Norton Interstate 850
Not just a good motorcycle but a great Motorcycle
|THE MEMORY of our unhappy ride to Cologne two years ago, when we seemed to
spend much of the trip at odds with our Norton Interpol, is still very
The whole episode left relationships just a little strained between us
and Norton and it took perhaps eighteen months for the dust to settle.
A chance meeting with Mike Jackson who has, among his many other tasks at Andover, responsibility for the Press bikes, gave us the chance to clear the air. He accented that we could do nothing but write about the bike as we found it; and we accepted that the bike was supplied at short notice and was no more than a hack that had seen better days. This was back in June."Look" said Mike, "why don't you take a Commando to the Cologne show this year and give us the chance to redeem ourselves.'' He thought for a minute, "We'll even supply the tow rope.'' He was grinning as he said it. We accepted on the spot. We would be only too happy for the Norton to come through with flying colours and we also wanted to go to the Cologne show. It would make a change to have a bike arranged three months before, and not three days, as we usually manage things.
True to Norton's word, the Norton was ready for collection when we telephoned Andover a week before the date. It was to be the Mk 1 IA 850 Interstate. Not new, far from it in fact, for it was the one used by Peter Kelly of Motor Cycle for a Land's End to John O'Groats trip in the summer. Peter Williams had also taken it to the continent and it showed just over 5 000 miles on the odometer. That was no bad thing for if the bike did have any little idiosyncracies, one of the two Peters would have found them by now.
There has been a breath of fresh air blowing through Norton-Triumph these last few months. A few staff changes had changed attitudes also, and, at last, we had the feeling that someone realised that all too often the general public's opinion of a machine was influenced by what they read in the technical press. It makes sense to ensure, then, that the bikes given to the press are good examples rather than bad. There is nothing dishonest in that, indeed they would be fools if they did not. Certainly, when we ride a machine we try to bear in mind that it has been supplied by the manufacturer, and we expect it to be good.
The Norton had been prepared for a long ride. A spare clutch cable was taped in position, spare plugs and disc pads were in the tank bag and a spare fuse was taped to the frame. Only the fuse was needed, and that was not the Norton's fault. It was comforting, though, to know that someone was interested enough in the bike to take the trouble. Perhaps readers might think that we are making an unnecessary thing about what ought to be a perfectly normal situation. Believe us, it is not as usual as all that and we were gratified to find that the sole remaining British manufacturer could at last hold its own with "the rest''. Also supplied was the excellent French luggage carrying equipment that was first shown at the Racing and Sporting Motorcycle Show earlier this year. A tank bag and two tank-side bags clipped to a skin stretched over the tank. A smaller, ugly, bag was permanently fixed on top, like a wart, the only blot on otherwise handsome equipment. Made in some sort of vinyl, it looked in fact better than it was, for the finish was poor on our set. The design was brilliant, though. It held enough luggage for my wife and myself for the weekend (with the assistance of an old Craven top box that just happened to fit the carrier also supplied. This was used for maps and suchlike). My share was the wart on top. As a matter of interest, they are available in this country to special order, for the Interstate and /5 or /6 series BMWS, from Gus Kuhn at 35pound or so a set.
|Venerable it may be, but the Norton
parallel twin engine remains one of the best-looking motorcycle power units; and it produces as
much power as most of the "opposition".Below right. Well laid out instruments.
The story of the Norton Commando must go right back to the 1940s, earlier if you want to compare it with the Edward Turner Triumphs. Introduced as a 500 it grew to 600, then 650 and, with the arrival of the Commando concept about six years ago, to a 750 before finally arriving at its present 850 c.c, capacity. Generally it is admitted, even at Nortons, that the design is getting towards the end of its useful life. Long in the tooth is an oft heard term.
|By that token, BMW's are also in the same boat, for their design has been around since
1923! The problem with Norton is not so much that the basic design is old but that within the limits set by
available tools and jigs, there is nowhere left to ' go to strengthen the motor to accept considerably increased power.
That is not to imply that the present motor is going to fly apart at the first sign of hard work, more that we doubt if
Norton will be upping it to a thousand!
Power. For the past five years it has been the god worshipped by nearly all manufacturers. Perhaps at last we can see an end to this trend for top speeds are down on many machines, as the emphasis shifts to a search for "cleaner'' engines making less noise. Norton are at pains not to make any claim for maximum power for their machines, which is perhaps better than some of the fairy stories we hear aided by having different "standards'' for measurng the power. What they do say is that maximum torque is 56 ft lb at 5,000 r.p.m. with a "red line'' on the tachometer at 7,000 r.p.m. giving a useful spread of power. Certainly one of the virtues of the Norton is its unhurried approach to travelling quickly.
