While it could easily be mistaken for a vintage machine updated with modern wheels and suspension, this Norton Commando 961 is actually a brand-new motorcycle. This is a pricey, exclusive, retro-styled motorcycle for classic bike fans who want vintage charm and modern-ish performance, like a British SportClassic. With the sport v-twin configuration most closely associated with Ducati, the Norton instead uses a big parallel-twin unit for a similar character: thumping midrange and accessible, real-world performance.
Norton’s original Commando was a parallel-twin British sportbike from the late 1960s that offered up serious performance, good-looks, and charisma, and was a prime example of budget British ingenuity: as the Norton’s parallel-twin increased in size to keep pace with rivals, vibration became a real issue. A complete redesign of the engine wasn’t in the budget, so Norton isolated the engine from the frame with a set of rubber bushings they referred to as their “Isolastic” mounting system, which worked very well when properly maintained. But the package still used ancient non-unit construction, the overhead valves were still operated by pushrods, and the relative lack of reliability stood in stark contrast to the smooth, oil-tight Japanese machines that flooded the market in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unable to compete, Norton hung on for a few years, chasing American sales with bikes like the Interstate and Hi-Rider, but had faded into history by 1980.
Kenny Dreer brought some attention back to the marque with his VR880, which was basically a vintage 850 Commando rebuilt from the ground-up using as much modern technology as possible to create a bike that combined the best of the old and new, a vintage bike that didn’t leak, started without fail, and offered up performance more in keeping with modern machines. They were well-reviewed, but proved to be a headache for a small shop to produce and production was very limited. The Norton 961 took Dreer's idea of a new/old Norton and ran with it. The gestation of the “new” Norton 961 has been difficult, but these machines have been trickling their way to the US.
The new Norton uses big parallel-twin with pushrod-operated valves and a balance shaft as a nod to modern technology and produces 80hp with effortless acceleration at any rpm. Top-shelf Öhlins suspension components are used front and rear, and although the bike looks old-school with a twin-shock rear, the handling is reportedly excellent. I even saw one configured as a highly unlikely track bike at a recent AHRMA event!
From the original eBay listing: 2015 Norton Commando 961 for Sale
There are few certainties in life. Death, taxes – and now a brand new absolute: if you like retro bikes you will lust after a Norton 961. The reason is simple. The Commando is quite simply the best retro bike in the world – and by a handsome margin.
At the heart of the bike is a surprisingly clever engine. The 961cc – hence the 961 name – Twin is no technical tour de force, but captures the spirit of British big Twins and improves on the feeling in a way which is as special as a cross plane Yamaha R1.
The power output belies the performance. Despite making only 80 horsepower, the Commando zips up to an indicated 110 mph – maybe a shade over 100 mph in actuality – with the merest flick of the wrist. In this respect, it is far more willing than the Ducati Sport Classic, which is its direct competitor, and the Norton simply slaughters the Triumph Bonneville.
The engine runs at 270 degree firing intervals and this, combined with a gear driven balancer shaft, makes the 961 smoother than the Ducati – and vastly better than any original British Twin.
The chassis is a typical British design, but modernized. Because the engine is dry sump, the oil lives in the top spine of the frame. This is simple, effective engineering and has worked perfectly on many British designs.
The suspension is one of the few things not made in Britain. Both the front fork and rear shocks come from Ohlin and they are quality items. I just loved the twin shock swinging swingarm, and the 961 handling is a treat.
In summary, this is a bike which you need to sell one, or maybe both, of your kidneys to own. It looks stunning, handles impeccably and has a motor which is so much better than the retro opposition that it deserves to be in a separate class.
To be honest, I think the look of the Norton 961 is a little too vintage, and the shape of the tail section seems gratuitously curvy to my eye. But having seen a couple in the flesh recently, the level of detailing is impressive: check out the shift rod that curves under a bulge in the transmission case. And those side panels are set inboard of the frame rails, a very nice touch that's easily missed at first glance.
The seller has set the Buy It Now price at $19,995.00 and there are just ten miles on the odometer, so the bike is virtually new. It's obviously not a very good dollar-per-horsepower proposition, but if you're a British bike fan looking for the ultimate Norton, that might seem like a bargain...