The ‘barn find’ motorcycle. Everyone has heard of some wondrous thing that has stood for decades, just waiting for a dusty shard of light to find its way through a creaking door, opened by a wide-eyed motorcycle enthusiast. It was a bit like that when Greg Leech found an unloved and forgotten Norton Commando 850 in the bowels of a Melbourne bike dealership. That’s when the odyssey began…
I’d just always wanted one. Tales of London’s Ace Café; Peter Williams and his incredible thrashing of the John Player Special at the 1973 Isle of Man F750 TT; the way MCN in the UK had given it ‘Machine of the Year’ honours for five successive years from 1968 to 1972; that simple fat sound that a Norton Commando makes on song – all this and more had seen me drunk with desire for a Norton Commando since I was a young teen.
So when I saw one peeking out from under the cobwebs in the bowels of Mick Hone’s workshop in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill, it got my attention. It was dusty and unloved, but I was gonna change all that.
A short conversation ensued, $4500 changed hands and I became the owner of the tired beastie. I won’t bore you with the details of the longer conversation that was shared between me and my lovely spouse, but I was allowed to keep it. In the end.
My idea was to make the bike into a useable and reliable short-run blaster and I started with the theory of keeping it totally original. After riding the bike this quickly changed to a doctrine of improvement, because it didn’t stop at all well. In fact, disc-braked Commandos never did. And modern traffic is way too hectic for a bike with marginal brakes. As a good mate of mine (and fellow Commando owner) Dave Morley eloquently put it, “F%@k originality, I’ve got a life to live.” Me too.
I didn’t give up on originality altogether, with the bike able to be returned to totally original running gear in around a day with a good set of spanners. This means that resale potential is unaffected, an important point when considering changing a classic.
So, given I had a clean slate, how far to go and what style to head for? The answer came quickly. I had memories of an old photo in a book of a fellow sweeping around a London city corner on a Commando in full café-racer guise, way back before I was shaving, and I fell in love with the concept right there and then. So, Café Commando was the order of the day. There was to be no other direction.
Stoppers were naturally first on the agenda. As a consequence, a new disc and disc carrier were made up and a late-model four-spot Brembo caliper fitted. This was a finicky job, with Mick Hone having to create a bracket to hold the new caliper in precisely the correct place. There was very little clearance to play with and the result is a very neat piece of fabrication. He’s a very smart man, that Mick Hone.
While this improved the brakes, that improvement was only marginal because, with the bore of the Norton master-cylinder at 5/8″, the line pressure to the Brembo caliper was ordinary. The smart money suggested a 1/2″-bore master-cylinder would be a better match to the Brembo’s pistons.
This offered yet another challenge. What master-cylinder was going to have the right bore, look right with the minimalist-styling I was after and at the same time fit the small space that was available?
Enter the venerable Suzuki DR-Z400 cast master-cylinder and lever set-up. Yep, all boxes were ticked and I reckon it looks the ducks guts, with stopping power much improved.
The rear standard Girling shocks were totally stuffed, with no damping whatsoever. So a set of Ikon replacement jobs got the nod. This transformed the rear end completely, with nice linear damping and spot-on spring rates.
On the fuelling front, the original 32mm Amal carbs were okay but very finicky to keep in tune. Mikuni makes a full replacement kit (you can get single or dual set-ups; I went for the single 34mm offering) that comes with jets, rubbers and inlet manifold.
I tossed on a K&N filter to complete the breathing duties. The result is fuss-free starting and efficient fuelling. Well worth the expense and one I’d recommend.
With the aim of avoiding the need for constant ignition adjustments and the risk of breakdown, the points ignition system had to go. I bolted in a Boyer Bransden MkIII (a silly name for it, because it only confuses Norton-mounted buyers) electronic ignition kit. It’s pretty easy to set up and once it’s done, you can forget it. A nice, reliable spark and no more adjusting. Love it.
The original pipes were knackered so I went for a set of pattern pipes and headers, which are freely available. Neat and well made, they sound and look great. And that was pretty much it for the mechanical side…
So, with the major engine mods done, it was into the aesthetics. And this was the fun part – making it look the goods.
A café racer simply has to be a single seater with a seat hump. US manufacturer Corbin makes a huge range of specialist seats and I opted for its ‘Gunfighter’ for the Norton. Simple black was the name of the game and this really sets off the café look.
The standard seat was pretty tired, but I wanted to refurbish it and keep it interchangeable to allow for pillions. My sons enjoy the occasional blat on the back of the Norton so it simply would not do to make the bike a dedicated single-seater. So, off to Eldorado seat restorations went the original item.
The result was a perfectly restored seat totally sympathetic to the factory effort. It is a class job and the family is more than happy that they are still in the Commando picture.
Next on the agenda was a set of Norvil rearset ’pegs. These came with the brake lever and gearchange linkage fitted. Getting them on was a slight challenge, the holes not matching up exactly due to the triangulated nature of the fitment. This is more due to the inherent years of vibration moving the locating pins a poofteenth on either side, rather than any problem with the location of the stud holes on the plates. So, on to the bench drill they went, a spring washer here, some Loctite there and they were on. Hook up the brakes, adjust the location of the linkage on the spline and the job is done.
To the ’bars. Tingate clip-ons got the job. This, coupled with the rearsets, gave the bike a modern seating position and, as Spannerman suggested, this offers the rider the chance to ride the bike like a modern steed. There is no doubt about it. It now responds in a much more nimble fashion and is faster for it.
Switchgear is aftermarket generic stuff that is really very cheap. We wanted it to look neat, but not too modern. Wiring was a big challenge, but we got there in the end and no-one in their right mind will miss the standard Norton ‘is-it-on-or-is-it-off, double-ambidextrous’ idiot arrangement that came as standard. Not me, anyway.
Paintwork resto was given to the immortal Roy Bogner and is simply stunning. The original Candy-Apple Red was kept and I cannot recommend Roy enough. You’ll have to wait – he’s a one-man outfit and everyone goes to him – but he is THE man. Be patient and use him; you will not be disappointed.
The rear guard was sound but very dirty and scratched. After polishing it came up like new. I tossed a bit of paint about on the rear frame rails, polished everything like nutcases and the results are there for all to see.
I’ve lived with the bike for four years now and it is my only road-going mount, so it simply has to be reliable. It is decidedly uncomfortable though, and if you are at all prone to muscular aches and pains, well – you might like to think again.
The engine is a peach. It is pretty quick and happy to be revved. Yes, you have to service it closely every 5000km, and you are not about to bother your mate on the latest GSX-R1000 (until you both park, when he soon finds no-one is looking in his bike’s direction – they hate that).
The good news is that these days Commandos are becoming decidedly collectable. While it used to be true that restoring one would cost the same as buying one that had already been restored, that is no longer the case. We have heard of pristine Commandos getting figures of close to $20,000. Strange, but true.
And, there is no more rewarding a ride on the planet. Take it from me, the love affair with my red bike continues unabated.
Who to call
Tingate Racing (wholesaler)
Tel: (03) 9876 8966
Show and Go Motorcycles
Tel: (08) 8376 0333
Birdman Motorcycle Accessories
Tel: (03) 9876 8966 (wholesaler)
Tel: (03) 8405 9200
ORIGINAL SEAT RESTORATION:
Eldorado Motorcycle Seat Restoration
Tel: 0400 707 767
BRAKE DISC AND CARRIER:
Tel: (03) 9879 7755
REARSETS AND IGNITION:
Proven Products Pty Ltd
Tel: (02) 6040 9955
Tel: (03) 9553 3882
Nicholson’s British Spares
Tel: (03) 5768 2666