They have been saying for years that the vertical twin has had its day, but still it retains its popularity. As well as Norton, Honda, Yamaha, Laverda and Bennelli make large capacity (500 c.c- or over) twins and one or two others make smaller ones. Vibration is the bugbear and various methods are used to try to cancel it out. Norton, of course, use the much publicised Isolastic system whereby the engine and gearbox and exhaust systems are isolated from the cycle parts and rider by rubber mountings. That it works in most conditions there can be no doubt but, because the rubber has to be "tuned" to absorb the vibration at normal running speed, it is less affective at lower speeds, when it allows the engine to shake. That limit can be set by the designer without too much difficulty but if he moves it from one place he has to lose it from another. Norton have settled on a lower limit of 3000rpm. Below that the engine shakes considerably. It still does not transmit vibration as such to the rider, this is still absorbed, but he is, very conscious of the movement of the equine and it is possible to feel it occasionally clunk against something solid down below. It seemed to be the inside of the left-hand alloy footrest casting. From 3000 to the top of the scale there is not the slightest trace of vibration evident to the rider and within this range the Commando must rate as one of the smoothest motorcycles in the world.
The Norton engine has been much maligned over the past few years because it has not changed in basic design since the days of the Model 7. One thing is often overlooked when criticising it. Because the design is unchanging it has the real virtue of simplicity. It is a twin-cylinder parallel twin with pushrod-operated valves. In fact it is so shingle that owners can actually decarbonise it in an afternoon! The cylinders have an alloy cylinder head and an iron barrel. Compression ratio is 8.5 to 1. Each piston has three rings, and no ring is used at the skirt of the piston. The pushrods run in tunnels cast in the barrel and operate the pistons by a conventional rocker arm. Valve closing is controlled by coil springs. Cylinder head removal can be accomplished with the engine in the frame.
At the bottom end the crankshaft, a hefty bolted up assembly, uses car-type big end shells, also bolted up, to house the connecting rods. Removal and replacement is a relatively simple operation. The camshaft, a single one being used to operate all four valves, is at the front of the engine with the drive by chain. The sprocket for this drive is on the right-hand end of the crankshaft and free play is taken up by a slipper tensioner. Behind the camshaft drive sprocket is the oil pump drive pinion, the oil pump being of gear type with a pressure release valve should the pressure rise above 45/55 lb/sq inch.
One of the less common features of the Norton, is that, with Triumph, it uses a dry sump, the oil coming from a separate five pint tank under the dualseat, A replaceable filter is built into the retard flow, accessable from behind the gearbox. Oil blows from the tank to the pump and from there by separate feeds to the big end, and main bearings and to the rocker spindles. Cylinder walls are lubricated by mist from the big-end feed and valve gear, pushrods and followers and timing case by the residue from the rocker feed returning down the pushrod tunnels. A breather runs from the rear of the car crank case back to the oil tank and another breather vents the tank to air. The gearbox has its own separate 1 pint reservoir. The contact breaker assembly is housed under a removable cover at the front of the timing case with the contact breaker unit being a taper fit on the end of the camshaft.
On the left hand side of the engine we have a good old-fashioned Primary chain case, the gearbox of course coming as a separate package. We think perhaps it is the only one remaining in this unit construction age. Removal of the cover, catching the oil as best you can as there is no drain plug, reveals the alternator rotor mounted on the left-hand end of the crankshaft and drive to the gearbox via a massive triplex clutch. It is possible to remove the engine sprocket/clutch/and primacy drive chain as a unit, should replacement be necessary. Again the accent is on functional simplicity. The clutch is of the diaphragm type, and very pleasant it is too.
Now to the gearbox. Like the engine a classic in simplicity. It must remain as the last bastion of the four-speed school and, frankly, it is ample. Nortons have always been famous for their gearboxes, and this one is a superb example. Its only drawback was its much publicised inability to cope with the power under racing conditions. Among the advantages of having a separate gearbox is that of having its own oil reservoir, ensuring good, clean, comparatively cool oil all the time. This can mean less gearchange stickiness alter a prelonged spell of high-speed work, and of course it can be hoisted out very easily for repair jobs. Again the theme of simplicity.
