Norton Motorcycles is one of the oldest motorcycle manufacturers in history. Founded in 1898 as a manufacturer of fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade, In 1902 James Lansdowne designed and built the first Norton motorcycle; the Energette, powered by a 143cc, single-cylinder Clement engine.
This was the dawn of the motorcycle, with only a handful of manufacturers in existence but If there’s more than one, then they can race, right? In 1907 Norton raced at the inaugural Isle of Man TT. Rem Fowler, one of the country’s most notable motorcycle racers, entered riding a 5hp Peugeot-engine Norton……..and won.
After 126 years, Norton knows what they’re doing. It’s been quite a journey, seeing 2 world wars, the great depression, the first man on the moon, women gaining the right to vote, numerous recessions, failure and success and their fair share of scandal.
In recent years, Norton has had a somewhat tumultuous time. The previous owner, Stuart Garner, was not a good custodian of the brand, culminating in the company going into administration and Stuart Garner receiving a suspended custodial sentence for pension fraud, not to mention the legacy of tragically poorly engineered motorcycles and disgruntled, mislead customers.
This period of Norton's' history has been well documented and is worth reading up on. Bear in mind though that was then and this is now.
I visited Garner-era Norton and was shown around, getting a look behind the curtain so to speak. I also have many years of automotive engineering experience, having worked with many manufacturers over the years. I tell you this because I can’t understate the metamorphosis that has occurred. The Garner-era Norton facility was a re-purposed BT call centre, still with the old carpet tiles and with a few makeshift bays where bikes were being periodically assembled, depending on which suppliers would let them have parts: I worked for one of them and Garner era Norton was strictly a pro forma account, no credit.
The Norton brand is now in the custodianship of TVS, a global giant in the motorcycle world.
TVS Norton is housed in a state-of-the-art, 73,000-square-foot facility that is the complete antithesis of what went before. The TVS approach is one focused on engineering excellence and is diametrically opposed to the shambolic approach to manufacturing displayed by Garner.
TVS’ commitment to quality is evident everywhere, with rigorous 3D measurements in a controlled environment, pre and post-assembly inspections, an in-house dyno at the end of the production line and meticulous end-of-line inspection by skilled inspectors. There are engineering, finance, design, marketing and Sales departments and TVS Norton boasts a staff of nearly 300.
Their engineering expertise and manufacturing, research and development capability has culminated in a brand new chapter in the history of the brand, presenting us with a suite of motorcycles that both capture the evocative nature of a brand with such a rich history and look to the future, pushing the boundaries of what can be done.
Having said all this, my press bike was dirty on collection and one of the mirrors vibrated loose on the first ride. But I can forgive it, it’s so pretty.
At the top of the Norton family tree is the V4SV, an exclusive, 185bhp superbike, dripping in the best components money can buy, manufactured in a state-of-the-art facility in the UK.
Sitting under the V4SV is the V4CR, a cafe racer variant of the SV.
Alongside the V4 bikes is the iconic Commando 961, this is the bike I got to ride.
The Norton Commando 961, a British icon redefined.
The original Norton Commando was launched at the Earls Court motorcycle show in 1967 and was in production for 10 years. Along the way, as well as seeing service as a police bike, road bike and accomplished racer, it picked up Motor Cycle News "Machine of the Year" award for five successive years from 1968 to 1972.
In 2010, following a convoluted design journey spanning continents and itself a tale of near victory, failure and success, the Commando 961 was born.
The new model was born under the tenure of Stuart Garner era Norton, so unfortunately was not all that it could be and arguably didn’t quite meet its full potential.
Now, under TVS ownership, the Commando 961 has been heavily reworked and re-engineered, meaning this is a different proposition than what has come before.
There are a plethora of retro-styled bikes on the market these days. Everything from modern interpretations, sharing little more than a name, to new bikes trying to pluck our heartstrings, designed to remind us of bikes we used to ride but lacking authenticity, some are still produced models from old manufacturers. The Norton 961 is the most authentic modern retro I have ridden, for sure.
