Adventures on a Norton Commando

Part 1: Lessons Learned?

One morning in the summer of 1970 I was head-down at my university’s Air Squadron, boning up on the DeHavilland Chipmunk (the RAF’s basic trainer), preparing for an exam on airframes or some other mission critical subject. A fellow student pilot burst into the room. “You’ve got to come outside and look at this!” I soon joined a small throng of young men ogling a Norton Dominator (650cc), its owner beaming proudly. Obsessed with motorcycles since a teenager, I asked for a ride. “Sure,” replied the owner. “Hop on”. And hop on I did, to be treated to the ride of my life. He kicked the machine into a roar and blasted down the cul-de-sac that was Chaucer Road. He slammed on the brakes, turned, and raced back.

I was smitten. Never had I accelerated or braked so fast. As a thrill, it came very close to beating the eight turn spins we were practising in the Chipmunk. This was a must-have! I faced a couple of problems. I had just failed my motorcycle test on a friend’s Bantam 125. The clutch seized as I arrived at the test location. Explaining this to my examiner, he gave the bike a cursory once over, deemed it fit to go and went on to fail me for improper control of the machine.

My mother lived in Mauritius at that time. So, over the holidays, undeterred, I borrowed my brother’s Velocette 350cc Viper. On a Mauritian provisional licence, I thumped and thudded around the island’s roads for a bit before turning up for the test.  A police inspector arrived, admired the bike, told me to do a tour of the car park and gave me my licence. I traded that in for an International Driver’s Licence and was good to go.

norton commando
Norton Commando 750 MkII. KYO 192K in all its glory. Photo: Cambridge Backs, Autumn 1973.

The day I picked it up from the south London dealership remains clear in my mind, even though it was some 50 years ago. I was told how to start it, engage gear etc. and thus prepared, set off in trepidation. It was terrifying. I was totally incompetent and out of my depth. Within a couple of miles, the bike stuttered to a halt. I managed to park up on a traffic island in the middle of the road and discovered it had run out of fuel. (Let a dealer try that one on a customer today!). Luckily, I remembered there was a reserve, so I turned the tap and mercifully it thundered into life after a few vigorous kicks (on the kick starter, for those of you who don’t know of these things).

I headed out to Hertfordshire where my good friend François lived. We hatched a plan to go touring the following summer, and he set about finding a bike of his own. Back at university I decided to do a 200 mile ride to help run in the machine. The engine was amazingly tight. I came back from that ride with my kidneys turned to marmalade, so hard was the seat. It clearly needed running in as well.

Gradually my confidence grew, and the panic attacks subsided. The university did not allow students to have motor vehicles, but I needed to get out to the airfield to fly and was given a special permit. I would rock up for my flight (we called them sorties), park outside the hangar, check out my Chipmunk, pole around the sky, before belting back to my college on my yellow machine – Maverick style. I used my cream calf-leather flying gloves for riding, as well as my flying boots. I even managed to find a small space to park the Norton in the Fellows’ garage in the forecourt. My beautiful girlfriend, later my wife, happily perched on the back. My mum even knitted me a lovely yellow scarf to match! I bought a Bell Star full face helmet (quite avant-garde at the time) and had painted on the front: “In the event of accident, do not remove”. I mean, how daft can you get? But I really felt I was living the part. I loved that bike.

A few weeks before François and I set out on our Continental Tour, I decided to show off the Norton at my old school. I passed by a dealership on the way, somewhere like Northampton, I think. The dealer chatted about the Norton’s superior handling. “If ever you’re in trouble round a bend, just crank it over,” he said. “The bike will take it.” Heard that one before? Sure enough, a little while later I was hammering too fast into a right-hander. The wise words ringing in my ear, I leaned the bike harder and hit gravel. The bike went one way. I followed. My flight time was probably quite short, but I had only the one thought while airborne: “What-on-earth-am-I-going-to-say-to-my-Dad?” Bang! I hit the deck, dislodging an enormous paving stone with my left shoulder, thumping my head and scraping my flying glove to within a thousandth of an inch from my skin.

I phoned François with the news. Brilliant friend that he is, he soon arrived with his mini van into which we heaved the sorry bike. Sometime later I got it to Norton at Andover. It might have been the factory. Given the urgency they rebuilt what they could, and François and I were good to go for the trip…sort of.

Next time: François and I head for France, and more gravel…

Nigel Downing

First published in Slipstream October 2022