18. The Norton Villiers Fastback / 1967
When the 750cc Norton Commando was sprung on an unsuspecting public at the 1967 Earls Court Show, it was hailed as the savior of the British Motorcycle Industry.
With a top speed of 120mph and a standing quarter time as low as 12.8 seconds in practiced hands, the Commando was as fast as any motorcycle being made at the time.
And although it was a long-stroke vertical twin, with a whooping 89mm piston travel, it didn’t vibrate! To be more accurate, it shook as merrily as any other unbalanced big-bore parallel twin, but the ingenious Isolastic rubber mounting system prevented the trembles from reaching the rider.
The first production Commandos reached customers in April 1968, and the bike’s speed, handling, good looks and uncanny smoothness evoked a glowing response. Remember that the Triumph Bonnerville and the BSA Lightning were then the most advanced motorcycles the British were selling. The Triumph Trident and BSA Rocket triples did not appear until late 1968.
“Is this an instant Classic’
Hailed Cycle World Magazine, it’s test Commando was the second fastest machine it had ever thrashed through the standing quarter, the time of 13.47 seconds only being bettered by a Dunstall Norton. It continued, “Certain fabled machines, such as the Vincent and the Ariel Square Four, have earned places high in the list of all time great motorcycles. No one should be surprised if the Commando acquires a reputation that will allow it to join this select band”.
What happened to turn that paean of praise, written in 1968, into the bitter comments offered in the Commando Service Notes, penned in the mid-seventies?
The culprit was lack of product development, the bugbear of many British bikes. With passing miles Commando riders found that their shimmed Isolastics were difficult to adjust and lubricate, the swinging arm spindle was weakly located in the gearbox cradle by a ¼ inch screw, the frame and centre stand broke, an inadequate layshaft bearing caused gearbox failures, and the alternator magnets worked loose, amongst other problems.
It would be convenient to lambast the Commando design team for these shortcomings, but not entirely fair. For the fact is that the Commando concept was stitched together in a remarkable twelve weeks through the summer of 1967 by engineers and stylists who were starved of funds and working with decades old components.
The Commando epitomised the Great British Compromise. But if the bike was a lash-up, it was certainly an inspired Bitsa.
The projects chief designer, Bernard Hooper, was strapped for facilities, because Norton, as part of the AMC group, had just been rescued from collapse by Dennis Poore’s, Manganese Bronze Empire, which also owned the Villiers engine company in Wolverhampton.
Shortly after the takeover in 1966, Poore summoned executives from both camps to a round table conference in his office and asked them to toss around ideas for a replacement for the aging 750cc Atlas which had been around since 1961. A new bike was needed to revive Norton’s image, but it had to be available quickly and cheaply because of the shortage of funds. It was decided to resurrect a five-year-old design for a dohc parallel twin with a unit construction five-speed gearbox. This attractive sounding power source had been laid out, about five years before by Charles Udall, who gained renown with Velocette before moving to AMC.
Hooper’s team was charged with modernising the cylinder head of the P10, as the bike was termed, but found it hard to muster enthusiasm for the task. Development engineer Bob Trigg remembers, “The camshafts were driven by a huge length of chain, about three feet of it. This could have given terrible trouble in service. The engine also vibrated, as you would expect, and I felt it would probably leak oil.”
Work on the P10 halted when it became obvious that the bike could not possibly be completed in time for the “67” Earls Court Show. And in any case, Wally Wyatt, one of Plumstead based engineers, had managed to extract from a modified Atlas engine more power than the P10 was capable of giving.
Only eleven weeks remained to the show when the P10 was finally abandoned and all efforts were switched to the Atlas powered machine. Yet Dr Stefan Bauer, Norton Villiers director of engineering, who had previously worked with Rolls Royce, insisted that the new Norton should not vibrate and must have a modern structure for its frame.
He didn’t want an old collection of tubes, even if it was graced with the featherbed name. How could these demands be reconciled with the vibration prone Atlas engine, which had been stretched from the 1947 500cc Dominator engine?
