Monday, July 28, 2014

going Commando...

I have little doubt that, roughly four decades after they first appeared, Commandos are performing better than they ever did.
Over that time-span there have been so many people involved, so many tests, so much development it is truly staggering.
All the special parts we take for granted today, and fit to our Commandos, are borne of a tenacious relentlessness on the part of those riders and engineers who understood that the Commando was always a remarkable motorcycle, but that it could be much, much more.
This pursuit of excellence was honed over the years, focused on those areas that mattered the most, whilst leaving the rest untouched.
We won't get into the "original vs. modified" argument here, I think both sides have merits, speed freaks and rivet counters alike. As with most things, I believe the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle.
To me, there is no point having a 100% original Commando if it means you won't be able to enjoy it as much as one with the relatively simple improvements and few parts listed below.
The same is true of the opposite: a 1007cc Maney engine, housed in an all-alluminium monocoque frame, full fairing, full kamikaze racing specs is no longer a Commando: it's a terrifying speed machine that will have no rivals on any race track in the world, but you will not be hopping onto one at the end of your night, after you've had a few and you're a little "tired".
I also don't see the point of any other capacity than 750cc, but that's to do with the Interstate I grew up lusting after. That said, I have ridden properly set-up 850s that were awesome, though I wouldn't go for one myself (same goes for electric start, 920s, 1007s, etc.).
The press of the time, '69 and the early 70s, sang praise of Norton's formidable new machine, fast, vibration-free, powerful, sophisticated!
Yet if you read those articles today it is clear how much progress has been made, in improving so many areas of the Commando:
ß The entire electrical and ignition system, for starters: today they can be made simpler, with fewer parts, whilst also being truly maintenance-free, more resistant to wear and humidity, and infinitely more reliable;
ß Suspension is greatly improved by something as simple as progressive springs for the front forks, and FAC or Asatek shocks at the rear;
ß A belt-drive primary conversion wins you back a few ponies, whilst eliminating oil from the chaincase and saving a substantial amount of weight (just over 2Kg if I'm not mistaken);
ß Vernier type Isolastics front and rear, coupled with either a Norvil or an Andover head steady mean easier installation, easier adjustment and a rock-steady quality to the overall ride that will have you pleasently surprised, time and again:  "This is a 40-year old motorcycle? And it handles like this???" Yeah it does...;
ß Brakes can be greatly improved, front and rear, with a myriad different things, drums and discs alike, from subtle to in-your-face.

Then there are things like the engine, carburetters, clutch and gearbox, that have always been damn-near perfect anyway.
Yes, you can upgrade all of those as well, but really the main benefit we have today as opposed to when they were new is that by now so much is known about them that gremlins have nowhere left to hide.
A hand-built (blueprinted, if you will) engine coming out of a competent mechanic's workshop today is likely to be better than an original engine trying to keep afloat during the dark ages that were the mid-80s.

Here's the recipe my Fastback was cooked to, in no particular order:

  • Brass cage "Superblend" crank bearings (FAG NJ306-E-M1-C3) (Andover);
  • Standard conrods, polished;
  • Vernier type Isolastics (as for the head-steady below, these are available from several different sources, choose wisely...);
  • Norvil head-steady (an actual Isolastic. AndoverMick Hemmings, Norman White, Comstock and no doubt others have also developed their own version);
  • Belt primary drive conversion (RGM);
  • New crankcases, stronger  (064045 from Andover);
  • Stellite valves;
  • Titanium valve collars* (Norvil);
  • 4S camshaft (Andover);
  • Maney alluminium cylinder;
  • New Amal Mk1 carburetters, 32mm with a few trick parts (Burlen);
  • Boyer Bransden ignition and Powerbox;
  • Braided stainless steel rocker oil feed pipe (065561ss from Andover);
  • Stainless steel fastneres throughout, Allen bolts on engine and gearbox covers;
  • K&N air filter (R-0990); 
  • Lockhart oil cooler;
  • Flanged alloy rims;
  • Asatek rear shock absorbers;
  • Tapered steering bearings (FAG 30205A);
  • RGM/Novelli rearsets;
  • Alloy front mudguard;
  • Tommaselli headlamp brackets;
  • Progressive springs, front forks (RGM);
  • Fontana 250 brake.

You will often find many of the parts listed above from different suppliers, and whilst most are probably ok, for peace of mind I would only really go with Andover.

*Yes it's cool to say "titanium", but in retrospect I would not bother with these and just fit standard valve parts from Andover.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Top view

I know the clip-on freaks will be disappointed, but I dig it! : )

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In other news...

The Matchless' tank also received some detailing from Toni and was refitted on the motorcycle to the sound of Also sprach Zarathustra. Checking valve clearance is a simple task, thanks to a single cover retained by beautiful brass thumb screws.

