Norton – a name synonymous with British motorcycling. While some may remember the side valve WD 16H they rode during the war, for others, Norton will forever be remembered as the company behind one of the greatest motorcycles ever made – the Commando. Whichever generation of motorcyclist you ask, the word ‘Norton’ means something different to each.
Like all great companies, Norton started as nothing more than an idea – and that idea came from James Lansdowne Norton, aka ‘Pa Norton’. At first, Norton was nothing more than a manufacturer of fittings and parts, but as the years rolled by, Pa saw an opportunity to expand his business further and, in 1902, Norton built their first motorcycle.
In the years that followed, Norton would go on to claim victory in the first ever Isle of Man TT (twin cylinder class) and all across Europe – but it wasn’t until the interwar years when Norton celebrated its finest era on the racing circuit.
Claiming 10 senior TT titles and a total of 78 victories in 92 Grand Prix races, nothing could stop the 500cc single valve from dominating. Even when war broke out, Norton continued to shine as the company built over 100,000 motorcycles in the war effort – a figure which equated to almost a quarter of all military motorcycles!
The 1950s bore witness to the arrival of café racers such as the twin cylinder Dominator – but it wasn’t until the arrival of the 1961 Commando that Norton became a household name.
MCN’s ‘Machine of the Year’ for five successive years, the Commando was nothing short of a masterpiece. Boasting a 745cc parallel twin engine – with the ‘850’ arriving later in 1973 – the Commando could compete with any bike off the line, while its superior handling meant that this machine was brilliant fun to ride.
After a tricky end to the Commando era – perhaps attributed to the rise of Japanese machines such as Kawasaki and Honda – the 1980s and early 90s heralded a brief revival for Norton. As Steve Spray won the British Superbike Championship on Norton in 1988, Steve Hislop went one better in 1992 by defeating Carl Fogarty in the Isle of Man Senior TT.
In 2008, Norton moved to its current home at Donnington Park and, two years later, released the Commando 961SE – 31 years after production stopped. Boasting all the class, style and attitude of the classic Commando, today’s machine is a sight to behold.
Adorned with all the modern features you’d associate with a furious, 21st century bike, the 961 SF MKII and the 961 Sport successfully combine the past with the present, resulting in a bike that – despite being only a few years old – looks just as iconic as its predecessor.
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