Peter Egan has been called America’s Favorite Automotive Writer. A Wisconsin native, Egan held unprecedented dual editorial positions with both Cycle World and Road & Track magazines for nearly three decades before semi-retiring from his monthly columns in 2013.
In that time, he rode and reviewed hundreds of motorcycles, but none remained as close to his heart as the Norton Commando. In fact, it was “Dateline: Missoula,” a story about an ill-fated, cross-continent trip on a Commando which was his first published article for Cycle World back in December 1977. Egan wrote, “So it seems I owe my journalism career to that Norton as well. If I’d bought a Honda, god knows what I’d be doing now. Possibly something useful to humanity. That or sleeping under a bridge.”
It’s that “love/hope relationship” Egan describes which led him to the bike now displayed in the Throttlestop Museum, a black-and-gold 1974 Norton Commando Roadster. Given to him by a Cycle World reader on the condition that he make it roadworthy, Egan set about a full restoration of the “Free Norton” which was chronicled in the pages of that magazine.
In the early 1970’s, The Norton Commando was a superbike sensation. The legendary parallel-twin Atlas motor now used rubber isolastic mounts between a “Featherbed” frame, lending exceptional smoothness to the motorcycle. “And when the Commando was updated to an 850 in 1973, it got even more torque, much improved ‘Superblend’ crank bearings, and a mild styling update of the seat and instruments, resulting in what is probably my favorite version, the 1974 Roadster. In black and gold, of course,” wrote Egan.
The motorcycle has one foot firmly planted in Britain’s rich industrial heritage, and another in modern-day refinements. Wrote Egan, “The Commando is really almost an accident of history, an unlikely amalgam of old and new ideas put together as a stop-gap solution to the problem of rapidly advancing technical progress in the motorcycle market. Norton didn’t have enough money or engineering staff to design an entirely new engine, and many British bike enthusiasts (me included) didn’t want them to. We wanted something that looked more or less like a Norton Atlas but that didn’t shake as much or leak oil.”
The bike inspired Egan to pen a number of Cycle World columns, including the retrospective “Fifty Years of the Norton Commando,” and “Norton Commando and BMW R90S in a Classic Rematch,” both of which helped to burgeon interest in the bike amongst collectors. Ultimately, it was the wry and poignant column entitled “The Five-Stroke Norton” which related the story of Egan selling the bike after exuberant kick-starting delivered him a mild ischemic stroke.
Warm, dry and happy on loan to the Throttlestop Museum, Egan’s famous Norton is still close enough for Peter to visit occasionally. Is it the most-admired, famous Commando in the world? Arguably yes, if we prize our vehicles based upon the stories they inspire. In that case, this 1974 Norton Commando has given so much enjoyment to so many, through the hands of America’s master automotive storyteller.