Norton 961SP Commando

Norton Commando 961SP – Class on Two Wheels

A couple of years I tagged along to a factory tour of the Norton facility at Castle Donnington with a bunch of proper bikers and whilst it was interesting, there was definitely a massive feeling of “cottage industry” going on. Whilst the other older gents on the tour were happily swallowing the “it’s all being made in Britain” commentary from the tour guide, our group of jaded automotive engineers could see the real truth. The carpeted final assembly floor was a surprise and something I have never seen in 20 years in the industry.

Re-Birth of an Iconic Brand

Maybe because of our visit, it wasn’t long before that incarnation of Norton went bump along with its well published shenanigans of its board. I’d kept an casual eye on what was going on and was happy to see that TVS had rescued the brand and was setting up a new plant in the Midlands. Whilst there might be some die-hards who scoff at the Indian’s buying the group, you only have to look at what’s happened recently with Royal Enfield that there is a commitment to making English brands work. The fact that JLR still exist is testament to the Indian’s support like it or not and this jaded automotive engineer is very happy about this !

So, when a scroll through Facebook resulted in an invitation to test ride the re-launched 961, I thought it was opportunity not to miss:

It would be rude not to

Checking out the New Place

The demo ride was organised from the Solihull factory as they run a sales office from there. I turned up early (a first for me…as anyone who knows me) to a very quiet factory. Well, it was 9am Saturday morning.  Entering the foyer, there’s a fine selection of historic Norton’s on display, along with a couple V4S variants. A long chat with the Sales Manager, whom I knew from when he worked at Kestrel KTM in Coventry, about the companies current and future plans whilst filling in the demo paperwork meant it was a painless exercise. Then the keys were mine along with the instructions “go out and enjoy, can you be back around lunchtime?” You can’t say fairer than that !

Looking Good

Outside on the ‘drive’ stood a very traditional looking Norton but with some modern touches. I have to say that it looked very purposeful, substantial gold Ohlin forks, Brembo brakes and carbon fibre mud-guard combined with the traditional parallel twin engine with signature crank case shape and tank gave a very cohesive design.

Perhaps that rear light light needs a bit more work?

The only style grumble I would have is the rear light integration but like my ever increasing bald patch you’d rarely look at it. What you do notice is that is a substantial unit which you doesn’t translate in the publicity pictures: It’s a size up from the comparable Triumph Bonneville even if they have the same style theme. Having ridden a Bonnie recently, fit and finish is in a different league to the Triumph. Along with this, all high spec parts fitted, along with the ‘assembled in England’ label it would go some-way to explain the £16K price tag.

Contrast to my Current Ride

Sitting for the first time revealed a reasonably comfortable seat at a lower height than my KTM, a set of traditional styled clocks, a key and not much else. Hitting the start button wakes the parallel twin: It sounds glorious, even with ear-plugs in! like a proper parallel twin and reacts promptly to a pre-requisite throttle blip. But my God, does it vibrate!! Don’t take this as a criticism, it’s just nothing like a now seemingly silky smooth KTM V-twin. Perhaps it’s part of the character that attracts the traditionalist’s but it was a surprise to this rider.

Lost already!

However, it didn’t take long to ignore it completely. Once you give it some throttle you just accept it as part of the riding experience. However, before I could start to fully enjoy the ride, I had to escape the confines of the factory. That meant a 20mph max ride around of the perimeter road. Now, normally this isn’t something to write about but it did highlight a couple of issues: Riding in a more normal style on a new bike meant that I wasn’t sitting up as much as normal. This meant I was not properly looking at the directions and resulted in me briefly staring at the dead end of the car-park. Still, it did reveal that the bike doesn’t have much lock! Luckily it is light enough to paddle around on a 5-point turn and make a hasty exit before anyone spotted my mistake!

I Escaped

Back on track and I’m on the way out of the factory. Around the twists of industrial estate and out into the delights of Solihull’s traffic. TBH its not too bad for a Saturday morning, keeping a lid on the speed gave me time to get acclimatised to the position and for the bike to warm up. Also, there’s at least one speed camera on the route out of town and you have to factor in all the sleepy retards pulling out of MaccyD into your path. Approaching traffic lights confirmed that the Brembo’s worked nicely, the clutch was nicely weighted and gearbox un-obstructive.

Out into the Wilds of Warwickshire

Escaping the confines of suburbia and out onto the twisting roads of Warwickshire, I’m heading toward my Motorcycle Sensei in Kidderminster for chat and to give him a chance to look at the bike. I was looking forward to seeing his face when I turn up on it as I hadn’t given him a hint that I’d be on the Norton.

This meant I was following a well-trodden path that I’d been doing on my KTM during my commute to work, all reasonably quick single track A-roads which would suit the un-faired bike. Due to the familiarity with the route, I could concentrate on enjoying the Norton and its not disappointing. Keeping the tacho between 4k and 6k provides a good substantial chunk of power that pushes you over motorway limit speed. All the time the sonorous exhaust gently encourages you to open the throttle a bit wider.

