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2018 Norton Commando 961 California road test: Happy Birthday

First road test of the new Commando 961 California

This year commemorates the original Norton Commando’s decade of production being kickstarted 50 years ago in April 1968, after this iconic twin-cylinder model’s debut in 750cc guise at London’s Earls Court Show the previous year – although it’s also the 40th anniversary of the end of production, in 1978. To mark the earlier, more festive occasion, today’s reborn Norton Motorcycles Co. has introduced a trio of limited edition 50-off birthday bikes based on the existing Commando 961 Sport and Café Racer, as well as adding a third new variant named the California, which represents an alternative take on bringing yesterday once more but in a modern context, to Norton dealer showrooms around the world,.

For this is new interpretation of the Commando 961 is available in a choice of ten different cleverly chosen ‘70s-style colour schemes ranging from a truly retro metalflake red to a gaudy white-and-blue combo that entirely lives up to the California tag in evoking echoes of cruising the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu to the Sunset Strip in the So-Cool Seventies. For the new Norton is further distinguished from its sister models by carrying a high-rise handlebar with pulled-back grips taken straight from the famed Norton Girl ads that made Britain’s sportiest motorcycle brand such a firm favourite with American customers in the 1970s.

Otherwise identical in every way to the existing Commando 961 platform, the new model’s official name is a bit of a mouthful - so take a deep breath here, folks. It’s the Norton Commando 961 Mk.II Limited 50th Edition California, aka the Cali to you and me, as it’s also known inside the company’s classy Donington Hall factory a stone’s throw from the legendary GP circuit. But what this tells you is that not only does it have the copious upgrades to its air/oil-cooled 88 x 79 mm 961cc parallel-twin motor that were introduced almost two years ago in its Mk.II update, but it also benefits from an all-inclusive component upgrade at no extra cost. 

First 50 examples to be made come complete with GBP 6,000 worth of options included at no extra cost, with sale price held to 2017 Commando Sport level

“We’re building 50 numbered editions of each Commando model to mark its 50th anniversary,” says Norton owner Stuart Garner. “The Café Racer, Sport and California will each be pimped-out with a full range of our polished billet aluminium and carbon fibre special parts, then we’re discounting them back to the price of the standard model without all that, as a bit of a thank you to our customers for all the support the Commando has had over the years that’s enabled it to enjoy a 50th anniversary at all. So we’re selling the bikes for the old 2017 flat price, which means you get about GBP 6,000 worth of options included for free. Spread out over 150 bikes, that’s more than a million bonus US dollars of extras, so we’re calling it the ‘million dollar thank-you’. They’re available now on a first-come first served basis, and each limited edition bike will also have its unique build number from 1 to 50 etched onto the instrument dash.”

So in the case of the California that means its GBP 16,495 price in the UK (including 20% local tax) includes a carbon fibre front mudguard, plus ditto rear hugger and numberplate hanger, while the fully-adjustable 43mm Öhlins fork, twin piggyback Öhlins gas shocks, lightweight sprocket and assorted chassis parts, are all polished brightly, some to a mirror finish. Also included is a brushed aluminium oil cooler and a chrome chain guard and headlamp bowl/bezel, while the engine has been finished in the classic combo of a silver cylinder head and polished rocker covers sitting on a black cylinder barrel, as first featured on the hotted-up Combat version of the original 745cc Commando back in 1972. A bike cover and paddock stand are also included in the price. “You can also have a black anodised finish if you prefer,” adds Garner. “We’re acknowledging that the Commando model has had fabulous support to keep it alive for half a century, with a little hiccup in the middle for a few years until we got it going again from 2010 onwards. We see this as an opportunity to say thank you to our customers, while forfeiting a bit of profit to do so.” But once the 50 limited edition bikes are sold, the California will continue in production for the same price, but without all the options included as standard, which must then be paid-for as extras.  

Comes fitted with high-rise handlebar and a choice of So-Cool Seventies colour schemes as a tribute to the Commando’s 50th anniversary of starting production

But it’s the Cali’s high-rise handlebar that really makes it stand out – it’s what used to be termed a Western Bar back in the ‘70s, and is heaps more rational than the even taller Ape-hanger ‘bar featured on Choppers. “We wanted to mark the Commando’s 50th anniversary year with something appropriate,” says Garner, 49. “Many riders like yours truly are getting a little older these days, and suddenly all our joints are a little stiffer than before! So delivering a more upright riding position is something we’ve been asked for that seemed a sensible move, and the 50th birthday gave us a trigger point to introduce a more easy riding Commando with nearly everything else the same as the Sport. So it’s a handlebar option only, giving quite a different riding position as opposed to any extra levels in performance. But we’ve made sure that the footpegs aren’t any further forward, and there’s no plug-in iPod or suchlike – it’s still a sportbike!” 

