Alexander Pope’s proverb: hope springs eternal describes an abundance of optimism, which is a useful commodity when one owns a modern Norton 961. I preface with the word ‘modern’ only to distinguish the current crop of 961 cc parallel twins from the venerable Norton Commandos of the last century. Some 230 years before the Norton would roll off the production line, Pope asserted man must follow the laws of nature in order to be at peace with himself. The universe, according to Pope, functions in rational, predictable and constant manner. By challenging the known and established constants one is destined to fail, in order he may succeed. Metal is the perfect example.
Fast-forward to the twentieth century, and, if I may be permitted to mangle the words of another great poet, for Nortons I had a bad yen. Eric Burdon released his anthem for the counterculture in 1967, the same year the Norton Commando was introduced to the world. This was very much an experimental era of motorcycling. Engineers and long pushed their machines past the magic ton, 100 miles per hour, and were striving for 110 to 120 mph. They were theorising and establishing constants that would define the point at which most power could be developed and, by association, the breaking point. With this in mind, it is difficult to accept that in the twenty-first century manufactures will ignore the law of constants and rely on substandard materials. I wasn’t able to satisfy my yen for a Norton when I was young, but I made up for it three years ago in the form of my 2015 Norton Commando, Street Fighter. But, whilst hope springs eternal, it must be said the Norton clutch doesn’t.
In the two and a half years I’ve owned my 2015 Norton Commando I’ve amassed the grand total of 6,108 kilometres. Paltry, I know, but I do have half a dozen other machines vying for my attention and, whilst the Norton is the newest machine in my fleet, it is by no means the most reliable. Just getting the engine to run correctly proved to be a trial. With the nearest Norton dealer on the other side of the country, getting my Commando running correctly was down to me and, evidently, I had greatly overestimated my ability in this regard. There was lots of trial and error, necessitating repeated test rides, and it was during one of these rides that the lower triple clamp let go. Fortunately, I was in my driveway and not tilted over mid bend, otherwise the result could have been much worse. Instead of merely losing my temper I could have lost the bike down the road. After lots of cursing and swearing, as the red-mist began to lift from my consciousness, I went inside and started firing off emails to Norton headquarters in the UK, on the other side of the world.
I won’t go into the painful details here, but, after a couple of missteps on Norton’s behalf, they finally acquiesced and agreed to send me a new triple clamp. I was expected to remove the stem from the broken item and press it into the new one – of course after me having stripped the front end. In taking the stem out, it was apparent it had previously been pressed in with the seal skewed, which caused massive gouges in the alloy stem. Another volley of emails flew between Western Australia and Donington Hall, finishing up with a new stem and seal being forwarded to me. Norton asked if I would send the broken item to them for a post-mortem examination. With a trip to UK planned in the not too distant future, I said, “I will do better than that, I will hand deliver it.”
Soon after arriving at the Norton factory, or, more precisely, Donington Hall, I handed over the broken triple clamp along with my ECU with the instruction to ‘please sort this for me.’ My wife and I settled into a waiting room, accompanied by a machine-gun equipped Norton that had apparently been used in a James Bond movie. Stuart Garner sailed through the office a couple of times with no apparent portent of the fiscal troubles that were about 18 months away. Pretty soon, my ECU was returned and I collected two shiny new Motad shorty mufflers suitable for ‘off-road use only.’ These items were packed into my suitcase for the return trip home and, after a factory tour, we were on our way back to Australia.
The Norton had been reassembled with the new triple clamp before we left for the UK and, save for the missing ECU, was otherwise running – just not very well. In fact it was horrible. The new mufflers and re-mapped ECU transformed the bike. It went from a stifled, cantankerous, mis-firing lump of garbage to the barking-loud, snarling beast I’ve grown to love. It’s still cantankerous and mis-fires but this behaviour is generally below 4,000 RPM the retuned ECU proved to be the antidote I was seeking and that special bond between man and machine, known only by motorcyclists, began to flourish. When in fettle, the Commando is a brilliant bike. The sounds, feel and sheer presence this machine offers is, to my mind, unrivalled. But still not without its problems.
Oh, yes, sometimes the engine completely cuts out on me. It’s only momentary and is something I’ve yet to get to the bottom of. There have been other foibles but generally in the 5,000 odd kilometres I’ve covered since fitting the new mufflers and re-mapped ECU, the Norton has been an absolute joy. Except for the clutch uptake which steadily grew worse.
