Delivering Authentic Historical Looks With Modern Performance

The Norton Commando 961 lineup, in general, brings a healthy dose of classic café racer DNA to the table — some models more than others — and the California adds some old-school custom flavor to the mix. The British influence is unmistakable throughout, and even the engine exudes an Englishness that just cannot be faked. Norton has its own deep roots to draw upon for design points, and the “Cali” delivers authentic historical looks with modern performance.

  • 2018 - 2019 Norton Commando 961 California
  • Year:
    2018- 2019
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Engine:
    Parallel-Twin
  • Displacement:
    691 cc
  • Top Speed:
    120 mph (Est.)
  • Price:

Norton Commando 961 California Design

2018 - 2019 Norton Commando 961 California
- image 852182
The overall look is on-point with a late sixties- early seventies, homespun vibe that really ramps up the nostalgia.

The overall look of the Commando 961 California is on-point with a late sixties- early seventies, homespun vibe that really ramps up the nostalgia. A cut-down front fender starts things out headed down that road, and is reinforced by the naked cyclops headlight and high-rise handlebar making it look like a home-built café based on a British cruiser that was a popular platform back in the day. The fact that it doesn’t run with clip-ons or a drag bar also plays into that homemade look, and while it downplays the café aspect, it also delivers a more comfortable hand position within the rider’s triangle for a relaxed, upright riding position.

There’s a great big dose of Britishness in the fuel tank with its deep knee pockets that pull your knees in out of the slipstream. The café blood is apparent at the rear end with a sculpted rear fairing, and if you install the color-matched pillion cover, it dresses up the tail nicely with a solo-seat/racer look. A set of fold-up footpegs finish off the passenger’s amenities if you’d rather share the fun with a friend, but even with the cover off, the p-pad isn’t exactly all that invitin’ with its small size and lack of J.C. handles.

That said; it sure looks good, and it makes for a strong finish brushed up further by the upswept mufflers and minimal rear fender that doubles as the tagholder with the tag itself used as an extension to the rear spray coverage. The recessed round taillight is a nice touch that makes for a super-clean finish to an already sleek ride. Since the Cali is meant to pay homage to the Commando line’s 50-year history, it comes in a commemorative layout with a limited-edition run of 50 numbered units.

Norton Commando 961 California Chassis

2018 - 2019 Norton Commando 961 California
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The California delivers modern handling and ride-quality control with a definite eagerness in the corners.

A hand-crafted, chrome-moly, tubular-steel frame on the Commando 961 California follows traditional form with a double-downtube/double-cradle structure and a yoke-style swingarm. Dual, coil-over, piggyback shocks tame the motion of the rear wheel and deliver 3.94 inches of travel while the front end is held up by a set of usd forks. Both ends rock Öhlins components with the full trinity of adjustments all around, so the Cali delivers modern handling and ride-quality control.

As for the geometry; the steering head is set for a 24.5-degree rake angle with 3.9 inches of trail over a 55.12-inch wheelbase, and these numbers indicate a definite eagerness in the corners with a nice flickability about it. Polished, cast-aluminum rims round out the rolling chassis with a symmetrical, 17-inch diameter and a 120/70 hoop up front opposite a 180/55. Overall, the chassis setup shrugs off road bumps quite nicely and tracks well, even when encountering said bumps in a corner. Brembo provides the anchors with four-pot, opposed-piston monobloc calipers that bite dual 320 mm dicsc up front and a twin-piston caliper and 220 mm disc out back. The Brembo brakes package comes with Bosch ABS on board for the only layer of electronic safety net on this bike.