The gears are in "extra-tough'' nickel-chrome steel. The kickstarter drives through an internal ratchet on the layshaft first gear, which in turn drives the mainshaft and clutch. That is one of debits. If you stall it in traffic neutral has to be found before restarting.
The carburettors are Amal 932s. 32mm and, again with Triumph, have the distinction of being equipped with ticklers. They were needed too. At least that's one less hole in the gloves to worry about if you are among the majority of riders without these (essential) items! One of the oft-heard complaints about the Commando is a tendency for the nuts holding the exhaust pipe to the head to come undone. Now they are retained by a locking washer and ours didn't budge. The pipes were blue when we took delivery of the machine, a common enough occurrence these days on most bikes.
The frame is of duplex-cradle type twin down tubes looping under the engine and sweeping back up to meet the large-diameter top tube at the rear of the fuel tank, A secondary tube runs from the bottom of the steering head to just over half-way along the top tube. Two more tubes run from either side of the gearbox at the top mounting point to meet the top tube at much the same point as the secondary tube. No gusseting is used at all. The dual seat is supported by a subframe. The rear swinging-arm assembly pivots to the rear of the gearbox and the footrests, front and rear, are attached to a beautiful cast-alloy plate on either side.
Controversial from the day it was introduced, the Isolastic engine-mounting system has certainty had its fair share of press comment favourable and overwise. Norton feel that often it is blamed for other problems, ie., incorrectly fitted or unsuitable tyres and they feel that provided that it is set up by the book, it handles and performs as well as the best. The engine is "suspended" at three points, by a plate from the top of the cylinder head by two rubber mountings to the frame; by two bonded and two more rubber mountings at the bottom front of the engine either side; and by three bonded and two rubber buffers above the gearbox, to complete a triangular mounting pattern. The whole essence of the system is that the shimming, ie., play between the engine and frame, must be right. The ideal gap is given as 10thou. Too much play and the engine shakes in the frame, affecting handling - to little and vibration makes itself felt, the exhaust system remains in isolation with the engine by way of rubber mountings at its only point of contact with the frame, at the rear.
Front forks have the fashionable skinny look and the rear suspension units are adjustable Girlings both conventional enough systems. Since we last tried a Commando the disc brake has arrived on Nortons, a well-made and effective unit by Lockheed offering a braking area of 18.69 Sq. in". The drum rear brake gives an effective area of 13.60Sq in". Tne wheels use Dunlop TT100S, 4.10 x 19in" front and rear, with the rear wheel offering that most unusual asset, a genuine QD removal. Until 1971 the wheel was held to the brake drum by three studs which passed trough the hub. Since then these have been replaced by polyurethane shock absober segments which let into the hub. To remove the wheel all that needs to be done is remove the spindle, drop the speedometer drive housing and lift the wheel out. It is such an asset to have a QD rear when; it could well be enough to sling the balance torwards the Norton if the prospective buyer were unable to make up his mind.
The petrol tank, finished in black and having "Norton" boldly emblazoned on the sides, held just under 5 gallons, and excellently large amount. As for the duelseat, that too earned high praise for if was still comfortable after 10 hours riding. One last accet was the mudguards made in stainless steel. Very nice.
Our look at the Norton has been more comprehensive than usual and, to our delights the closer we looked, the more there seemed to br to commend the bike. Half the battle when writing about a bike is won if the manufacturer helps the tester to understand it; Norton sent us not one but two comprehensive workshop manuals to peruse at our leisure. Most other manufacturers consider they are bing generous if they give us a sales pamphlet! Such helpfulness gave us the chance to appreciate some of the features of the Commando, not least its classic simplicity.
The number of special tools needed complete every major task on the bike is minimal and an enthusiastic owner would have no difficulty in acquiring the lot.
|Our normal practice is to report on a bike as we findit over a period of time but in this case we will just talk of
one ride we had on the Commando, the aforementioned trip to Cologne.
Our trip to Cologne was to be as part of a club run, a dozen bikes meeting at Dover to journey to Germany. It could have been an interesting situation for the other 11 were all BMW's. As a BMW owner myself, l should have shrugged my shoulders and apologized for my thoughtless choice of transport (at least if I was conforming to the popular image of BMW owners). Almost to my surprise, I became defensive about the Norton. l had already covered a couple of hundred miles on the bike and was both astounded and overjoyed to find that l loved it. It suited me to perfection and I was determined that by the time we returned to England the Interstate would still be able to hold its head high.