Commando 961 comes in two variations; Sport (SP) and Cafe Racer (CR). My press bike was the SP which means it had black anodised tapered, flat bars, that favour an upright riding position. The CR comes with high-grade, anodised billet aluminium clip-ons, that pull you in close to the action.
The engine is a 961cc pushrod, air-oil cooled, parallel twin, with dry sump lubrication,
producing 76.8bhp @7250rpm and 81Nm torque @ 6300rpm.
The frame is steel tube, hand TIG and MIG welded at Norton HQ to exacting standards.
There’s a 5-speed gearbox, but there’s no slipper clutch or quick shifter here.
Front suspension is 43mm Öhlins upside-down forks – adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping and at the rear, fully adjustable Öhlins twin shocks with remote reservoir.
Norton hasn’t spared the pennies with the brakes. It’s full Brembo all around. Twin Brembo 320mm fully-floating high carbon steel discs at the front with Brembo 4-piston Mono Bloc radially mounted calipers and Brembo front brake master cylinder, with ABS.
The rear has a Brembo 240mm disc with a 2-piston caliper and a Brembo rear brake master cylinder.
Tyres are Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300 in 120/70ZR17 front and 180/55ZR17 rear.
Sadly, it was a cold and wet November when I had the bike, not great riding weather, which meant I didn’t get the chance to explore the handling and performance of the bike, but did have some fun.
The word that kept coming to mind was authentic. Other manufacturers make comparable bikes, at least they compete in the market. However, this is the most authentic modern retro I have ridden. It’s simple, it’s analogue, makes a beautiful noise thanks to the full stainless steel exhaust system and it smells divine with the rich aroma that only an SVA motorcycle can make.
This is an interesting point. Currently, the Commando 961 is produced under the SVA (Single Vehicle Approval) scheme and isn’t Euro 5 homologated. The SVA scheme is used by special vehicle builders who manufacture low numbers and is a more relaxed set of rules. For example, the exhaust can reach up to 99 Db, as opposed to the fairly restrictive limit of 80 Db for Euro 5.
Companies like CCM also use the same scheme.
It’s not particularly quick, but it’s so pretty, beautiful even. I kept sitting and just staring at it, soaking up the details, you feel special riding it.
Out on the road, you feel like one of the original ton-up boys. Making your way to the front of a line of traffic, blipping the throttle, waiting for the lights to change so you can drop the clutch, you feel like a bit of a hooligan. The 961 is very narrow and feels light, not like a modern bike. Norton states a kerb weight of 230kg, but it feels less.
The steering lock is very tight and nearly caught me out a few times. The ride quality was excellent, if it was mine I might soften it up a bit as it was firm, but it’s a great chassis and responsive. Let's be honest, this isn’t a bike you will be out scratching on, tearing up the industrial estates, knee down at every opportunity.
This is a beautiful, evocative riding experience that feeds the soul. The sounds, smells and feelings you get from riding the 961 are priceless. It’s a unique, emotional riding experience.
Whilst the chassis is competent and the brakes excellent, it’s more about getting lost in the moment.
Hopefully, I will get to experience the Commando 961 in warmer weather.
I highly recommend watching the video below to see the new factory in a unique drone tour.
PRICE - Commando 961 SP from £16,999
Commando 961 CR from £17,499
ENGINE - 961cc pushrod, air-oil cooled, parallel twin, with dry sump lubrication,
POWER - 76.8bhp @7250rpm
TORQUE - 81Nm @ 6300rpm
FUEL TANK - 15 Litre
SEAT HEIGHT - 810mm
YOKES - Billet-machined
FRONT BRAKES - Full Brembo system – twin Brembo 320mm fully-floating high carbon steel discs and Brembo 4-piston Mono Bloc radially mounted calipers with ABS, and Brembo front brake master cylinde
REAR BRAKES - Full Brembo system – Brembo 240mm disc and 2-piston caliper with ABS, and Brembo rear brake master cylinder
FRONT SUSPENSION - 43mm Öhlins upside-down forks – adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping
REAR SUSPENSION - Öhlins twin shocks with remote reservoir – fully adjustable
KERB WEIGHT - 230kg