New Norton Drought Continues

November 30, 2023 | By Mike Seate

The 2024 Commando 961 Special 125th Anniversary Edition. Not for sale in this country

Several Cafe Racer magazine readers have asked us about the wheres and when of purchasing a 961 Commando from the re-born Norton Motorcycle Company. On gentleman spoke with several member of our team at the most recent Reader’s Ride-In Bike Show about parking a new Norton in his garage, not knowing that the company currently has no pans to market their motorcycles outside the United Kingdom – not for the moment, at any rate. There are many complex reasons behind the dearth of these handsome British parallel twins on our shores, and to folks without inside information on the global motorcycle industry, Norton’s absence from this, one of the world’s largest streetbike markets, makes little sense.

The V4RR superbike in commemorative colors.

The main issue at hand is the problems facing manufacturers of air-cooled motorcycles in general. As with Harley-Davidson’s beloved XL Sportster series, passing today’s increasingly stringent emissions standards is a tough challenge for these traditionally-aspirated machines. Many stalwart traditionalist motorcycle riders lament seeing their favorite engine platforms switching over to water-cooling, but for better or worse, this is the wave of the future. A friend pointed out that Italy’s Moto Guzzi still produces their longitudinally-opposed V-twins in air-cooled form, which is true. For now, that is.

The development and strong positive reception received by MG’s water-cooled Mandlelo V100 proves that even Italy’s most historic motorcycle brand has recognized the need to begin development in powerplants more in line with 21st century vehicle emissions laws.

Besides running far cleaner than air-cooled motorcycles, the new generation of EPA-approved bikes are far more powerful and faster than those sporting cooling fins on their cylinders. The Norton 961 is a wonderful, charismatic biking experience, one our former road tester Blake Kelly described as “Like riding an old school Norton Commando without the oil leaks, vibration or that weird feeling that parts are going to shake loose and leave you stranded on the side of the road.” However, recent tests in Britain’s “Bike” magazine revealed the nearly 1,000cc, pushrod-operated engine produces just 72 horsepower, a figure bested by smaller bikes including Ducati’s scrambler 800 (73 horses) and Yamaha’s XRS 900 (just over 100.)

Recent interviews with company spokespeople tell of the 961 Commando receiving a recent engineering overhaul, with over 300 components revised or replaced. These changes were undertaken to address many of the flaws inherent in the earlier, 208-2020 Nortons which were, indeed, sold in the US very briefly. However, the new bikes have somehow managed to skirt British emissions laws while remaining on sale in limited numbers in that country only.

I’m willing to wager the Norton’s rather tall asking price- currently around $18K in American dollars – would be another factor keepping the number of potential buyers relatively small on these shores. Who knows- I could be wrong and a chain of Norton dealerships may well spring up from coast to coast in coming years. But I’d bet instead on the company, which is owned by India’s TVS, a large manufacturer of scooters and small-displacement bikes, to invest heavily in a new, environmentally-friendly engine before that happens. Ride on.