norton motorcycles
Drew Ruiz

Norton Commando and BMW R90S In A Classic Rematch

Travels with a pair of mid-’70s superbikes, just 40 years after they seduced a generation. Or at least one member of a generation...

A few weeks ago, with summer truly here and the locust trees in full bloom, I flipped open my ancient cell phone and gave Editor Mark Hoyer a call at the CW office in California. "What I have sitting in my workshop at this moment," I said, pausing for dramatic effect, "are two rival superbikes from the mid-'70s—a 1974 Norton Commando and a 1976 BMW R90S—and they're both in pretty nice shape. One is quite British and the other is very German. I think it would be neat if you could fly out here to Wisconsin for a little classic comparison test/tour and take some photos before I drop one of them in the driveway and ruin everything. Or the Norton wears out."

“Where were you thinking to go?”

“Oh, probably through the western Wisconsin hill country toward the Mississippi. Stay in some small towns where they have craft breweries—maybe try some English-style porters and German bocks. We could take the back roads down to Galena, Illinois, a restored old mining town and river port. It’s also the home of U.S. Grant. If you stayed an extra day, we could play a little guitar.”

Hoyer, a dark-beer enthusiast, Norton owner, guitar aficionado, and history buff who likes riding on our twisty rural lanes showed up a short time later. If you can think of any buttons I failed to push, let me know.

Norton Commando and BMW R90S.
Norton Commando and BMW R90S.Drew Ruiz

In truth, the idea for this little outing was more than a sudden whim. The kernel of the idea went back almost exactly 40 years. Let me explain:

One fine September morning in 1975, my wife Barbara dropped me off, helmet in hand, at a motorcycle shop called Madison Suzuki/BMW/Norton. I was there for the joyous business of taking delivery on my new black and gold Norton Commando. I’d chosen the Interstate version—with the oversize 7.3-gallon tank—because Barb and I harbored illusions of extended transcontinental travel. Those were optimistic times.

When I arrived, the bike was parked in front of the showroom, right next to a brand-new BMW R90S—then in its second year of production—with a lovely two-tone Silver Smoke paint scheme. This was another highly tempting bike on my personal radar at the time, but it was almost unimaginably expensive. Nearly twice as much as my new Commando, which was heavily discounted because the Norton factory was about to close its doors.

The Commando accelerates like a Rottweiler tearing across the lawn to bite your leg, but the BMW is more like a greyhound that’s been trained to build speed in linear fashion. Not as exciting, but possibly more rational.

In a way, these two bikes were crossing at the upward and downward arcs of their factories’ fortunes; Norton was going out of business after 73 years of building legendary motorcycles, and BMW was ascending new heights because the glamorous R90S was rescuing the company from its staid image and finding a legion of first-time buyers.

Nevertheless, those two bikes made a nice snapshot, sitting there in front of the showroom. The BMW was elegant, tidy, and very Teutonic in its purposefulness. The Hans Muth-designed bodywork had a beautiful unified flow to it, and the misted paint made the bike look like some kind of Black Forest wraith beaming itself through patches of light and dark. Quite Wagnerian.

Norton Commando and BMW R90S action.
Norton Commando and BMW R90S action.Drew Ruiz

The Norton was more a harmonious collection of exquisite artifacts than a single, unified design

concept, but those pieces had somehow all landed in the right place. The polished transmission and engine cases wrapped tightly around the mechanical bits inside, and the whole bike looked spare, waspish, and handsome. I sighed at the inexpressible rightness of life, pulled out my checkbook, and headed into the shop.

When I emerged with my Norton keys and temporary registration, I was accompanied by the new owner of the R90S. I recognized him right away as the famous artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin, Marko Spalatin, whom I’d met before at various motorcycle shops. Marko was a native of Croatia who’d escaped from Communist Eastern Europe to a life of great artistic success in the West.

We stood for a few minutes admiring our new bikes, and Marko said, “So this is your new Norton?”

“Yes.”

He gazed at the bike wanly and nodded. “I had a Norton…” he said. Then he grinned and punched me lightly on the shoulder. “Someday,” he said, “you’ll buy a BMW.”

