 18mm to improve anti-squat tendencies and provide for better traction. The Ohlins piggyback shocks are custom-built to Norton's specs and lengthened slightly, giving more cornering clearance and putting more weight on the front wheel for quicker turning. The Ohlins fork is as good as you can get for road use, and the Dunlop Qualifier radials suit the bike well, especially the 180mm-wide rear that delivers sufficient traction without slowing turn-in. The Brembo radial brake package provides controllable, effective stopping power with just the right degree of sensitivity.

This born-again Brit-bike, with its roots in the USA, is robustly engineered, well-built and fun to ride. The visceral appeal of this rowdy, single-seat hot-rod is thoroughly in keeping with its heritage, and makes Triumph's Bonneville seem bland by comparison. This time it's for real: Norton is back.

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