Book Review: Norton Commando by Mick Duckworth

Review by Andy Saunders

[This Norton Commando book review was originally published in the March 2008 issue of Rider magazine]

The Norton name never seems to die. Just when you think it’s gone, someone comes along and resurrects the marque again. We seem to be between Norton revival periods right now, so maybe the time is right to look at Mick Duckworth’s Norton Commando model history book, and reflect on the heritage of the classic bikes you can still find in the classified ads.

The Commando 750 (later 850cc), produced from 1968-1978, was one of the best British street bikes of the era, and is a popular mount for many classic enthusiasts. It’s one of the few ‘60s-era Britbikes that can be made to handle modern freeway traffic, and one of the few classics that you can pick up for less than an arm and a leg.

Duckworth, a frequent contributor to classic bike magazines and an authority on old bikes, goes right back to the start with a history of the Norton brand, all the way from its founding in 1902 through its 20th-century racing successes. In the 1930s Norton seemed unbeatable, despite the huge sums its continental competitors spent trying to win world championships.

There were lows, too. The Norton company, Duckworth points out, first succumbed to financial disaster in 1912, a scant decade after producing its first two-wheeler, and a pattern of business failures would follow Norton through the years just as faithfully as its reputation for competition success. Financial setbacks compelled the sale and reorganization of the company in 1912, 1953, 1966 and 1977.

It’s those last two dates we’re concerned with here, as they represent the period of production of Norton’s best-known street motorcycle, the Commando. Originally conceived as a stopgap model just weeks before the motorcycle show where it would debut, the Commando prototype started life in London’s swinging ‘60s painted completely in flat silver (from spray cans, Duckworth reveals) with green bug-eye tank badges and a bright orange seat. Production versions toned down the contrasts, but the Commando would always have standout style, in an era when motorcycles still looked like they’d been put together from parts bins.

Those of us who were addicted to the motorcycle magazines of the day will still remember Norton’s full-page ads, complete with scantily clad glamour models, that appeared on the inside front cover of major U.S. motorcycle magazines for several years in the early ‘70s. Many of these ads are reproduced in the book, in full color, and boy, are they dated. The motorcycle has aged more serenely.

The Commando would continue for more than a decade, turn out to be the British Norton company’s last fling in large-scale production, and is still remembered, and ridden, a generation after the last 850cc twin came off the assembly line. The last chapter in the book gives a quick rundown of the parts specialists still making bits and pieces for Commandos today. Believe it or not, you can still build a new Commando from available parts–all it takes is a heavy dose of nostalgia and a big enough wallet.

The book is more than a model history, more than just a recitation of part numbers and year-to-year model changes (although you will find all that is covered). It’s also a history of the people who worked on the Commando project, and Duckworth has been busy interviewing everyone–tracking down many of the designers, the testers, production managers, and even salesmen who sold the bike over the years. He gives a potted history of each significant individual, bringing us up to date on what’s happened since. It’s one of the parts of the book that brings out the human element in the design process.

There are sidebars on Norton restorers and vintage racers, and on many of the Norton people Duckworth has met on his travels around Europe and the United States. There are many small, but to a Britbike fan, utterly fascinating details revealed in the text. Who’d have thought that many of the Norton frames were actually made by Verlicchi, for example, the Italian company that also made (and still makes) frames for Ducati and BMW?

One caveat: After reading Duckworth’s history of the Honda 750 a while ago, I was expecting a little more passion in his coverage of the Norton. I suspect that Duckworth wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about the Norton twin–maybe the Honda was a bigger symbol of his youth. Or maybe he owned one years ago, and had to pay a fortune to fix its faults…of which he reveals many! But passion or no, the coverage is remarkably complete.

There’s Commando competition history in the United States and United Kingdom, including successful forays into dirt-track racing, drag racing and road racing. Sidebars include today’s Norton restorers, and on the Norton America, the Oregon-based project which promised to resurrect the Norton name, only to sink into the sea of red ink which has always surrounded it.

For the Norton Commando owner or enthusiast, this book is a must-have. For anyone contemplating buying such a bike, it’s also recommended. And if you remember those Norton ads of the ‘70s with nostalgia, maybe it’s the book for you.

For more information: Norton Commando by Mick Duckworth is 145 pages, is published by Haynes Publishing and is available from Whitehorse Press for $29.95;; (800) 531-1133


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