Unlike cars, a motorcycle doesn’t need a fully equipped operating theatre. A basic set of AF scalpels, a couple of Whitworths and you’re ready to operate.
A corner of a living room is sufficient space and perfectly situated for a sleepless night. The tinkle of metal at 2 am could occasionally be heard chez moi.
Although an 850cc motor with cast iron pots can be heavy, it’s not an impossible task to remove the entire unit with single manpower. The reason for doing this is because the standard fibre head-gasket was one of those design flaws I mentioned. You may be able to cover a couple of hundred miles but apply a lot of right wrist and the gasket blows leaving you stranded in a town without a pub.
The engine doesn’t really need complete removal to access the head but Norton in their wisdom used the engine as part of the structure so that it behaved as a frame component. Unlike Japanese engines the Norton big twin vibrated enough to rattle loose every nut and bolt. The very British solution was to dampen the engine/frame mounts with big rubber washers and patent the name ”Isolastics”. A fancy name for rubber washers. They even had the gall to market it as a major innovation. It partly worked but didn’t stop rear indicators vibrating off or mirrors unusable at idle. Anyway after 20 years the rubber needed replacing.
Suck, squeeze, bang, blow; the four elements of successful noise production. The squeeze has been solved with the new gasket and because it’s thinner has even increased the compression ratio. The original ratio of 10.1 give Norton owners an overdeveloped kick-start leg. The compression is so fierce as to require full bodyweight at exactly top dead centre, miss-time it and the kick- back can propel you into the next field.
Increasing to 10.2 now requires a leap into the air to start the vindictive monster.
But you bought a Norton right? You didn’t buy a girly Japanese hairdresser machine with a push button start. You bought a machine with a clutch lever travel that accommodates only the largest of hands and having managed to reach it, needs the strength that only years of jar opening can accomplish.
While the cylinder head is off it’s best to attend to the “blow” part of the equation. Unlike the 750 model the 850 was equipped with a balance pipe between the two exhausts. The proximity to the manifold allowed hot gas to destroy the welds to the two pipes. You know it’s happened because there’s a sudden loss of power and the asynchronous thunder is now coming from the front of the bike instead of the back.
The 750’s problem was even worse, with no balance pipe the nuts holding the two exhausts vibrated loose and your riding companion behind had to take avoiding action on a piece of chromed pipe bouncing along the road. The 750 was an expensive bike, having to constantly buy beers for your mates behind.
There’s a conundrum, 850 exhausts blow and 750’s fall off, what to do? A little engineering shop in Surbiton had the answer. Ream out the threads of the head and replace with threaded bronze inserts and locking washers over the exhaust nuts. Two separate pipes on an 850 cause a slight power loss but is compensated by the extra compression ratio of the gasket which you’re going to replace aren't you?
“Suck”. No not an epithet but another necessary element of four stroke enjoyment. This is the hardest part of Norton maintenance. DO NOT touch the effing carburettors. Provided the fuel system is clean and filtered and the air filter kept clean, the Amal carbs are perfectly set up at the factory. My old machine never missed a beat. It’s the hardest part because owners can’t resist the urge to tweak and fiddle. The only people I ever met with misfiring engines were the “experts” who “knew” how to tweak carburettors.
“Bang” we have ignition. Set the contact breakers properly in the first place and remember that England has a damp climate so liberally spray with WD40 and the Lucas system which everyone whines about will never let you down. It’s only the electric start girls who feel the need for electronic ignition.
Suck, squeeze, bang, blow is now sorted so we should be ready to take to the open road with our Spitfire goggles.
I did until I realized that the only way I could ride with my rice-burner friends was to lead the way. Tight country lanes are a Norton’s paradise and at the front of the group there was only one who could catch me. His mount was a Suzuki GTS850 and not only had he tricked it beyond recognition, his riding style bordered on insanity and he had the broken bones to prove it. We arrived at the pub a full pint before the rest of the group caught up.
By this time I’d had the bike a couple of years and it was becoming a fast, reliable machine. My friend thought he was the cat’s whiskers when he bought his new ZZR1100, the fastest production bike then. He cried in his beer when we arrived at the pub and all the attention was focussed on my 20 year old steed.
The last problem to deal with was apparent when we travelled together. He insisted on leading because theoretically the fastest bike in the world goes faster. In a straight line it does but on twisty, narrow country roads the heavy bike is hard to lean into the corners. On a bend where I could almost lean the Norton flat he had to stand on the brakes to get around. After nearly rear ending him, I decided that my brakes needed attention.
