Commando Raid!

Norton Motorsports puts a famous old nameplate back in action with its new 952 Commando

After two solid days flogging Norton Motorsports' new 952 Commando roadster on every kind of road, from traffic-clogged city streets in 100-degree temperatures to 8000-foot mountain passes, I can say unequivocally that American entrepreneur Kenny Dreer's new Commando follows directly in the tire tracks of the original. It's torquey and powerful, light and agile, and steers faultlessly--a truly confidence-inspiring motorcycle, and a powerfully emotional one as well.

Dreer spent a decade establishing a solid reputation for Oregon-based Vintage Rebuilds, which specialized in original Commandos. Then Dreer and his primary investor, Ollie Curme, achieved what many observers thought impossible--consolidating the scattered Norton trademarks, though at a total cost of a cool $4 million. Since then they've spent another $2 million developing the motorcycle you see here, an all-new neo-classic Commando.

As we reported last October, there was a ton of interest in Dreer's prototype, first displayed at the Laguna Seca World Superbike round. Norton Motorsports has received more than 400 deposits, and should be around long enough to fill them; the company has solid financial backing and a business plan calling for the production of up to 4000 bikes per year in 2007.

Catching a first glimpse of the all-black 952 Commando awaiting me in the 11,000-square-foot Norton factory's yard nearly made me gasp, for the bike has undoubted presence in the metal; it's more muscular-looking and purposeful than even the best photography can convey. Dreer and company did their styling in-house, and their appreciation for yesterday's Commando has enabled them to build an all-new model that practically shouts Norton--but in a more mature and modern context.

This Commando shares not even a single component with its predecessor--just an implausibly authentic overall appearance and a mechanically similar general concept for its vertically split, air/oil-cooled dry-sump engine, with its forward-canted cylinders, pushrod valve gear and two valves per cylinder.

Norton Motorsports' earlier prototypes had 360-degree crankshafts, like the original Commando. "We were aiming to retain the classic Commando sound," says R&D; chief Paul Gaudio, "but even with a counterbalancer, vibration was too intense. That's why we switched to a 270-degree crank." After experimenting with different dimensions, Gaudio settled on an 88mm bore and a 79mm stroke; so the 952 actually displaces 961cc.

A hydraulically actuated clutch is one distinguishing feature separating the new Commando from the old one. It also has a geared primary drive and a right-side final chain drive. The five-speed cassette-type gear cluster is thoroughly modern, and would be the envy of many Superbike race teams. There's room for a six-speed, which may be featured on future models, though given the 952's meaty torque curve this seems almost unnecessary.

The 952 will enter production with 41mm Keihin flat-slide carburetors, though Dreer is already working on a fuel-injection system. Ignition is provided by an American-made Powerheart electronic CDI. Purists will likely bemoan the absence of a kickstarter.The prototype I rode produces 80 horsepower at 7000 rpm, with maximum torque of 61 pound-feet at 5250 rpm. A rev limiter restricts the engine to 7800 rpm. With the present gearing, that's good for a top speed of more than 130 mph, according to Dreer.

While period Norton twins featured complex cooling passages beneath the rocker box, the 952 does without thanks to the partial oil-cooling provided by the high-volume oil pump driven off the crankshaft. Oil for the engine and transmission circulates through a four-liter oil tank incorporated in the frame's spine.

The neo-classic engine is rubber-mounted in a handcrafted frame made in Los Angeles by C&J; Racing. The frame is a duplex cradle design fabricated from chrome-moly tubing. C&J; has a great record in AMA flattrack, but this is no street-tracker; its 1435mm wheelbase and steering geometry are worthy of a current sportbike's.

The fork uses 46mm hlins cartridge tubes set at a 24.5-degree rake, with 99mm of trail. The box-section swingarm is suspended via twin, fully adjustable hlins piggyback shocks. The swingarm pivots in sealed tapered roller bearings housed in a pair of steel plates rigidly mounted to the chassis. There's no hint of the original Commando's Isolastic design, in which the motor and swingarm were both attached to the frame via flexible rubber mounts.