Bernard Hooper provided a tentative answer during discussions at Plumstead, hang the engine, gearbox and the rear swinging-arm on rubber bushes. This would soak up the shakes and avoid any tendency for the final drive sprockets to twist out of line.
Hooper and Trigg talked over the idea on the train ride back to their base at Wolverhampton, and realised that it could work. Trigg began to prepare drawings, and also sketched out the backbone-type frame proposed by Bauer and Hooper.
This was based on a 2.25inch diameter spine, which carried a triangulated rear section and twin front downtubes. The finished frame weighed 24 lbs, nearly a third lighter than the famous Featherbed.
The Isolastic theory was a success in practice, Norton called in a leading rubber company for assistance, but were told that what was proposed would take two years to develop.
With only weeks available, the Wolverhampton team had to tackle the job themselves, making initial experiments with very large bushes. These reduced the vibration level hardly at all, but a softer grade of rubber was found to banish the shudders above 5,000 rpm.
Bauer suggested cutting the bushes in half, which gave smooth running above 3,500 rpm, and a further reduction in size finally contained vibration below 1,800 rpm. ‘Riding a Commando was like flying an airplane,” Trigg remembers. Wild, rose tinted exaggeration? Not a bit, compared to the singles and twins then on the market, the Commando was an astonishing, almost eerie experience.
At tick over the fuel tank and exhaust pipes juddered and the front wheel jogged gently up and down. But vibration disappeared as the revs rose, and the Commando soared along like a turbine. The vibration bogey had been beaten, but there was still the urgent need to liven up the Commando’s ancient components with fresh styling.
The team, that rushed the award winning Fastback into production. Among the development staff are Bob Trigg (second from left), Wally Wyatt (fourth left), Tony Denniss (behind cup) and Bernard Hooper (on Denniss’s left).
Wolf Ohlins, an advertising agency with no previous experience in motorcycling, was called in and they offered a surprisingly useful contribution. “Some of their suggestions made us laugh, but other ideas were good,” Hooper says.
One of the agency’s contributions was the distinctive, ear’s, at the front of the seat on the first Commando’s. To short to be effective as kneegrips, they were nevertheless part of a group of features that made the Commando stand out from other vertical twins of the day.
Visitors to the 1967 Earls Court exhibition will almost certainly recall the Commando displayed – it had silver frame, tank and cylinder barrels, an orange seat and large green globes on each side of the tank. The Wolf Ohlins advisers, had devised the globe as Norton Villiers new corporate image, and to this day it survives on the companies spares packaging.
But beneath the show bike’s gimmicky colours was truly elegant styling. The base of the glassfibre fuel tank, seat and tail unit ran in a single straight line from front to rear, a horizontal theme repeated by the low level silencers. The Atlas engine was canted forward at an angle matched by the front mudguard stays, frame downtubes, forward edge of the side panels and the rear suspension units.
The handlebars were traditional British flats, and ahead of them jutted a chromed speedometer, rev counter and headlamp shell. An aluminium front mudguard was fitted and the single bolt primary chaincase was highly polished. Distinctive forged alloy plates carried the footrests.
In production the impractical garish colours were changed to a black frame and seat, and a green tank and tail unit. The Fastback, as the first Commando was called, was arguably the best looking Commando ever made, and an outstanding machine by the standards of the late sixties. Modification including the use of 8.9: 1 pistons had raised the power output to nearly 60bhp at 6,500rpm compared to the Atlas’s 49bhp.
A triplex primary chain replaced the single-row chain, and a new diaphragm clutch required only light pressure at the handlebar lever. Weighed with its 3.25-gallon tank half full, the Fastback scaled just 430lbs. This modest bulk allied to the Atlas motor’s mid-range poke produced those rapid standing-quarter times and a 0-60mph-acceleration rate of around five seconds.
Villiers Starmaker / 1967