Classic Experience: Living With a 1973 Norton Commando 850

Some 55,000 Norton Commandos were built over the years. After riding one, we wish they’d built more.

| September/October 2014

1973 Norton Commando 850
Claimed power:
60hp @ 6,200rpm
Engine type:
828cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 77mm x 89mm bore and stroke, 8:5 compression ratio
Top speed:
122mph (period test)
Weight (wet):
462lb (210kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
3gal (11.4ltr)/50mpg (observed)
Price then/now:
$1,879 (1973)/$5,500-$8,500

Sample parts prices
Klempf’s British Parts

Muffler set:
$400 (original Norton)
Oil filter:
Points and condensers set:
Electronic ignition conversion:
$205 (Boyer)
Brake pad set:
Valve cover gasket set:
Top end gasket set:

Service recommendations
Oil and filter change:
Every 2,500 miles
Air filter:
Clean/replace every 5,000 miles
Valve adjustment:
Check every 5,000 miles
Spark plugs:
Clean/adjust every 2,500 miles
Ignition timing:
Check/adjust every 2,500 miles

With an estimated 55,000 built, the Commando was the most successful Norton of all time. After spending a day with one, we think it’s too bad they didn’t build more.

The coming of the Commando

In many ways, it’s remarkable the Commando was successful at all. Introduced in 1968 and powered by the parallel twin developed 20 years earlier by Bert Hopwood (he’d helped design the game-changing Triumph Speed Twin in 1937), the Commando was in many ways the sad proof that the British motorcycle industry had been sitting on its hands while the Japanese and European competition blazed new trails. Where Hondas had overhead cams, four cylinders and disc brakes, Nortons had overhead valves, only two cylinders and, until 1972, drum brakes. The wave of the future they weren’t.

But that doesn’t mean they weren’t good bikes. When Norton decided — out of necessity — to continue with its old twin, it had the good sense to house it in a new frame, suspended by an entirely new isolating mounting system. Designed by former Rolls-Royce engineer Dr. Stefan Bauer, the Norton Isolastic system fixed the swingarm to an engine/transmission subframe, isolating the powertrain from the main frame — and the rider. It was brilliantly simple, and it transformed the rough and vibratory Norton 745cc twin into a smooth operator whose performance belied its aged origins. And while conventional wisdom said Norton had stretched the old twin beyond its limits, it was bumped up yet one more time, to 828cc in 1973, and proved up to the task.

9/11/2014 12:25:14 PM

One more upgrade Ken may want to do is to the front brake master cylinder. Putting in a smaller piston reduce the amount of effort needed to stop enough to make it feel like a modern bike. The stock 5/8" diameter piston is reduced to 1/2" giving about 50% more braking power. This can be done by either resleeving the stock cylinder, or replacing it. I chose to replace it with one off eBay from the Phillipines. Mine fits right on to the existing switch controls so you don't have to mess up your bike to use it. You can then return to "three finger stopping" and still feel in control!

Ride 'Em, Don't Hide 'Em Getaway

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