People have different passions for different reasons. It’s the bike they had in high school or college. Or the bike they wanted to have, but couldn’t afford. Or their mom wouldn’t let them have it. Or mom and dad ganged up and said you couldn’t have one. For me, it’s a mixture of what I didn’t have, what I wanted to have, and was too young to have.
I grew up in Libya, and I saw a Norton Commando Fastback in 1969. My first experience of the Commando was that it could beat the police bikes in Tripoli, and they had Triumph 650s.
So, I met the owner. I talked to him all day. He gave me a ride. I was just a kid, and I said to myself, “When I grow up, I’m going to buy a bike just like Salah’s.” And, I did.
Even though I had a love for Commandos, it was a long time before I bought my first one. My first Norton purchase was in the late 1980s. It was a 1975 Roadster with a non-functioning electric starter. I kept it about a year; it was a great deal.
The guy included an exhaust nut spanner. He said, “I was riding on my way to Utah, and my exhaust pipe fell off. It was quite a lot of money for machine work. I’ll throw in this tool – keep it tight. Learn a lesson from me.” I already knew that lesson.
Later, I was at a swap meet, minding my own business. I was just hanging out, and I saw this bike. Like a bear spying the honey pot, I went for it – my dream as far as Commandos was a 1970 Fastback.
This bike had an original black California license plate, and was 98-percent unmolested. I was with a friend and asked him if I could borrow some of his money – he had a big wad of money with him and he was in the business. This is way before the Internet, so they were hard to track down, especially a Fastback like this.
I said, “Look, there’s this bike I’ve been looking for. I’ve been looking for it for a couple of years and it’s here.”
He said, “Let me do this. Let me buy this brake, and let me do this for a Triumph. I’ll be there in a second.”
I said, “No! Roger, we have to go now. Somebody might buy it.”
Roger asks, “How much?” I tell him and he says, “That’s way too much money. Don’t pay that.”
Like an addict I said, “We have to go now. We can get that brake plate later.” So, he loaned me the money.
It was in original condition and I was the third owner. I felt like I was the happiest, luckiest person on Earth when I got that bike.
He realizes now that it was the deal of the century and that I couldn’t pass it up. I paid him back the next day, and we have a good laugh about it now. That’s what friends are for – to mooch money off of when you need it.
As far as collecting, it wasn’t then that I started to get all the different models of the Commando. That came much later.
Rem Fowler won the first Isle of Man TT in 1907 on a Norton. Norton has always been the hot-rod — the fast one; the one that won the trophies. By the time the Commando came in 1968, they were badass hot-rods of the day.
I got the 2015 Commando 961 SE after putting down a modest deposit and waiting six years for it. The comparisons are few, and the differences are few. What puts the old and the new together is the Norton logo with the line running from the capital N to an arc around the end of the name. I don’t know who did that – I guess I would if I were an expert – but whoever did that as an individual or as a design company, they deserve a million bucks for every letter. That’s the main thing that brings the new and the old together.
The new Norton Commando 961 SE is black with the gold pinstripe, and Norton name in gold on the gas tank. That’s the strongest glue to a bundle of parts.
The original Commando Interstate that we rode with the new 961 SE has the bigger tank and seat. The new bike is very thin in that area, even thinner than the old Roadster. There is a difference there, and it looks like the Norton Commando Fastback.
I purchased the Interstate from a guy in Plano, Texas. I can’t remember his name, but if I could, I’d call him up and say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for selling this bike to me.” I really like it.
He did a lot of work to it. He put some stainless parts on it. He chromed the triple trees— the original ones are gray and fade to rust overnight. So, it was a well-sorted out bike, although it had modest modifications. I did change the paintwork. I wanted to have a black-and-gold Norton. This one was red with the silver Norton name.
Having said that, that was a fiberglass tank. With this new gas, it rotted out twice from the inside. The tank now is a steel-constructed tank from India.
I sent my payment for the tank with a little note: “We don’t live in a perfect world, and I’m not expecting a perfect gas tank, I will ride this bike. It’s not a trailer queen, and I’d like to get a good one. If you can, cash my check and send me the tank. If you don’t think you can, just send me my money back.”
Well, I got the tank and the guy either forgot to read my note or his standards are very low. It doesn’t fit very well, but I don’t want to change the name to the Humpback Interstate.