We take a look "under the hood" of the BSA Ariel 3, where it all looks in surprisingly good condition!
I feel it's fair to specify this is a BSA contraption, where the Ariel name was used long after the true Ariel factory ended.

Above: notice the convenient prop-up rod: how thoughtful!

That yellow metal pressing houses a fan, which was meant to cool the Dutch-made engine. They were never meant to be enclosed so extra cooling was necessary here.

Above: look at that original paint under the hood: it's like new!

On the BMW front, our GS gets fitted for the new panniers, and we're going to try making a quick-release system for these so they're not permanently bolted on. This would make it easier to store the bike in the shed, but also at a campsite you could use the panniers to make a small table (we'll need an additional aluminium plate for that).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dueling banjos. Well, just one.

Ok, I sorted out the uncooperative banjo bolt. First, I removed traces of old gasket from under the bolt head with some very fine sand paper, then I sanded down the lower face of the actual banjo using the same fine sandpaper on a flat surface (sheet of glass is ideal) and got rid of a couple of high spots. A new fiber washer between bolt and banjo (crucial, yet not shown in the image below) and we're done.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

No photos, only profanities.

I was in no mood to take the customary step-by-step photos the other day when I was faffing around trying to get the Norton to run. Instead, I was effing and blinding, with no patience for all the nonsense I was dealing with. I stripped the carburetters, again, and replaced the jets for standard ones: I went from 107 to 106 for the needle jet, and from 280 (!) to 220 for the main jet. The needle is set to the middle groove, the throttle valve is a 3 1/2 (it should be a 3, but these will have to do for now) and the flaming bike does start and respond to the throttle much better than before. The air screws are 1 and 1/2 turns from fully seated and I've convinced myself that that's too lean. I'll try different settings when I actually manage to go out for a ride. But, before I can do that, I have to deal with a bloody float bowl banjo that's leaking badly. Why, confound it!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The belly of the whale.

Behold the entrails of the BSA Ariel 3!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Good news, bad news.

The good news is that after the redux, the Fastback looks fantastic. Honestly, I think the Fastback is the most beautiful motorcycle in the world. I know a lot of people think Broughs and Vincents are unsurpassable, but no motorcycle does it for me like the Fastback.

The bad news (although it's probably something simple) is that although the engine runs, it doesn't run well: it starts well enough but seems to cut out as if it was getting too much fuel. Not necessarily too rich a mixture mind you, just too much quantity of fuel. This could be the case, seeing as I have much larger jets fitted than are specified in the factory manual, and that is because it was needed with the previous "modified" head. Now that we're back to standard specifications, I should probably go waaay back down to the standard size jets. Still, looks good right?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Always something.

There is always something to do on these bikes, which is both great fun and totally maddening.
I have replaced the handlebar grips for a pair of GTs from Lowbrow Customs, a new take on a classic design:

I had to reroute the rev counter cable through the headlamp, and this is because having moved the speedo to the centre of the top yoke, the cable would bend too sharply to clear the headlamp, and break.
So, a good cup drill bit (and a grommet later probably) and we're done.

The huge hole on the bottom of the shell is one of three (!) that come as standard, presumably for all manners of wiring and avionics. I think it's a bit excessive really, they should just sell the shells (by the seashore?) un-drilled, so people can adapt them to their bikes as needed.
I also adjusted the clutch so Witold will stop bugging me about it "my clutch is so light, this one is terrible, mine is so great, yours sucks so hard" alright alright! : )
What I'm talking about here is totally basic adjustment in operation, nothing to do with altering stacked height, materials, extra parts, etc. All of this is perfectly covered in the Rider's Handbook, so always refer to that and treat it as Sacred Word.
First, slacken the cable, at the clutch lever by screwing the adjuster all the way in.

Slacken the locknut in the clutch centre and screw the actual adjuster in until you feel it contact with the pushrod. You may wish to back it off by no more than ¼ turn to allow some clearance, but really as long as the adjuster is only just touching the pushrod, it's fine.

Hold the adjuster in place while you tighten the locknut: basically use the screwdriver and the spanner together. Adjust the cable from the clutch lever and you're done.

And I re-did the lockwire on the oil tank drain bolt because I did't like the way it came out last time.
The way it is in the photo above, the bolt could still have come loose. Unlikely, though not impossible.
In the photo below the bolt cannot possibly loosen. Peace of mind.
Look, this would still not be acceptable for aviation standards, but then again that's not what I'm doing here, so I'm going to call it good enough.
Surely that must be it now, right? Nope, still have the rear brake vent kit to install...
Some other time...

Friday, July 11, 2014


This is the bodywork, back from Toni's.

