Richard and John maybe great friends and neighbours but disagree on who made the best classic choice? Grant Ford spent a day just listening…
Trident or Commando – A Mate’s Debate
It started within minutes of my arrival; two great pals and total enthusiasts Richard Earle, Triumph Trident owner and John Sherratt aboard his Norton Commando, compared their steeds. ‘I don’t need mirrors, John explained, ‘not really bothered what Triumph is behind me’, Richard smiled and replied, ‘I only have them to see when the Norton breaks down!’ I realised immediately I was about to enjoy a great day and so it proved to be. Over a few hours we covered vast areas of Hampshire as both classics showed impressive pace, we compared handling and reliability then argued about which looked the best.
Victims of their Time
Although no one dared admit it at the time both these machines would have enjoyed much more success if they had been in the dealerships years earlier; and could have been. Triumph had a running Triple prototype as early as 1964 after Bert Hopwood and Doug Hele created the three cylinder 750cc motor, 12 months prior. The Triumph Board held back on giving the Trident the go ahead until they were forced to act when facing the arrival of Honda’s CB750 Four. It would be September 1968 before order forms could be completed in the showrooms and although customers were lost to the Asian invasion the new triple was greeted positively and many insist should have been developed further.
In 1969 the Trident was one of the fastest machines available and race versions impressed, winning the production and F750 TT’s plus the Bol d’Or and all three steps of the podium at Daytona in 1971. Upgrades and additions continued until 1974 by which time the T160 included over 200 changes from the original design but the £1215.00 price tag was high, being £200.00 more than Honda’s CB.
Norton had its own problems during the early 60s but after Dennis Poore and the Manganese Bronze takeover things took a big step forward in just 12 months. Designer Bernard Hooper came up with the idea of rubber mounting the trusty Atlas engine for vibration free performance and Wolf Ohlins design house were involved in the styling.
The result became the 1967 Commando and this machine was not only available before Triumphs Trident but also prior to the CB750. A factory move from Plumstead to Andover didn’t help especially when the engines were produced in Wolverhampton; even so the Commando proved a great success. Upgrades followed. The design may have been aging but still performed well, especially in the John Player colours in 1971. The engine was outdated and with the Japanese flooding the market the writing was on the wall. Norton’s final production model was the Commando 850 and by 1975 enjoyed electric start; the final batch left the factory two years later.
Richard’s Trident – The Unparalleled Triple
A Triumph man from the beginning Richard lusted after a Bonneville and realised his dream in the 70s, a three year old machine purchased locally. It began a long term relationship with the marque; no speed dating or short term flings here, the bond with this brand covers decades. The Meriden dispute and the Triumph workers ‘sit in’ was responsible for a massive shortage of parts resulting in many machines being ‘lifted’ by light fingered thieves; Richard’s ‘Bonnie’ being one of them. Disillusion forced the purchase of a 75 Suzuki T500 (which still sits in the garage) and family life took over until a charity event in the early 1990s rekindled the passion for two wheels.
After a brief flirt with some Japanese machines Richard returned to the fold in 2003; redundancy is usually a miserable time but not when the funds are used on a rather special 1975 Trident originating from St Charles, Missouri. Fitted with an 850cc kit the bike was imported from the American mid-west a decade prior and then underwent a full restoration in Birmingham. The 850 kit was replaced by Nova Classics in Nottingham and completed for the 2007 Festival of 1000 Bikes at Mallory Park and when asked what Richard rated as the Trident’s best feature, it was the engine that came top of the list; smooth and powerful, a motor that keeps giving. If there was anything he would look to improve, the front brakes would benefit from an extra disc.
John’s Norton – Commanding Attention
With a bike history that is replicated across the nation, John Sherratt began at 16 with a 62mph (of course it did) FS1e in 1979, his father enjoyed an Ariel Leader and no doubt would have been concerned when John jumped from the Yamaha straight onto a Triumph T120R. After a variety of machines had passed through his hands John’s first Commando was purchased as an unfinished project in 1988. His loyalties were now tied to the Norton flag, a regrettable sale followed within a few years, we all know the story… marriage, house and business, something has to go; unfortunately it was the Commando. In 2005 after years in the ‘bike-less’ wilderness John’s 42 birthday came around and a website advert resulted in a very special present, to himself.
A trip to Derby followed and the realisation that this machine came with a fascinating history. Peter Williams and Dave Croxford were the John Player Norton works riders during the 1973 season; the marque took victory in the Isle of Man F1 750 TT. Reward for their pilots included a Commando each with Williams given the 850cc version and Croxford was awarded this very bike. John explained young Dave was described as an ‘all or nothing rider’ with a win or crash style, often departing company with his machine; ‘it’s reckoned this Norton is one of the few bikes he didn’t throw down the road’. The machines were maintained by the Performance Workshop at Thruxton Circuit and appeared in promotional material at the time. The bike was sold on by the works rider to Abbey Garage, Hillingdon in 1978 and via other enthusiasts found its way into John’s garage where it has remained for the past decade.
Quizzed to the virtues of the Norton, John explained ‘it’s the character of the bike; you don’t have to ride it to enjoy it’. Any negatives? I asked, ‘the footrests just don’t seem to be in the right position and changing them would mean losing its originality’. Over the years a few non original changes have been reversed on the Commando; along with paint, John has replaced the carbs and exhausts and gradually returned the bike to the spec enjoyed by Dave Croxford.
Hampshire in a Hurry
These boys don’t hang around! My thoughts as I trailed in the wake of this pair of 70s British classics around the country lanes of Hampshire; straight line performance seemed to be the property of the Trident but she looked a heavier prospect come the corners. The figures confirm the Triumph originally boasted an extra 38lb overall and whilst not a considerable amount the Norton certainly looked more agile. Both though project superb exhaust notes and the ‘best noise’ debate is hotly contested with neither willing to concede. Stopping power requires a single front disc; the Norton on the right whilst the Trident’s caliper switches to the near side and also benefits from a disc brake on the rear. John would argue the Triumph needs the extra braking to slow its bulk whilst Richard would insist that the extra speed he achieves requires the later disc option. Reliability of both machines on the day was perfect and considering they were ridden with some vigour, shows a high level of maintenance has been attained by both owners; again neither would yield to the others claim of greater dependability.
Both machines are superbly ‘turned out’ oozing the character and style that ensured their popularity wouldn’t diminish over time. Park up and a crowd gathers, questions asked and memories offered; these bikes remain the ‘eye candy’ they were when flares were in and popular music was anything but. Both are more Claudia Schiffer than Ugly Betty but which takes the visual honours? That one could rumble on for hours, so with aging bodies aching, both agreed to endure their post ride ritual, head to the pub and ‘carry on debating’.
Richard shares his verdict
I always wanted to buy a Triumph Trident, even when I owned a Bonneville. Slippery Sam had won the production TT five times and I thought at the time that they must be a good machine. Having compared the Commando with the Trident I think that they are both quality machines. The Norton was probably at the end of its development, having evolved from 500cc to 850cc capacity. Had the Trident been fully developed we could have seen a 900cc triple built and a 1000cc 4 cylinder quadrant. However financial constraints put an end to what could have been a range of British bikes to challenge the Japanese. Well, as Wallace said to Grommet, we had a grand day out.
John offers his opinion
Developed at the end of a long line of production bikes Norton produced the Commando, their best effort! With handsome styling, a great sounding torquey twin and nimble handling it is as attractive now as it was then. Oh, and didn’t it win MCN bike of the year 5 years running?! All those bikers can’t be wrong! We would also like to make it known that we slowed down a bit for Grant, the reason being that we did not want to lose him before he finished his CBG article.