The British are very good at making stuff go fast but stopping is something they weren’t too concerned about.
Even aeroplanes had lousy brakes. Hurricane fighters had brakes that couldn’t hold them at standstill and even with the wheels chocked a few jumped the chocks and pilotless aircraft had to be chased around aerodromes. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Concorde pilots wondered if they were going to stop before the end of the runway.
Norton callipers had pads the size of ten penny pieces and I believe that even the old drum brakes were more effective than the newer discs. For now the cast iron disc was adequate but the calliper, beautiful as a work of art but useless for stopping, had to be replaced.
A mounting had to be bought to accommodate the new calliper and although in polished alloy, it was more Banksy than Botticelli. What? Bikers can’t appreciate art?
Satisfied that my Norton Commando was now fully roadworthy despite an ugly front calliper, the time came to plan a serious expedition and the roads of continental Europe were beckoning. London to Barcelona looked good because most of the length of France can be driven on “D” roads more suitable for a vintage bike than the autoroutes. Nevertheless, given the time available I’d have to use autoroutes for part of the way. The sitting position of a standard Commando is more upright than a modern bike and the constant blast of high speed wind can be pretty tiring.
Dropping the handlebars, using the rear foot-pegs, adding a rear set linkage for gears and brake and a small screen solved that. I could now cruise all day at 80mph in perfect comfort. Too much comfort, I fell asleep near Perpignan and only veering onto the rumble strip woke me up.
I’d packed as many tools and spares as I could think of and only had room for one change of clothes but they dry very quickly in an 80mph breeze so not a problem. Jocks and shirts flapping from the panniers may have looked a little odd to passing Citroens though.
For the benefit of some of our American cousins, England, although considered to be part of Europe, isn’t actually attached to it; there’s a strip of briny to be crossed which we call the English Channel. The French dispute that of course and call it La Manche. GMT has become UTC, Millibars are now Hecto-Pascals and if the trend continues, will mean getting your pinkies damp at Brighton-on-Perrier.
Some cousins know about it because they spent the 5th June 1944 throwing up all the way across.
Anyway this is about my Norton and its inability to float.
Portsmouth – Cherbourg was my chosen crossing because Portsmouth was my closest port and I wanted to avoid traffic snarls around Paris. Part of the bikes personality is its dislike of traffic jams. The air cooled twin overheats very quickly on a hot day and only a good airflow keeps its temper cool. It once threw a hissy fit at Clapham Common after sitting there for half an hour.
I joined the queue of cars waiting to board the ferry and to my amazement there were a pair of Norton Commandoes six cars ahead of me. Only three motorbikes on the whole ship and they were all Commandoes; in 1995 even in England, most bikes were Japanese.
The ferry had a special area for bikes which included tie down cleats and the crew strapped our bikes to the deck. Most thoughtful of P&O. Once the other bikes had been strapped, the guys immediately went upstairs to the accommodation deck. After mine had been secured I spent a little time inspecting their equipment. Both machines looked as if they’d just come off the production line. I’d given my chrome a cursory rub before departing but these were immaculate. Mine was a Roadster with a two gallon tank while these were Interstates with the lumpy four gallon tank and dare I say it …electric start. Norton did fit them to the later models and because they were unreliable, most owners scrapped them and returned to kick start. These bikes also had the most expensive hard panniers on the market, compared to my soft cheapie ones attached to a second-hand carrier from an Interplod (the police version).
My two gallon tank had a range of a hundred miles and I defy any Norton rider to drive further than that without a rest. There was only once on my trip where extra fuel capacity would have been useful but I still arrived with about a cupful left.
Starters and tanks aside these were still 850 Commandoes with only minor differences elsewhere and so I was looking forward to chewing the fat over a beer.
When I entered the bar those guys weren’t hard to spot, both were still wearing their identical designer full leather outfits. I ordered a drink and attempted a conversation of which their part consisted of monosyllabic grunts. I downed my drink, wished them bon voyage and left them to discuss hairstyles and handbags while I ordered another drink from another part of the bar.
Disembarkation the following morning was met with an overcast sky but no rain, much the same as I’d left in England. I followed Pinky and Perky as far as Caen and that was the last I saw of them. Traversing Calvados, the sky cleared and remained so for most of my adventure.
