Norton has stuck with push rod technology for its revival and can’t build enough of its retro street racer OBY MAT OXLEY
orton is 109 years old this year and remains one of motorcycling’s most revered brand names, even though its last street bike of any real significance was the Commando 750 twin of the late 1960s. In fact the Commando’s
engine wasn’t much more than an over-bored 497cc Dominator, which was originally designed in 1947.
You could not wish for a better metaphor for the disaster that was the post-war British motorcycle industry — a sad tale of criminal mismanagement and chronic underinvestment that destroyed a great industry in a couple of decades. Norton has been dead, or at least close to death, on several occasions, resuscitated here and there, bought by corporate thugs and asset strippers, sold to Americans and most recently brought home by a British businessman who made his millions in the firework business. Ei?
The new Norton 961 Commando is a pyrotechnic’s dream made real — the first stage of Stuart Garner’s efforts to re-establish the Norton name as something more than a chapter in motorcycling history. The Cafe Racer model stands at the top of a concise range that currently consists of three 961 variants.
Although Garner has great plans for Norton’s future, the 961 isn’t a machine that looks forward, but one that looks back. It is aimed squarely at the heritage market, at riders who hanker after good old-fashioned motorcycling. It is something of a two-wheeled Morgan. Norton has undoubtedly succeeded in bringing the past back to life. The 961 transports its rider back several decades, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On a nice summer’s day, cruising down a smooth, twisting A-road with dappled sunlight glinting through the greenery and the 961’s steady crobbacrobba exhaust note massaging your car drums, everything feels
right with the world. This is why retro motorcycles are currently enjoying their day in the sun — they provide a motorised passport to a time when life seemed simpler and better, though of course the reality was perhaps rather different. (Vietnam, the three day week, the winter of discontent…)
Norton’s new 961cc air-cooled twin feels ridiculously laidback by modern standards, with a mild 79 horsepower that doesn’t want to be hurried along. It soon takes its rider the same way — I rarely felt the urge to take the engine beyond 5000rpm, well shy of the 8000rpm redline. The bike seems happiest loafing along, living on torque, pulling high gears, not worrying about what’s going on in the real world.
This is a motorcycle for people who aren’t in a hurry, either to get with the programme or to get to work: take the slow road, admire the scenery, enjoy the 1970s soundtrack. The 961 is for those who want to feel every rise and fall of the piston, every beat of the motorcycle’s heart. It is for people who want something more visceral than a Honda. I’m only guessing, but I’d wager that most 961 owners drink real ale and listen to vinyl.
The Cafe Racer attracts such types whenever it is parked, and often while on the move. During my time with the bike I was beset by good old boys, anxious to chinwag about ancient British motorcycles: “I had a Norton once… 250 d’you know… 1943 model… in the war”.
Most affecting was a silver-haired trucker who wound down his window, leant out and gave me a double thumbs-up so vigorously that I feared he might fall out of his truck, and this was in the middle lane of the M4. There are a lot of emotions wrapped up in this motorcycle.
That trucker was overcome with joy at seeing a new Norton on the road, but many admirers mistake it for a well-restored classic, not a new, factory-fresh model. This is no surprise because the 961 deliberately echoes the original Commando, with engine architecture that bears a close resemblance to its forebears. That visual link to the so-called good old days is vital.