So it sounds like this is the nearest that Norton may ever get to building a cruiser?You’re right, it’s about as close as we can get to a factory Custom Norton,” says Garner. “When it was first launched at the Milan Show in November we originally got some stick for the riding position on social media, but then when those same people come to try it out, they go, “Oh - actually, it’s really comfortable!” OK, so it’s a good bit away from what you’d think of as a normal Norton riding position would be today, but actually it makes lots of sense when you ride the bike. Riders have become less hell-bent on speed in recent years, and more lifestyle focused, and this meets that desire head-on - as well as looking suitably retro.”


Guess what – he’s right. Invited to be the first rider outside the factory to go chilling out – literally, in my case, in mid-December in the Midlands of Britain! – aboard the first-ever Cali bearing 1/50 on the dash, I discovered immediately that the grips just literally fall to hand, in best road tester’s cliché terms. It’s a much more relaxed stance than the regular Commando 961 Sport delivers with its much lower, flatter ‘bar, and it’s way more comfortable than the Café Racer with its clipons. The high ‘bar does slow the steering down slightly, and changes not only the look but also the feel of the bike beneath you - the gentlemanly neo-classic streetfighter becomes a relaxed high-speed sportcruiser. You can still chuck it around in turns, and get the best from the Dunlop Sportmax Qualifier tyres which the retro-looking wire wheels carry, but it’s just a bit slower in transitioning from side to side than the Sport, thanks to reduced leverage from the taller ‘bar.

But the fact that the bike I rode was decked out in such a neo-West Coast two-tone ‘70s livery allowed the UK’s Leicestershire to masquerade as California, at least visually if maybe not literally, thanks as much to the ambient temperature as anything, even on the sunny English winter day I went riding the Norton in. Time to own up, though – before doing so, I delved into the loft to pull out my durable cowhide ‘70s riding jacket – anyone remember Bates leathers? – which I used to wear riding round the San Francisco Bay Area back in the 1970s when my work in the travel industry took me there for five months each year. Sadly, though, it had shrunk during the 40 years it had been squirreled away out of sight – how else to explain the fact I couldn’t get it to zip up?! A modern Kushitani substitute took its place, complete with obligatory Levi’s – nobody EVER wore anything but blue jeans to ride a motorcycle back in the ‘70s in the US of A.

Unmodified Euro 4-compliant engine delivers 72bhp at 7,500rpm, with peak torque of 67Nm a thousand revs lower

The 2018 Commando family of which the Cali is one all incorporate the improvements to the air-cooled ohv 961cc Norton motor delivering 72 bhp at 7,500 rpm, with peak torque of 67Nm a thousand revs lower, to be found on the Mark II version of the Commando introduced in 2016, as Norton design boss Simon Skinner explains. “It was a pretty significant evolution of the original 961 engine, because the motor was retooled almost in its entirety,” he says. “We have new crankcases, new cylinders, a new cylinder head, new pistons, new crankshaft, and a new gearbox, all in order to reduce NVH [Noise Vibration and Harshness], and to improve overall quality as a means of refining the product. We’ve been able to go to suppliers that we couldn’t go to before because our volumes didn’t support it – but now they do, and so we’ve got a different manufacturing process for those parts. They’re all die-cast components now instead of sand-cast, although the sad thing is that we now have to go overseas for a few parts that are simply not available in the UK. But not only has the price for these parts come down for Norton, which increases sustainability of the business, the quality of them has shot through the roof as well. So not only have we refined the bike enormously, it’s also benefitted the business too, so we’ve ended up with a much superior product.” One that’s also now Euro 4 compliant, with Bosch ABS linked to the Brembo brake package which sees fully-floating 320mm steel discs gripped by four-piston radial calipers, with a 240mm rear disc and two-piston caliper.

The Cali retains the stock Commando’s chrome-moly tubular steel duplex cradle frame, still with a fabricated backbone doubling as the oil tank for the dry-sump ohv pushrod motor. This is made in-house at Norton by the skilled craftsmen who previously plied their trade at local chassis specialists Spondon, before Stuart Garner completed his purchase of the firm, and moved it to Norton’s HQ at Donington Hall. This retains the same steering geometry as the Sport, with the highly-polished Öhlins 43mm fork set at a 24.5º rake with 99mm of trail, but the wheelbase is a little shorter than before, at 1400mm. 

