Norton Commando 850, Norton Commando 961 Sport


Norton Commando 850, Norton Commando 961 Sport

The comparison with the original

Norton Commando 850, Norton Commando 961 Sport

Content of

The newly launched Norton Commando 961 Sport reinterprets the theme of English twins with modern ingredients. A comparison with the original had to show how it can combine tradition and modernity.

There have been many attempts in recent years to resurrect legendary models in motorcycle history. From established large-scale manufacturers to small manufacturers, many tried to break into a niche market with retro bikes. Just think of the professional approaches of Moto Guzzi or Triumph, which celebrate success with retro models.

The focus of the Renaissance was always on the classic Englishmen of the 50s to 70s. So it was only a matter of time before someone would try their hand at iconic British twin-cylinder engines in general, and the legendary Norton brand in particular. The American Kenny Dreer dared and created a two-cylinder in the style of the Norton Commando from the baptism. He struggled with technical problems until the Englishman Stuart Garner took over the project and developed it to series production.

The Commando 961 combines classic style elements with modern chassis components. The air-cooled engine with an underlying camshaft and two valves per cylinder, each operated via long bumpers and rocker arms, largely takes up the template stylistically and technically.

But how authentic the result is, to what extent the copy of the classic exudes the spirit of the original, can only be shown by direct comparison.

Zu for this purpose a Commando 850 Roadster had to be used, which was completely in its original condition except for the side covers of the interstate and the aluminum rims. In 1973 Norton had increased the displacement to 829 cm³ with a 77 millimeter bore and 89 millimeter stroke, thus further cultivating the concept of the classic English long-stroke engine. The new challenger provided by the Donington factory, on the other hand, represents the short-stroke group with a bore of 88 millimeters and a stroke of 79 millimeters. In addition, the typical 360-degree crankshaft of the old synchronous rotor had to make way for a crankshaft with an extremely unusual crank pin offset of 270 degrees, including the balancer shaft. 

On the winding country roads of Warwickshire, the original takes care of the location. Getting on provides the first contrast. Although the manufacturers propose a seat height of 815 millimeters for both motorcycles, the 850 feels higher. In fact, a final measurement shows a difference of 50 millimeters. And despite the higher position, the 850 looks much slimmer. Strange, if there was a lot of space to lower it back then. At first, the 850 requires skill, as it has to be kicked on the main stand, everything else becomes a balancing act. On the other hand, the engine jumps on the second step and then falls into a steady, strongly vibrating idle speed of 1200 revolutions. The motor calms down over 2000 revolutions thanks to its elastic, isolastic suspension. From 2500 to 4000 rpm it runs silky smooth, with a wonderful deep hum from the two roadster silencers. It sounds inimitable, just as a 360-degree synchronous machine simply has to sound.

With the right-hand four-speed transmission with first gear up and the rest down, gear changes are easy. There is a big jump between two steps. And although the first gear is rather short and every further gear is only a means to an end, namely to get into fourth, the gearbox is rarely used because of the incredibly high-torque twin. The Norton pulls out of curves under 2000 rpm almost casually, whereby the low dry weight of 188 kilograms plays an essential role in the rich draft.


Norton Commando 850.

Apart from the seat height, the seat position, which is slightly inclined forwards, is extremely pleasant behind the handlebars, which are comfortably bent backwards. The footrests are just so high that they touch down late with the narrow Avon tires in an inclined position. The 19-inch front wheel supports the precise steering behavior and helps to explore the curvy potential of the English lady. On winding roads it almost falls automatically from one incline to the other with playful ease.

Two disciplines are not among the strengths of the Commando: the brakes and the rear suspension. The single, 272 millimeter disc in combination with the Lockheed brake caliper not only feels extremely wooden and decelerates only modestly even when high manual forces are used. Fortunately, the drum brake in the rear wheel has bite, which the driver urgently needs.

And while the legendary Roadholder fork does its job perfectly and contributes to the excellent handling characteristics, the badly appealing, stubborn Girling shock absorbers are out of line with the fully adjustable Ohlins components of the new Commando. They swallow uneven road surfaces as if they weren’t there, while the girlings create a washboard effect even on small bumps.

In combination with the excellent handling and the high-torque engine, the old Commando, measured against the 1972 standard, was without a doubt a very good motorcycle, perhaps the best of the British two-cylinder species.   

40 years later, the modern counterpart is ready with a similar architecture, but almost twice the performance. It produces 80 hp at 6500 rpm on the crankshaft compared to 51 hp at 6200 rpm of the classic at the transmission output, even if Norton once propagated their 60, albeit as a “catalog performance”. Amazingly, both bikes weighed in at an identical dry weight of 188 kilograms. The modern Commando delivers a torque of 89 Nm at 5200 / min, the ancestor 48 Nm at 5000 / min. The power and torque curves of the two rivals have a similar course, which is correspondingly higher for the 961.

