The original Norton Commando first saw the light of day all the way back in 1967. Production spanned ten years, and the Commando was crowned “Machine of the Year” by the U.K.-based Motor Cycle News for five consecutive years, starting with its sophomore year in ’68 and running through ’72. Since then, the Commando has seen a number of attempted revivals, with several entities trying to capture some of the success of the original, with varying degrees of success.

Norton Motorcycles re-introduces us to the Commando with the 961 MK II family that brings classic, British style and modern engineering together in what may be the best attempt to date. Let’s find out, shall we?

Continue reading for my review of the Norton Commando 961 SF MKII, Commando 961 Sport MKII, and Commando 961 Cafe Racer MKII.

  • 2015 - 2016 Norton Commando 961 MK II SF / Cafe Racer / Sport
  • Year:
    2015- 2016
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Engine:
    Parallel-twin
  • Displacement:
    961 cc
  • Price:
    19995
  • Price:

Design

2015 - 2016 Norton Commando 961 MK II SF / Cafe Racer / Sport
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(Commando 961 SF MKII)

There are a total of three bikes in the new Commando family; the Sport, SF and Cafe’ Racer, though to be perfectly honest, they all three look like a cafe’ to mine eyes. The differences between the three are mainly performance- and materials-oriented, and do not appreciably change the overall panache. A tiny flyscreen over the headlamp on the SF and Cafe’ models set them apart from the more sparsely appointed Sport that was based most closely on the original Commando.

Though the SF comes with carbon-fiber fenders, chain guard and license plate mount, the parts are shaped just like their counterparts and follow the same shape and design. In short; the carbon fiber bits don’t exactly leap out at you. The Sport and SF handlebars carry a bit of pullback to them that allows for a somewhat upright riding position, but the drag bars on the Cafe’ pull the rider into an aggressive, forward-leaning position, and all come with jockey-mount foot controls.

From there the upper lines flow across the deeply-indented, and classically British, fuel tank before a precipitous drop to the saddle. All three Commando siblings come with the option of running a solo seat complete with a cafe’-tastic rear spoiler/fender, or in a two-up configuration that comes with a hard cover for those times when you’re riding alone and want that race-track look, or just want to avoid being asked for a ride.

Chassis

2015 - 2016 Norton Commando 961 MK II SF / Cafe Racer / Sport
- image 678857

(Commando 961 Sport MKII

A traditional, double-cradle / double-downtube frame supports the engine and mounts a tiny oil cooler just south of the steering head where it has a minimal impact on aesthetics. Air-cooling precludes the need for a radiator, and so the front of the frame is wide open with an unimpeded view of the engine. This frame is used across the range, and comes with the same layout regardless of model. The steering head angle gives us a 24.5-degree rake with 3.9 inches of trail, and those figures along with the compact, 55.9-inch wheelbase make these bikes very agile indeed.

Suspension varies a bit across the range, and all components front and rear are from Öhlins. They all three ride on 43 mm front forks complete with adjustable preload as well as compression/rebound damping, but while the base-model Sport comes with RWU (right-way-up) forks, the SF and Cafe’ come with stiffer, USD (up-side-down) forks.

Dual, Öhlins piggyback shocks spring the dual-sided steel swingarm, and all models come with the usual preload adjustment, plus rebound and compression damping and an unusual, ride-height adjuster. Suspension travel is 4.53 inches at the front axle, and 3.94 inches at the rear, which is about right for a ride with a sporty bent. Laced, symmetrical, 17-inch, polished-aluminum rims complete the rolling chassis in style on the Sport and Cafe’, ’cause nothing says “retro” like wire spokes. The SF gets black rims and they all mount 120/70 front, and 180/55 rear tires.

Norton tapped Brembo to meet the Commando’s braking needs. All three bikes run a 220 mm rear disc with a twin-pot caliper on binding duties. The Sport runs dual, 320 mm discs up front with a pair of four-pot, axially-mounted, opposed-piston calipers. In keeping with their sportier purpose in life, the SF and Cafe’ run the same big discs, but mount Brembo’s radial-mount, Monobloc calipers for even greater stopping power and resistance to deformation under heavy braking loads.

