Born Again Norton!

Date :

December 04, 2014

Born Again Norton!

s proof that you can never have enough Norton Commando photos, there was an outpouring of requests to see more pictures of Peter Egan’s recently restored “free” 850 after we published his story on the bike in our November 2014 print issue. Here’s Egan’s *Leanings* column as it appeared in our magazine, but now complemented by a photo gallery of the Norton shot by the man himself before fall turned to winter in Wisconsin.

Sometimes it’s fun to contemplate bumper stickers while idling in traffic. One of my favorites is “Born Okay the First Time,” offered as a wry counterpoint to the original “Born Again.” Which, of course, makes me think of Norton Commandos.

And why would that be?

Well, I just spent six months restoring a 1974 Norton 850 Commando that had spent 24 years in a shed. The bike certainly needed to be born again, as every single part was in need of redemption, but—as any Commando buff will tell you—the bike’s soul may have been stained with a few original sins at birth. Not all Nortons were born okay the first time, in other words.

Take the Commando I bought brand new in 1975. That bike had a few “issues” right off the showroom floor, so it was my goal to upgrade this project bike and possibly make it a little better than new, without losing any character and beauty.

Some exceptionally retentive readers might remember a column I wrote about this bike last fall, right after I hauled it home (“A Long Winter’s Norton,” March). The owner was a gentleman named Gary Ackatz, from Kewaskum, Wisconsin, who realized he’d never get around to restoring the bike but wanted it to go to a good home rather than see it parted out. He offered it to me—free!—on the condition that I would fix it up and get it back on the road, as James Lansdowne Norton and the Queen would have wished.

Well, who could turn down a free Norton and six months of grinding labor in the workshop bent over the parts cleaner, sand blaster, and buffing wheel? Not me, apparently. I picked up the bike—which had 17,000 miles on the clock—turned on my shop lights, and went to work. By the end of the first week I had it totally disassembled.

And by the first weekend of May it was done. The shop doors opened, beams of radiant spring sunlight shone on the Commando’s gleaming chrome, and off I rode to our annual Slimey Crud Café Racer Run. Successfully, too, without so much as a glitch or oil leak. And—600 miles later—it is, I modestly admit, the smoothest, sweetest, and best-handling Norton I’ve ridden. So what transpired in those dark winter months in between?

Well, hundreds of hours of work and, as the iron rule of restoration tells us, about twice as much money spent as expected. Fasten your seatbelt: I ended up spending $10,500 before I was done.

The Commando had been—before Gary bought it—restyled as a chopper, with extended forks, apehanger bars, tall centerstand, and shorty mufflers. These I replaced with new stock parts, nearly all purchased from my old friend Bill Getty, who owns JRC Engineering in California. Bill would eventually provide many, many new parts for this project and much good advice. So, too, would Morrie’s Place in Ringwood, Illinois, owned by Ed and Lori Zender. Their shop is only a two-hour drive from my house, and every time I needed a weird bolt or rare OEM part I zipped down there. I drove there so many times that my car knows the way. Even through blizzards.

Ed, incidentally, recommended powdercoating the frame, as he has a powdercoater in Green Bay who does beautiful work and does not fill the bolt and bushing holes with a baked-on finish. Ed also re-laced my wheels with new stainless spokes and Excel flanged aluminum rims. These were my one “custom” indulgence, justified because they look identical to the rims used on the factory “Yellow Peril” Production Racers. Which I have always loved, lo these many years. New Dunlop TT100 tires went on the rims.

The core of the engine (sans clutch, primary drive, and alternator) I decided to farm out to a much-recommended expert, Dale Matteson at Dale’s Cycle in Walworth, Wisconsin, while I built the rest of the bike. Dale also installed new bearings in my gearbox and sent the tank and side covers to his favorite painter in Chicago. These came back in stunningly perfect black and gold.

So what was I doing while all this expertise was being lavished upon various bits? Well, polishing aluminum, for one thing. The fork legs, primary cover, handlebar levers, and footpeg mounts were all pitted with stone chips and skid marks from wrenches. I sanded them down with five grades of ever-finer emery cloth then polished them on a buffing wheel with white rouge.

I rebuilt the fork legs, installed new steering-head bearings, headlight shell, wiring harness, fenders, Isolastic engine mounts, swingarm, oil tank (rebuilt and strengthened by Colorado Norton Works), and… well, let’s just list the new parts required:

Fork legs, fork seals, chrome fork caps, spokes, rims, wheel bearings, both fenders, chain guard, battery and hold-down kit, wiring harness, Isolastic engine mount kits, steering-head bearings, exhaust system, finned head-pipe nuts, peg rubbers, centerstand, chain, headlight shell, tires, tubes, oil filter and oil lines, swingarm shaft and bushings, stainless rear axle, taillight and housing, seat, rear grab rail, knurled seat knobs, gas cap, rear shocks and springs, air filter and housing, handgrips, mirrors, Amal Premier carbs, cables, gaskets, Superblend crank bearings, plug wires, Pazon electronic ignition system, stainless front brake pistons, brake line, sleeved-down brake master, and about a hundred other small bits. Strangely, the clutch plates, brake shoes, and pads were all like new. When cleaned.

Improvements over 1974: Stronger, lighter wheels, upgraded front brake, electronic ignition, new-generation Amal carbs. I also built my own breather and catch-bottle system so the air filter doesn’t get oiled. The shocks Bill sold me are better than the originals. Fork seals and bushings too. Smoother. Dale’s engine rebuild runs beautifully (no oil consumption), and I take the Norton out almost every day. Head into the countryside and listen to that beautiful sound. I also manage to waste several hours every week, just staring at the bike in my workshop.

So far, so good, as the skydiver said. Those first 600 miles have been trouble-free, save for a briefly clogged idle jet, now fixed. Maybe it’s been reborn, okay, the second time.