It may look like an old Norton Commando, the one launched back in 2015 by the “old” and now disgraced Norton regime. In fact, however, a claimed 36 per cent of the motorcycle is completely new and over 300 components have been changed or re-designed. Here is our first impression following a first ride in Shakespeare County.
Story: Adam ‘Chad’ Child
Photography: Jason Critchell
This is a big step for “new” Norton, the Solihull-based company that has been revitalised under the ownership of the well-known Indian manufacturer, TVS Motor Company. Over £100 million (Rs 925 crore) have been invested to bring Norton back from the depths and the new Commando is one of the first fruits of that enormous financial commitment.
When TVS took over, they looked at Norton’s existing bikes, the Commando and V4S superbike, listened to criticism and stripped back both bikes to the bare bones. Through vigorous testing, new Norton identified the problem areas and then set out to rectify them. While the old Commando was designed and built under the Stuart Garner regime with a limited budget, tooling, and staff, new Norton recruited new management, skilled engineers, designers, and development riders and installed them in a bespoke, state-of-the-art production facility before commencing production of the new bike.
Thus, this is, in many ways, the Commando that should have been. The air-cooled engine has been given a complete overall. Parts have been replaced and re-designed where necessary. Testing has been extensive on both road and track. Every competent has been scrutinised and improved where necessary, from fuel-tank to crank and cam materials, resulting in the introduction of over 300 new components. At last, Norton should have a Commando to be proud of. We threw a leg over the SP version of the hand-built Brit for a blast around the lanes of the East Midlands.
New Norton could have made the decision to transform the Commando 961, but, instead, set out to rectify its problems and improve its ride quality and reliability while leaving the pushrod twin’s classic design alone. The old Commando was far from unattractive but, in the metal, the 2023 machine looks sharper and fitter, as if it has spent the last year or two in the gym… Did the previous Commando really look this good? Blessed with a classic autumnal British day in Shakespeare County near Stratford Upon Avon, the new Commando truly glistens in the sunshine. It is immediately obvious that Norton have improved the quality of their fixtures and fittings. The bike is still built by hand in the United Kingdom—the fuel-tank pinstripes are still painted by hand—but now there is a perceptible sense of craftsmanship throughout. During our test it would turn heads on every street, eyes wide with desire.
There are two models to choose from: the SP (Sport) and CR (Café Racer), the only significant difference being the CR’s low bars (and brake lines to accommodate them). In the UK, there is only a £500 (Rs 46,250) price difference between the two models; therefore, preferring one to the other is simply down to personal taste. Both bikes are available in the Matrix Black or the Manx Platinum. I honestly do not know which colour option I would opt for, because both look stunning. The black is lovely and stands out against the chrome, but the Manx Platinum (or silver to most of us) is reminiscent of the famous Manx Norton of the 1950s and ’60s.
Not only does the re-engineered Commando look good, it sounds good too. The heavily revised pushrod engine is not Euro 5-compliant, meaning the rule-makers have not strangled the exhaust tone. It is not overly loud or flaunting the regs, but there is a robustly sung chorus to the air-cooled twin that sets the mood and spices the senses.
Internally, bore and stroke remain the same. While new Norton could have gone in search of more power and torque, they elected instead to focus on making it reliable. To achieve this meant re-engineering and, sometimes, completely changing components such as cams, cam chains, crankcases, and gearbox mechanisms. In fact, approximately one-third of the engine can be described as totally new. The somewhat old-school air-cooled pushrod engine punches out a claimed 78 hp at 7,250 revolutions per minute and 81 Nm of torque at 6,300 rpm. The old Norton claimed 80 hp and 90 Nm of torque and it appears that the new Norton has sacrificed some power in the name of reliability or, perhaps, new Norton are simply more realistic about their power figures.
There is no hiding the fact that the 961 is down on power compared to its nominal rivals in the market. Triumph’s Thruxton makes 105 hp, Ducati’s Scrambler 1100 churns out 88 hp, but it is more like an air-cooled Harley than those retro twins. Revs are built relatively slowly; the analogue rev-counter progresses rather than swishes towards its 7,500-rpm red-line. If you like to spend most of your time in the last 30 per cent of the rev-range, then, sorry, this is not your bike. Instead of a lot of modern free-flowing revs, there is a traditional spread of usable torque. Much like a cruiser, you ride the Commando in the mid-range, short-shifting through a gearbox that is much smoother and slicker than the one in the old bike.
Once you click into this way of riding, letting the bike flow and using the mid-range torque, the 961 reveals a brisk turn of speed. Up to 160 km/h, overtakes are effortless and, with only five gears at one’s disposal, there is no taller sixth gear to shift down from. Turn the throttle and the 961 drives satisfyingly and strongly whatever your gear or rpm. There is genuine character here, too. You can feel the vibrations build as the engine speed increases, which some will find tedious, but I believe most will prefer the sense of involvement and interaction it brings. The 961 is anti-bland—that fruity exhaust note, with its pops on the overrun, adds to the sensation that you are riding something a little special and not a conventional run-of-the-mill production bike.