We both had a good laugh, but mine was probably not as hearty as his. As a British car mechanic at the time, I understood his meaning perfectly. Nevertheless, I honestly wanted the Commando more than any BMW, regardless of price, reliability, or future parts availability. I was a British bike guy and I'd spent a couple of years staring at those seductive Norton ads just inside the front cover of Cycle World. I had to have one, and nothing else would do.

Peter Egan playing the guitar.
Peter Egan playing the guitar.Drew Ruiz

So Marko and I shook hands, put on our helmets and rode off happily into the future.

Or at least he did.

My bike died at the first stoplight. And at all subsequent stoplights. Then on the way home it… Well, don't get me started. Let's just say the Commando was not a paragon of reliability. At 3,000 miles it seized a valve in Missoula, Montana, while Barb and I were attempting to ride to Seattle, and we had to send it home in a Bekins moving van. After that, we continued our trip by train and Greyhound bus. The best thing I can say about this trip is that I wrote a story about it and got my first-ever article published here in Cycle World.

I've often wondered what life would be like if I'd come home with Marko's BMW that day instead of the Commando. Would CW have bought a story called, "Young Couple Successfully Reaches West Coast on Reliable German Motorcycle"? Probably not. Maybe life unfolds exactly as it should, and this is the best of all possible worlds.

We stopped for lunch in the small Swiss village of New Glarus, home to the venerated New Glarus Brewery and Puempel’s Olde Tavern, where Braunschweiger and Limburger sandwiches terrorize the olfactory glands of the weak and timid.

In any case, Marko’s prediction eventually came true. I’ve owned several BMWs since 1975, and last fall I bought a Silver Smoke 1976 R90S—almost exactly like his. But I’ve never lost my affection for Nortons, either, and have owned and restored a series of Commandos. I seem to be addicted for life.

My current Commando is a black and gold 1974 Roadster that was given to me a couple of years ago by a friend who wanted to see it restored rather than parted out. It had been in a shed for 25 years and needed everything. It took me one full winter—and plenty of money and new parts—to restore the bike, but I’ve been riding it now for more than a year without any trouble. It’s stock, except for electronic ignition, alloy Production-Racer-style rims, and a sleeved-down brake master. Also, I left the rear hubcap off because I like the look of the inner casting.

Norton Commando and BMW R90S
Norton Commando and BMW R90S.Drew Ruiz

The R90S is a clean and unmolested bike, originally from San Francisco, still with its original paint and only 44,000 miles on the odometer. I bought it late last fall from my friend Mike Mosiman in Fort Collins, Colorado. He put it up for sale when he suddenly realized, to his horror, that he had one too many airheads—and that the bike’s low bars hurt his back. Also, he’s a good guy and knew I’d been looking for a nice R90S for several years.

So of course I sold two of my other old bikes to buy this long-coveted item and trailered it home from Colorado exactly one day before our first big snowstorm. This is what passes for “life simplification” in my universe. After that the BMW became a static display item that warmed my heart every time I turned on the lights in my workshop. But now it’s summer.

Editor Hoyer flew in and showed up with two photographers, Drew and Carter, whose handy rental car allowed me to take the hard bags off the BMW and my ancient Eclipse tank bag off the Norton, so as not to distract from their aesthetic purity. Mark had never ridden an R90S (gasp), so he started out on that bike and I took the Norton.

I climbed aboard the Commando, and it started first kick, which it usually does even though I’ve left out the seldom-used choke slides for the sake of simplicity. So you simply “tickle” the twin Amal carbs (which sounds more mirthful and less messy than it is) and kick it over with a mighty leap. Riders weighing less than 150 pounds need not apply.

The 828cc parallel twin roars to life and soon settles down into a regular idle that has the engine bouncing ever so lightly up and down on its rubber Isolastic mounts. Those two big pistons rise together on the 360-degree crank and would like to fly to the moon, but the connecting rods hold them back. Usually. The front fender vibrates at an amplitude of about 2 inches, so even the hard of hearing will know when the Norton is running.

Snick the lovely gearbox into first (one up and three down on the right-side foot lever) with a well-oiled click and we’re off. At about 2,000 rpm the Isolastics drop into sympathetic harmony with the engine and the Norton accelerates with almost glassy smoothness through the gears. The exhaust has a regular, mellow, but hard-hitting punch that may be one of the nicest sounds in motorcycling. Throttle response is instantaneous, and the bike accel-erates in an asphalt-spitting rush, feeling remark-ably quick and muscular even by modern standards. This combination of smoothness and performance has prompted many British bike enthu-siasts to name the Commando “most tourable” of British vertical twins.