To tell truth, it got off to a most unfortunate start for we had gone barely five miles when part of the headlamp glass fell out! A flying stone, presumably, had caused a freak break and there we were at eight o'clock at night with a hole in our light and our timetable. Where were we going to get such a unit at that time of night? As luck would have it we were directed to a late night accessories shop in Kensington, Stockwell Motors where the man in charge, a motorcyclist, after much searching came up with a quartz halogen unit that was more or less the same as we needed. We breathed a sigh of relief that we were on one of the few bikes for which it was possible to get replacements late at night. Within an hour we were on our way to Dover and caught the midnight boat in good time.
By the time the ferry steamed into Ostend at 4 a.m, a ghastly hour, we had discovered only one aspect of the Interstate that we didn't like. It needed one hell of a swing to start it. Eight hundred and twenty-eight fairly highly compressed cc,s shared out between two cylinders, and no valve lifter, is just too much and I am bound to say that starting the bike was never much fun, Especially at 4 am.!
The real surprise came from the Interstage the moment we heard it start. It was so quiet! Just about on a par with a BMW 900. They have really done things to the silencing arrangements on this bike. Mechanically it had barely a rattle, the air was affectively drowned by a new air cleaner system, and the silencers, with a black cap on the end (to pronounce death to noise) were superb. Of course, there had to be a snag, Norton did not do this entirely out of concern for the ear drums of passers-by. Pending United States legislation gave them a hearty shove in the right direction and they came up with the goods. The price to be paid is a falling off in performance, with top speed reduced from a claimed 122mph, to a hard-to-find l 10mph. For my money it matters not one whit, for who really cares about an extra 15 m.p.h, at that dizzy end of the scale? Let us hope that the paying customer takes the same view. The other effect ls psychological.Tne Norton Interstate no longer makes a very "fast'' noise. It never seems to be hurrying and bystanders, or pillion passengers, could be forgiven for thinking that it is a bit sluggish. Certainly its initial acceleration is a little down, now it is more content to make haste quietly. More power to its elbow; or rather not for l'm very content with it the way it is.
Winding through Ostend streets before dawn meant that we could do so without being assailed by Belgian toots and in no time the bikes were pointing towards Brussels. I was last away and a prolonged spell of 90mph cruising showed that the Interstate was very happy at that speed,and that it was damned chilly! Brussels came and went without our getting lost, thanks to the leader, whom we had now caught, knowing where he was going. Our destination was Stadtkyl, a village in the Eifel Mountains, a club meeting place and stopping off spot for many riders at the Elephant Rally. After a stop for coffee and fuel, where a tankful showed that we were averaging 59mpg, a figure that was to be repeated constantly, we completed the 200 odd miles to Stadtkyl just after most were leaving the breakfast table.
A couple of hours to try and remove the sand from our eyes and then a massive German lunch followed by a tour of some of the local beauty spots, the Commando behaving itself magnificently. Naturally, being in Germany, wherever we stoppled it was the foreign bike that caused most interest and I was genuinely happy that it still looked pristine. No oil was leaked and it sounded great. Starting wasn't getting any easier, though It started well, to be fair. My only problem was to spin the engine. I usually settled for putting the bike on the centre stand and standing alongside. At least that way I reduced the chances of thumping my knee on the oil tank.
It was 50 miles from our village to Cologne, a pretty, sunny ride that was made more pleasurable by the company, increased later when the rider of a 250 NSU Joined us. Arrival at Cologne coincided with countless thousands of other motorcyclists and there was a long, slow-moving queue into the exhibition hall where IFMA was being held. Not once did the Norton object and it was happy most of the time to plod along, clutch out, in bottom gear at about 2mph. I wouldn't have believed it. It was at variance with its tickover which, when stationary, had a tendency to increase to 2000rpm where it normally would settle at a, steady thousand.
It was dark when we returned to the mountains, and chilly too. The Norton's 60/55w lights were not as good as l recalled due, I later discovered, to a badly located bulb but the switches and control layout were excellent and l had become used to them. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I like the long-eared Lucas dipswitch/indicator switch but It worked and gave me no trouble, so perhaps I am allowing my dislike of them to linger unfairly.
More substantial German food and a glass or two of the magnificent local wine left us well armed to retrace our footsteps to Ostend the next day and we bade our German companions goodbye and once again enjoyed the trip through southern Belgium, passing the remains of the Siegfried Line just before we lift Germany. Once again passports were not required, nor insurance, and we were delayed for only seconds. The more I rode the Norton the more l was enjoying it. It was still returning 59mpg, top speed, not outstanding at 1 10, was ample, more than ample in fact for everywhere seems to have speed limits these days, and the comfort was outstanding. Even the luggage equipment was playing a part by keeping the wind off my knees.
