Gas station/convenience store in Dolores, Colorado. Using EXTREME care to fill up without splashing premium on a perfect, high-dollar paint job. A pleasant young gent in a feed store ball cap comes out of his pickup truck and says “Nice bike. Is it a Triumph?” Smile and correct him, hopefully without sounding like a jerk. “Thanks! No, it’s a Norton.” Triumph is really hitting the mark these days with their marketing. But no, she ain’t no Triumph…
Recently, I traveled back to New Mexico on a business trip, at the invitation of my former employer (Los Alamos). Mostly, a couple of weeks hanging with attorneys. Despite the jokes (many good ones!), these were some great folks and there were some definite surprises…and a real treat to see Molly at her gymnastics class and Maggy…just being Maggy. I wonder if I have ever told James and Becky that Maggy was the name of our pet raccoon when I was a little tyke? Well, never mind. The young ladies are just getting better and better, funner and funner.
The trip was not all work and no play. I managed to sneak off for two days to visit Matt Rambow and his crew at Colorado Norton Works (CNW) near Cortez. That included the major perk of getting to spend time with my own Commando that Matt built for me. This post is mostly going to be about that motorcycle, about the ride, and just how sweet it is.
The motorcycle community is NOT homogenous. There are the Harley putt-putt boys, the long hauling Beemer folks, the Guzzi guys and gals, and of course the fiercely loyal “Ducatistas”. And a whole lot more – including those who worship the Rising Sun…The Japanese. And among all these subdivisions, there are those who are SO brand-loyal that they won’t own anything besides “their” brand. They internalize the name, think of themselves in terms of their hardware, wear their brand name’s badges on their riding gear for all to see.
So what? There is a growing group of folks who are no longer satisfied by the above-referenced corporate kool-aide, well-spun and dispensed by advertising departments that urge us all to “break the mold, claim your rugged individuality!”…and ride their commodity machine, that was built on an assembly line…with a hundred just like it in front, and another thousand to follow. The small-but-growing new group are the folks who are fueling the “Hand Made Motorcycle” movement. I didn’t make that name up, I stole it from an annual show in Austin Texas. Look it up if you’re interested.
Does that mean I no longer ride my BMW? Absolutely not. I love that bike. It is well-designed, well-constructed, didn’t cost a fortune and is tons of fun. But this new thing is winning me over, I cannot deny. I know I will always have a factory bike, but I now know I will also always have a foot on the other peg – the one made/crafted/regenerated by a human being. A human being that you can talk to, shake hands with, drink a beer with.
All of this talk is just runway for an excuse to talk about the hand made moto built for me by Matt Rambow and his crew. I first saw it at Barber, and I was smitten, saw that it was beautiful. But at that time, it was only freshly-squeezed and not ready to run. Hell, I didn’t even get to sit on it. This time, it was ride time and I learned that it actually rides better than it looks. What a treat. Do I sound infatuated? I am.
The specs: It is a 1974 Commando, 850cc British twin. Numbers matching, which means it is the original frame, motor and transmission, and all their serial numbers match. It is basically the same lump that left Britain and came to the US, the same year my son James was born.
So how has it changed? Matt took it down to the bare frame, smoothed out all the imperfections, powder-coated it and built it up from there. The big changes from the original include, but are DEFINITELY not limited to:
- The whole bike lowered an inch, for a more sleek and swoopy stance
- Electrical sorted
- No oil leaks, nowhere, no how (amazing for a vintage British twin)
- The front brakes are all new Brembos, that work a treat, smooth and strong
- Belt drive primary – clean and dry
- Clutch and brake controls are now hydraulic
- New “Full Auto” head, with nice port work, imported from Australia
- Warmed up cam shaft with a big fat torque curve
- Everything in the motor perfectly balanced
- Motor held together by super-duper hardware created for the NASCAR world
- A pair of new Keihan flat side carbs, with a custom CNW manifold
- Cute little sticker on the side of the carbs reads ”Race Use Only”. Sweet.
