England’s last gasp in the war it couldn’t win — the Norton 850 Commando

IN THE world history of motorcycling, there once was a war. The first meaningful shot was fired in 1963 when Honda launched an American advertising campaign under the slogan ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’ — a slogan that an American advertising agency bought from a university student who had coined the phrase for an assignment.

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In war terms, a struggling Californian uni student handed Japan the post-WW2 marketing equivalent of an atomic bomb smuggled into a Trojan horse.
The bike in that initial “nicest people” campaign was a Honda Super Cub, a step-through scooter powered by a 49cc four stroke that generated about five horsepower and was good for 70kmh downhill on a sunny day with a backwind.

Honda had immediate success, both with its “nicest people” campaign and with the Super Cub, but England wasn’t worried.

Hey, it’s only a scooter. As a matter of fact, in December 1965, BSA group chief executive Edward Turner is credited with saying that the sale of small Japanese motorcycles was good for BSA because it was attracting new riders who would graduate to larger machines. Right. Good one, Eddie.

Little did poor Eddie know that within ten years Japan would hold the severed head of the British motorcycle industry aloft on a sword. Perhaps he was lucky to die in 1973, when the war was still being waged and the full extent of the automotive economic bloodbath was not yet clear.

CAPTION: Unmistakeable, and unmistakably British. The ‘curly N’ logo was designed by Mr Norton himself, James Lansdowne Norton, and his daughter Ethel, and adorned Norton tanks from 1915 onwards.

There is a long, fascinating and complex tale to be told (a movie one day, surely?) about how the English totally cocked up its bike industry in the face of Japan’s attack. Company management, unions, politicians, workers — history has judged them all badly for under-estimating what was happening, and then cobbling the UK bike industry when it should have been shoring it up.

England lost the motorcycle war, largely because it was too late in realising that hostilities had even begun. But that’s not to say Britannia went down without a fight. And perhaps its greatest counter-attack was the Norton 850 Commando.

The Commando started life in 1969 as a 750 and, with its ‘revolutionary’ isolastic engine mounting system, was a sensation. But it had plenty of woes too.

Frames broke. Clutch pins sheared. Side-stands sometimes snapped off. The isolastic system was successful in isolating the rider from the engine’s vibrations but the engine still vibrated like a jackhammer, especially at idle. Those vibrations were hard on many engine components, with oil supply lines, head steadies, and even carburettors sometimes rattling to bits.

The problems were addressed and the Commando’s reputation and status grew. And so did its engine. In 1973, the 750 became an 829 (the marketing team rounded it up to ‘850’).

CAPTION: Commandos were left-side foot brake until 1975. Electric starters arrived the same year.

American bike magazine ‘Cycle‘ had this to say of the 850 in 1973: “If a machine with good handling, a smooth engine, mechanical simplicity, and a high performance potential are your idea of what a motorcycle is all about, a Norton 850 Commando is a bike that must be taken for careful consideration. It has all those qualities in abundance. How much power do you want? The throttle is like a rheostat.”

But, just as the Japanese bike industry was gaining momentum, the British bike industry was going into meltdown. There were forced mergers, bringing BSA, Norton and Triumph into one company. The whole thing was a fluster-cluck. There were engines being made at one place, frames in another, and then assembly in another. There were mass sackings to try to save money. Workers went on strike in protest. The Government of the day withdrew its financial support, demanding loans be repaid.

Evolution of the Commando continued, despite the chaos. In 1975, the 850 got a left-hand gear change, rear disc brake, and an electric start. It was still evolution-on-the-run, and there were problems — but it was a wonderful bike. Smooth, gorgeous, and good for 125mph (perhaps downhill on a sunny day with a backwind).

But it was too late. The Japanese juggernaut was coming over the walls like Game of Thrones white walkers. BSA was already gone, the last BSA-badged bike sold in 1973. Norton lurched a little longer; the last Commando was made in 1977. Triumph surged and popped and farted and backfired, sunk, then resurrected itself.

CAPTION: Want one? We’ve found one for sale in Western Australia. Click for a closer look.

And so it is that Norton Commandos became, and remain, one of history’s most charismatic machines. They are steeped in history; stained in blood from a war they had no chance of winning. And, especially when bestowed with the myriad of fixes that have evolved over the past 40 years, they are superb, reliable performers.

The bike you see in this article is owned by Perth Norton tragic Ken Cockram, a man who is playing his own role in the never-ending story of the Commando. Ken’s Fullauto Technologies manufactures replacement cylinder heads for Commandos and sells them all over the world.

His own 850 is a wonderful example of the breed, fitted with a long list of improvements but still largely faithful to the mothership.

CAPTION: Ken Cockram bought his first Norton in 1975. He’s done 60,000 miles on this 850 Commando including many runs between Albany, Margaret River, Perth and Geraldton. Ken says the bike’s highway performance is “gorgeous”.

CAPTION: Front brake is Lockheed; rim is wider than standard at 2 1/2″.

CAPTION: Rear shocks are Ikon. Ken has done 50,000 miles on them and swears by them.

 

 

CAPTION: The made-in-Australia cylinder head breathes through a made-in-Japan 34mm Mikuni carb.

CAPTION: Gauges are modern Smiths. They look like old Smiths, except they work and tell you more info.

CAPTION: Ken couldn’t find a cylinder head to replace the original, which is porous and prone to leak and crack. So he made his own, and now ships them all over the world (as you do …) They’re lighter than standard and porting is improved but not ‘racer boy’. Camshaft is a PW3, which means it has the grind designed by 1960s Norton pin-up racer and techno-whizz, Peter Williams.

CAPTION: Tri-Spark ignition replaces original points system. It’s a ‘must upgrade’, Ken says.

CAPTION: Header pipes are ceramic-coated, as are combustion chambers, piston tops, valve heads and valve stems. Cylinders are Maney aluminium units.

CAPTION: They seem to travel in pairs, these British twins, but we’ll resist a quip about bump-starting. Headlight is LED, and a front mudguard is coming.

 

 

CAPTION: Magazine advert from the mid-’70s tempted buyers. Pretty-girl backdrop was all the go.

Also see:

Lex’s vintage Guzzi racer

Ian Boyd’s Vincents

Honda’s NR500

Bikes For Sale

 

 

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