Fastback, a retrospective.

Warning: this is massively self-indulgent. I love my Norton and this is more for me than anyone else. That said, I hope you too will enjoy the photos and accompanying rantings.

June 2005 was when I first saw it, a neglected old motorcycle parked outside one of Rome's "mechanics" of the past.

Take a close look at the photo above, where the Norton is shown right beside a 50cc Honda scooter, so not exactly a behemoth. Look how small the Norton looks! I think the 80s and 90s is when vehicles of all sorts started to get really way too big.
The mechanic had found it more or less abandoned under a tarp in a courtyard. The owner still had valid papers and was willing to sell, so he got it. At first, before I had even seen the bike, and just talking to the mechanic's son, it sounded like the bike was what is euphemistically known amongst enthusiasts as an "oily rag", meaning a bike that's been ridden for a very long time with only the bare essential done to it in terms of maintenance.
However, as soon as I saw it and smelled the rancid mix of old gearbox oil, rust and sea air, I knew this was a proper basket case that would need a total, frame-up restoration. There was rust everywhere, it was just plain filthy and there were botched attempts at patching it up everywhere you looked: the rubber boots that cover the fork seals were held on with jubilee clips that just cut deeper into the rubber. The wires from the timing cover were connected to the main harness with non-insulated bits of a strip connector.
The bodywork was bruised and battered all over. The list grew longer the closer we looked, to the point that we had to replace the crankcases (!) because the ones on the bike were cracked. Same thing for the inner primary chaincase, and we almost scrapped the gearbox case, which had evidently been repaired with a weld at some point. For example, another huge problem that later transpired was the gearbox cradle: I had noticed right from the start that when the bike was on its centerstand, it was definitely leaning to the right, and when we tore it down we discovered why: at some point (probably during the mysterious explosion that cracked the gearbox shell, the crankcase and the inner primary case) the gearbox cradle cracked, badly, and was "repaired" with the most half-assed welding I have ever seen. Needless to say, it was totally beyond repair and had to be replaced. From there on it was a case of finding out that just about everything else was a gonner and needed replacing, and mine is by no means an isolated incident for people who have tackled similar projects.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. When I first saw it, I found myself sitting on it before I even knew what was happening, and I remember hearing myself say to the guy "alright then, I'll buy it" as if it was someone else speaking those words. I dunno, it was weird. I then mulled it over during the summer (specifically, how to put together enough cash), and was able to buy it in the autumn. Having completed the ownership transfer, I felt relieved.
Dad and I hastily took it away from that place and brought it to Uncle Fester's garage, where I took it apart over the following winter.

Once I had it all in bits, I started getting parts cleaned, re-painted, re-chromed and polished. Some of it I did myself, other things I sent out to dedicated services.

There were a few large orders to Norvil, RGM and Andover, and all the parts I needed gradually showed up. This is easily the most thorough restoration I've ever tackled, where absolutely everything has had to be reworked in some fashion. A word of warning is in order here: it's easy to get swept up in the excitement and the prospect of ending up with a totally bitchin' ride after a full rebuild with no expenses spared, but be sure that it will take a lot more money and a lot more grief to get it right than you might think. Especially money.

From that point on, the rebuild process was unfortunately very fractured and very slow, hampered by set-backs, lack of funds and lack of a proper environment in which to work: sometimes, no matter how big the garage, you just can't get anything done: too many chefs in the kitchen.
I outsourced the rebuild of the engine, gearbox and forks, then I assembled as much as I could back at Uncle Fester's; after that, it was time to leave.

All of this didn't happen according to a well planned schedule, it was totally haphazard, with year-long gaps in between major steps. Oh yes, from the day I bought the Fastback to when I first rode it, this rebuild took three and a half years. The time had come to move the Norton back to my place, then it was a matter of waiting until the bike could be handed over again, as I had done as much as I could and knew how to back then. Perhaps today I would be able to do a little more than then. I look forward to finding out one day!

Eventually, the clutch and primary transmission were finished up, the wiring and the oil lines hooked up, carburation, timing, the usual stuff.

From that point on, there were a series of "steps" before the bike got to where it is now. At first I had MkII Concentrics, which just couldn't cope with the heavily ported head (a "modification" that, in retrospect, was a big mistake).

 Then I switched to brand new MkI carbs with a wonderful K&N filter.

After that, the main upgrade was swapping out the original front brake for the Fontana 250 monster you see today. The Commando's tls drum is stunningly beautiful and can be made to work very well.
I think it looks best on a Roadster, S or SS model though (even on the much maligned Hi-Rider!). I didn't want to take it off my motorcycle, but it was a question of having real stopping power (not to mention a very impressive piece of kit) so we made it happen.
We also removed the speedometer, fitted the gorgeous conical spacer in place of the speedo drive, mounted the rev counter in the centre of the top yoke and swapped out the FAC shocks for slightly longer Asatek ones.

At around the same time, it was featured in the September 2011 issue of Classic Bike magazine, alongside my dad's Interstate.