- New CNW peashooter mufflers on stainless header pipes, sound a treat
- Electronic, keyless ignition that means there will never be scratches on the triple tree
- EVERYTHING on the bike is either new, good as new, or better than new
“Night Sky” paint on the tins look a treat, and there is polished alloy, bright stainless and chrome splashed everywhere. Norton and CNW logos in black, look ghosted in. You gotta be right on top of ‘em to see.
This is SOOO different for me. A dual sport is like tennis shoes – clean just isn’t cool. A new shiny bike is an embarrassment and no good at all until its dirty, maybe skinned up a little and shows some use. I am immediately struck that this new lady friend has nothing to do with tennis shoes. She wears spiked heels, diamond earrings and a little black dress that hints at, but doesn’t quite reveal. And no doubt, this little gal will definitely spend time a good part of her life getting waxed and primped, if Matt Rambow has anything to say about it.
After a good long introduction to her various parts and pieces, I took her for a ride. How different was this from my dual-sport rides? It started when Matt couldn’t bare to let me ride the bike from the shop. You see, Matt’s shop is on a dirt road surrounded by farms…and his bikes are WAY too pretty for dirt. OK, so THAT’S a first…a motorcycle that doesn’t do dirt.
We trailered it about a mile to the nearest asphalt, Matt gave me a crude little map of the way out to the world, and I launched. First impressions follow:
Size: Compact. The Commando is a tight package, easily flat-footed, and the riding position feels a bit tucked. Definitely not a Cafe Racer, more a traditional bike than that. But with Cafe tendencies.
Controls: Everything worked perfectly…once I found it. Brake on the left foot, shift on the right. One gear up and three down. I got the hang of it, but my learned behavior was ALL wrong. Every time I came to a stop, I would reach for the rear brake with the wrong foot and shift to a higher gear. No harm, just made me laugh. Fortunately, the front brake is VERY capable, so stopping was never an issue.
Sound: What a treat. As Matt promised, his new pipes mean you WILL be noticed if you are accelerating, especially from a stop. Heads turn. Not Harley sound. Norton sound, and plenty of it. But not harsh, and not tractor-like, as so many of the cruisers have become. Burbles softly at steady low RPM cruising. Townspeople will not come after me with pitchforks.
Handling: This is the first Commando I have ridden, and maybe they’re all this good. Maybe not. I have a feeling that lowering it an inch did some good things here. Center of gravity is nice and low, and it really, really feels connected to the road. Curves are all fun, no fear. I made it up the canyon as far as Rico the second day (still pretty crisp and a strong headwind, and I wasn’t rigged for cold weather). Road is a lot of high speed sweepers. Very, very competent corner bike that wanted to do much more than I was asking of it.
Motor: One word – Torque. Dang. Buckets and buckets of torque. Matt cautioned me to keep it under 4k RPM since the motor is fresh, and honestly, I tried. Mostly pulled it off, too, and I swear I saw 5k on the clock only a couple of times. Holy cow, this motor WANTS to go. I really can’t wait to get some miles on it so I can find out where on the curve it most likes to live. I suspect it is somewhere around 6 thousand RPM, but I can’t be sure. I do know that at 4-5k, it was still pulling strong and sounded like it was wanted to sing. Remember, this isn’t a high-revving sport bike, it is a torque machine. What I can say is Matt has built a hundred of these bikes (mine is number 104), and he has really learned some things along the way. He builds a great, great motor.
Instead of talking a lot more, I think the thing to do at this point is just to drop in a few photos and call it good. I left the bike with Matt. He will, in time, take a group of what he calls “glamour shots” and post the bike to his gallery on his web site. These amature snaps with iphone will have to do for now:
in the shop, surrounded by other bikes under construction.
Keihan Flat Sides. Work REALLY well.
First sunlight, shop dog supervising.
Roadside shot, first day…this is about where I froze out and turned around. New Schubert lid in foreground.
Matt pulled the plugs after first day run. Perfect color, mixture is just right.
Day two, a little warmer. Made it up as far as Rico. Turned around at this point and rolled back down. Took a little side road with nice curves and…ran out of gas. God bless these old bikes, switch the petcock from “On” to “Reserve”, kick it over and made it back to town, just, and bountiful fuel.