What can you learn from taking your father’s 1972 Norton Commando on a summer Grand Tour? That is, 800 miles with little preparation, on the bike your father bought new, never restored or even had the crankcases apart? As I discovered last month on a journey-cut-short to the South of France, the answer is ‘quite a lot’.
I never really ‘got’ the Commando when I was young: the Featherbed models hold all the mystique, being the basis for the all-conquering Manx, with the many great riders who chose it as their steed. As I grew up, so did my tastes, and I started to understand the beauty of the Commando…especially the gently modified example residing in the family garage. With the chipped original paint, the original tank (scratched, and missing most of the Norton decals), the S-type seat fitted soon after purchase when the standard Roadster item failed (but which is now looking quite the worse for wear with a split and rogue piping), the shortened Vincent bars which my father fitted along the way, the Barleycorn rearsets that arrived recently (already with scars from a drop), and the John Tickle headlamp brackets with pin holes in the chrome… it was nearly the perfect road machine, in my eyes. Maybe romanticism, but it really spoke to me.
I’ve already written about how much I loved my first ride on the machine, and I was determined to further the experience with a Summer Grand Tour, eschewing the easy option of my modern BMW. Before I left, with 150 miles of test-riding and a new tire, I felt confident enough to make the most difficult step of my journey: pushing the Norton out of the garage and riding it down the road. Lao Tzu really knew what he was talking about with “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
So off I went, blazing into the warm night to catch the 1am Eurotunnel, chest on the tank, stopping near Brands Hatch for fuel, keeping an eye on the tacho needle, keeping it hovering at 4K, digging the warm glow from the instruments and reflected light on the front mudguard (and how warm is that filament light, versus the modern halogens of passing cars). Once on the train, I managed a quick doze under the bike, with no oil loss ruining my helmet hair, the heat from the engine keeping me cosy, and then it was chest on the tank again, through the cold and rain of Northern France. At my breakfast stop, a gentleman confronted me: “Is that your Norton outside?” On admitting that it was, he sat for half an hour discussing the virtues of British machines, owning a Velocette Venom himself. It always astounds me how classic machine ownership gives admission to the friendliest club in the world.
As the sun broke through the clouds and chased me from Rouen to Le Mans, a Mercedes estate pulled up alongside at 100kph, the father pointing and smiling with the children in the back waving and taking photos. It really brings comfort to my soul that the beauty of a motorcycle transcends generations.
But all good things must come to an end, and I soon learned the truth in the adage Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. At the péage north of Tours my ticket would not go into the machine and blew out on to the ground. As I bent down to pick it up, I noticed the primary chaincase was covered in oil; the bike was not feeling good. I had felt a loss of compression when I pulled away from the previous aire, but, resolving that I could do nothing about it, tried to press on, planning to do a repair when I arrived in Biarritz.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. On reflection, I should have got off the autoroute and called for recovery as soon as the engine started to turn sour. In the end, I limped the Commando to the next junction – possibly the most nerve wracking 8km of my life – with the engine sounding very sad and losing power all the time. I phoned my insurers, slept in a field under the sun for 2 hours and woke to a very agreeable chap in an ancient Renault Nevada with a trailer on the back who towed my bike to his garage. All fairly straightforward; my flight home was booked by my insurers the next day and the Norton should be back home later this week.
So in a roundabout way I’ve got to my point: what did I learn? Firstly, the more you use older machines, the more you learn about them and the more issues you iron out. Your conversation with the machine develops and you begin to understand what’s going on beneath you, when something is going wrong, and fix it before disaster strikes. This winter, I’ll rebuild the engine to a better standard than ever departed Woolwich. Then, with confidence in all major components, and preserving the patina on the machine, I should, finally, really, have my perfect road machine.
Secondly, the adventure really does start with the first step. Having a pipe dream for THE epic trip with spreadsheets, costings and route plans is all well and good, but actions speak louder than words: actually getting on the road may be the hardest part, but it is also the most liberating. Although my trip was a failure in some ways, I also had a wonderful adventure with some great stories to tell; I felt mentally and physically tested…something not true of sitting at a desk. If more riders realized insurance breakdown cover provides a safety net, maybe more would make the leap from dreaming, to tires on tarmac.
- Nicholas Biebuyck