Adventures on a Norton Commando

Part 2: Continental Tour – the hard way round

Story so far: Back in the far cry years of university days, Nigel Downing had just about got used to the bike of his dreams, a Norton Commando 750 Roadster Mk II. His friend, François was preparing to join him on a Continental Tour…

François had found a BSA A10 650cc twin needing some serious TLC. It even had gravel in oil tank, put there by some vandal. Being up for anything he decided to rebuild it himself, all the while being a petrol attendant at this local garage. Yes, way back in dinosaur time people filled up your car for you. So, with barely enough time to finally bolt on his newly painted fuel tank, we left for Dover and the ferry. The plan was to camp. I stuffed a rucksack and strapped it to the rear luggage rack. François did the same with his kit and we split the tent between us.

Having crossed to France we camped the first night in a field. Next day we took the Route nationale down towards Spain. The experience of my crash was still raw, and François was riding too fast. I told him so. He knew otherwise so I let him go. After a while, just outside Foix, I noticed ahead a pall of dust hanging in the air. A bend later I found him, picking himself and the bike off a large flat patch of dirt on the side of the road. He was OK. The bike was in a mess with bits hanging off, but rideable. The gendarmes arrived, tut-tutting as they do. They had soon forgotten François and were admiring my Norton. “Magnifique! Mais ça rend aux reins du marmalade!” I will let you translate.

As the trip ensued more and more bits fell off the BSA. We lost the headlight and the horn fairly early on. At one point the crank case gasket popped out. François removed the remaining parts and tightened down the bolts to slow the spray of oil (along with the miasma of unburned fuel from the exhaust, due to a broken piston ring) which was covering my visor as I followed. Eventually, we made it into and out of Andora, along the south coast of France, into Italy and thence to Switzerland – a safe haven. My Dad lived in a mountain village there and we had a few days’ rest, some decent food and nice beds to sleep in. The local garage also gave us workshop space and facilities to work on the bikes. François did the best he could, and we headed north once more.

The final day – we were making good progress (well, you know what I mean) across northern France when suddenly, with either a bang or a whimper, the BSA gave up the ghost. “Cylinder gasket,” pronounced François. “And there is nothing I can do about it. I need to remove the tank and don’t have the tool.” I remember sitting beside the road in the sunshine deliberating for a long time. Eventually, François suggested I tow him! Well, that was short-lived. Finally, we decided to abandon the BSA. We found a friendly farmer who took it into his barn and prepared to ride two up on the Norton. That meant piling all of François’ kit on top of mine, doing something with the rear suspension (I think!) and pumping up the tyres. Such was the load that we occasionally bottomed out when the road was rough.

We continued north, took the ferry and headed for home. I remember clearly riding hard through driving rain on the M20 at 80mph, desperate for the journey to end. I dropped François off and made my way back to university, first stopping off at a service station nearby to re-adjust the tyre pressures. As I crouched down by the left side of the rear wheel I saw, to my horror, a sidewall gash running the entire circumference of the wheel, down to the fabric of the tyre. Where did that come from? Closer inspection: the rear mudguard was offset to the right, such that at the limit of the suspension’s travel the mudguard’s sharp rear edge had been gouging into the sidewall of the tyre. Later it turned out that the crash had pushed the rear loom to the right, taking the mudguard with it. Norton Andover had missed that one when they had repaired the bike for me!

I decided to ride on (I mean, how totally daft can you get?) and thank God, bike and rider arrived back in one piece.

I leave the reader to compare the foolishness of youth way back then with the discipline of today’s advanced riding. François and I still laugh about the fun we had, the crazy decisions, and frankly at what we got away with, but deep down we know how lucky we were.

And the bikes? Two years later François took his Mini Van to France. He recovered the BSA. That faithful and generous farmer had died, but an employee handed it over. The bike was sold on to a friend, for yet another rebuild. I had soon to leave for a research project in West Africa and sold my beloved Norton to a friend. As soon as I returned to university, I visited him to buy it back. But, sadly, he had sold it on.

Some years later, I tried to track down my Norton, but no luck. Often, I wonder, KYO 192K, where are you? Rusting gently somewhere? Long gone for scrap? What I would give to have you back!

Nigel Downing

First published in Slipstream November / December 2022