Crank the powerful starter motor, and the undeniably butch-looking motor rumbles immediately into life, settling to a throbbing 1,300rpm idle via the 2-1-2 exhaust. This Euro 4 version of the motor seemed to have the same great torque as the 961 engine’s always had, but with the revised mapping for cleaner emissions also delivering a more linear power delivery up to the 8,000 rpm limiter, so that the Norton just keeps on pulling almost to the redline. Despite the gear-driven counterbalancer fitted there’s a little vibration, especially above 5,000rpm, but not enough to be annoying, and there’s still the same great punch in the gears. Low down fuelling is good, like when you’re just crawling along in a line of traffic – but then spot a gap and gas it up hard, and the Cali catapults you forward in a totally addictive way, thanks to its meaty torque which means it’ll take almost any gear you throw at it. It pulls hard from barely off idle, then strongly from 2,000 rpm upwards – this is a very friendly and usable motor, with 4,000 revs the gateway to more serious urge and from there to where you can feel the engine peak out at 6,500 rpm, is the happy zone. There’s no point in revving it anywhere near the revlimiter – just surf that power curve, and ride the waves of torque. The five-speed transmission doesn’t need a sixth ratio, because the engine has such a wide spread of torque and power you can change gear when you feel like it, not because you must. 

The handling has always been a strong point of the Commando 961, so the Cali steers faultlessly, tipping easily and controllably into a turn on the brakes, without falling into the apex when you let them off. It feels light and agile, yet stable and forgiving, a confidence-inspiring motorcycle that you can trust completely over a variety of surfaces – hitting a bump cranked hard over in a 60 mph downhill fourth-gear sweeper didn’t unsettle it at all. Indeed, the Öhlins suspension just shrugs off bumps, and the Norton holds its line well over them, due mostly to the low centre of gravity achieved by the dry sump engine being placed low in the frame without impacting on ground clearance. And the Brembo twin-disc brake package provides controllable, effective stopping power with just the right degree of sensitivity from the radially-mounted calipers, though you can use a surprising amount of the considerable engine braking on offer without getting the rear wheel hopping, even with that normal 1,300 rpm idle speed.

Properly re-engineered, successful re-interpretation of a classic-era design icon, that’s both functionally pleasing and fashionably stylish, while also being completely authentic – it’s a satisfying blend of old and new, a mixture of period chilled-out attitude combined with modern civility

Retro is cool, right now - but only when done right. Fortunately, the Norton Commando 961 California is a two-wheeled equivalent of today’s acclaimed Mini or the Fiat 500, as a properly re-engineered, successful re-interpretation of a classic-era design icon, that’s both functionally pleasing and fashionably stylish, while also being completely authentic – especially in the case of the white-and-blue California! It’s indeed a satisfying blend of old and new, a mixture of period chilled-out attitude combined with modern civility - like brakes that work brilliantly, tyres that warm up fast and grip well on a cool winter day, and suspension that while tautly set up as you’d expect a genuine sportbike like this to be, also irons out bumps while laying that hefty torque to the ground with a degree of compliance that makes this a very confidence inspiring bike to ride hard.

It’s getting on for a decade now since since Stuart Garner acquired the rights to the historic British marque in October 2008 from its previous American owner, Boston financier Olly Curme, obtaining with it the prototype Commando 961 streetbike which Curme had commissioned from the USA’s No.1 twin-cylinder Norton guru, Oregon-based Kenny Dreer. Since then, heaps of hard graft entailing long hours, a good bit of risk taking, and several major changes in strategy have put the born-again Norton Motorcycles firm back on the map, with getting on for 5,000 motorcycles so far built and delivered to owners around the world, including as far afield as Japan, the USA, Canada and Australia to reflect the company’s steadily growing overseas sales - 77.6% of the 1,000 bikes it built in its last financial year were exported.

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And with the two liquid-cooled 16-valve four-cam 1200cc V4 hypersports models developed in conjunction with R&D gurus Ricardo Engineering about to begin production this spring, as well as their sliced-in-half 650cc parallel twin sister launched at Birmingham’s NEC Show last November, which is due to begin production a year from now in both low-tune Scrambler and high performance Supertwin normally aspirated guise, to be joined soon after by a supercharged version, Garner has got Norton flying high via an ever-expanding range of which the Commando California is the latest, and arguably most practical addition.

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