Speaking in strictly objective terms, it is no match for the water-cooled competition. The Thruxton, for instance, can give some fairly sporty machines a run for their money, it is even capable of delivering a decent track-day, but the Commando is not really in this category. By no means slow, it just does not have that serving of top-end performance we expect of 2022 twins.
Chassis-wise, Norton have again stayed in familiar Commando territory. There are adjustable 43-millimetre Öhlins forks up front and twin Öhlins shocks looking after the rear, plus quality Brembo stoppers all round. The frame is re-designed and MIG and TIG welded at Norton HQ. Rake, trail, and wheelbase remain unchanged while the Commando’s weight is now quoted at 230 kilograms, which, by modern standards, is heavy for an air-cooled and relatively simple bike. (Ducati’s air-cooled 1100 Scrambler is 26 kg lighter.)
Like the motor, the handling is best described as lazy, though in a good way. Stability is excellent and the 961 is nothing if not predictable. You roll into turns, rather than dart towards the apex, and instinctively let everything flow.
The Öhlins set-up is on the soft side and copes with almost everything you can throw at it during a spirited ride in the English countryside. Around town, there is a nice balance, with the mass of the motor held low in the chassis thanks to its dry sump lubrication system. The soft set-up takes road imperfections without jolts. And while the throttle response can still feel a little sharp, fuelling is much improved compared to the old bike’s, making it a smoother ride everywhere.
There are a few niggles. The standard Dunlop Sportmax GPR300 tyres lack feel and, though I am sure they will last forever, they lack touch and feedback when you start to push on. Given that they also take a while to warm up and that there is no traction control on the 961 as standard, I would give up longevity for more grip any day of the week. But if you were to fit sportier rubber, you would then have to tweak the suspension. Those softly damped and sprung forks give a reassuring feel but the initial dive under hard-ish braking is a little quick. Meanwhile, ground clearance is not particularly lacking but, when the Commando is ridden hard, the handcrafted exhaust touches down before the pegs. Ideally, you want the pegs to touch before the solid (and expensive) exhaust.
Brembo four-piston monobloc stoppers combine with twin 320-mm discs and do an excellent job of slowing the relatively heavy Commando. ABS comes as standard, of course, but only in a conventional non-lean-sensitive format. While many potential customers will love the Commando’s easy steering and practicability, I would want a few little tweaks to the chassis. Rubber with more feel would be a must, after which a little more support on the front plus a set-up that allows the pegs to touch before the exhaust to give some warning when lack of ground clearance is imminent.
All of these are easy fixes and, as mentioned, if you are looking for sport performance, handling, and specification, you are almost missing the point of the new Norton. It is how the bike makes you feel that counts and this is where the 961 scores highly. Imagine opening your garage door to find a gleaming Commando 961 inside. It looks stunning and conveys the true essence of the iconic Norton brand; it begs you to reach for the open-face, goggles, and old flying jacket and take it out for a blast. Now, thanks to painstaking development and huge investment, the 961 should be reliable, too, and free of the mechanical mishaps and misery that afflicted some owners of the older Commando.
The riding position is comfortable, the vibrations are apparent but, certainly to me, not annoying and the engine should prove frugal. Norton quote 12.9 km/l but I managed closer to 14, while 160 km and a little more should not be a problem between fuel stops.
UK prices start at £16,449 (Rs 15.21 lakh), which is expensive, especially when you compare the Norton with the competition from Triumph, Ducati, and even Moto Guzzi. But it is unique and hand-built in the UK in a limited number. It has exclusivity the others cannot match, backed up by character and the kudos of a brand known the world over.
Undeniably, the Commando 961 scores poorly on the specification sheet. Its ABS system is relatively basic, there is no traction control, no rider modes, no active suspension, no IMU, and not even a quick-shifter (which would be helpful as the clutch is a little heavy). And do not even think of trying to connect your mobile phone to the dash. But I believe most will love its purity and simplicity; that old-school rideability that sometimes gets lost in the rush to be the latest and greatest. In fact, it almost feels like it should have a kick-starter.
Finally, this is the Norton Commando that should have always been. Re-engineered, re-designed where necessary, and properly tested.
The British-built parallel twin is a little behind the competition in terms of performance, technology, and handling, but it counter-punches with a hand-built feel, authentic look, and a rich and rewarding character. It is easy-going, simple to ride, and forgiving: a jacket-and-jeans Sunday blaster with that famous brand on the side. Hopefully, customers can now buy directly from the factory with confidence and the Commando can live up to the historic name.
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