Norton may be a quintessentially British marque, but the 961 engine was designed in the USA while Norton was in North American hands from 1993 to 2008. It is a pushrod, twovalves-per-cylinder, 270-degree, long-stroke parallel twin. Perhaps it seems strange to design a 21st-century motorcycle engine with pushrods, but Harley-Davidson does very well indeed out of selling pushrod bikes. It is atavistic automotive engineering and there is a market for it. When Garner bought Norton in October 2008 he had to partly re-engineer the twin, which the Americans had failed to bring to market despite spending several years and $11 million on development. He enlisted the help of Menard Competition Technologies, a US-owned engine business based at Tom Walkinshaw’s old HQ in Oxfordshire. MCT’s expertise is in making
high-performance pushrod engines for NASCAR. At the same time Norton converted the 961 from carburettors to fuel injection and cured troublesome vibration problems. Garner still needs to do more work on the five-speed gearbox, which, unless you make steady and deliberate gear changes, sometimes complains with much grinding and gnashing of teeth. Again, it’s a case of taking your time — the real world is so far ahead and why would you want to catch up anyway? Funnily enough, back in the ’60s Norton argued against expanding its Manx racer’s four-speed gearbox because “anything more than four speeds is a
gearbox full of neutrals”. Norton America’s Kenny Dreer did the big work on vibration before the 961 returned eastward across the Atlantic. He initially used a 180-degree crankshaft, but unsurprisingly the bike was plagued by the same vibration that was a notorious fault of the original Commando, also a
180-degree twin. Re-engineering to a 270-degree crank with balancer shaft fixed the problem. The 961 does vibrate, but in a good way, like a heartbeat. The rest of the bike was also inherited from Norton’s former owners, with only minor changes to the chassis and styling undertaken by Garner’s
engineers. The 961 is certainly a thing of beauty. Its minimal, curving lines are a superb evocation of the original Commando that captured so many hearts on both sides of the Atlantic. It is totally pure: an engine, a chassis and not much else. It’s a look that pleases motorcyclists who believe that most modern bikes, swathed in numerous plastic mouldings, look more like the inside of a fridge.
The Cafe Racer — with low ‘clip-on’ handlebars, bikini fairing and racy pipes — takes its name from a motorcycling cult that had its origins in the 1960s when cafe-racing rockers were the scourge of Middle England. Clad in black leather and denim, these rockers would hang out at the local caff (back then the word was pronounced without the accent, as in greasy spoon), drop a 45 on the jukebox, then race down to the nearest roundabout and back before the song had finished. The ton-up boys modified their bikes — usually Triumphs or Nortons and sometimes Tritons (a bitza of both brands) — with a pared-down aesthetic. Speed, not comfort, was the priority. No surprise then that the Cafe Racer is no comfy armchair — the engine may make you feel lazy but the racy riding position implores you to get a move on. The low bars and long tank ED
force you forward, hunkered over the spartan dashboard which features a speedometer, a tachometer, an LCD readout and nothing else.
The 961’s US-designed chassis, like 80 per cent of the bike’s components, is manufactured in Britain. It’s a rudimentary design, similar to that of the original 1960s Commando — a central, oil-carrying steel backbone with tubular half-duplex cradle and box-section swingarm. Back in the ’80s I raced a similarly equipped 250 GP bike for Waddon Rotax (run by eccentric engine wizard Dr Joe Ehrlich, who in the ’50s designed a two-stroke engine for the BMC Mini). In the pits, the Waddon had a good inch of clearance between the front tyre and the exhaust downpipe, but during heavy braking the backbone flexed and the tyre fouled the exhaust. That doesn’t happen with the 961, but the Norton could handle better. The bike feels long, so its natural habitat is fast, sweeping A-roads. It feels more awkward at lower speeds, which might have something to do with the aggressive riding position. The other 961 models, with higher handlebars, are easier to handle at low speed. Also, I struggled to get the adjustable suspension satisfactorily dialled in, even for slightly bumpy roads. Norton suggested this might have something to do with the lightweight carbonfibre wheels which, in theory, improve handling by reducing unsprung weight but are perhaps poorly
matched to the 961’s suspension. Whatever, it’s not what you expect from a supposedly sporty motorcycle in 2011, whether retro or not. While Garner was improving the engine perhaps he should have burned the Americans’ chassis blueprints and availed himself of one of several brilliant motorcycle chassis designers
based in Britain. The UK has long been renowned for excellence in this area of expertise since Norton’s own legendary Featherbed frame took the racing world by storm in the ’50s.
The Featherbed, designed by Belfast boffin Rex McCandless, was a landmark in chassis design — the first full duplex cradle frame with swinging-arm suspension. Copycat frames dominated motorcycling for the next few decades. The Featherbed — so-called because of its superb ride quality — was largely responsible for the Manx Norton’s great race track successes of the ’50s (rider Geoff Duke also played his part) and allowed the single-cylinder racer to stay competitive long after it should have been blown into the weeds by four-cylinder
Gileras and MV Agustas. I’m not sure what McCandless (who also designed race cars, helped develop the autogyro, liked a drink and was handy with his fists) would make of the 961’s backbone frame, but I fear he wouldn’t be impressed. He might cheer up, however, on hearing that Garner has a Featherbed-framed
961 on the drawing board. If the frame itself is basic, the ancillaries are not. You can’t buy better than Ohlins suspension and Brembo brakes, two brands currently chosen by every MotoGP team. The BST carbon-fibre wheels are pretty special too. They wear fat, sticky Dunlop Qualifier tyres, also about as good as you can get if you want superb
cornering grip. I suspect Norton is correct when it suggests there’s a mismatch in the Cafe Racer’s chassis spec — I’d argue that the state-of-the-art suspension and high-grip tyres aren’t well matched to the old-school frame and swingarm.
