THE FIRST COMMANDO
Ever noticed that auto makers always include the phrase “Introducing the all-new (whatever)” in their advertising? Who are they trying to kid? Even in our era of computer design and boutique manufacturing, no major auto maker can afford to completely re-tool every new model year—even if the platform is shared among a number of makes and models. Likewise in the motorcycle industry: evolution is far more common than revolution, and “bold new graphics” are often used to extend the life of superannuated drivetrains.
So when the Norton Commando was announced at the Earls Court, London motorcycle show in late 1967, was it really as revolutionary as the company claimed? Well, yes and no…
Certainly revolutionary was the futuristic styling. A fibreglass “fastback” tail section hid the rear fender and blended into the seat, which was covered in orange vinyl and included “ears” that extended forward around the rear of the fibreglass gas tank. The bodywork was finished in a metalflake gel coat with Norton Villiers roundels in the gas tank and tailpiece (though a special first batch of Commandos were also painted in what Norton called “fireflake silver.”) The engine was also canted forward, a first for a full-size Norton model. The overall effect: this was a thoroughly modern, speed-focused motorcycle. But was it?
Certainly new was the frame technology. Though the legendary featherbed frame used on 500cc, 600cc and 650cc Nortons through the 1960s offered excellent handling, its limitations became apparent when the 750cc Atlas motor was bolted in. The frame proved too light to dampen vibration from the big twin and was also expensive to make—something that Norton’s new owner, Dennis Poore, was determined to change. The Commando’s frame really was a revolutionary design, drawn up by Dr. Stefan Bauer, whose radical idea was to isolate the drivetrain, including the rear wheel, from the main frame and what we would now call the “user interface.” Norton called the system “Isolastic.”
The drivetrain was connected to the rest of the bike by two rubber bushings and a Silentbloc rubber cylinder head steady. The bushings allowed the engine to vibrate in two planes (back/forward and up/down), but not from side to side, thus preserving the directional stability of the motorcycle. It’s similar to Eric Buell’s Uniplanar concept, except that Buell used tie rods for lateral control, while Norton’s Isolastic system contained the rubber bushings inside steel tubes, using shims to control side play.
Insulating the rider from the 745cc engine’s punishing vibration meant it could be tuned for more power. In the Atlas, the compression had been limited to 7.6:1 to mitigate those vibes: in the Commando, the engine’s full potential could be released without shaking the rider’s teeth loose or breaking the frame. With 9:1 compression, the first Commandos made around 58hp compared with 55hp for the Atlas, while the 1972, 10:1 compression Combat engine made at least 60hp. The Isolastic system was so effective that it easily accommodated the torquey 58hp 829cc engine stretch when it was introduced in 1973,
But the rest of the Commando was traditional Norton: the Roadholder fork; twin-leading-shoe drum front brake; four-speed gearbox; and kickstarter (electric start had to wait until 1975). Carburation was by dual Amal Concentrics and mufflers were borrowed from the Atlas. A new alloy primary case replaced the Atlas’s sheet metal item, and a new diaphragm clutch was used. And that was pretty much it.
The new bike wasn’t without its issues, though, the most critical of which was the frame cracking below the headstock. The issue was rectified in early 1969 by adding a cross-brace tube, but not before the offending item had become known as the “widow-maker.” Most of these bikes got retrofitted with the new frame. But not Darwin Sveinson’s. The Surrey, BC resident believes his Commando was one of the first few production machines finished in the Earls Court show livery.
When Sveinson bought his early 1968 Commando, the original frame was still in place. As part of the restoration, he replaced it with a later one, but the difference is not apparent without removing the gas tank. Sveinson meticulously restored the Commando to its original show finish in fireflake silver with Norton Villiers roundels. (On later production machines the roundels were replaced by the traditional Norton logo.)
Sveinson’s Commando was selected for the 2016 Crescent Beach Invitational Concours d’Elegance. And it’s the feature motorcycle at the 32nd Annual Classic & Vintage Motorcycle Swap Meet and Show ‘n Shine at the Cloverdale Fairgrounds in Surrey, BC on Sunday April 29, 2018. www.classicbikeswapmeet.com.
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