Drivetrain

2015 - 2016 Norton Commando 961 MK II SF / Cafe Racer / Sport
- image 678810

(Commando 961 Cafe’ Racer MKII)

The factory uses its own, in-house engine to power the Commando line. This is significant because for years Norton products were actually powered by someone else’s motors, and the powers-that-be want to make sure everyone knows it.

The parallel-twin powerplant positively oozes British style, but its the right-side cover that really clinches it for me. It’s air- and oil-cooled, so there is no water jacket and radiator to muddy the waters, and the engine comes canted forward just a bit for a speedy, rakish look. A pushrod valvetrain actuates the twin-valve heads, and a crank-fired, electronic fuel-injection system tends to the induction. Oversquare, the 88 mm bore and 79 mm stroke gives us a total displacement of 961 cc with a 10.1-to-1 compression ratio, and the crank offset is set up for a 270-degree firing interval.

Norton claims 66.3 pound-feet of torque at 5,200 rpm backed up by 78.8 horsepower at 6,500 rpm from this engine, and given the agile handling characteristics, I expect that is enough power for some real fun around town as well as on some twisty backroads. A five-speed transmission sends power to the rear wheel via O-ring chain with a traditional, non-slipper clutch to couple the mill to the gearbox. All in all, a relatively uncomplicated setup.

Price

2015 - 2016 Norton Commando 961 MK II SF / Cafe Racer / Sport
- image 678855

(Commando 961 Sport MKII)

So far the Commando 961 MK II family has made me as giggly as a kid in a candy store, but that came to a screeching halt at checkout. I admit I was a little dismayed at the $19,995 tag on the Sport, $21,395 sticker on the Cafe’ and whopping, $22,495 MSRP on the SF. This is a bit Harley-esque in its price-to-gadget ratio, and I fear that will exclude buyers unwilling to sacrifice performance for a classic look.

Competitor

2015 - 2016 Norton Commando 961 MK II SF / Cafe Racer / Sport
- image 678859
2016 - 2018 Triumph Thruxton 1200 / 1200 R
- image 757003

Norton is an old name in the motorcycle world, and as such, enjoys a certain amount of notoriety as one of the classic British manufacturers. It seems almost everyone is putting out a cafe’ racer of some sort these days, so I decided to keep it local and see how Norton stacks up against an old nemesis; Triumph and its Thruxton 1200 R.

Skin deep, the Commando wins with authority. Both rides certainly carry that cafe’ look, but while Triumph keeps embellishments to a minimum for a pragmatic, almost Spartan style, Norton makes the Commando look like a work of art with sculpted, voluptuous curves, and a sexiness the Thruxton lacks.

Differences between the two mellow out somewhat when we look at the rolling chassis. Trumpet mounted dual Brembo calipers up front, but opted for a Nissin caliper in back and slapped ABS on as standard equipment while Norton shuns the ABS entirely. Both rides run fully adjustable, Öhlins piggyback shocks in back, and 43 mm, usd forks up front, but the Thruxton uses Showa products while the Commando keeps to the Öhlins theme. Wheel travel is comparable, with a slight advantage going to Triumph with 4.72-inches, front and rear.

Neither engine stray far from their British roots, and both have what I consider the classic, parallel-twin look. Honestly, there isn’t a huge technological difference between the engines. Air-cooling, fuel-injection and a 270-degree firing order is consistent across the board, but its the displacement that sets them apart. The Commando runs a 961 cc plant that produces 78.8 horsepower and 66.3 pounds of grunt while the Thruxton boasts a 1200 cc mill that cranks out 97 horsepower and 82.6 pound-feet. Why would I pick an engine that much larger as a competitor? Read on and all will be made clear.

The rub can be found in the pricing. At $21,395, the Commando is really pushing the envelope, as evidenced by the $14,500 tag on the Thruxton with its larger engine and ABS as standard equipment. Sure, the Commando is a sexy beast, and is par excellence as far as aesthetics and classic charm goes, but methinks Norton is a mite too proud of it to be a serious threat to that market segment.