During the various configurations, I took the Norton to Switzerland (with full luggage) at least three times; there were rallies up and down the country, day-trips and generally I just rode the bike as often as I could.

can you spot the differences in this "before & after" above?
At this point, it's worth mentioning something about that colour, that wonderful, thick metalflake purple (codename "aurora galactica"). As you can see from the first photos, the bike came with its original golden bronze (or Etruscan bronze) livery, itself a subtle type of metalflake. Unfortunately, it had fared very badly over the years, and in a lot of places it was down to the coarser fibers of the material. Since it clearly needed to be repainted, I had to decide whether to have the original colour replicated, or go for the classic British Racing Green, or something else altogether. By the way, did you know that British racing green is actually an homage to the Irish green? That's enough to make any OCD bike nutter lose it.
Anyway, I couldn't make up my mind about what colour to go for, so Uncle Fester (whom I had known for only a few months, at the time) stepped up and said "wanna leave it up to me?" and I said "yeah, go nuts". People thought I was nuts. At the time, I didn't know about metalflake, let alone that there are various sizes of flakes, or that you can make it as thick and as glossy as you like. The only thing I wanted were the two side panels in the original silver grey, since they were always meant to combine with the silvery colour of the engine and "separate" the fuel tank and tail piece, enhancing their lines in the process. Well, needless to say, Uncle Fester's choice far surpassed anything I could have imagined, and it was the beginning of my love affair with metalflake. Try it, you'll love it.

The Redux:
What I have done now (and I would like to think this is it now!) is swap the cylinder head back to a standard one (designation RH1, theoretically) with 30mm standard ports. What's interesting is the intake manifolds come already machined with a 32mm bore for the carburetters, tapering down to 30mm for the head. Neat! Thanks Andover Norton!
Then it was on to the cylinder barrels, which I swapped for the alluminium ones made by Steve Maney and based on the Paul Dunstall design of the 70s: they are... so cool (pun intended).
They are 73mm, for the standard 745cc capacity. Standard pistons, standard head, standard capacity, all with an eye on useability and tractability.
Now, some of you may ask, considering this was a fully functioning motorcycle, "whatcha go and do that for, you crazy bastard?!" and you'd be right, but let me explain: swapping the head back to standard was in order to change the whole motorcycle from functioning to functional. It's a subtle difference. It's a matter of personal taste and the type of use you're going to have for your motorcycle. If you want an absolute screamer of an engine then you'll really only be able to enjoy it on a racetrack. I'll be content with having something I can use without having to psych myself up (and psych the machine out) every time I wanna go for a ride. To each their own, if you'll bloody well let me. So, that's the head. As for the cylinder, well there are a few reasons for changing over to the Maney type: it is lighter, cools better and looks so good, and then because the original 750 barrels will go back on the Interstate one day, to restore the look back to the original cylinder type (it now has 850 type barrels, which I don't like), after it is sand blasted and stove enamelled a rich glossy black of course.
Now, look, the Norton Commando was always a formidable motorcycle right off the shelf, there is no need to mess around with it in pursuit of the highest possible horsepower just for the sake of it. You lose much more than you gain.
Of course, there are many sensible modifications and upgrades that can turn a standard Commando into an optimal motorcycle, but they are aimed at perfecting what is already there, not radically altering it.
Last but not least, and certainly one of the biggest changes to the overall look of the motorcycle is the handlebar. This is a stainless steel item we had bought for our Matchless, but never used.
When I finally acknowledged (to myself, mostly) that clip-ons just don't do it for me, I started to think about what to change them for.
A popular option is what some call the "Thruxton" handlebars, as fitted to the Thruxton Bonnies of the 60s.
They are shallower than Clubman handlebars, and have a much more gentle curve, which makes for a sporting, yet fairly ergonomically correct riding position.
It is generally accepted to be the best compromise between the top speed benefits of clip ons and the relative comfort of a regular handlebar, however, when it comes to appearance I can't help but think that that's exactly what they look like: a compromise.
But what's left? although there are countless handlebars available, the one that would eventually end up going on the Fastback had to "agree" with the streamlined profile of the whole motorcycle.
A regular UK style Roadster/Interstate type looked too angular and too tall, so that also ruled out anything taller. In the end, going through our stock of bent and straight handlebars I found this one and thought I'd give it a try.
I clamped it down without touching anything else, then got on the bike and reached for the clip ons - ok, this is how the Fastback normally feels - now, switch up... oh wow, really?? This is amazing, I feel instantly in control and it feels like a completely different motorcycle. For example, being just that little bit further up and away from the fuel tank, makes it appear slimmer, and that's nice.
There was a chance that bringing the handlebar up would have required bringing the footrests back to their standard central position, which I don't think suits the Fastback's lines. Instead, the footrests are just where they're supposed to be and you're not leaning your weight on your wrists.
It is a neutral riding position, which lets you lean forward when you need a bit more pressure on the front end, and sit back and "relax" during longer stretches of road, something that will come in particularly handy during long trips, when you really have to get somewhere and cover a lot of ground.
What I like about this particular handlebar is that it is a perfect bend that comes to the right height and with an appropriate degree of pullback. In short, it is exactly what I was looking for. I'm also a fan of the way it looks with the single instrument instead of the normal two. That and the metalflake purple...there's something hot-roddie about it.

As always, Witold came up with some neat tips for getting things to fit together well, he's good at that sort of stuff. Once I was happy with the angle of the handlebar all we had to do was move the controls onto it and that was it.
I think it looks really good and let me tell you, now, the bike is a total blast to ride. This is how this motorcycle should have been from the start, and it's a damn shame to have wasted so many years with the other "configuration".


Gino's Travels 2 said...

Nice story, I recognise a picture from a rally at Vezio?
Soon i'll get my fastback repainted, not sure to keep it original (metalflake blue) or go for that shade of purple metalflake, looks great

Artie said...

Thanks Gino!
Yes, I've been to Vezio and Büriswilen a few times.
I really like that purple, but I have seen so many different colors that are really cool for a Fastback. Whatever you choose, go for metalflake!!
: )

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