Meanwhile, on the R90S, Mark turns on his fuel taps, pushes down the choke lever on the left side of the engine cases, and merely hits the starter button. No gasoline is slathered. The engine fires almost imme-diately with a rocking motion, and the pumper Dell’Orto carbs let it idle with a slightly hollow and metallic exhaust note. The left-shifting gearbox (one down and four up in the modern mode) accepts first with a reluctant grunch and is then slightly notchy on all shifts that follow. It’s one of the enduring mysteries of the late 20th Century that BMW, builder of long-lived, precision engines, didn’t produce a truly slick gearbox in that era. It works okay but never endears itself to your left toe.

As we accelerate out onto the highway, the R90S has no trouble staying with the Norton but lacks its immediacy. The Commando accelerates like a Rottweiler tearing across the lawn to bite your leg, but the BMW is more like a greyhound that’s been trained to build speed in linear fashion. Not as exciting, but possibly more rational.

Norton Commando and BMW R90S action
Norton Commando and BMW R90S action.Drew Ruiz

A number of subsequent top-gear roll-on contests over the next three days will reveal that the more explosive Norton can always pull away by a couple of bike lengths, at any speed—until we approach 100 mph, and then the BMW starts to move inexorably ahead. We didn’t proceed much over 100 mph because, (a) gosh, that would be illegal; (b) we have a lot of nervous deer around here; and (c) the Norton has two pistons that would like to fly to the moon. Suffice it to say that these two bikes are so close in performance as to be an almost perfect match on a backcountry ride.

We stopped for lunch in the small Swiss village of New Glarus, home to the venerated New Glarus Brewery and Puempel's Olde Tavern, where Braunschweiger and Limburger sandwiches terrorize the olfactory glands of the weak and timid. The green hills of Wisconsin support some 60 craft cheese factories, and a large number are found around New Glarus. And the same steep hills that tip over your tractor—and therefore encourage the grazing of dairy cows—also give you really good motorcycle roads. The landscape looks like the Swiss border in The Great Escape, only the local Germans are friendlier and there's no razor-wire fence to jump over.

We traded bikes and wicked it up a few times on the nearly empty farm roads, stopping for a handling comparison conference. “The BMW feels like a bike with a very deep keel,” Hoyer concluded, “almost gyroscopic. It’s very formal in its handling. You set up for a corner properly, turn in, and it just stays planted, all the way through. The Norton is nimbler and quicker steering, more adaptable to sudden changes in the road, but not as settled.”

Norton Commando and BMW R90S action
Norton Commando and BMW R90S action.Drew Ruiz

I agreed completely. “With the Norton,” I said, “you flare your elbows out and attack the corner; with the R90S you tuck in and dispose of it. The BMW is more stately and less manic, better at the big sweepers.”

Brakes? We both agreed that the BMW’s brake pads were made of some hardwood but couldn’t decide between mahogany and oak. The Norton lever has a more sensitive and progressive feel, probably because I installed a sleeved-down master cylinder to encourage this trait. Both bikes stop pretty well when they really have to.

We sped along on County Highways H and F, down into the old lead mining district of southwestern Wisconsin, where towns have names such as Lead Mine, Mineral Point, and New Diggings. The ready availability of lead in the early 19th century pulled in thousands of miners from Cornwall and other exotic places, such as Missouri, creating much friction with the local Indians. Tons of lead was mined out of these hills, some of which is still said to be embedded in the forests around Gettysburg and Shiloh.

With the Norton,” I said, “you flare your elbows out and attack the corner; with the R90S you tuck in and dispose of it.

Turning straight south on Highway O, we crossed the Illinois border and took back roads into the

beautiful old river port of Galena—named for a variety of lead ore and now a mecca for antique hunters. Here we checked in at the historic DeSoto House Hotel, built in 1855. They had a nice covered parking garage, where we checked over the bikes.

The sharp-eyed Hoyer noticed that the pinch-bolt had jittered out of the Norton’s front axle. Not critical, as long as the axle nut was in place, but we’d have to find a hardware store in the morning. We had dinner at the hotel then went down Main Street to look for the Galena Brewing Company so we could try a pint of Uly’s Dark, an oatmeal stout with a picture of General Grant on the label. But a sign on the pub said it was closed on Monday nights.