He Said

“Man! I love the looks of the Nortons, and have long maintained that they really capture the essence of Britishness like nobody else, except perhaps Royal Enfield, but that’s a different story entirely. Kind of hurts my feelings a little with the price, though. I fear that most of their business will come from other fellers like me that just like the look and can pay for it; the younger crowd is more likely to be performance driven, and unless we re-stoke the fires of enthusiasm for this design, it will eventually fade away as people forget. Sure, there’s plenty of cafe’ racers but the American ones lack that certain something and most of the rest are producing interpretations of the design. Some are really cool, but still not quite right. Norton is right on-target, now if they could shave that sticker just a skosh.”

She Said

My wife and fellow motorcycle writer, Allyn Hinton, says, “When you ride this bike, you kinda feel like you’re back in time. It’s such an iconic look — so historical. It’s a shame that monetary conversion rates and import fees push the price so high. As iconic as it is, I am glad of two things in these modern bikes: that I don’t have to carry a full mechanics set of tools with me all the time, and that I’m not leaving an oil trail wherever I go.”

Specifications

Engine:
Engine Type: In-house developed parallel twin with dry sump lubrication
Displacement: 961 cc
Cooling System: Air / Oil
Valve Actuation: Push rod, hydraulic lifter, 2 valves per cylinder
Bore x stroke: 88mm x 79mm
Compression ratio: 10:1
Exhaust: Stainless Steel
Ignition: Crank fired electronic fuel injection and multiple 2 way catalytic converters. Euro 3 compliant.
Transmission:
Gear box: Constant mesh 5-speed
Final drive: 525 "O" ring chain
Clutch: Wet multi-plate
Dimensions:
Frame: Hand welded seamless tubular steel with integral oil tank
Wheelbase: 1420mm (55.9 in)
Rake: 24.5°
Trail: 99mm (3.9 in)
Front wheel:
Commando 961 SF: 36 spoke 3.50 x 17" Black Rim
Commado 961 Cafe Racer, Commando 961 Sport: 36 spoke 3.5" x 17" Polished Aluminium Rim
Rear wheel:
Commando 961 SF: 40 spoke 5.5 x 17" Black Rim
Commando 961 Cafe Racer, Commando 961 Sport: 40 spoke 5.5" x 17" Polished Aluminium Rim
Swingarm: Twin-sided steel construction
Front tyre: 120/70 x 17"
Rear tyre: 180/55 x 17"
Front wheel travel: 115mm (4.53 in)
Rear wheel travel: 100mm (3.94 in)
Seat height: 813mm (32 in)
Suspension:
Front suspension:
Commando 961 SF, Commando 961 Cafe Racer: 43mm Ohlins USD - adjustable preload, compression & rebound damping
Commando 961 Sport: 43mm Ohlins RWU - adjustable preload, compression & rebound damping
Rear suspension: Ohlins twin shocks with remote reservoir - adjustable ride height, preload, rebound & compression
Brakes:
Front brakes:
Commando 961 SF, Commando 961 Sport: Full Brembo system, twin Brembo 320mm fully-floating high carbon stainless steel discs & Brembo 4 piston radially mounted callipers. Brembo front brake master cylinder with integral reservoir
Commando 961 Cafe Racer: Full Brembo system, twin Brembo 320mm fully-floating high carbon stainless steel discs & Brembo 4 piston "Mono bloc" radially mounted callipers. Brembo radial front brake master cylinder with remote reservoir
Rear brakes: Full Brembo system, single Brembo 220mm disc & Brembo 2 piston calliper. Brembo rear brake master cylinder
Clutch:
Commando 961 SF, Commando 961 Sport: Brembo hydraulic clutch master cylinder with integral reservoir and Brembo slave cylinder
Commando 961 Cafe Racer: Brembo radial hydraulic clutch master cylinder with remote reservoir and Brembo slave cylinder
Performance:
Power: 80PS @ 6500RPM
Torque: 90Nm @ 5200RPM
Electronics & Controls:
Charging system: 300 watt hi-output charging system
Instrumentation: Norton electronic analogue speedo and tachometer
Starting System:
Commando 961 SF: Brembo hyraulic clutch master cyclinder with integral resevoir and Brembo slave cylinder
Commando 961 Cafe Racer, Commando 961 Sport: NA
Colour Options: Galactic Black with Gold Pinstripe, Titanium Grey with Black Pinstripe, Royal Red with Gold Pinstripe, Manx Silver with Red/Black Pinstripe, Steel Green with Black Pinstripe, English White with Black Pinstripe
What do you think?
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