Front suspension: 43 mm Ohlins upside down forks, adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping.
Rear suspension: Ohlins twin shocks with remote reservoir – fully adjustable.
Rake: 24.5°
Trail: 3.9 inches (99 mm)
Wheel travel, Front/Rear: 4.53 inches (115 mm) /3.94 inches (100 mm)
Front wheel: 36-spoke. 3.5" x 17" Polished Aluminum Rim
Rear wheel: 40-spoke. 5.5" x 17" Polished Aluminum Rim
Front tire: 120/70 x 17"
Rear tire: 180/55 x 17"
Front brakes: Full Brembo system, twin Brembo 320 mm fully-floating high carbon stainless steel discs & Brembo 4 piston "Mono bloc" radially mounted calipers. Brembo radial front brake master cylinder with remote reservoir
Rear brakes: Full Brembo system, single Brembo 220 mm disc & Brembo 2 piston caliper. Brembo rear brake master cylinder
Clutch: Brembo radial hydraulic clutch master cylinder with remote reservoir and Brembo slave cylinder

Norton Commando 961 California Drivetrain

2018 - 2019 Norton Commando 961 California
- image 852183
Even though it's a trifle slower on the reversals than its sportier siblings, it will still come out of the hole with great enthusiasm.

Norton revised its 961 engine line to deliver an almost entirely new powerplant on the Commando 961 California. “It was a pretty significant evolution of the original 961 engine, because the motor was retooled almost in its entirety,” says Simon Skinner, Norton’s design boss. “We have new crankcases, new cylinders, a new cylinder head, new pistons, new crankshaft, and a new gearbox, all in order to reduce NVH [Noise Vibration and Harshness], and to improve overall quality as a means of refining the product."

Die-casting replaced sand-casting for a number of components to make this latest air-cooled twin a thoroughly modern mill. An 88 mm bore and 79 mm stroke give a total displacement of 961 cc with a compression ratio in the midrange at 10.1-to-1. Cams and pushrods actuate the four-valve head, and the air-cooling fins have thermal backup from a small oil cooler to give some extra protection for the engine’s lifeblood.

New as it may be, the factory limited the use of electronic engine controls so the engine is fairly essential in that it runs with nothing in the way of traction control, rider modes or the like. The factory claims 78 shaft horsepower at 6,500 rpm with 55 pounds o’ grunt at 5,200 rpm, so even though it’s a trifle slower on the reversals than its sportier siblings, it will still come out of the hole with great enthusiasm. Power flows through a five-speed transmission with a standard clutch and O-ring chain to make the connection to the rear wheel for a top speed of 120 mph.

Engine: In-house-developed parallel twin with dry sump lubrication, push rod, hydraulic valve lifter, 2 valves per cylinder
Bore x Stroke: 88 mm x 79 mm
Compression Ratio: 10.1:1
Displacement: 961 cc
Ignition: Crank fired electronic fuel injection.
Power: 79 hp (80 PS) @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 66.4 lb-ft (90 Nm) @ 5,200 rpm
Cooling system: Air/Oil
Exhaust: Full stainless steel exhaust system with multiple 3-way catalytic converter. Euro 4 compliant.
Gear box: Constant Mesh 5-speed
Final drive: 525 O-ring chain
Clutch: Wet multi-plate

Norton Commando 961 California Pricing

2018 - 2019 Norton Commando 961 California
- image 852181
Expect about $19k for the California, but the non-limited units won't have quite the same level equipment with its stock package.

Speculation on the U.S. price comes in at $19,000 for the limited-edition units. That price will hold steady for the models beyond the original 50, but the non-limited units won’t have quite the same level equipment with its stock package. You can still get the those items save a limited number through the accessory catalog, but it will cost extra.

Electronics: 300-watt high-output charging system
Instruments: Norton electronic analogue speedo and tachometer
Color: Black, Red, Gray, Greem, Silver, White

Norton Commando 961 California Competitors

Triumph Unveils New TFC Custom Models
- image 818911
2018 - 2019 Norton Commando 961 California
- image 852644
The Thruxton comes out on top, though that advantage comes at a price, and I leave it to you to place the value of the historical tribute layout of the Commando 961 California.

One limited-edition Brit deserves another, so I didn’t have far to go to find a suitable competitor from one of Norton’s domestic foes – Triumph Motorcycles – and its limited edition, factory custom Thruxton TFC. The Thruxton goes full-on café racer with the full package that starts with the classic bullet fairing and ends with a racing tail fairing along with a bench seat and fuel tank that has deep knee pockets in between.

