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Norton Commando 961 Mk.II Limited 50th Edition California | BIKE TESTS

Norton’s gentlemanly neoclassic streetfighter has just become a relaxed high-speed sportcruiser

Retro is cool right now, but only when it’s done right. And Norton’s Commando 961 California is a two-wheeled equivalent of today’s acclaimed Mini or Fiat’s 500. It’s a properly re-engineered, successful re-interpretation of a classic-era icon, that’s functional, stylish and completely authentic.

This year commemorates the original Norton Commando’s decade of production being kickstarted 50 years ago in April 1968, after the iconic twin-cylinder model’s debut in 750cc guise the previous year. To mark the occasion, today’s reborn Norton Motorcycles has introduced a trio of 50 limited-edition bikes based on the existing Commando 961 Sport and Café Racer, as well as adding a third new variant – this California – representing a modern take on bringing yesterday once more to Norton dealerships around the world.

This new interpretation of the Commando 961 is available in a choice of 10 different cleverly chosen ’70s-style colour schemes, ranging from a truly retro metalflake red to this gorgeously gaudy white-and-blue combo that entirely lives up to the California tag, evoking echoes of cruising the Sunset Strip in the so-cool 1970s. The Norton Commando 961 Mk.II Limited 50th Edition California, or Cali to you and I, is distinguished from its sister models by carrying a high-rise handlebar with pulled-back grips  taken straight from the famed Norton ads that made Britain’s sportiest brand such a favourite with American customers in the ’70s.

Otherwise identical in every way to the existing Commando 961 platform, it not only has the copious upgrades to its air-cooled 961cc parallel-twin motor that were introduced almost two years ago, but it also benefits from an all-inclusive component upgrade at no extra cost.

“The Café Racer, Sport and California will each be pimped-out with a full range of our polished billet aluminium and carbon fibre special parts,” says Norton’s owner Stuart Garner. “Then we’re discounting them back to the price of the standard model, as a bit of a thank you to our customers for all the support the Commando has had over the years that’s enabled it to enjoy a 50th anniversary at all. They’re available now on a first-come first served basis, and each limited-edition bike will also have its unique build number from 1 to 50 etched onto the instrument dash.”

So in the case of the California that means its last-year price now includes a carbon fibre front mudguard, plus ditto rear hugger and numberplate hanger, while the fully adjustable 43mm Öhlins fork, twin piggyback Öhlins gas shocks, lightweight sprocket and assorted chassis parts, are all polished brightly, some to a mirror finish.

Also included is a brushed aluminium oil cooler, as well as a chrome chain guard and headlight cover, while the engine has been finished in the classic combo of a silver cylinder head and polished rocker covers sitting on a black cylinder barrel, as first featured on the hotted-up Combat version of the original 745cc 1972 Commando. A bike cover and paddock stand are also included.

“You can also have a black anodised finish if you prefer,” adds Garner. “We’re acknowledging that the Commando model has had fabulous support to keep it alive for half a century, with a little hiccup in the middle for a few years until we got it going again in 2010.” And once the 50 limited-edition bikes are sold, the California will continue in production for the same price, but without all the options included.

It’s the Cali’s high-rise handlebar that really makes it stand out – it’s what used to be termed a western ’bar in the ’70s, and is heaps more rational than an ape hanger.

“Many riders like yours truly are getting a little older these days, and suddenly all our joints are a little stiffer than before,” says Garner, 49. “So delivering a more upright riding position is something we’ve been asked for that seemed a sensible move, and the 50th birthday gave us a trigger point to introduce a more easy riding Commando with nearly everything else the same as the Sport.”

“It’s about as close as we can get to a factory Custom Norton. When it was first launched at the Milan Show in November we got some stick for the riding position on social media, but then when those same people come to try it out, they go, ‘oh, actually it’s really comfortable!’ Riders have become less hell-bent on speed in recent years, and more lifestyle focused and this meets that desire head-on – as well as looking suitably retro.”

Read the full story in the current issue (Vol 67 No 14) of AMCN on sale now