Japanese manufacturing domination was just ramping into full swing—and the British motorcycle industry just beginning to see the writing on the wall—when in 1967 Norton unveiled its best shot at survival at the Earl’s Court Motorcycle show in London.
Based in part on the input of an outside design consultancy, the new bike absolutely reeked of the future.
It had swoopy aerodynamic lines seemingly taken directly off some wild concept sketch. It had an old proven parallel twin engine, now set at a jaunty new angle. And it had spaceman silver flake paint, punctuated by an audacious orange seat.
The new Commando made an immediate splash with the motoring public, with a name that captured the imagination, a shapely form that caught the eye, and a ride quality that backed it all up.
Besides its aesthetics, and a splashy marketing strategy that relied heavily on the sex appeal of the bikes, the Commando owed its success largely to its “Isolastics”—a fancy name for a layout of three rubber motor mounts, which tamed the violent vibrations of the powerful parallel twin into a relatively sublime riding experience.
So sublime that Motor Cycle News bestowed the Commando with its “Machine of the Year” award for 5 years running—from 1968-72.
The successful debut buoyed Norton’s balance sheet, and the company soon began to push the advantage, morphing the Commando platform into new models. Initially simply called the Commando, that first bike would later be known as the Fastback to differentiate it from an ever-increasing number of siblings.
The core of the Commando remained mostly the same, but it was dressed up in different bodywork, accessories, and paint schemes to spin off several iterations under the Commando marquee. In its time the Commando took on the role of sports bike, café racer, long-distance tourer, chopper, and street scrambler.
In the early 70’s Norton engineers updated the motor with a “Combat” designation, giving it higher compression pistons for more pop. On paper the decision looked like a good bulwark against the hard-charging bikes coming out of Japan, but in reality the design burned through bearings and ate up engines.
Machines had to be recalled and fitted with updated internals. By then the Commando was Norton’s lone motorcycle model in production, and the Combat debacle nearly sent the Commando—and the company with it—to an early grave.
Norton would survive a few years more, eventually going with bigger displacement and lower compression pistons in a late spate of 850cc Commandos.
The company did find the grave soon enough, though. It ceased production in 1977, a decade after the Commando launch, and almost 80 years after it first began as a manufacturer. The last of the bikes rolling off the line had been updated with disc brakes, electric start, and most of the gremlins had been sorted, but it was the end of an era for British bike manufacturing.
The Commando single-handedly kept the company alive for a decade, but it was only originally intended as a stopgap. The bike that was supposed to save the company was an 800cc DOHC prototype that was abandoned just 11 weeks before that 1967 Earl’s Court Show. The classic Commando as we know it was fast-tracked into production, and it stuck.
The Commando trademark has bounced around since. Briefly owned by Kenny Dreer out of Oregon, who was putting out restomods with VIN numbers from remnant original engine cases, and pioneered the start of the 961 model available for purchase today.
Norton is now owned by English businessman Stuart Garner, who bought the company and its trademarks in 2008, and in 2010 shipped the first Norton Commando in more than three decades. The company also has fielded a Dominator model, and more recently the new Norton has debuted a couple of reimagined Atlas Scramblers—650cc’s apiece and at relatively affordable prices—and has finally handed the keys over to the proud, patient owners of the company’s all-new V4 sports bike.
The Commando was a rough-and-ready, elemental motorcycle that helped define a decade of motorcycles for the British bike industry, and its very name still captures the imagination today—it captured ours enough to throw the marquee a 50th Birthday Party, along with generous sponsorship from Belstaff, which simultaneously launched a pop-up shop right next door to the event.
We teamed up with NYC Norton, one of the world’s premier service and restoration shops for these old bikes, to curate a special in-store even in the fall of 2018 that showcased the best of the Commando breed.
We had all-original examples of some of the marquees most significant models—plus a few choice Commando based race bikes. The show contained 10 bikes in total, plus a number of cherry examples that pulled up to Union Street during the weekend-long show.
Special thanks to our friend Allan Tannenbaum, a New York based photojournalist and lifelong Norton nut who instigated the idea of doing a 50th anniversary Norton Commando Celebration. It was Allan’s 1968 Fastback, below, that started the whole thing.
Click through below to see each bike up close. We put them up on a giant Lazy Susan and spun them to take studio photos every 22.5 degrees.