The Norton Commando: Everything You Need In A Performance Bike

Homeward Bound on a 961 Sport.

norton commando 961
Britain’s second-eldest marque pulls hard out of corners and will skim its footpegs as close to the pavement as your knee surgeon will allow.©Motorcyclist

You can’t go home again, but your path might wend that way.

The fiercest, grandest thing I'd seen in life was the day Carl roared into our circular drive with a cop on his tail. While Dad politely ejected the officer with a firm explanation of warrants and such, I stared into the finish of my cousin's Norton like an Aztec catoptromancer. She was bad and black, and she was lit by chrome, and I swore by God that I'd ride her home.

It took me 44 years.

Doug Watt, proprietor of MotoFantasy (, waited four years after making a deposit on one of the first 50 Commando 961s in the US. Once his unit shipped, Doug wasted no time ordering the full slate of performance goodies before picking it up in San Francisco and riding it up PCH to his moto-inn. He's a motorcyclist, not a collector.

Then he turned her out on livery because he’s an enabler too. When Doug rolled the New Blackness out of his garage, my knees melted slightly. Chrome over alloy over unalloyed black, it gleamed dark and wicked as midnight on Catherine Gale’s catsuit. The Commando’s old-school factory build is based around carefully formed parts, hand-assembled with respect by skilled Donington Hall tradesmen and their supply train of subterranean armorer dwarves.

Doug’s 961 Sport is further adorned with top-tier updates, including upspout SBN pipes, BST carbon-fiber wheels to match her mudguards and chain protector, plus obligatory Öhlins magic-carpet ride. While one must preference proper form over outright numbers, the remap and pipe ought to produce around 90 hp to go with the 90 pound-feet the factory poured into her torque reservoir.

“It’s everything you need in a performance bike,” Watt observed, “and nothing that you don’t.” Then he winked and tossed me the keys.

The sound of a 961 cranking evokes dawn breaking over Valhalla. There’s booming and sucking and roaring but also something deep within: large, hardened parts sliding past each other like the crank journals on a steamship.

All summer long, interesting bikes flock toward MotoFantasy. The Norton was surrounded by guests’ Valkyries, Velocettes, KTMs, and a perfectly smoked R100RS, but the purest fetish bikes roll straight out of Doug’s garage.

Doug isn’t casual about poly-bikery. He loves each like kin and worships them like a teenager. “Sure, we put bikes on pedestals,” he said. “Every one of our bikes is on a pedestal! Our pedestal is the road.”

So much confidence. How many of the exotic bikes from your collection would you lend to strangers for a few bucks a day?

Doug knows the bikes need it as much as you do, and over the road this Commando shines like a dark star’s last gleaming.

Wrapped in a liquid fall of notes, Britain’s second-eldest marque pulls hard out of corners and will skim its footpegs as close to the pavement as your knee surgeon will allow. Nicely calibrated Brembos de-torque capably. While this bike is arrayed comfortably enough to entertain gentlemen of a certain age, straights are just waiting periods between corner arcs laid down like a master album groove.

Commandos like it twisted. Long and lean, firm and lusty, it doesn’t want to return you a silky smooth 180 mph. It wants to snake you down that road that deviates homeward, back where a black lass with gold jewelry and a Brit-inflected blues voice slaps the sanctimony straight outta Grandma.

“That,” Pretty Wife said after chasing me through a long string of pine-lined corners, “is the sexiest sound any bike ever made.”

She’s right as usual, but I knew it first. I was seven years old when I gazed into that dark mirror. I saw my future reflected there, and it is good. The Norton showed me home, but I don’t need to bring her home.

Doug says I can see her on weekends.