At the Mecum Las Vegas auction last month, I finally got to meet a reader that I had been exchanging emails with for a few months. His name is Clay Baker, and he’s recently celebrated a year with a new-to-him Norton Commando with the Combat motor. He shared his experience over the last few months with his bike and I thought many of you would enjoy (and relate to) it!
A Norton Love Affair
by Clay Baker
In 1981, a cult classic was born with the release of Heavy Metal, an adult animated sci-fi fantasy film. In the opening scene the essence of what’s ‘permanently cool’ is thrust on the audience when a 1959 Corvette is released from the belly of a space shuttle and piloted to Earth. It’s simple, a ’59 Vette is timeless and cool in any environment. [Editor’s Note: and it’s very appropriate this week considering how similar some of these shots look to the Tesla Roadster with “Starman” inside of it.]
When I first arrived at the 2017 Mecum Auction in Las Vegas and gazed across 1,000+ motorcycles, one stood out: a 1972 Norton 750 Commando with an orange paint job that reminded me of the atmospheric re-entry flames on that ’59 Vette.
I didn’t go to the auction looking to buy a Norton. Frankly, I didn’t know much about the brand other than the parent company of my 1972 Honda 750 Four had played a major role in destroying Norton, Triumph, BSA – basically decimating the British bike industry. I walked right past everything on the floor, pretending to be interested in all the bright shiny toys and just stared at the Norton. I had no way of knowing at the time that I would ride this Norton in The Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride, The Hillsborough Tour D’ Elegance and numerous trips to Alice’s Restaurant. It sucked me in just sitting there on the floor, that’s got to stand for something.
As someone who has made a living as a designer of homes, consumer products, furniture, homes, software interfaces, and more, the head turning design quality actually meant a lot. I also make a living as a professional investor in the stock market. When I look at vintage motorcycles I let the design and lusty, mechanical beauty draw me in like a centerfold and just as quickly the romance of a bike disappears from my brain and I want to know what it’s worth. Quickly searching online in the viewing room of the South Point Hotel I found everything I could about this Norton and found that the bike had matching serial numbers with an option known as the ‘Combat’ motor.
Undeterred by articles which described the ‘Combat’ motor as the ‘hand grenade’ motor due to its compulsion to blow up I dug further into the history of this manufacturing fiasco and found that only 10,134 (200,976-211,109) Commandos with ‘Combat’ motors were manufactured before the motor was de-tuned. With most motors being destroyed in the first 2,000-3,000 miles of use and others lost to time/accidents/modifications, I assumed that few original examples of these bikes still exist.
When the Norton rolled up on the auction block on a Wednesday afternoon there was little interest and not much money in the room. The conditions couldn’t have been more perfect for me to make a bid and go home with this sexy machine. What I didn’t know at the time was how my superficial attraction would turn into a deep love affair with a machine that delivers what I can only describe as a visceral ride. The sound from the pea-shooter pipes isn’t just loud, its more like being enveloped by Kathleen Turner’s sultry voice. Even with the breakthrough rubber-mounted motor, the vibrations from the Norton give you the sense that you’re trying to control something that wants to be out of control. This is a rider’s bike, no matter what you think you like to ride, the experience of a Norton Commando is unlike anything else; it’s not for commuting, it’s not for long distance trips, it’s not for anything practical. The Commando is the antithesis of practical and therein lies the essence of why Norton owners have a love affair with these bikes.