Twin 320mm Brembo discs and four-pot calipers take care of stopping duties up front, matched at the rear by a 240mm disc with a two-piston caliper. The 17-inch forged aluminum wheels are manufactured by Carrozzeria in Japan. The front 3.50-inch rim carries a 120/70 Avon Azaro tire, while the 5.50-inch rear is fitted with a 180/55 Azaro.The new Commando was designed for rideability and user-friendliness, says Gaudio, who emphasizes that the motor can be almost completely disassembled without removing it from the frame. The machine promises to be dealer-friendly, too, and should lend itself to hands-on owner maintenance. "We can all fantasize about overhead cams and eight-valve heads," he says "but that's in the future. This bike isn't about horsepower numbers or outright performance--it's about the quality of the riding experience, how it responds, how it feels, and yes, how it looks, too. That's why we call it a roadster rather than an outright sportbike."

It looks the part of a roadster, and it largely delivers on that promise. But as the first journalist to ride the 952 Commando in its preproduction, 270-degree form, I was also being sounded out by Dreer and Gaudio, who wanted my honest opinion of their handiwork. OK, guys--are you sitting comfortably? There was an ugly vibration under load throughout the rev range. The weighted ends of the Tommaselli bars meant few of those vibes reached my hands, and it wasn't too bad through that well-padded seat, either. But it was irritatingly apparent through the bare-metal footrests.

This was all the more frustrating because the 952's motor catapults you forward in a totally addictive way once you get on the gas, encouraging you to rev it. The engine features an absolutely linear power delivery, which means it'll take any gear you throw at it; you only change gears when you feel like it, not because you need to. That's just as well, too, as the race-pattern gear-change felt semi-clunky and slow to react.

In fairness, both of these problems are almost certain to be resolved in actual production bikes. Between my test ride and the submission of this article, Gaudio e-mailed me to report the prototype's vibration had been traced to an out-of-spec crankshaft and counterbalancer. Gaudio added that the company has a new selector drum coming, which should cure the shifting problem.

By contrast, the clutch was easy to feather in traffic and get off the mark from a standing start. The engine comes on strong from 3000 revs, with an extra surge of power from 5000 rpm. It feels as if it'd be happy revving even higher than its currently set limit; there's no fall-off in power at its 7000-rpm peak.

I soon learned to completely trust the new Commando over a variety of surfaces. Those twin shocks belie their vintage looks, giving remarkable wheel control and superb ride quality. I shouldn't have been surprised, having raced and tested many twin-shock four-cylinder muscle bikes in Japan fitted with the same hlins suspension package.

The Avon Azaros suited the bike well, especially the 180-section rear, which gives good traction exiting corners without heavying up the steering. In fact, the handling's good enough that Norton Motorsports will have to reposition the exhaust pipes; I found myself grounding them under enthusiastic cornering, something the 952 encouraged me to do often!

So despite some teething problems, this born-again Brit bike seems to be developing nicely. It's well-conceived, robustly engineered, extremely competent on the road, and offers a visceral appeal that's totally in keeping with its heritage. True admirers of the best of British will relish the advent of Kenny Dreer's comeback Commando.

"This bike isn't about horsepower numbers or outright performance--it's about the quality of the riding experience, how it responds, how it feels, and yes, how it looks, too. That's why we call it a roadster rather than an outright sportbike."
Kenny Dreer is 57 years old. He moved from New Jersey to Oregon in the '80s, and was a jack-of-all-trades before founding Vintage Rebuilds in '92.
Paul Gaudio was previously an industrial designer for Adidas with a passion for motorcycle racing. Dreer and Gaudio invited Cathcart to ride their prototype in order to get his feedback. One piece of Sir Al's advice--raise those stylish exhausts for increased cornering clearance.
The 270-degree crank has a central roller main bearing. Left: The 952 Commando logo is not on the oil tank; that's a small airbox.
the authentic Smiths look, the instruments are made in the U.S.A.