Norton 961 Commando - The Comeback
By Dutch van Someren - 27 Oct 22
I‘ve been waiting a long time to have a go on a Norton 961 Commando. A very long time. About 12 years, in fact. The elephant in the room which needs addressing straight away is that this bike first came to the market in spring 2010, under the previous ownership, who I won’t mention here, as enough has been written about them already. Let’s just say, things didn’t go well.
Bikes rolled off the production line in 2010 and into owner’s garages, and many went straight back for repairs. After the farce that followed many owners were left without a working motorcycle, or no motorcycle at all.
Although this may look like a continuation of service for Norton, it is actually a brand new chapter for this much-loved British Marque. Norton has been bought by wealthy Indian Company TVS, who’ve invested over £100m into the business, with a whole new team of engineers and managers. This investment included a brand new, state-of-the-art factory in Solihul, where the new team had to reverse-engineer major components of the motorcycles they had bought, and in the case of the 961’s engine, replace over 130 parts, while rebuilding the engines to much higher tolerances.
There are also general improvements in all the components, from fasteners, brackets, and finishes to the latest high-spec Ohlins and Brembo chassis parts, with beautiful, polished wire-spoked wheels, all hung together to create a finished machine that looks much more carefully considered than previous incarnations. Back in 2010, some journalists described the bike as looking as though it was assembled with whatever parts were lying around the factory floor. Thankfully this bump in the road has been pushed firmly into Norton’s past.
When I heard Norton were back under new ownership and were going into production again I was initially surprised that the they decided to re-make a bike for 2022 that was already a re-make back in 2010, evolved from a re-made Norton originally created in Oregon by Kenny Dreer in 2006 as the Norton Commando 952 (actually 861cc). (You can read the Alan Cathcart Review HERE).
It seemed like an odd gamble, especially considering the 2010 bike's short-comings in build quality and consistency, but when you consider what is happening to motorcycling right now it might just turn out to be a very clever thing to do in relaunching the Company and winning trust back from the moto community.
Norton haven’t changed the basic design or silhouette from 2010, despite the competition having spent the last decade or so perfecting the Modern-Classic motorcycle category, especially as they've all taken-on some of the custom scenes minimal shapes and style cues. This bike looks old-fashioned in comparison, especially in photos, but when you see one in real life, you stop thinking about all that because it’s just a lovely-looking thing. It also looks like the real-deal in an era of re-imaginings, tributes and homages.
What needs describing is the overall appearance of the bike in the flesh. It looks hand made, but in a good way. Perhaps in a 1960s Rolls-Royce British-Luxury kind of way. The engine looks like it’s from another era of engineering (which it is) with heavily polished cases that were definitely not designed by a computer. Not all the components and brackets have exactly the same finish, but all of them are well made. The pin-striping is clearly done by hand, and there’s a simplicity to the overall construction, but as an object of automotive design the bike does looks properly conceived. It is extremely curvy, with huge scallops cut into the tank, which lead back to a very narrow seat.
From above the bike looks like a black and gold wasp. In some ways the “new” (or remade) Commando looks more like the result of old-school British automotive design than the original 1970s 850 Commando. There’s a 60’s feel to it more reminiscent of that decade’s Jaguars and Aston Martins.
The “new” Commando comes in two version. The Café Racer, with clips-ons and the Sport with upright bars, both available in either black and hand painted gold pinstripe or silver and black. Apart from the bar position they both appear identical, although I haven’t compared the footrest position, as we only borrowed the Sport version to have a play on.
My riding day started with some very slow manoeuvres around Shoreditch’s back streets, so Camera Dan could take some photos for my write-up. I spent about 45 minutes riding around in first and second gear, doing U turns, and riding as slowly as I could so Dan could get as many shots as possible. Normally this isn’t fun, but it turned out to be the perfect start. Firstly, the bike handles and moves really well at low speeds, which isn’t always the norm for large capacity classically styled motorcycles. The 5-speed gearbox is firm and accurate, and feels familiar straight away. The slow speed turning is completely neutral, and the engine was quite happy getting hot while rumbling along very slowly. Even when I absent-mindedly snicked-up into third and it lurched at low speed it didn’t stall, when it probably should have.
It’s quite a heavy bike, but at no point did I notice the weight under exactly the kind of conditions where it might have been annoying. Even wheeling the Norton around the Bike Shed gallery was easier than I expected.
The best part of my day was the public reaction. It was a weekend, so Shoreditch was busy with shoppers, and every single person who saw the bike gave me a smile, a nod, or a thumbs up, or asked me about it. None of them looked like bikers or people who knew anything about motorcycles. This bike is a crowd-pleaser. It’s like cruising around in classic convertible car on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying the admiring glances.
So what about the ride?
It was fun. Pure and simple. The engine feels like a proper motorcycle engine, and clatters away like a Ducati twin from the early noughties, with pleasant mechanical noises and a rich exhaust note, even with standard pipes, thanks to the Individual Vehicle Approval process which circumvents Euro 6 noise compliance. It feels like the 77 brake horsepower quoted, which is plenty for most British roads, and the suspension and brakes are superb – as per the quality components. It’s like riding a resto-mod. A classic bike that has been completely rebuilt, better than new, and then had the chassis parts modernized – which is kind of what this bike is.