Triumph gave its special Thruxton maximum café-ness that contrasts strongly with the more relaxed, home-style California, and naturally, that influences the bike’s attitude as the clip-ons pull you forward into a more sporty riding posture that is much more aggressive (and less comfy) than that which the Cali brings to the table.

It looks like Trumpet breaks even in the chassis with Brembo anchors and ABS on board, but the engine gives the Thruxton a definite edge with a 1,200 cc displacement that churns out 109 horsepower against 78 from the Norton. That advantage continues into the electronics that sets the Thruxton head and shoulders above the Cali. That advantage comes at a price of course; the Thruxton TFC rolls for a starting MSRP of $21,500, and I leave it to you to place the value of the historical tribute layout of the Commando 961 California.

He Said

“Yep, love me some café racer designs, and the Cali hits all the pertinent high points. As a purist, I am tempted to gig Norton for neglecting the café aspects of the front end, but at the end of the day, comfort wins out, and that’s what the high-rise bars deliver. Sure, it comes with a small sacrifice in flickability and reversals, but it’s still agile enough by most standards, and it does capture that homegrown look quite nicely.”

She Said

My wife and fellow motorcycle writer, Allyn Hinton, says, “Norton isn’t the first name we think of in the U.S. for racing, but if truth be told, Norton was already winning races when the U.S. manufacturers were just kicking off early in the 20th century. The Commando 961 California is a blast from that past with retro styling from a manufacturer that was there when retro was new and modern.”

Norton Commando 961 California Specifications

Engine & Drivetrain:
Engine: In-house-developed parallel twin with dry sump lubrication, push rod, hydraulic valve lifter, 2 valves per cylinder
Bore x Stroke: 88 mm x 79 mm
Compression Ratio: 10.1:1
Displacement: 961 cc
Ignition: Crank fired electronic fuel injection.
Power: 79 hp (80 PS) @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 66.4 lb-ft (90 Nm) @ 5,200 rpm
Cooling system: Air/Oil
Exhaust: Full stainless steel exhaust system with multiple 3-way catalytic converter. Euro 4 compliant.
Gear box: Constant Mesh 5-speed
Final drive: 525 O-ring chain
Clutch: Wet multi-plate
Chassis:
Front suspension: 43 mm Ohlins upside down forks, adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping.
Rear suspension: Ohlins twin shocks with remote reservoir – fully adjustable.
Rake: 24.5°
Trail: 3.9 inches (99 mm)
Wheel travel, Front/Rear: 4.53 inches (115 mm) /3.94 inches (100 mm)
Front wheel: 36-spoke. 3.5" x 17" Polished Aluminum Rim
Rear wheel: 40-spoke. 5.5" x 17" Polished Aluminum Rim
Front tire: 120/70 x 17"
Rear tire: 180/55 x 17"
Front brakes: Full Brembo system, twin Brembo 320 mm fully-floating high carbon stainless steel discs & Brembo 4 piston "Mono bloc" radially mounted calipers. Brembo radial front brake master cylinder with remote reservoir
Rear brakes: Full Brembo system, single Brembo 220 mm disc & Brembo 2 piston caliper. Brembo rear brake master cylinder
Clutch: Brembo radial hydraulic clutch master cylinder with remote reservoir and Brembo slave cylinder
Dimensions & Capacities:
Wheelbase: 55.12 inches (1,400 mm)
Seat height: 32 inches (810 mm)
Top speed: 120 mph
Electrics:
Electronics: 300-watt high-output charging system
Instruments: Norton electronic analogue speedo and tachometer
Details:
Color: Black, Red, Gray, Greem, Silver, White

Further Reading

Triumph Thruxton TFC

Triumph Unveils New TFC Custom Models
- image 818912

See our look at the Triumph Thruxton TFC.

Norton Commando 961 Café Racer / Sport

2015 - 2016 Norton Commando 961 MK II SF / Cafe Racer / Sport
- image 850050

See our review of the Norton Commando 961 Café Racer / Sport.

Norton

ALLYN IMAGES - DO NOT DELETE
- image 850057

Read more Norton news.

All images featured on this website are copyrighted to their respective rightful owners. No infringement is intended. Image Source: nortonmotorcycles.com, triumphmotorcycles.com

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