I bought my first large motorcycle, a 1978 Norton Commando Mk.III from Tony Wilkins' shop in Market Harborough in September 1981, advertised in the Leicester Mercury at £975, with a ticket on of £975. When I said I was paying cash Mr Wilkins claimed that there had been a mistake in pricing the machine and it should have been £995. I started out with a thousand pounds and spent the other five pounds on petrol as the tank was nearly empty. No new MOT was offered, the one issued stated 20,000 miles and the speedometer reading was 700. I think I bought more than 12 litres for my remaining five pounds.
I was the fifth owner in three years. The machine came with a number plate from Norman Hunter's shop on Woodgate. I still have the machine. When I bought it, the lady who worked on the counter of Roy Woods in Hinckley (where I lived) told me it wouldn't last very long and I should have bought a Honda 750. This is the same lady who advised me to leave the broken parts of the cam chain inside my Honda CD 175 and fit a new chain. My Commando was fortunate to survive the mechanics at Tony Wilkins' shop but came with a very poor and ineffective front brake and a clutch which slipped and dragged. At least he fitted a new final drive chain.
I was advised to put a small amount of paraffin in my clutch and it does make the action easier.
When I finally took the engine apart in 1985 (because it would not tickover properly, even though I had fitted a single carburettor) I found a small, semi-circular piece of metal in the bottom of the crankcases. I thought that it was a woodruff key which may have fallen into the mouth of the crankcase when I had dismantled the engine. It was, however, a foot, a hardened part of a cam-follower, which had slipped off and been flicked by the camshaft into the sump. Someone had then welded another cam-follower foot into place without removing the one which had fallen off. I suppose practices like this would have been fairly widespread during those days.
The reason the motorcycle would not tickover became apparent; there were two lobes almost completely worn down on the camshaft so the valves were not opening correctly. Having looked at the camshaft recently, I am surprised the engine worked at all.
This time last year one of our elderly members (I'm the Chairman of the Northampton and Leicestershire branch of the Norton Owner's Club) telephoned me and said "Can you contact Reg Kilsby - he's selling some spare parts". It was true; Reg had reached the age of 72 and had decided to give up riding so he was selling his bikes and parts. I asked him which parts he had for sale and he mumbled about some bits and bobs and then told me that he had a tank for an Interstate Commando. I swear that I fell to my knees thinking "God has found me!"
I had sold my original, 5¼ gallon tank to Barry Lewin in 1985. He emigrated to Canada taking his bike and my old tank with him. I had bought a 6¼ gallon replacement tank in 1982 from RG motorcycles in Coalville. Around 1990 I found it had loose areas of metal around the front mounting studs. Every three years or so, or if I went over 4,000 rpm, the tank would leak in the area around the studs, straight onto the coils etc - very dangerous and embarassing. I could cure it by sticking the mounting rubbers on with Hylomar but eventually it would start leaking again, usually when I had filled it right up.
Anyway, back to Reg. I immediately offered him the sum which he suggested and then posted him a cheque the next day. When I turned up to collect the tank a week later he said that he hadn't cashed my cheque because when I saw the tank I probably wouldn't want it. But it was the correct one, tall and narrow, instead of the fat and wide one which I had put up with for 25 years. It was, however, very rusty. I took the tank away and then spent three months deciding which colour to have it sprayed, eventually opting for a blue which I seen on MG cars from around 2002. The sale of one record (a Verve 7inch by The Velvet Underground; White Light, White Heat) paid for the respray including side panels which I had bought many years before.
I should add that good condition Interstate tanks are incredibly hard to find; there's one on the Norvil site at the moment for £695. Anyway, I took the bike back to Reg's house in June to show him the paint job. He was very impressed and called his wife out to look. She came out of the house and said "Is that the same one? I told Reg to chuck it away because nobody would want it!"
Regarding the question of whether I love or loath my Norton; it wouldn't make any difference how much money you offered me, it's mine for life! Twenty nine years and three months and it just gets better each time I ride it.
Colin Cheney, former rider for Alpha Couriers/Jonen Shipping, with around 980,000 recorded miles.
Excellent reading, nostalgic. The woman at the counter in Roy Woods was Pearl, who is married to Frank Woods, one of Roy Woods sons. I know because I was a mechanic there throughout the 1970s.