The journey through France was fabulous and the scenic roads gave me the opportunity to visit some lovely historic towns. Limoges is about midway and I’d pre booked a hotel for the night. As I drove into the hotel car park I had the first mechanical problem, the clutch broke, the terminal at the end of the cable had sheered off. I congratulated myself on my pre-planning and replaced the cable with the spare from the pannier bag. The following morning I had to wait until the shops opened before I could depart because I wanted to fix the old cable to ensure that I still had a spare.
One of the things I love about France is the expertise of the mechanics. They don’t speak English of course but with my poor French and a bit of pointing, they easily understand what needs to be done. Despite what appeared to be his dour unfriendly demeanour, he soldered the terminal in 5 minutes and when I produced my wallet, waved me away. I’ve driven cars across France with occasional problems and have always found them the same, dour but the repair is completed immediately with little charge.
From Limoges to Perpignan the journey was uneventful apart from a rest stop where I lost my footing and the bike fell on its side. I couldn’t lift it back up until I’d removed the weight of the panniers. My arrival in the Pyrenees was where the fun really began. The curving mountain road was a motorcyclists dream and as I climbed, the view became more and more spectacular. I took detours to visit Cathar castles dotted around the countryside and was so breathtaken by the scenery that I decided to spend extra time exploring and miss Barcelona. Just as I was thinking that life doesn’t get more perfect, the gear shift seized and I rolled into a forest clearing by the side of the road. A split pin had somehow disappeared from the gear linkage and although I’d packed every Norton spare I thought I’d need, a simple split pin hadn’t occurred to me. I rummaged through the spares and couldn’t find a single item that could be adapted. I walked back along the road looking, but a tiny pin, what chance? I returned to the bike and it’s at this point that I pity non-smokers. With absolutely zero people and stuck in the middle of the Pyrenees with a dead bike there are two choices; burst into tears or light up a Hamlet. This is where we hum “air on a G string” and ponder the moment. While pondering I happened to look down and spotted a bent nail. It took me a moment to realize the significance and then understanding struck me like a lightning bolt. The nail was the perfect size to fit the hole and by bending it further with pliers, was more secure than the original pin. I rode all the way home to London with that rusty nail.
I took a different route for the journey home and treated myself to more delightful French towns and villages but logically, still found myself planning another night stop at Limoges. Saturday evening and 30 minutes from my night stop when the heavens opened. One moment I was pleasantly riding along and the next I was suddenly drenched to the skin and barely able to see the road ahead. I pulled up to a set of traffic lights knowing that I was only 5 minutes away from a hot bath. As the lights turned green I accelerated and there was a loud bang followed by a clunking and the rear wheel seized. The bike skidded on the slippery road and threatened to throw me off but by squeezing the front brake, managed to equalize braking and stay upright. Adrenaline surge from a near crash gave me the strength to lift the wheel complete with baggage to the side of the road and once there, lay on the wet pavement with a torch to discover what had happened. By now it was pitch dark and still raining but not as heavily. Peering under the machine I discovered that the chain had broken and wrapped itself around the frame which is why the wheel had seized. After much grunting and the kind of French that the locals wouldn’t understand, I freed the chain so that the wheel could spin. As well as being cold and wet my hands and clothes were now covered in chain grease. Merde. At that moment an angel of mercy appeared in the form of a Frenchman whose name was Bill. Well alright then it was Guillaume. He offered to help me push the bike to his lock up garage just around the corner and then drive me to the hotel. Angels holding umbrellas had never been so welcome and this one even spoke English, not perfectly but much better than my French. Limoges shut completely on a Sunday so Bill invited me to have lunch with his family and I was overwhelmed by his kindness. On the Monday morning he even drove me to a village 15 miles away where there was a bike shop to buy a new chain. I kicked myself for that because if I’d included a chain link in my spares we could have avoided the drive.
While I’d been scrabbling around in the dark and rain, I’d decided that Limoges was a jinxed town to be avoided at all costs. In reality it was the home of a true gentleman and its industrial shabbiness was just a cloak for the gold beneath.
I arrived back in London grubby and tired but with no further incident . The old artefact was wheeled into my living room and there it remained. I polished it every now and then but other interests took over my life and it became an ornament.
People adorn their houses with sculpture and designer furniture, mine is decorated with a 1974 Norton Commando and if I have more guests than chairs then it even comfortably seats two.