A Norton Commando History


Of course its a big big program trying to make a Commmando history, but here is a brief and humble resumé of our ever best favorite bike.

The Norton Commando was the last twin piston-engined motorcycle produced by the Norton Motorcycle company founded in 1898 by James Lansdowne Norton. Their last production bikes were twin-rotor wankels.

During the 10 years it was in production it was popular all over the world. In the UK it won the MCN "Machine of the Year" competition for five successive years from 1968-1972
Some regard it as the British Motorcycle Industry's swansong, selling well from its introduction in 1967 through the end of the British bike industry as a commercial concern in the mid 1970s

The origins of the Norton Commando can be traced back to the late 1940s when the 497cc Norton Model 7 Twin, designed by Bert Hopwood and initially an export only model. The twin cylinder design evolved into the 650 cc Norton Dominator and 750 cc Norton Atlas before being launched as the 750 cc Commando in 1967.

The revolutionary part of the Commando compared to earlier Norton models was the frame developed by former Rolls Royce engineer Dr. Stefan Bauer. Bauer believed the classic Norton Featherbed frame design went against all engineering principles, so designed his frame around a single 2.25 inch top tube.

To try to free the Commando from classic twin vibration problems, which had severely increased as the capacity of the basic design expanded from 500cc of Edward Turner's 1938 Triumph Speed Twin. Bauer, with Norton Villiers Chief Engineer Bernard Hooper and assistant Bob Trigg, decided that the engine, gearbox and swing-arm assembly were to be bolted together and isolated from the frame by special rubber mountings. This eliminated the extreme vibration problems that were apparent in other models in the range, as it effectively separated the driver from the engine.

Named the Isolastic anti-vibration system, with Hooper listed as the lead inventor on the system's patent document. Although the Isolastic system did reduce vibration, maintaining the required free play in the engine mountings at the correct level was crucial to its success. Too little play brought the vibration back; too much, and the result was "interesting" handling.

The Norton Commando was introduced in 1967 at the Earls Court Show. The first production machines completed in April 1968 had bending frame problems, removed with the introduction of a new frame in January 1969. The original model, called the 'Fastback' was joined by the production racer 'S Type' which had a high level left-side exhaust and a 2.5 gallon petrol tank.

Production of the machine was initially complex and located across different parts of England, with the engines produced in Wolverhampton, frames in Manchester, while components and final assembly was at Burrage Grove, Plumstead. In late 1968 Plumstead works was subject to a Greater London Council compulsory purchase order, and closed in July 1969. With assistance of a Government subsidy, the assembly line was moved to North Way, Andover; with the Test Department in an aircraft hangar on Thruxton Airfield. Frame manufacturing was transferred to Wolverhampton, where a second production line produced about 80 complete machines each week. Components and complete engines and gearboxes were also shipped overnight, from Wolverhampton to the Andover assembly line.

SS for Street Scrambler

The production racer, featuring an OHV tuned engine, front disk brake and was finished in bright yellow - known as the 'Yellow Peril'. In March to June 1970 the updated S called the 'Roadster' had the 750cc OHV engine, low-level exhaust, upward angled silencers with reverse cones. September 1970 saw the introduction of the classic 'Fastback Mk2', which had alloy levers with modified stands and chain guards. The ‘Street Scrambler’ and the ‘Hi Rider’ were launched in May 1971, with the ‘Fastback Long Range’ with increased petrol tank capacity from July 1971.

1970 production racer

The Hi-Rider

The ‘Combat’ engine was introduced in January 1972 saw the appearance of the ‘Mk4 Fastback’, updated ‘Roadster’ and the ‘750 Interstate’. The ‘Combat’ delivered 65b.h.p. at 6500r.p.m. with a 10 to 1 compression ratio, but the stressed 750cc twin proved extremely unreliable, with main bearing failures and broken pistons common.

The 'Combat' engine combined with quality control problems gave the company a bad reputation, which was highly covered in the press. By the middle of 1972 BSA Triumph group were in serious financial trouble. The UK Government decided to bail the company out with a financial rescue package, providing it would agree to merge with Norton Villiers. Norton Villiers Triumph was duly formed and the new company got off to a shaky start.