Norton Commando action.
Norton Commando action.Drew Ruiz

In the morning we went to U.S. Grant’s home, a nice old brick structure overlooking the town. It was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I considered naming this “The Closed Mondays and Tuesdays Tour.” My advice to the reader is just to read Grant’s autobiography and have a beer at home. This will save me a lot of descriptive typing.

Next stop, hardware store. We replaced the pinch bolt on the Norton, and I noticed quite a bit of oil drooling from the area around the left side cover. Seems my ingenious homemade catch bottle/breather canister, designed to keep the Commando’s oil out of the air cleaner and off the rear tire, was slightly overfull. As I knelt on the ground, cleaning the oil up with contact cleaner and a filthy piece of paper towel, Hoyer said, “I have to admit, this is the kind of thing you seldom see a BMW owner doing on the roadside.”

After that small repair, however, the Norton minded its manners and we motored across the Mississippi bridge into Dubuque and cut north along the high riverbanks of Iowa. A long, gravel road took us down a valley to the dock of the Cassville Ferry and we crossed back to the Wisconsin side. A fuel stop revealed similar fuel mileage for the two bikes—both in the low 40s—but the BMW could safely go about twice as far on its 6.3-gallon capacity as the Norton with its svelte 3.0-gallon tank. Still, 100- to 120-mile fuel stops can sometimes be a welcome break from sitting.

Speaking of which, Hoyer and I both agreed the riding position on the R90S suited us perfectly. When you assume the position, you feel like a cast human figure who’s been clicked into exactly the correct spot on a model motorcycle. The Norton is pretty good too—with the lower European bars installed—but those beautiful forged footpeg brackets are a bit far forward. You sit on the Norton and in the BMW, almost enveloped by it.

BMW R90S action.
BMW R90S action.Drew Ruiz

Nightfall found us at yet another historic old stone hotel/B&B, the Walker House, in Mineral Point, with a restaurant and pub called Brewery Creek just across the now-missing railroad tracks. Nice hotel, friendly owners, good food, several fine beers. We'd hit paydirt. One of the hotel owners was a retired college professor, so my bedtime reading was an English translation of Andre Gide's The Immoralist. Quite different from the usual Gideon Bible, and when we left in the morning I was philosophically confused.

Nevertheless, Hoyer and I stopped on the way back to my place to discuss motorcycle philosophy over lunch—in New Glarus again, at a Swiss restaurant called the Glarner Stube. I posed this deep question: “If you didn’t already own a Norton Commando and could take just one of these bikes back home for your own, which one would it be?”

One is really a sport-touring or GT machine, and the other more a pure sportbike, so they don’t so much rival as complement one another.

He thought for a few moments and said, “The Norton. It’s just more exciting and agile on these back roads. The BMW is too formal for me. You have to set up for corners and do what the bike wants, as though you’re just along for the ride. The Norton just does what you want to do. What about you?”

“That depends,” I hedged. “On a one- or two-hour ride, I’d take the Norton—which I usually do. If I were repeating this 350-mile route we’ve just finished—or if Barb and I were trying to go to the West Coast again—I’d automatically take the BMW. Over a long distance, my soul is more at rest on the R90S. The BMW always has its eyes on the horizon, while the Norton is focusing on the next apex.”

When we got back to my workshop late that after-noon, we put the bikes on their centerstands, sat back, opened a beer, and looked quietly at them for a while. I told Mark, “I’ve decided to conclude that the BMW is a sublime motorcycle and the Norton is a sublime experience. What do you think?”

Norton Commando and BMW R90S.

Photo #17

Norton Commando and BMW R90S.Drew Ruiz

He tilted his beer toward me in a small toast and said, “That’s it.”

Thinking about it now, I’m not sure these bikes were ever direct rivals for the same territory, either on the road or in your soul. One is really a sport-touring or GT machine, and the other more a pure sportbike—never mind that big “Interstate” gas tank on our old Commando, which was mostly a matter of wishful thinking. So maybe the Commando and R90S don’t so much rival as complement one another. A friend with a Norton shop told me some years ago that if his customers owned a non-British bike, it was most likely to be a BMW.

Makes perfect sense to me and sounds like the best of all possible worlds.