When the electric starter is activated, the 961 spontaneously comes to life and lapses into a rumbling idle speed of 1300 rpm. It sounds like that of a Ducati and, thanks to the 270 degree crankshaft, is completely different from a traditional British parallel twin. Engine designer Kenny Dreer chose this configuration to tame the vibrations, and Stuart Garner and his designers adopted this configuration for series production. The acoustic note from Bologna doesn’t sound bad, but it has nothing to do with the sound of a classic Norton.

The first Euro 3 engine, which was made at Norton in England, has the same torque as the engines originally developed by Menard, but does not increase so spontaneously towards the red area on the tachometer and vibrates more strongly, especially over, despite the balance shaft 5000 rpm. In traffic it swims cultivated, but as soon as the driver opens the throttle valve, it catapults him forward. The two-cylinder pulls through practically from idle speed, slows down from 2000 rpm and from 4000 up to the power zenith at 6500 rpm, there is concentrated joy. In addition, it makes no sense to squeeze the engine even close to the red zone at 8000 rpm. Surfing the power curve and using the torque surge, the five-speed engine does not need a sixth stage. It has such a broad band of torque and power that the driver shifts when he feels like it and not when the engine demands it. In contrast to the prototypes, the gear changes also work perfectly.


Norton Commando 961 Sport.

Manageability was one of the strengths of the 961 from the start. Like the original model, despite the significantly wider, modern tires, it steers in precisely and feels light-footed, agile and at the same time stable. Your driving behavior inspires confidence even on bad surfaces, even rough bumps on an incline cannot disturb you. The Ohlins suspension absorbs all bumps, the Norton stubbornly sticks to its course, also thanks to the low center of gravity made possible by dry sump lubrication.     

The Brembo double disc brake in the front wheel with the four-piston fixed calipers ensures extremely effective and easily controllable deceleration. But the motor also delivers an amazing braking effect without the rear wheel tending to punch.

The bottom line is: Can the Norton Commando 961 stand alongside its ancestor? The new release represents an adequate, modern counterpart to the original. The interpretation of the classic appearance and modern technology has succeeded the creators of the new Norton, it is both functional and stylistically successful. The sound and the good vibrations alone do not reveal any relationship. A synchronous rotor with a balancer shaft would certainly have been the more authentic solution. Nevertheless, the enthusiast of English motorcycles can put a Norton Commando 961 in the garage with his modern Mini Cooper in retro style with a clear conscience.


The look is deceptive: the engine and transmission form a unit, and a modern injection system prepares the mixture.

Data: Norton Commando 850

Two-cylinder four-stroke in-line engine, an underlying camshaft, two valves per cylinder, actuated via bumpers and rocker arms, bore x stroke 80 x 77 mm, compression 8.5: 1, displacement 828 cm³, output 51 hp at 6200 / min
Power transmission:
Multi-disc clutch, primary drive via triplex chain, four-speed gearbox, secondary drive via chain
Landing gear:
Double loop frame made of tubular steel, motor, gearbox and swing arm elastically mounted in the frame, hydraulically damped telescopic fork at the front, swing arm at the rear, two spring struts, wire-spoke wheels with steel rims, tires front and rear 4.10-19, front disc brake, Ø 270 mm, simplex drum brake at the rear, Ø 175 mm
Mass and weight:
Wheelbase 1390 mm, dry weight 188 kg, tank capacity 24 l
Top speed 190 km / h


Classic English engine construction with separate gearbox, Amal carburetor and right-hand shift.

Data: Commando 961 Sport

Two-cylinder four-stroke in-line engine, a camshaft below, two valves per cylinder, actuated via bumpers and rocker arms, bore x stroke 88 x 79 mm, compression 10.1: 1, displacement 961 cm³, output 80 hp at 6500 rpm, a balance shaft
Power transmission:
Multi-disc oil bath clutch, five-speed gearbox, secondary drive via O-ring chain
Landing gear:
Double loop frame made of tubular steel, hydraulically damped telescopic fork at the front, swing arm at the rear, two spring struts, wire-spoke wheels with aluminum rims, tires, 120/70 x 17 front, 180/55 x 17 rear, double disc brake front, Ø 320 mm, four-piston fixed calipers, disc brake rear, Ø 220 mm , Two-piston fixed caliper
Mass and weight:
Wheelbase 1420 mm, dry weight 188 kg, tank capacity 17 l
Top speed over 200 km / h

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