Actually, I call it the Kaming Ko Interstate, after my good friend Kaming Ko — he’s a lot of people’s good friend. He has taken the bike with the Norton Owners Group on the Route 66 ride from St. Louis to Santa Monica, trouble-free. He took the Kaming Ko Interstate from Seattle down Highway 1 to Santa Monica, trouble-free.
This bike, like all my bikes, gets flogged and they get some TLC after a long trip. If you start off with a nice sorted bike and you keep it up, it’s a pretty painless process.
You look at that Commando Interstate engine. That’s a parallel twin. It has a hemispherical head – a beautiful primary. The other side has that unique Norton triangular shape. The primary cover on the new Commando is close – it’s not there yet, but you can see the bridge that puts the old and new together. The timing side is very similar.
On the Commando 961 SE, the reverse cone peashooter pipes, they look a bit swollen compared to the original. The old motor is what a motor should look like and sound like today. I guess the biggest difference is the firing order – it doesn’t sound like a Norton. Not bad, just different!
The new Norton, in its favor, is that it’s a modern bike that can compete with other air-cooled twins in its class, such as the new Ducati SportClassic GT 1000. You’ll never go home embarrassed.
If you look at the Commando 961, it’s not a competitor of the Triumphs or the Royal Enfields. It’s a new, modern motorcycle with fuel injection, a great chassis, and great brakes.
There are a lot of similarities between the new bike and the old bike. In the old days, the front end had the Roadholder forks that were among the best. The Commando 961 has Öhlins suspension, which is second to none. They both breeze through a corner.
My old bikes have modern rubber – Dunlop GT501s – much nicer than the original K-series Dunlops that came with the bike. The big difference is width. The 961 has wide modern tires – Dunlop Qualifiers. They both handle good, with the skinny tires on the Interstate or the more substantial tires of the modern bike.
As far as power goes, the 961 is a new bike and there’s a sticker on the tank that says, “Don’t go past 3500 rpm until X amount of miles.” My 961 has only 300 miles on it, so I don’t know the full power yet. But, I can say it has lots of power, even if it doesn’t sound right.
The brakes are probably, except for the sound of the bike, the biggest difference between the models. If you go back to the first Commando, those brakes were horrendous. It doesn’t get better with the Fastback, even into 1975 with the disc brakes, front and rear. They’re still horrendous, compared to the 961 with its Brembos and twin 320mm discs in the front.
The American market Nortons had more cruiser-style handlebars, especially the Hi-rider – the last model I purchased to complete my Commando collection. It wasn’t my last vintage Commando, of course. I bought a castaway Commando for $2000 yesterday. The passion does not subside.
Ergonomically, the Commandos in Europe had more of a track feel. The new 961 has the same ‘let’s get it on’ Euro stance – it’s very similar to the old Roadster.
When it comes time to ride, the way I look at it now, is it going to be cool and crisp? Is my arthritis going to talk to me, or is it going to be a lovely day?
I like that old bike. It’s a nice pair of old slippers. They warm right up and you remember them. I like to make new friends; I like to meet new people. But, for sure, I want to keep my old friends, and old bikes.
The new Norton, I’ll put some time on it—you’re only new once, and that’s cool. Because it’s a modern bike, it’s a smoother bike. The way the crank fires, it will rattle your teeth less—or more than likely, not at all. The new bike doesn’t have the low- end grunt of the older bike, but as a complete bike it has longer legs. After it is broken in, I can work the gearing.
It’s a Norton, and I’m glad it’s here. I’m happy to have the bike. If Norton had been around all these years, you could see an uninterrupted lineage from what the Commando was to what it is now.
New is cool, and it’s a cool bike. I haven’t put a lot of time on it yet, but I think it will be just what the doctor ordered—it will be a keeper. The 2015 Norton Commando 961 Sport is a prized possession.
- Helmet: Arai Corsair-V-Sak_ART Custom
- Jacket: Joe Rocket UFO
- Gloves: Racer Micky
- Jeans: Icon Strongarm 2
- Footwear: Sidi DOHA
- Helmet: Shoei RF-1200
- Jacket: Vanson Custom
- Gloves: AGV Sport Jet
- Jeans: AGV Sport Shadow
- Footwear: SIDI DOHA
Photography by Don Williams
Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; for subscription services, click here.
2015 Norton Commando 961 SE & 1974 Norton Commando Interstate: