Stuart’s one-owner Norton Commando Fastback

Stuart Way Norton Commando Fastback

The first motorbike Stuart Way ever rode on was a Norton.

As a schoolboy in the mid ‘60s, he lived in a flat above a motorbike shop in Tilbury, Essex, and quickly got friendly with the mechanics.

“That was how my motorcycle history started,” he says, “because I worked there after school and at weekends, and for six months after leaving school.

“I had to have a Norton”

“One of the mechanics had a Norton. It was the first motorbike I’d ever been on, and it was huge to me at the time, enormous. From that moment, I had to have a Norton.”

Stuart’s boyhood dream came true in 1973, when he headed off to Slocombes bike shop in Neasden.

“I really wanted a featherbed Norton, but they didn’t make them anymore, and I wanted a new bike,” he says, “so I had a look around, and there were three of these Commando Fastbacks – a metal flake blue, a bronze one, and some other colour.

“I said ‘that’s it’, and put £50 down on it and the rest was on hire purchase.”

Stuart chose the metal flake blue Fastback, a 750cc twin with a distinctive rear section behind the seat, costing £490.

“I’d got this brand spanking new motorbike, the first one I’d ever had, and I’m riding it home through North London, all the way down to get on to the A13 to where I lived, and I’m panicking,” he says. “‘I can’t fall off this thing, it’s brand new’. I thought ‘this is something else’.”

Since then, the Norton has changed clothes (into and out of a Dunstall racing kit), come a cropper on the road more than once, and been worked on in an eighth floor flat in Grays, Essex.

Exactly five decades since he bought it, Stuart’s Commando looks as good as ever, but he admits he hasn’t ridden it in anger for about 40 years.

“I worry about it”

“I worry about it,” he says. “I’ve had problems with it in the past and you think to yourself ‘I don’t want it to fail’. I don’t want to ride it out and break down. Strange, I know, but I can’t do it to it.

“It’s only done 25,000 miles. Shocking, isn’t it?! But if I could put that on a stand and just look at it, that would do me, I’m happy with that.”

Therein lies the clue to what this bike means to Stuart, and why he’s held on to it for so long.

“I couldn’t get rid of it,” he says, “that bike gave me a lot of fun. Other people may look at it and think ‘oh that’s just an old wreck’, but they don’t appreciate them.

“I will never sell it.”

It’s far from a wreck, but it is now 50 years old and this inveterate bike collector has a whole stable of other bikes he can ride, many of them more modern machines including a 2001 Kawasaki ZRX1200 (“a lovely motorcycle”), a 2000 Aprilia SL1000, and a 2011 Aprilia Tuono (“which I don’t like”).

Stuart’s first ride as a teenager may have been as a pillion on a Norton, but the first bike he owned was a series I Lambretta Li150 scooter he bought from one of the mechanics at the bike shop.

“He gave me the handlebars for the Series II, so I thought ‘that’s great, I’ll just swap that over’,” he says. “I remember my 16th birthday in 1967, there was a bloke in the flats across the way and he had a Vespa and he was a little bit older than me. On my birthday we rode down to Grays – well, you’re the dog’s bollocks aren’t you, really?”

From Lambretta to Yamaha

A few months later, Stuart started as an apprentice pipe welder at Shell’s Corringham plant by the Thames, and swapped the Lambretta for a 250cc 1965 Yamaha YDS3.

“It was absolutely nuts – it really was the most gorgeous thing, I loved that bike,” he says. “There were eight of us on the apprenticeship that year and one of the other blokes had one as well.

“I smashed it up a few times though.”

One of those times proved terminal.

“You had to go through Corringham to get to Shell Haven, and they were building what they called the Manor Way, a busy road,” he says. “I remember I was late for work one day, so I got on the Yamaha and thrashed it to work.

“Where they were building this new road you came round a sharp bend and there was this tipper lorry sitting there waiting to cross the road, and I thought ’don’t go across’.

“But he did, and I slammed on the brakes, hit the back of him and went into the front of another one that was waiting there. So that demolished the Yamaha.”

While he had the Yamaha, he also set about building a bigger bike from various parts, “a bit from here and a bit from there”.

“I bought a Tiger 110 frame, a racing tank and seat from a BSA, and the most gorgeous Tiger 100 all alloy engine,” he remembers.

Racing Tigers

“The other bloke who had the Yamaha bought a Tiger 110 and we used to race home with a bloke a year above us who had a Stevens Thruxton Velocette.

“We’d be revving the nuts out of these Triumphs and this fella would just go ‘bom bom bom bom’, straight past us on the Velocette.

“When I started work, most of the blokes down at Shell rode a pushbike or a motorcycle – hardly anybody had a car for work. These days, it’s more of a leisure thing.”

Next came the Commando Fastback, Stuart’s only mode of transport at the time.

“When I first got it, I went everywhere on it,” he says. “It was a lovely thing to ride, and it was quick enough.

“They’d beat anything on the road, and you could go round corners standing on your head, which a lot of them didn’t at the time. The Japanese bikes weren’t that good at going round corners back then.

“I used to go down to my father’s place in Christchurch in Dorset, and to the racing at Donington and Brands Hatch. I never did Europe or anything like that – I know loads of motorcyclists do, but I was a lazy sod.

“Everybody could hear me coming, because it had megaphones on. A friend of mine used to live in Tilbury and I used to go round to see him and he’d say ‘you know I could hear you from the top of the hill about a mile and half away’.”

Dunstall revamp

When Stuart got hold of a brochure for Dunstall Motorcycles, he decided to match the bike’s looks to its performance.

Paul Dunstall modified and raced Norton Dominators before retiring from the track after two years to focus on building high-performance race bikes and supplying aftermarket add-ons.

“In this brochure there was this Norton in black with the racing fairing, tank and seat, so I thought ‘I’ve got to have that’,” he says. “That was on there for a long while.”

Despite being fitted with one of the last of the ill-fated Combat engines, the Commando was pretty reliable for the first five years of its life.

“The only fault I had was because I was stupid,” says Stuart. “I wanted it to go faster, so I went to Mick Hemmings up in Northampton and had a big valve gas flowed head, electronic ignition, high compression pistons and other things, and after that I had nothing but trouble. It really didn’t work – it broke down quite a lot.

“It was a big mistake. Everyone said that to me afterwards, and I said ‘yeah, you could have told me before’.”

Continuing the unfortunate theme of things getting in Stuart’s way, one accident on the Norton stands out in his memory.

Norton versus lamppost

“I was going down this road and I started to overtake a woman in a Mk I Cortina,” he says, “but she decided to turn right, no signal, no nothing. I hit her in the side of the car, careered off, and there was a lamp post headed towards me.

“I thought ‘Christ, I’d better jump off’, so I did and went sliding down the road. I looked at my bike and it went up on its nose and went ‘bang’.

“It didn’t need much work though. You’ve got to give it to them, although people slag British stuff off, they were made quite strong.”

At times, working on the Norton hasn’t always been straightforward.

“I was living on the eighth floor of some flats in Grays, and I wanted to do some work on it,” says Stuart, now 71. “They had coffin doors in these flats, so you could get a coffin in and out, and it was perfect – the seat just fitted underneath the top so I took it up in this lift.

“I did the work and actually started it up in the flat as well. When I’d finished with it and was bringing it back down I thought ‘I hope no-one sees me’. I got to the bottom and there were these two old ladies, who I knew anyway, and they were ‘ooh, that’s pretty isn’t it?’.”

The Fastback was Stuart’s main bike until 1980, when he bought a Triumph Trident, “a lovely bike, so smooth”, and then a Yamaha XS7650, which was “crap to ride”.

Why so many bikes?

But if he loved the Norton so much, why did he buy so many other bikes?

“That’s an awkward question to answer really,” he smiles, “because it was my pride and joy – why did I? I don’t know. I’ve bought loads of them since. Stupid isn’t it?”

As well as the Kawasaki and two Aprilias, there’s also a Ducati 851, a Matchless G12, a Trident, a Kawasaki GPZ900, and a special BSA A7SS.

“The BSA was my friend’s when I first started at the motorbike shop,” says Stuart. “When he died I said to his wife, whatever happens, I’ve got to buy his bike. When I knew it, it was a work bike – it was a mess, and when I went down to pick it up I was a bit disappointed that he’d since done it up. I wanted it the way it was when I knew him.”

Although Stuart mainly rides the ZRX and SL1000, the old Norton hasn’t just sat there idly these past 40 years – it’s now back in its original condition, with all the Hemmings work undone and no Dunstall racing kit.

The original fibreglass fuel tank was damaged, so a new one was sourced from India and painted in metallic blue.

“They do so much for motorbikes in India, it’s quite incredible,” he says. “I got this and I thought ‘I hope it fits, and it fits perfectly’. I’ve got the old one in the loft, and if you put them next to each other you wouldn’t know the difference.

“Not many people do metal flake paint these days, so I had it sprayed in metallic.”

Norton back to its best

The bike certainly looks the part again, but there have been teething troubles, particularly with ignition systems and carbs.

“It had a Boyer ignition, which I never liked, so I decided to go back to the Rita ignition which was on it for a while in 1978,” he says. “I had the amplifiers checked, and it was fine.

“But I also bought a couple of new carbs a while ago, put them on, and it wouldn’t start. I put the old ones back on and it started and I rode it up the road a few times – it sounded nice.

“But the new ones have got the choke, so I put them on again, and I was just kicking it over and over. I phoned an expert up and he told me to turn the float bowl up.

“I haven’t tried it yet though – I don’t want to try it in case it doesn’t work!”

But he will, one day.

“I hope so, yeah,” he adds. “I’m trying, I really am trying. I’ve taken it to bits so many times.

“It means everything to me – being a pain in the arse, coming off it, and all that sort of thing – it’s just me.

“I’d always wanted one since I was 14 years old, and I got one. Nobody but me has ever owned that.”

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