The Bike Shed Times’ jet-setting contributor Dan Talbot has bought himself a Norton. A modern one. And if that’s not enough to turn the rest of us green with envy, he’s currently on a trip to the UK to buy some bits to make it run better. Oh, and to pop in at the Isle of Man TT races. Again. Having a nice life are we, Dan?
IN THE motorcycle world, the word ‘Norton’ is synonymous with the Isle of Man TT. In 1907, Norton won the first ever Tourist Trophy and went on to place a stranglehold on the famous mountain course for most of the 20th century. And now they are back.
There must be a contagion in the Manx air because in the three years I’ve been away from the Isle of Man, I’ve shed myself of a few motorcycle kilos and a substantial pile of cash that saw my beloved Harley Lowrider sold off in favour of a relatively new 2015, Norton Commando 961.
I would be lying if I said the transition was trouble free. Without a local distributor to fall back on I have had to rely on emails, technical manuals and online forums to garner sufficient knowledge to get my bike running right. I can’t say I wasn’t warned, but I took the plunge knowing full well boutique motorcycle manufactures aren’t without their problems.
My bike had never been licensed and had spent most of its short life on display in a living room. Yes, I can hear alarm bells going off but these bikes are fairly thin on the ground around the world and particularly so here in Australia. To find one with only 67 kilometres on the clock seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
The current crop of Norton twins owes its life to innovative American motorcycle restorer Kenny Dreer. Dreer went from restoring and reproducing early Norton Commandos to modernising the entire engine, punching it out from 850 to 961cc. Dreer’s redesigned engine is big and solid, with sand-cast crankcases and bright alloy emulating the original item that dates back to the 1940s. During his time restoring and refining Norton, Dreer acquired the rights to the Norton name – taking it from the UK to the US.
It takes a great deal of effort to get a huge lump of a air-cooled parallel twin through the stringent Euro 4 emission controls currently in place in Europe and the UK, something Kenny Dreer found – drearsome (sorry). In around 2006 the Brits stepped in. Entrepreneur and the current CEO of Norton Motorcycles, Stuart Garner, armed with a wad of support of the British Government, stepped in and brought Norton back to the Mother land.
By the time Garner acquired Norton there were a few prototypes ready to go. Like the engine, the entire machine had been created in the spirit of the original Commandos, but with a modern touch. The result is sublime — possibly the most handsome motorcycle ever produced.
In true Norton form, the frame exhibits impeccable manners, ably suspended by Ohlins front and rear with Brembo brakes offering the best bite I’ve ever experienced. Okay, granted, I’ve been on a Harley for a long while — but bear with me. There’s a lot more rubber on the road than ever before which adds to the sure-footedness the larger reincarnation enjoys. Then there’s the engine.
The retro-styled machine is powered by a tall, loping 270 degree twin with barely 80 horsepower that, when on song, has me flashing a big, wide, bug-catching grin. Out on a country road the engine is a joy, in town it’s a bit of a pig. It tends to be jerky and feels like there’s a slight misfire. In the few months I’ve owned the Norton, I’ve attempted to get to the bottom of things, changing out spark plugs, plug leads, cam position sensor and cleaned the fuel injectors. Each of these incremental changes seems to help but we’re not quite there yet. The bike is choked by impossibly restrictive mufflers and a super-lean ECU map.
If you’ve never heard a Norton 961 running, go out to your shed and fill up a tin can with nuts and bolts. Shaking that can will create a fairly accurate representation of a modern Norton in standard form. No longer can one simply fit some pea-shooter mufflers, re-jet the carbs and ride off into the sunset on a perfectly running machine.
The ECU is locked down by the factory to stop “back-yard” mechanics like me delving too far into the engine’s tune but I seriously need to liberate some decibels from my engine. For that, I’m off to the Norton factory in Donington, England, with my ECU in hand to pick up a sports exhaust system but, first I’m off to see Norton regain its dominance of the mountain circuit on the Isle of Man.