Ka-chunk (pause) Ka-chunk Ka-chunk. I am sitting at the picnic table in a campsite under the pines, but the sounds I hear are not birdsong. Somewhere nearby, someone is kickstarting a Norton Commando.
Ka-chunk (pause) Ka-chunk (muffled swearing) Ka-chunk. The bike catches, and the baritone exhaust note echoes off the trees. A Norton has once again sprung to life, ready for another ride.
“I have always wanted a Norton,” explains Robert Carter, well-known commercial and fine artist, camping enthusiast and Norton aficionado. “I had Ariels in Britain, I toured the States on a BSA 441 Victor in 1982, but I’ve never had a Norton. I bought this one in February. When I was an apprentice in London, I said I would own one someday. I’ve been riding this one—it meets all expectations. It’s better than I thought it would be.”
Norton was one of the more performance-oriented British marques, heavily identified with the Isle of Man TT races. The last Norton models, the 750 and 850 Commando twins, attracted an international following in the ’60s and ’70s. Although the last Commando was pushed off the assembly line in 1977, a very large number of Nortons (estimated at 10,000 several years ago) are still on the road. The biggest North American enthusiasts’ organization, the International Norton Owners Association, has 1,400 members, and the number has remained stable for several years. Most Norton owners, especially Norton Commando owners, ride their bikes on a regular basis. Norton club membership is organized around riding, tricks and tips for keeping the bikes on the road, and sympathetic ears for tales of mechanical woe.
For many Norton enthusiasts, the highlight of the year is the annual INOA Rally, held at different venues around North America. The INOA Rally has been a yearly event since 1975. The different active Norton clubs around the United States and Canada bid on having the annual meet held in their area. The winning club organizes the event, supported by the national organization and nearby clubs. The Oregon Norton Enthusiasts (ONE) “won” this time around, and reserved Howard Prairie Lake Resort in the mountains near Ashland, Oregon, for the event.
Besides rides, the rally featured two group dinners, a concours, a swap meet and a showing of the Hogslayer movie about the famous twin-engined Norton drag racer. Most attendees spent the majority of their time riding the scenic roads in the vicinity and hanging out with the other Nortoneers. The resort is a lakeside campground with a small restaurant. All campsites are nicely shaded by tall trees, which kept the place livable in the 90-degree heat. “This is like a family reunion,” explained Sam Justice, President of ONE. “We are the Norton family. A lot of us plan to go to these rallies as part of our summer vacation. You can’t beat the crowd here for expertise about Nortons. We go to different places, meet fellow enthusiasts and see rare models.”
Despite the distance from major population centers, over 175 people and close to that number of bikes, mostly Nortons, showed up. Many of the attendees are getting to the age where any distance is done on a BMW, and a lot of folks trailered their Nortons in, but all the rides, including the 200-miler to Crater Lake, were well attended.
Some of the participants were there on business. Norton popularity allows a few people to make a living fabricating and selling parts, working on bikes or doing restorations. Colin Kelly of British Columbia, Canada, rebuilds bikes for people and makes sheet metal parts. “Nortons are more popular now than when they were made,” he says. “They show well in the long term.”
Suzi Greenway has been President of the INOA since 1998. “It’s a hobby, and I treat it as a hobby. The members are people who know they are fortunate to own a Norton. Norton’s past racing record was significant enough to keep the brand alive. The Commando was the bike of many people’s dreams. We work on the happy factor.”
(This article Rally in the Cascades was published in the November 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)