Onto to the ‘Twisties’

Diving off A-road to a B-road cut through gave a chance to check out the handling: This section is six miles of bends and hills. It’s a great bit of road to test any vehicle. Keeping the bike between 3rd and 4th keep me in the sweet-spot for the engine and give me plenty of opportunity to power out of the tight corners. Approaching the next corner again showed the brakes were more than up to the task of wiping off speed. The exhaust barked and popped as you closed the throttle; lovely. Very much a case of rinse and repeat for the next couple of miles and I was having a ball.

Time to turn up the Wick

Back on the A-roads and I know there a nice long straight coming up with great visibility. Naturally the perfect opportunity to open up the Norton. I move my self imposed rpm limit up to 7k and snick the 5 speed gearbox into top and hunker down a bit so I don’t act as a big sail. Well, we were ‘definitely motoring’. The Commando took the elevated speed in its stride.

I have to say that its not as quite ballistic missile as the KTM but that’s to be expected. Winding my KTM past 7k  towards its redline unleashed all the unruly banshees and things get very frantic. This generally only occurs when I’m out riding with other bad influences. Generally I chicken out and blast along just-below mad-man rpm. However, back on the Norton with the straight over, I’m back to the twisty roads heading towards Worcestershire. Carrying a bit too much speed into downhill tight right hander did cause the bike to get a bit squirrelly under braking as I tried to wipe a bit of speed off. If I was a better rider I suspect that I could of dipped the bike a bit deeper into the corner and carried the speed, but I’m not and I didn’t but I made it round without incident.

Muscular Experience

The meet point with the Sensei was at his local muscle car emporium. This is home to a street legal 800bhp Dodge Challenger, a land-based aircraft carrier with a Lincoln badge and anything else that has single digit mpg. The first obstacle was the speed humps which didn’t agree with the reasonably low-slung exhaust. Maybe it was my lardy a$$ weighing the bike down and reducing the ground clearance? The solution was to ride on the path of the deserted industrial estate and completely avoid them! I nearly made it to the meet point but couldn’t see anyone. However, the acute hearing on a die-hard biker resulted in appearance of the main man! He led me to workshop and I followed him at walking pace.

British Beef meets Prime American Steak

Taking it all in

This gave us a chance to walk around the bike, admire the various features and discuss the riding experience. In general, everyone that saw the bike was very impressed with the visuals and my positive riding impression.

Delight in Details

With time getting a bit tight and a grey cloud looming, I made a swift exit and headed home on the same route. Now that I was more experienced with the bike I started to utilise the full rev range. The 961 really responded to a more positive riding style showing plenty of pace and riding the road imperfections perfectly. As the route home literally took me past me past my front door, I thought that I’d better show the Chief Financial Controller what I’d been messing about with on a Saturday morning. She seemed suitably impress although didn’t like the gold forks with the silver tank. I did suggest that the alternative could be a black bike. This seemed to be an acceptable solution until she asked the price. I suspect that I’m going to have to work hard to justify one of these Commandos!

Time to Give it Back

I left the house and made my way back to the factory, again enjoying my B-road cut through until I re-joined the main a-road. Once on the home straight it gave me chance to think about this bike:

Want a handsome traditionally styled but dynamically modern hand build British motorcycle? One that is made in limited number with great heritage? Then you’d be hard pressed to match what Norton is offering. Whether you could justify the £16k price tag is another thing. In this price range there is a vast amount of choice depending on where you want to compromise your choices. Due to the low volumes predicted, buying this bike as an investment would be one option. However not riding it to maintain its residual value would be a real waste. This bike is too good to not enjoy. In truth, it’s too good for a Sunday morning bimble and sandwich run. The Norton really thrives on being ridden.

The sales manager was pleased to see his bike returned in time. He was clearly happy that I’d enjoyed the experience. However, he was a little disappointed if not unsurprised when I responded to his inevitable question that ‘the Norton didn’t really fit with my riding profile’

The 961SP its not really for commuting. All I need to do now is to keep an eye out for one of these updated secondhand examples in black. Maybe the depreciation will bring it into my grasp! Then all I will have to do is work out how to sneak it into the garage without the CFO noticing!!

A Interesting Bonus

As the factory wasn’t working, the Sales Manager took the opportunity to walk me around the new, bespoke facility. It was very much like all the OEM automotive facilities that I’ve experienced, which is promising for the future. What was a surprise was that they make both the steel and aluminium frames (for the V4S) in-house and assemble all the engines also.

The factory is clearly not just an assembly shop for a collection of pre-assembled sub-assemblies but a proper manufacturing plant. Whilst walking around I had the opportunity to sit on one of their V4S press-fleet bikes. We both knew that a £44K sports bike was never going to be my thing. But when do you get a chance to say that you’ve sat on one!

All in all, I’d judge the day as a success. I’m off to work out a plan to hide a Norton behind a KTM!

Words: Stuart Holliday

Pictures: Tony Donnelly