The last of the 750 series, the MkV was produced from November 1972 to mid-1973 as a 1973 model and featured improved crank bearings and the standard grind camshaft. Compression was reduced to 9.4:1.

The police were showing a lot of interest in the Commando and so Neale Shilton was recruited from Triumph to produce a Commando to police specifications. The end result was the 'Interpol' machine, which sold well to police forces, both at home and abroad. The machine was powered by a 750 cc. O.H.V. engine and included panniers, top box, fairing, and had fittings for a radio and auxiliary equipment.

In January 1973 the ‘Mk.5 Fastback’ was launched and the ‘Long Range’ was discontinued, foreshadowing the first 850cc machines launched in April 1973. The ‘Roadster’, ‘Hi Rider’ and the ‘Interstate’ all began to use a new 828cc. engine, which had similar power to the 750cc models but were less stressed.

1973 also saw the start of development on a new machine with a monocoque pressed steel frame, that also included a 500cc twin, stepped piston engine called the 'Wulf'. However, as the Norton Villiers Triumph company was again in serious financial problems, development of the 'Wulf' was dropped in favour of the rotary Wankel type engine inherited from BSA.

The Wulf

In late 1973 redundancy notices were issued at Andover, followed by a sit-in at the works. The Conservative Government withdrew the subsidy in early 1974, restored by the Labour party post the general election. NVT resultantly decided to concentrate production of the Commando at Wolverhampton and Small Heath, causing unrest at Meriden which resulted in a workers’ sit in and stopping production at Small Heath. By the end of 1974 NVT had lost over £3 million.

However, the company still managed to produce new Commando models, with 1974 seeing the release of the Roadster based ‘JPN Replica’ and the ‘Mk.2a Interstate’.

Norton Commando Interstate Mk3

The 850cc MK3 Commando was launched in March 1975 and for the first time was fitted with an "electric starter" - better described as electric "assister", as it would soon drain the battery. The range of models was reduced to just two machines, the ‘Mk.3 Interstate’ and the ‘Roadster’, both with a left side gear change, right foot brake and rear disk brake to comply with United States vehicle regulations. The specification remained unchanged until October 1977 when the last machines were made, although few 'Roadster's were made in the end due to the higher cash sales value of the Interstate.

In 1975 the Industry Minister recalled a loan for £4 million and refused to renew the company’s export credits. The company then went into receivership and redundancies were announced for all of the staff at the various sites. At Wolverhampton an action committee was formed in an effort to continue production and develop the ‘Wulf’ engine - but the works was closed anyway.

NVT was saved when the Small Heath/Meriden part of the company was subsidised by Industry Secretary Tony Benn as Industry Secretary, but this did not include Commando production. Ironically, the new company bought the gates from the now demolished Wolverhampton Tong Castle works, and erected at the works entrance in Marston Road, Small Heath.


A superb collection of Gus Kuhn Nortons at the Race of the Year at Mallory Park in 1971. Note the van in the background! Thanks again to Ken Veasey.

Right from the beginning the Commando took part in racing events.

After successes in 1969 by dealer entered machines like Paul Smart's second and Mick Andrew 's 4th places in the Isle of Man TT Production class and a win in the Hutchinson 100 Production Class by Mick Andrew on the Gus Kuhn entered Commando and 4th by Peter Williams' Arter Bros machine, the company decided to produce a racing model - hence the developed S and "Yellow Peril" models.

In partnership with John Player Special cigarettes from the early 1970s, Norton went factory racing. Early entries were based on the Commando, and in 1973 Peter Williams won the 1973 Formula 750 Isle of Man TT, with Mick Grant second.

Racing continued until the collapse of Norton Villiers into BSA Triumph in 1973, and did not return until the Rotary Nortons of the

Now we know the Story keep on riding with the British businessman Stuart Garner, but this will be another step

Some interesting Links below:

Matt Rambow Website Colorado Commando Specialist
Jos Kooijman & Constant Trossel  Website Holland Commando Specialists
Daniel Delfour Website our Commando Specialist.
Norvil Website Commando specialists in UK