Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My 1975 Norton 850 Commando

By Luis. 

Being Chief Executive Motorhead here at The Motor Bookstore has its privileges, like being able to borrow a repair manual when I need one, or taking the time to tell you about one of the many bikes I've owned and restored (while claiming to be busy at work... Yes, blogging and facebooking are part of my job). And one of the greatest motorcycles I've restored and ridden was my 1975 Norton 850 Commando.

I say "was" since I had to sell the Norton back in the early 1990s to keep my company going. So after money exchanged hands, and the guy who bought my bike rode it away, I used the funds to grow my little enterprise which —a few years later — would launch MotorcycleBooks.com, which later became The Motor Bookstore (www.TheMotorBookstore.com).

I've loved motorcycles since I was a kid, and my dad stoked the flames early on by first giving me some sort of motor scooter (that never really ran properly), then my first "real" motorcycle. A Honda CT70. Since that day, I've owned many bikes, mosty Japanese, so when a friend in South Florida told me about the bike he had sitting in his backyard, I was intrigued to say the least.

I don't think I had ever heard about Norton motorcycles, but it was a British bike, and having endured eight long years at the St. James British School in my hometown of Punta Arenas, Chile, it just felt right to own something Brit.

I was told the bike did not run but that it was all there. Selling price? 50 bucks!

When my brother and I drove over to pick it up early one Saturday morning, we realized the bike had been buried to the axles after so many years exposed to the elements. My friend, the seller, said he was sure there was a tarp covering the bike, and we did find the brass rings that must have been attached to the missing tarp years earlier. We literally dragged the Norton out of the backyard and, at one point my brother asked, "Are you sure you want to take this piece of $h*t home?"
I nodded and kept pushing. I had a plan.

Well, I didn't have a "plan" plan; it was more of a general idea about fixing a bike to ride around town. So we drove home and unloaded it in the backyard.

What's a Whitworth?

Or what's a "spanner," for that matter. Yeah, you start wrenching on classic British bikes and realize that regular tools don't really work on these machines. Of course you try to make do with a combination of metric and standard American wrenches and somehow, manage to get by.

Eventually I purchased a set of "Whitworth spanners," an old term that comes from the Gaelic language which means "expensive set of tools imported from California, USA."

I could probably write a book about the things I tried and did in order to bring my 850 Commando back to life. But I know, from actual experience, that one of the best investments I made early on, was to get the Clymer repair manual for the bike, which at the time was a book just for the Norton. They later combined it with other two manuals into the Vintage British Street Bikes Repair Manual: BSA, Norton & Triumph.

Trust me when I tell you that you will need as much info as you possibly can absorb during a restoration project, so don't think that you can improvise and achieve good results. Nope! You will need the right information to do the job right.

I failed to take pics of the bike when I first dug it out of my friend's backyard, but back then we didn't have these fancy phones that allow you to take photos and movies, and surf the Internet. We didn't have that back in the 1980s. Heck, we didn't even have the Internet! But at least I managed to snap a couple of pics of the bike after it was done.

And yes, I am aware that the paint scheme is not something that was available back in the 1970s, but then again the bike came with a pair of Amal carbs that were pretty much worthless, so I bought a single-carb Mikuni kit (okay, if you're a purist go get some oxygen and leave me alone).

I rode my bike for a few years and enjoyed the heck out of it. The 1975 model featured an electric starter that was quite temperamental and worked sometimes. Thank God Norton kept the kick-starter pedal. Had they done like the Germans, who removed the kick-starter when they introduced a Beemer with an electric starter (...that actually worked), they would've gone out of business.

Oh wait...

Above: Luis and his 1975 Norton 850 Commando. A show winner!