Perhaps the kind of rider who buys a 961 won’t wish to attack corners like a live-fast-dieyoung rocker, but that’s not the point.
Our 961 saved its biggest disappointment for the end of the test, when it expired during a photo shoot, thus bringing back to life another aspect of British biking’s dark past — an infuriating lack of reliability.
The bike had two faults: it leaked oil from the starter motor housing, and it refused to start. Perhaps the engine was tired, because its previous tester had been famously wild racer Michael Dunlop who’d spent an afternoon thrashing the machine round the Isle of Man TT course.
Norton told us that the problems were due to a faulty cam sensor — now solved following a change of supplier — and a gearbox breather system that has since been redesigned. They say they will retrofit both fixes for existing owners.
The standard Cafe Racer is priced at £13,995, though our ‘Panther’ test bike with black engine cases, black pipes, carbon-fibre rims and other goodies would cost £17,245. Either way, that’s a lot of money for a motorcycle that seems to be a work in progress.
Garner says the 961 is only the start for the resurrected marque. At the moment his factory — based at Donington Park — is producing ten 961s a week, with prospective owners facing a four-month waiting list, although some have been waiting much longer than that. Garner is certainly thinking big, maybe too big. He has employed some respected names, including Simon Skinner (who engineered Triumph’s superb 675 engine) and Peter Williams (brilliant racer/engineer who first worked for Norton several decades ago). He had also engaged the services of designer Pierre Terblanche (the man behind several iconic Ducatis of recent years) but the South African recently left the El)
company with the words “Norton, with the right finance and management, could do very well”.
Despite the implied criticism, Garner remains optimistic. “We’re looking to build a thousandplus bikes on the Commando platform, and then we have a water-cooled platform which will come to market within the next 24 months,” he says. “We have a wonderful problem, in that the order book is bigger than we can supply, so we don’t need to look too far into the future. But of course if we don’t look ahead we’ll wake up in a couple of years without having done our homework and without a new model ready to go. So we’ve got the water-cooled platform drawn and sat there. Having said that, we are reasonably relaxed about what’s next because the Commando’s success has bought us time.”
F,..„ ven more ambitious, Garner is aiming to field a Norton in MotoGP next year, when the series reverts to 1000cc rules after five years at 800cc. His engineers have two different litre V4s at the design stage, with Buckinghambased experts FTR looking after the chassis. The application is currently under consideration by MotoGP bosses. “We are doing development on a couple of different V4 engines that comply with the 2012 regulations,” Garner adds. “If everything comes together — and there are some big ifs in there — we’ll be on the grid next year with a two-rider works team. But we are very realistic about
what it takes to get a MotoGP bike and team ready, both in terms of money and resources.”
Challenging the might of the world’s cleverest motorcycling racing engineers is a very tall order for a small company like Norton. Either this is a case of David and Goliath or of Norton running before it can walk, as was the case at the 2009 TT, when Norton returned to the Isle of Man with its rotary-powered race bike and failed to make the race.
One can only wish Garner and his team all the luck in the world, while at the same time hoping that this project doesn’t turn out to be another sad chapter in the grim recent history of the British motorcycle industry. Over the past few decades various British bike brands have resurfaced with new owners who seemed to be more enamoured with the history and image of the brand than they were with the cold, hard business of motorcycle engineering.
Norton has only just started, so perhaps it is too early to judge, but so far only one company has bucked the trend — Triumph, which after dying a death in the ’70s now builds bikes that can compete with, and beat, the best that Japan, Germany and Italy has to offer.
Garner is certainly using the romance of the Norton name for all it’s worth. The range of Norton apparel available to the dedicated label shopper is extensive, all the way from T-shirts to watches at £3850. Now Garner needs to use some of that cash flow to cure the 961 of its ills and prove that Norton can flourish again.
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