I took time out while spending the day at Norton – the Stewart Garner interview can be found here – to take a 961 for a spin. This was Norton’s Thundersprint Cafe Racer: carbon wheels, Ohlins USDs, full system, rear sets etc. The clip ons had been changed for a standard bar, useful in a Thundersprint context.
Unfortunately the weather was still near freezing, with snow piled up roadside as I headed up towards the Peaks. For this reason I limited the ride to a 30 minute blast: hopefully a fuller test will follow when summer decides to put in an appearance. This is a significant point, because this type of retro naked machine really comes into its own as the temperature rises: the Commando is a bike for leisure and pleasure. It is obviously no substitute for say a utility all weather, all road machine (like a BMW GS), and was never intended to be. Conceptually, it sits roughly in the same class as the Ducati Sports Classic / GT 100 range. A Guzzi V7 or Bonnie would be contemporary mass market equivalents.
The 961 Cafe Racer in standard trim…
Despite the limited ride out, I was able to get a pretty good feel for what was going on between the wheels, because bikes like this have pronounced characteristics that have been ironed out of their successors. The first thing to be said is that expensive upgrades bolted onto an old school steel cradle frame (c/w tubular swinger) don’t necessarily do the original package any favours. Carbon wheels, Brembos, and fat, quality Ohlins USDs allow a rider to really reap the benefits of (say) a deltabox frame, because the latter is rigid enough to cope with the fast direction changes, high speed cornering and heavy braking endorsed by such top dollar accoutrements. An old school steel cradle starts to twitch if you turn things up sufficiently to really benefit from the carbon wheels. The Ohlins can be adjusted to the bike’s level of performance, and the Brembos – four pot radial Goldlines – simply take a bit of rider adjustment, but the wheels expose, rather than enhance the package. I strongly suspect that the standard hoops would suit the bike better.
Most potential buyers will be well aware of the flexible ramifications of a steel cradle, but without testing the bike in standard form it is impossible to compare it to similarly equipped machines. Swing arm rigidity also matters, and the boxed steel unit on the 961 needed more of a work out than I was able to give it in those conditions. A test on a standard bike in better weather would reveal the truth about chassis capabilities: meanwhile there has to be a note of reservation on that issue, carbon wheels notwithstanding.
The best thing about the bike is the remarkably willing and tractable motor, proving yet again that parallel twins can provide grunt and character equal to their V formatted equivalents. The race exhaust that Norton offer customers is an extra that would interest me: the sound was fabulous, emblematic of all that is best in classic Brit biking. It has far more stomp than the standard Bonnie, although the latter has noticeably more composed road holding ability. The gearbox may not be the smoothest available, but gave no cause for major concern. Clearly it is beyond the scope of a short test ride to comment on reliability. Prospective buyers will doubtless monitor the situation via the usual online channels, although some will be purchasing purely for investment potential and therefore be less concerned by practicalities.
As well as sounding great (particularly with that zorst) the new Nortons do look the part. I would go for Ohlins RWUs – standard on the Sport model, as is the higher bar – which seems to me more consistent with Commando aesthetics. Ohlins manufacture these for the retro / muscle bike market in gold or black, and although the latter are not currently available, that may change in the near future: imagine a Sport with black RWUs , black meg, black bar end mirrors, black livery, black leather…. you get the picture. Black casings optional: Norton can accommodate specific customisation and often do so. The Sport model has an authenticity that the Cafe Racer can’t quite match, at least in the eyes of this observer.
… and the Sport: higher bars, no fly screen, lower pegs, RWUs.
There were a couple of minor gripes: unusually for an FI machine the Commando struggled to hold a steady idle, so that with the clutch disengaged the revs rose as the machine warmed up, evenually settling at just over 2k – a little bit of fine adjustment was needed, possibly courtesy of the non standard pipes. The other issue was that while the Brembos did their job under firm braking, low bar lever pressure resulted in pulsing characteristic of mild disc warp, although adjustment might well have solved the problem – one that was almost certainly confined to the machine in question: press bikes don’t have an easy life.
So where does all this leave us?
In one sense the Bonneville represents the competition, being a Brit built parallel twin of similar capacity. It’s a lot cheaper, but less attractive as an investment. The Commando looks the part and has a stronger lump as standard – but lacks the Bonnie’s development , most noticeably evidenced in the handling department. Stewart Garner’s aim was to get things moving at Norton, and in this he has succeeded. Development takes longer, sometimes lasting over the course of a model’s lifetime, and there is surely further development in the 961. At least there is now a contender, whereas five years ago there was silence.
Ultimately, the Bonnie is mass produced and the Commando bespoke. The strengths and weaknesses of both are largely explained by that fact.