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Is a Norton Commando 961 Sport really worth it?

Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk II

Over the past five years, the Norton Commando 961 Mk II range has only had a minor upgrade to the ECU and ABS as required by law.

While other brands have progressed with hi-tech rider aids such as traction control, engine modes and more, the Norton has retained its simplicity.

Perhaps that is what is so charming about this bike.

It captures that basic formula of motorcycling that many of us love. No distracting electronic wizardry here.

Also, the fact that there have been no upgrades doesn’t leave the buyer with a bike that has been devalued by this year’s new model.

Test ride

Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk II James Mutton
James and his demo Nortons

Australian importer James Mutton of Brisbane Motorcycles invited me to try the Commando 961 Sport model on a short blast from the city into the hills and back.

Lust stretching right back to my teenage years was enough to convince me to accept his offer.

But I was also interested to see if the hefty price tag of $32,990 plus on-road costs is justified.

Before departing, James tells me the ECU update has taken some of the lumpiness and grumpiness out of the engine, particularly when cold or ridden at low speeds.Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk II

However, we let it idle for a few minutes to warm up, just in case.

As we head out into busy morning traffic I am pleasantly surprised at how tame and manageable it feels.

However, when we turn the Commando 961 forks toward Mt Glorious, it lets rip with a maniacal yelp and plenty of bite from the 961cc parallel twin pushrod engine with 60kW of power and 80Nm of torque.

They are not world-leading figures, but there is a tone and character to this engine that is absolutely delightful and infectious.

The engine throbs and purrs with the best induction roar since Samson slayed that recalcitrant lion.

At idle, the twin pipes burble delightfully but their note is lost in the induction roar as you power on. So it entertains the rider, rather than alarming the general public.

Tingling rideNorton Commando 961 Sport Mk II

We press on into the hills and the Commando 961 tingles my fingers, my feet and the antennae-like wing mirrors — if I could afford one, the first thing I would do is ditch those mirrors for bar-end units.

Handling duties are managed by Ohlins forks and shocks, so it’s predictable, sharp, precise and firm, but with a compliant ride over the harsh bumps.

A perfect, neutral handling bike with light steering and a joy to throw around S-bends.

However, I feel a strange disconnect with the bike. Not emotionally, but physically … in the seat of my pants!

I soon realise it’s due to the shape and design of the narrow-fronted seat and scalloped tank.Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk II

The seat is comfortable and fits me well, but my knees are too far forward and underneath the indents on the tank.

Consequently my knees are hanging out in the breeze rather than gripping the tank.

I move my rear rearward and it feels better, but still a little strange.

As we slice through the corners, I tap-dance on the gearshift and find the gears as slick as many Japanese motorcycles.Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk II

In fact, unless you watch the green neutral light flick off, you wouldn’t know you had selected first gear it is that smooth and quiet.

There are only five gears but with hefty midrange torque, you don’t really need to mess around with a lot of cog swapping.

In fact, I use only three gears up and down Mt Glorious.

Yet you can also short shift and cruise around in top gear even on city roads.

The Commando 961 is a bike that will accommodate any style of riding and reward in a responsive and entertaining way.

Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk II

I was a little surprised to find the instruments only included an odometer, one trip, a clock and a volt meter with the toggle button between the two analogue dials, not on a switchblock on the bars.

But then, this is supposed to be a neo-classic.

Some of the current neo-classics are a little too hi-tech, defeating the whole purpose of getting back into the retro feel.

Is it worth it?

Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk II
Sport and Cafe Racer models

After a delightful romp through the hills we are back at Brisbane Motorcycles and I am still pondering why anyone would pay so much for a fairly basic motorcycle.

Yet I’m still wanting one and wondering how I can finance it.

Why is that?

There’s no lavish paint, hi-tech wizardry, spec sheet bragging rights or acres of chrome to admire.Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk II

In fact, the casings are a lightly polished alloy that is already developing an oxidised patina.

Then it hits me. That’s exactly what I like.

It feels authentic. It feels hand-built. It feels like quality without any unnecessary trimmings, except for those hand-painted gold pin stripes.

There is a certain intrinsic value to this bike that does not translate to the bank balance.

I know I could afford two Japanese bikes for the same price, but I don’t know that I would feel the same level of pride in ownership.

Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk IINorton Commando 961 Sport Mk II

Price: $32,990 plus on-road costs
Engine: 961cc push-rod valve actuation, 3 bearing crank and balancer shaft.
Power: 58.4kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 90Nm @ 5200rpm
Compression: 10.0:1
Bore x stroke: 88.0 x 79.0 mm (3.5 x 3.1 inches)
Valves per cylinder: 2
Fuel system: Injection
Ignition: Digital
Lubrication system: Dry sump
Cooling system: Air
Gearbox: 5-speed
Transmission: Chain
Clutch: Wet multi-plate hydraulic lifter
Driveline: Constant mesh
Emissions: 3 way catalytic converter.
Exhaust: Stainless steel