Many people compare this bike to a Triumph Thruxton 1200R, but I think they are missing the mark. I have a 1200RS and although the bike is stylistically similar and may even attract similar customers, the Thruxton is very much a modern motorcycle; much smoother, much cleverer electronics, more of a proper factory finish, with every component clearly coming from the same evolved design and build. It’s also a lot faster and more responsive, but that’s not the point.
I think a better comparison is a Ducati Sport Classic 1000 GT. While the Ducati is lighter and faster, it delivers a very similar feeling: Lots of clattering noise, with rattly clutch and basic engine design, offering plenty of enjoyable character, vibration and punchy exhaust note. It’s also the only other bike I’ve ridden that gathers as much attention from the non-riding general public, especially the café racer Paul Smart version, which I still have. Both the Ducati and the Norton generate a reaction from other people that can only make you feel a little bit cooler.
This is not a bike for commuting and owners won’t want to ride it in the rain. It’s a modern classic in the truest sense, and is perhaps the last knockings of an era in motorcycling that will soon be behind us. It makes me happy that a bike like this exists in 2022. It also looks as though the new owners are willing to take on the burden of the previous owner’s failures, and are putting their money where their mouth is. Hats off to them. I think it’s bloody marvellous, and, biking - as a culture - deserves motorcycles like this to still be in production, whether it’s your cup of tea or not.
SECOND OPINION - Gareth Charlton. Bike Shed's Brand Director.
Splendid. Dutch has covered the oh-so-complicated backstory, the Phoenix-like rebirth and the technical details of the machine itself, meaning my tuppence-worth can be pure and simple gut-feeling and opinion. Cheers Boss.
But first, what’s in a name? Ever since its 1967 introduction and ten year production run the name Commando has demanded respect and adulation both within and beyond motorcycling. It is that iconic name and reputation that new owners, TVS, are betting is strong enough to withstand the previous, ill-fated revival. For myself, and I dare say anyone not scarred by those trials and tribulations, it remains a name that holds sway. I want for a Norton Commando to exist, and I want to want one as badly as I have all these years.
And here it is, in the metal, and I have the key.
Now this article is full to bursting with beautiful pictures (top job camera-Dan) but trust me when I tell you they do not do the Commando justice as to the eye. The purity of the original Kenny Dreer design, so long lusted after, remains intact and yet heightened. Exaggerated and simplified. It is just bloody gorgeous. That classic engine, with its almost biological cases, that thick-tubed frame with dramatic diagonal back-bone reminiscent of the Seeley iterations of the original.
The silhouette and proportions are sublime and the finish and detailing more than live up to the Modern Luxury tagline. My one disappointment? That aforementioned key could easily be confused with any number of others with a far less emotive task than firing up this Commando.
But, woof. What a noise it brings to life. The best I have ever heard on a stock bike bar-none. As Dutch touched on, some clever navigation of homologation rules I care not to understand have made it possible and it is quite simply delicious. Time to ride. After much negotiation of our available hours I grabbed the keys for the first of mine and right then (of course) the heavens utterly opened. I guess they figured some dramatic thunder and lightning was required to go with the soundtrack just unleashed on earth.
Now I am going to make some assumptions. I don’t believe many owners will take their Commando out in the rain. I also don’t count on many using it for their commute, but that was to be my first taste of the bike, and despite those conditions, it more than convinced me to take the circuitous route home. Cue a fitful night's sleep punctuated with much weather-app checking that was thankfully ended by an early alarm and clear skies. The neighbours are rudely awakened and off we go. The Commando that promised so much on that tiptoe home now gets to show me exactly what it is about.
I have always craved a classic motorcycle. They are what kicked me down the road to my life and work today, but every time I have actually ridden one, I have been either underwhelmed or downright scared. The 2022 Commando 961 is how I always wish they had felt. A soul-filled motor, chattering and bellowing back at you. Slick gear changes interlacing surges of power. Weighty controls revealing just the right level of healthy vibrations. Responsive suspension, sharp handling and eye-popping brakes. The very best of both modern and classic. Not to say the motor is old, as described it is filled with freshly engineered parts, but its approach to propulsion remains from yesteryear and the satisfaction it provides cannot be matched.
I am going to assume again that those lucky Commando owners will use them primarily for their Sunday B-road jaunt, and for this I cannot think of a better companion. The power is perfect for our UK roads, you can give it some stick without hitting inappropriate digits and that nimble handling will put you exactly where you want to be on your favourite road. And the big fat cherry on top? That unquantifiable feeling of being aboard something more than a bit special. Of a machine that will always command a second glance and a third or fourth conversation.
Of course there are many more capable motorcycles, there are many motorcycles that ape the same feelings, and there are some motorcycles that are both. But there is nothing like the Commando. For as long as we are allowed to combust petrol for pleasure, I cannot think of a better machine to do so upon.