MODERN bestselling retro bikes are so easy, forgiving, soft and affordable that they are as ideal for novice riders who want a classic twist as they are for older guys who want to bring back the glory days without the oil leaks.
The Norton Commando is the complete opposite. For the price you might expect it to be pimped up with monobloc calipers, a radial master cylinder and the latest rubber hoops rather than… well, none of those things. But what it might lack in performance parts it more than makes up for in spirit, charm and character.
Powered by a 961cc parallel-twin engine, the Commando actually sounds more like a big Vee. Think “old Ducati Desmodue” rather than Kawasaki “dull as dishwater” ER-6n. It feels like a Ducati too. Keep it between 3,000 and 6,000rpm and the Norton tugs at your arms with a deep burble from the twin pipes and a shiver through the bars.
A little vibration on a bike like this is all part of the deal and although you feel like you’re plugged into the National Grid at above 6,000rpm, the vibrations are less annoying lower down. Cruising in top gear on the motorway is reasonably comfortable – as long as you don’t mind the single seat being as plush as an ironing board.
Don’t bank on the digital screen being crammed with information either. It has a trip meter, a clock, volt meter, odometer and that’s about it. You’ll need to do mental arithmetic to work out your average consumption or top speed and, if you’re after traction control, ABS, ride-by-wire or a choice of mappings, this isn’t just the wrong tree to be barking up; it’s the wrong forest.
The Commando 961 has an electric starter, fuel injection and road-legal lights and indicators, so you don’t need to stick an arm out to nip into a side road. But the bike also invites you to forget GS Adventure level comfort, rider aids and electronic wizardry, to dismiss plush suspension and the stiffness of a modern trellis or aluminium frame and to remind yourself of the basic, captivating sensation of riding a motorbike.
For example, gear changes aren’t as clean as a Japanese six-speed box. The Commando can hit a false neutral between fourth and fifth gear if you’re too eager shifting up, but that’s part of the fun. You have to concentrate; to do everything with vigour, like you did back in the day when you were part of the original Norton generation.
But, if you laugh in the face of numbness and have a round trip to the South of France planned, you’ll find that the riding position and ergonomics are practical and relaxed, and with reasonably regular fuel stops this isn’t as impractical a tourer as you might think.
Although it’s sensitive to imperfections in the road, the 961 is far from being unstable. It might need a bit of rider input to get it cranked over into a turn and tracking true, but being part of the experience is, surely, the whole point of the two-wheeled experience.
You’ll only get a fiver’s change from £16,500 for this new-age Norton Commando but you’ll get access to pure motorcycling in return. It’s an analogue anomaly in a two-wheeled world that has become very digital.
Engine 961cc air-cooled parallel twin, 79bhp, 66lb ft
Dry weight 188kg
Seat height 813mm
Fuel capacity 17 litres