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Norton Commando History | Vintage Motorcycle Tales

Norton Commando History

Norton Commando 750 SS
The Norton 750 Commando SS with dual high pipes has pretense toward off-road rough-riding, but most vintage Commandos this fine won’t do much work in the dirt.

In the pantheon of British motorcycles, there are only a few seen as true “hot rods.” In that elite group, probably none is more revered than the Norton Commando.

Norton introduced the Commando in 1967 at the Earls Court Show in the U.K. to rave reviews. Norton was in need of something to get the market to rave about; its product line had already shrunk from 16 to five models only five years before 1967, with the new Commando at the top.

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The financially struggling AMC group that owned Norton needed a hit to turn things around—unfortunately, over the coming decade not even a successful model like the Commando was enough by itself to prevent Norton from going under in 1978.

The new Commando featured a 745cc Atlas engine that was rubber-mounted in an all-new chassis. The new bike got off to a fast start with the media as Motor Cycle News named it their Motorcycle of the Year in 1968 and for four years in a row thereafter.

Norton Commando 750
Norton Commando 750

In 1971, sales of Commandos, by then the only model Norton made in seven variants including a consumer-available production road racer, reached 12,000 units.

It wasn’t just media hype that elevated the Commando to iconic status—Commando-based racing machines were successful in road racing, TT competition and even in sidecar motocross!

With John Player financial backing, Peter Williams, Phil Read, John Cooper, Dave Croxford, Geoff Duke, Tony Rutter and Mick Grant campaigned the Norton production racing machines in the early seventies in what was then known as Formula 750. In a defining moment in 1973, Williams won the F750 TT.

In 1972, Mick Grant won at Scarborough, Phil Read won at Brands Hatch, with Williams third; in 1973, Peter Williams won the John Player Transatlantic Trophy race, won at Cadwell Park and he took his victory at the Isle of Man TT. Williams also won the Motor Cycle News F750 Superbike championship that year.

While the road courses saw Norton Commandos win and earn a lot of notice in Britain and Europe, about the same time, a spectacular Norton-powered drag racing bike called the Hogslayer dislodged Harley-Davidson from the throne of Top Fuel NHRA drag racing.

Alan Cathart at Bonneville with Norton 961
Alan Cathcart rode the new Norton Commando 961 at Bonneville in 2010 to a best speed of 129.38 mph in its first appearance.

Tom (T.C. Christenson), John Gregory and their crew from Sunset Motors in Wisconsin built a double-engine Norton Commando-based top fuel bike that won four consecutive world championships!

In 1973, the 750cc parallel twin cylinder Commando was joined by the 850cc Commando, which actually displaced 828cc, introduced in an effort to have enough punch to be competitive with the ever-increasing range of three and four cylinder superbikes from Japan.

In 1974, the 750cc models were dropped and only the 850 models went on to the end of Norton and the Commando in 1978, when only 30 bikes were built before the assembly line stopped. In all, over the history of the model, about 55,000 were built.

Happily, the thunder of a British-built bike called the Norton Commando did not stay silent indefinitely. In 2009 the 21st century’s iteration of the Norton Commando 961 made its debut at the International Motorcycle Show in the U.K. The new Norton Commando 961 is modern in every respect, yet through some remarkable design and engineering, it retains strong linkage to the distinctive lines of the original Commandos.

The new Commando has already served notice that it is not all show and no go; in 2010 Alan Cathcart rode a 961 to a best speed of 129.38 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats —not bad for a first crack at the salt!

For more, visit Norton.

Norton Commando History Photo Gallery

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