He has given the tank a new coat of clear and a buff. The side panels have been repaired where needed and re-sprayed with a slightly more metallic shade of silver, whereas the tail now has two inlays, in the same silver, as a way to cover up the damage it had suffered.
It's unconventional but, overall, I like it. And it's a damn sight better than those horrible scratches there were before.

We had some trouble with the decals: the ones I got from Andover reacted badly to the overspray and bubbles appeared everywhere, so Toni had to start over. He says that those decals have a layer of adhesive even though they are not strong enough to be left without clear coat. So I did what I should have done in the first place and found these nice thick vinyl ones from the ever brilliant Classic Transfers. I cannot overstate how fantastic their transfers are, and if you want your motorcycle to look right, having the correct transfers on the bodywork will make a huge difference. Just park next to someone with cheap stickers and you'll see.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Witold readies his G/S for battle with this windshield (and possible extension).

 The original G/S didn't have the windshield, which was introduced as standard with the first Paralever model and required drilling some attachment points on the smaller headlamp/instruments nacelle. Witold came up with some aluminium brackets instead, thus preserving the integrity of his original nacelle. The decals are a real nice touch, well done.
Also, note the new tires, the Metzeler Enduro 1, which were developed specifically for this motorcycle and should provide a much smoother ride all 'round compared to the (admittedly cooler) Continental TKCs he had before.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

An Italian in England.

My good buddy Keith sent me these photos from his latest sortie on his surface-to-air missile Aprilia RSV 1000R:

Man that thing looks -fast just sitting there... Some stats: 140 ponies, all the technological bling of Ohlin Forks, rear shock, and steering damper; Brembo brakes, lightweight Marchesini magnesium alloy wheels, braided hoses and a dodgy electrical system ;-) And cool Italian design! You're equal part brave and nuts to ride it, but glad you're out riding! Looks like perfect weather actually. Let me know when you sort out that electrical glitch, and have fun in the meantime : )

Friday, July 4, 2014

A shapely rear end.

Well, that's what it is!
The boys have done an excellent job with Marco's rear mudguard. Chopping it wasn't enough, they then molded (or moulded, depending on which side of the pond you're from) a rib all along the contour of the mudguard, to replicate the original detail, which got lost when they chopped it. Some sanding, priming and painting later, this looks like a factory piece and the difference it makes on the bike is really noticeable.
More on this soon:

Above: primed. The reshaped end is the one on the right of the photo. It looks like it came out of the factory like that, doesn't it? Below, painted and ready to go back on das Motorrad:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

It won't start.

Of course it won't, but why?
I was honestly under no illusion that - having done all that I have done - the bike would just start, nevermind first kick, although it is possible and much more common than you might think.
Let's examine the situation: I had recently adjusted the valves, we have good compression, sparks and fuel at least into the float bowls. Timing has not been altered since the bike last ran, and ran it did, so...
Kicking it over, the engine turns freely (albeit a little stiff, but that's to be expected with new pistons, rings, etc.). However, when checking the sparking plugs, they are bone dry without even the faintest trace of petrol on them. So, gas ain't getting through.

Off with the jets assemblies first; result: jets were not perfectly clean (though I have seen much worse) so I cleaned them. The same goes for the idling circuit, so of course I removed the air screws then set them back at 1.5 turns from fully seated.

Again, it won't start, though there is an audible combustion happening in the number 1 cylinder, just once.
So, why won't it start then??!

Well, the only thing I had not double checked was the valves, which I thought were adjusted properly.
And therein lies the mistake: this is a reminder to never assume anything, never take anything for granted with these machines. The moment you are sure of something without having just double and triple checked it, go check it. I guarantee you'll find a problem. So, I re-adjusted the valves following the Workshop Manual to the letter, then put everything back together as it should be.
Oh by the way, it starts now. First kick.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Unorthodox mechanical surgery.

Remember that damaged engine mounting bolt that I had to replace, but that would have required dismantling the entire primary chaincase and all the wonders it contains? Well, I thought I'm buggered if I have to do that, and so, as I thought I would, I got creative.
Inspired by a surgical technique known as maxillary antrostomy (don't google it, it's super gross), I drilled an opening in the inner chaincase directly in line with the offending bolt, and was thus able to extract it, then replace it with a new one.

I've also replaced the nut for the long support stud at the centre of the primary case, and in both cases I'm considering securing them with some lockwire. Either way, I'll be keeping an eye on these!
During the procedure, the engine was supported on a jack. Now, if only alluminium could heal itself like bone and tissue do...
Many thanks to Witold, who consulted on the procedure.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


I've stocked up on motor oil since I use the same one on all my OHV air-cooled motorcycles:

Normally, almost three of these go into the Commando's oil tank, however this time I'm pouring about half a pint altogether down the pushrod tunnels before I bolt the exhaust valve covers on:

This is to help the cam and followers during the first start. After the engine has ran (hopefully!) I will check the level and top up as needed.