I can’t remember exactly when, but some time ago, I began to despair at the way the clutch shuddered in moving off from a standstill. Elsewhere in my shed, my 1000cc HRD twin is fitted with a clutch designed by Neal Videan, an Aussie who makes and sells parts to Vincent enthusiasts the world over. Neal’s V3 clutch retails for around $680 AUD, a price I would gladly have paid last month to replace what I found in my primary drive when I mounted an exploration for the origins of a nasty noise coming from that area of the engine. How can an Aussie guy working out of a shed in suburban Melbourne turn out a clutch that is more effective and better quality than the combine forces of the British motorcycle empire? No need to answer, that’s a rhetorical question. Down here in the Antipodes we call it Aussie ingenuity.
A few weeks ago I started the bike to let it warm up whilst I readied myself for a ride. Pulling my jacket on I heard a cacophony coming out of the engine, around the area of the primary drive. Most Norton 961 owners would be thinking ‘that’s not unusual,’ but so bad was the noise being emitted from the primary case I quickly shut the engine off pushed the Norton back to the shed like a cowboy leading his lame horse out back to be shot. Later that day I got busy with google, searching Norton 961 clutch problems. The internet is full of Norton 961 owner-angst. The wounds of my earlier dalliance with Norton had barely healed and now I was confronting a new jar of worms. I know I’m mixing metaphors but it’s the best way of conveying the frustrations I was feeling. That said, google did turn up an answer, but first, I had to pull the clutch apart to actually get to the source of the problem, and what I saw wasn’t pretty.
Upon taking the primary drive cover off, the whole clutch basket was wobbly and loose. It could be moved to and fro about half an inch, as, evidently the rivets that held the clutch together had let go. The clutch was being held in place by the hub which was still securely fitted to the gearbox main-shaft so it wasn’t going to completely disintegrate but there was lots of metallic detritus floating about. After taking the clutch plates out, I could see rivets and spacers lying at the bottom of the clutch basket, like jetsam at the bottom of the ocean. Cue red mist. As it turns out, this problem is not entirely unknown by Norton riders – or by Norton. This time however, Norton confirmed I was on my own. With the bike well out of warranty, and the new owners divorced of responsibility, I was left to either purchase a new clutch or fix the problem myself, I opted for the latter.
This was never intended to be an instruction piece on how to rectify a wayward Norton 961 clutch, nevertheless, some explanation may be helpful. Sitting at the rear of the clutch basket is a flex plate that acts upon four springs which cushion the clutch uptake, hence it’s commonly referred to as a ‘cush-drive.’ The drive gear sits between the basket and the flex plate, which allows it to cushion against the springs. It’s all quite rudimentary and should have been sturdy enough to hold together. 80 horsepower isn’t all that high by modern-day standards so it’s disappointing to hear of failures similar in nature to mine from around the world., however, from adversity comes opportunity and some owners of the Norton 961 have had to become inventive in working around a fix for a failed clutch basket, which happens when the rivets that hold everything in place let go. This has happened far too many times and it’s disappointing to hear from Norton that they are not all that concerned, notwithstanding the current owners are not responsible for the design failure, it would be reassuring to learn they are attempting to engineer a better quality clutch. Dear Norton, the law of definite proportions determines if your rivets are failing, they are not up to the job. The universal laws of nature are sending you a message and you should really fix it before someone is killed. Rivets belong in a static location, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Titanic’s hull, they have no place getting involved in the highly stressed, environment of power transfer. As a community service I have resolved to return my broken rivets to allow Norton to conduct a post mortem examination.
Norton did offer me a new clutch basket assembly which was going to cost me about $1,600AUD landed in Australia. The problem is, the replacement is simply a reproduction of the failed unit and is only guaranteed for 12 months. This struck me as a lot of money for something destined to fail again in the future. Instead, I went to a local fastener supply company and purchased four high-tensile bolts for about 12 dollars. Aside from being a higher grade steel, the bolts are slightly larger than the factory rivets. A friend who is good with a lathe turned the bolts down to the counter-sunk screws shown in the picture. Bernie also made new spacers out of high-tensile steel as I broke the existing items trying to drill them out to accommodate the larger fasteners.
The clutch was re-assembled and I’m happy to report it is working fine. I have no idea how long it will last but until Neal Videan designs a better clutch for my Norton I’ll stick with my 12 dollar repair. In the meantime, I will resume enjoying this incredible, if slightly trying motorcycle.