THERE’S a lot of fun to be had shopping for lovely bikes, but it can be a time-consuming business. The folks at The Bike Shed Times like to sniff out the exotic and the desirable, to save you the effort.
Norton 850 Commando ($13,850)
The seller says:
The whole bike is in excellent condition bar a few paint defects and a tiny dent in the rear mud guard between the seat and light (not noticeable on the photo). I believe the mileage to be correct.
Near new AVON boots
Vernier style isolastic mounts
Deluxe oil check valve
Improved rocker oiling
Mk III kick starter
Genuine Norton mufflers
Corbin Gunfighter saddle
Solid state regulator / rectifier
Documented service history
Back in 1973, Cycle Magazine said:
At a time when the world has seemingly gone mad with multi-cylinder candy apple monuments to engineering complexity, it is refreshing to find a manufacturer who has made good use of a simple design made excellent by attention to detail.
At first glance one begins to notice the pains that are taken in the execution of a tried and proven design. The machine is not merely an attempt to keep up with the Joneses or the Sochiro’s. It is the logical progression of a more rational day in which the motorcycle was used as a means of sporting transport.
The engine is unmistakably Norton’s, a direct descendant of the venerable “88” that began as a 500cc Twin in the late 1930’s. The polished alloy covers look much the same as they did four decades ago, but this is where the similarity ends. The internals of the machine are as modern as any machine on the market today. Norton did not just stroke and poke their twin to a capacity almost twice its original size. Each component has been changed to produce an 830cc engine with both performance, which the bike has in abundance, and also an engine with almost total reliability. Norton Villier’s has done its homework well in developing a machine with both these qualities.
The engine, with its 89mm stroke, is decidedly long legged and peak power is achieved at 5900 rpm so there is no real advantage to spinning it to grands as is necessary with its eastern counterparts. The crankcases have been reinforced to take the power generated by the larger 850cc displacement.
The Commando 850 retains the same cylinder head as the earlier 750’s. It is well designed to allow the machine to breathe freely. Much attention has been given to the porting. It is as good as one will find on any production motorcycle. The head is the key to the Commando’s performance. Again we see that attention to detail rather than engineering trickery is used to produce a machine with more than competitive performance.
The Norton gearbox would be a credit to any motorcycle. The shifts are positive and there is not even a hint of gear clash, no matter how quickly the shifts are made. As with past Nortons, there is a gear indicator to show which gear is engaged. Over the years the reliability of this transmission has been proven on the road and track.
A few years back most English motorcycles enjoyed the reputation that you could ride all you liked but be sure to be home by night. The new Lucas electrics are as good as any system found on any current production bike. The headlamp throws a bright wide beam that allows for safe and fast nighttime touring. There is a new tail lamp assembly with a much larger lens which should be more than sufficient for good after-dark visibility.
Starting proved to require some effort on the kick start pedal, but the machine proved very willing to fire on the first or second kick. Cold starting requires a simple drill of gas on, tickle the two 32mm Amal concentrics, turn on the key, crack the throttle and step through on the kick starter.
The machine comes to life with a muted rumble. There is the realization that you are on a very large displacement machine by the mellow note. Norton Villers has fitted mutes to the standard silencers and have reduced the noise level to a minimum. These mutes can be removed but realize that you can ride with more gusto on a bike that does not attract attention.
The 850 vibrates quite a bit at engine speeds below 3000 rpm, but this can be all but taken away by putting a preload on the top motor mounts. Above 3000 rpm the vibration dispersed and the engine takes on the character of a multi as far as smoothness. This smoothness is due to the rubber mounting of the engine in the frame. Again we see better quality control at Andover, much more attention is being paid to proper shimming of the mounts than on earlier models. A good design made better by attention to detail.
When one pulls in on the clutch one notices the light pull made possible by the use of a diaphragm type pressure plate. The clutch is effortless even after a full day of riding and at no time during the test did we find any tendency towards slip or drag even under the most severe use.
As we pulled away, the reasoning behind the increased displacement became apparent. How much power do you want? The throttle is like a rheostat. It’s all there right from an idle. Any gear, any rpm, there is no complaint from the English twin. In traffic it’s as docile as a light weight. For its size it is the lightweight. At 430 pounds it is the lightest super-bike on the market. This lightweight pays off in spades when a quick change in trajectory is necessary. On the tight back roads of Chester County the Commando excels in the handling department, which is in keeping with Norton tradition. We did note a bit of a twitch in the front end when pushing to the limits over rough roads, but for inveterate scratchers, Norton Villers markets a hydraulic dampener developed on their highly successful Manx winning production racers.
The 850 would pull all the way to an indicated 125 mph with a little coaxing. At any speed the machine was smooth and stable. The springing is stiff but the machine did not feel uncomfortable on most roads. There were a few shortcomings. One of these was the seat. At first I thought it was just a problem with the material used in the padding of the saddle, but then discovered that the reason for the shortcoming was the seat is only about two inches thick over the main top tube of the frame, but on a sport machine this is something to be forgiven for the fine handling made possible by the frame design.
The brakes on the Commando were excellent and very much in keeping with the overall performance of the machine. The Lockeed-Norton front disc was smooth and required little effort to bring the machine to a safe stable halt. The input is predictable and there is little danger in locking up the front wheel.
The rear drum was the perfect mate and even high speed stops were made with no panic factor at all.
If a machine with good handling, smooth engines, mechanical simplicity and a high performance potential are your idea of what a motorcycle is all about, a Norton 850 Commando is a bike that must be taken for careful consideration. It has all those qualities in abundance.