Norton Commando 961 Sport Mk II

Frame: Steel tubular with integral oil tank.
Rake (fork angle): 24.5°
Trail: 99mm (3.9 inches)
Front suspension: 43mm Ohlins RWU – adjustable preload, compression and rebound damping
Front wheel travel: 115mm
Rear suspension: Twin-sided steel swing arm. Ohlins reservoir-style twin shocks – Adjustable ride height, preload, compression
Rear wheel travel: 100mm
Front tyre: 120/70-17
Rear tyre: 180/55-17
Front brakes: Double disc. Brembo system, twin semi-floating hi carbon stainless steel discs, Brembo 4 piston “Gold Line” axial callipers
Front brakes diameter: 320mm
Rear brakes: Single disc. Brembo system, 2 piston “Gold Line” calliper
Rear brakes diameter: 220mm
Wheels: Polished aluminium rims
Seat: 813mm (adjustable)
Dry weight: 188kg
Power/weight ratio: 0.4255HP/kg
Fuel tank: 17 litres
Wheelbase: 1,420mm
  1. Over priced for the low technology in the engine and electronics. The original Commando did not use a featherbed frame rather a large diameter single top tube and isolated engine and gearbox to reduce transmitted vibration. All the new Commando are variants on the same cafe racer theme. They have not unfortunately produced a new Interstate which was in the day one of if not their best selling model. At $30k plus they are overpriced. Better value is one of the new Triumph Bonneville – 900 or 1200, modern electronics and top of the range $22k. Do you ride and have the electronics intervene? If yes that is a worry. If no, so their inclusion or absence is noticeable?

  2. Looks very retro, but I’d have flashbacks to a mates Norton that stopped with regularity precision, in the pitch black of nowhere in the beam of my Yamaha headlight as he fixed it once again.
    Regardless of how much was spent servicing it, there wasn’t a ride that it didn’t STOP!
    Is it really worth it? ……Nope.

  3. I’ve owned a Mark 1 961 Commando for the last 8 months. Delightful motor, had a few arguments trying to agree where neutral should be, an absolute blast under full throttle, brilliant on the Oxley Highway. Good fun bike. Allow extra travel time to chat to other old blokes about the glory days of Norton and other classic British Bikes! Great fun.

  4. Hi Mark. A bit late replying to this thread but I have a 2015 961SF. I previously had a 961 Cafe Racer but sold it to a mate for a variety of reasons, which I soon regretted, hence the ‘new’ one. My first had near 4000 jays when sold, with no trouble. Had this one for 2 weeks, it has 380 on the clock. Yes they are flawed, mine is over geared, and cantankerous under 3000rpm but I love it. It gives me a thrill none of my other bikes do. I feel special when I’m riding it. Yes my R 1200 GSA is a better road bike but I am finding myself grabbing the 961 keys before anything else. Can’t wait to try the Atlas when it comes out.

  5. If you look at this as a bare bones financial exercise, then , no the 961 isn’t worth it. Yes, the Triumph Bonneville / Thruxton has more tech and is $10K cheaper. All Triumph’s, except the limited edition models. (incidentally the Thruxton TFC is $30K plus on road) are built in Thailand so are not even truly British anymore. To leave it there misses the point. I rode the cafe racer and Sport model also at Brisbane motorcycles and loved them both. Not for their high tech, on the edge performance, and help you out traction control (because they have none.) But as a balance between days gone by and hand built in the UK quality, top flight suspension and brakes, beautifully finished (mostly) they are unique. A cheaper version could easily be made. They do not need Brembo brakes and Ohlins suspension, But, again fitting anything less would miss the point.
    I’m sure my friends will get to the local pie shop 10 seconds ahead of me, but, i guarantee they will not be smiling like an idiot every time they get there, I will.

  6. Norton SPORT 961 MK II.
    How do you remove the solo rear cover to fit the passenger seat cover? It’s new to me and I can’t work it out so my wife can hop on.

  7. If you want to buy a motorcycle for value, buy Chinese. CF Moto now match any mainstream manufacturer on any matrix. Triumph has always been better dollar value than Norton. ‘Twas always thus. But if that’s the prism you are looking at it through, you are so missing the point. Ask the tens of thousands of Harley riders if their bike represents “value” as you measure it. If it brings you pleasure and the feeling you got from a big twin when you first rode one in your youth, it’s priceless. Those of us who ride for the pure joy of it turn all the traction control and ABS off. The Norton has a soul that even the Thai-built Triumph lacks. I want fast, I take the Ducati. I want raw pleasure, I take the Norton.

  8. The Norton 961 is a very nice looking bike . Personally I had several technical problems both mechanichal and with electronic , therefore I consider the bike not reliable for peaceful rides. After some time the bike will be very expensive because of continuous maintenance and need of spare parts which are not easy to find. The company no longer exists and before you leave home for a ride , be sure you have someone ready for a rescue.
    I have purchased already several spare parts ( never delivered ) because of the bankruptcy and I have lost all the money.

  9. Nice editorial James, just searching for gear ratios for my Norton Commando 850 thinking of swapping my 4 speed gearbox to a 5 speed & your editorial popped up. Great read say g’day to your mum & dad for me, we used to ride together in the good old days, rather push a Norton than ride a triumph..Noel (dogga )

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