Sunday riding in Belgium was to be avoided, we were warned, but I am bound to say I much preferred it to the English equivalent. Not once were the Norton's excellent brakes called upon to work unduly hard. The squeak that they had from delivery was beginning to disappear and only in the wet did they worry me (as do all disc brakes), As we never had a drop of rain that was not a problem. The big engine was more than happy at the 80/85mph that we tended to cruise at. This speed settled the tachometer needle to 5000rpm and the sensation to the rider was that of sitting on a smooth but icy magic carpet. At that speed the miles were fast disappearing and we stopped just before Osteal for a meal, confident that there was no boat for hours. There was, of course, but enquires beforehand had assured us otherwise.
The crossing was accomplished without incident if one can ignore a Force 8 gale and, through finally disembarking at Dover and going the usual customs queues, we had a high-speed run to Surrey and arrived after a very long day with not an ache or twinge between us. I was still enjoying myself and could happily have gone on as long as I could keep my eyes open. The trip meter said that we had done just 720 miles in the last three days, hardly as far as Newcastle, but different somehow. In that time l had not adjusted the chain (1 hadn't needed to), the merest trace of oil leaked from the clutch cable entry to the gearbox and a drip came from the primary chaincase. Not a drop of oil was needed during the trip and no adjustments were made excluding the headlight of course, and a blown fuse when we got our wires crossed in the dark replacing it.
As a long-distance touring motorcycle the Norton Interstate had shown itself to be ideal. The only detail criticism that could be made was regarding the ignition/light key mounted inaccessibly under the tank. Starting was, of course, always an irritation but in its defence l am afraid I will have to tell the story of how 1 took the Norton along to the local training scheme one Sunday morning and a slim young lady who is instructor there asked if she could have a ride. "Of course", I replied, if you can start it? She did, First kick, Exit one tester with egg on his face, l forgot that she owned a 650 Triumph. That is the last time I take her to the TT in my sidecar.
Another aspect of the starting situation is that the long-promised starter motor is now nearing reality, One of the weeklies has carried a picture of it and an electric-starter equipped bike was reported as attending the FIM Rally in June. lf it is man enough for the job, and Lord knows it ought to be, the time taken to develop it, it removes just about the last obstacle to the Norton breaking through as a top seller. In every other respect it ls good. Its handling is steady at high speed, it goes around corners without twitches or complaint and it is light enough (430 1b) and has a short enough wheelbase (56 3/4in) to be able to be flicked through bends with more ease than its apparent bulk suggests. In fact, by today's standards, it is a lightweight, and most riders enthused over its typically British good looks. A handsome bike rather than a pretty one. The suggestion that it is a long distance tourer is a considered one. The engine does not become really smooth until the bike is doing 50mph (3000rpm), riding around town was not unpleasant, just not much fun. Certainly a bike for the open road, and one to be ridden quickly. One only needs to return to British tyres for a week or two to discover that there really is a difference between them and Japanese ones. We had no rain on the German trip but plenty after, and the bike was rock steady in the wet, Dunlop tyres suit the Commando well.
Perhaps readers will consider that we have dwelled too long on the Norton's virtues and we, too, were a little surprised to find that we had so much to say about it. We did ask ourselves the question: How much of our enthusiasm for the Norton was genuine and how much was dictated by our desire to see it succeed? It would be an easy trap to fall into. Norton-Triumph are the last bastion of British motorcycling. Without them we have nothing, so what you may say, Look at it from the selfish point of view. Without Norton the home industry loses a valuable, indispensable almost, buffer against the worst excesses of the politicans. The incentive to go easy on the motorcycle because we still make them and sell them abroad is removed. That matters to all of us. From an unselfish point of view none of us wants to see the last rites administered to a once great national industry. Perhaps you, like us, love motorcycles and love the contribution that we have made to the worldwide development of it, Take Norton away and that contribution stops.
Certainly we were not unaware of the political considerations of Norton's success or failure but, with this in mind, we still came to the honest conclusion that the Norton Commando Interstate that we tried was not just a good motorcycle, it was an outstanding one. Now we are aware of the problem. Not all Nortons leave the production line as good as ours. Quality control is something that the Norton-Triumph management have to get to grips with before they can claim to be among the best in the world. When they do and all Nortons are up to the standard of the one that we have just returned to Andover they will have a winner. And we will be there cheering for it.