A Father And Son’s Relationship Lives On In This 1974 Norton Commando 850
Photography by Ted Gushue
Editor’s Note: The Distinguished Gentleman’s ride’s focus is on gentlemen who have been dealt a tough hand in life. In particular, they raise funds for research into prostate cancer and mental health programs as part of a mission to support men’s health globally. These funds are invested via a partnership with the Movember Foundation, the world’s largest men’s health organization, focused on prostate cancer research and men’s suicide prevention. This year, 60,000 riders in over 600 cities across 90 countries will take part. Movember, the only global health charity focused solely on men’s health, has raised over $769M and funded 1,200 innovative men’s health projects across 21 countries. They aim to reduce male premature death and suicide by 25% and halve the number of deaths from prostate and testicular cancer by 2030. You can donate to Clark’s ride here: https://www.gentlemansride.com/rider/clarkhogan.
The ride will take place nationwide, more information can be found here: https://www.gentlemansride.com
I had a chance to sit down with Clark the other day with his dad’s Commando and he opened up about its story and what he hopes to do with it.
Ted Gushue: Clark, tell me the story of this Commando.
Clark Hogan: It’s a good family story, it started in April of 1983. I’m 9 years old and my dad comes home one day with this mildly modified Norton High Rider, purchased for $1,000 from a classified ad in the newspaper. Sissy bars, the whole thing. Total Easy Rider vibe. That wasn’t his style though, so he started this process of turning it back into a standard Commando. The bike had lived some hard years up to this point, and this was all pre-internet obviously, so finding the right parts and the right help in the ’80s and ’90s was a challenge. It would go back and forth from his garage to the mechanic’s frequently as I was growing up.
But when it was running well, I was glued to the back seat of it. Cruising from Princeton, New Jersey down to Seaside Heights, Pennington up to Lambertville, way up into the Pocono Mountains for rock climber events, just cruising everywhere on the back with my Dad. Eventually I get old enough to buy my own motorcycle, and we’d go riding side by side as often as possible.
He passed from prostate cancer in February 2011. I shipped the bike out to Venice, CA where it sat derelict in my garage for the better part of three years collecting dust. Then, one afternoon, this compulsion came over me and I kicked the starter and it just belched out this familiar old bike odor of oil and gas that triggered a thousand memories. I was immediately transported back to riding on the back of it. That day I started tearing it apart, knowing that this bike needed to be restored back to roadworthiness.
I wanted to make a trophy, a tribute bike to my dad. A rolling story that makes him immortal, so that every time I ride it or every time I tell someone about the restoration process I get to share a little bit of him and his story. I wanted to improve everything as much as possible while retaining its beautiful looks. I worked on the bike nights and weekends for the next year, going ’til I ran out of parts, stamina, or know-how. All the electronics were replaced because that was a perpetual issue with this and many Nortons. Pistons, connecting rods, main bearings, carburetors, valves and springs, head valve guides, engine mounts—all were replaced (with generous help provided by Moto-Classic garage in Inglewood. Thanks Bob!). It was interesting finding the root cause of so many problems that bedeviled even my dad’s mechanic back then.
As I started getting my hands really dirty in this thing, it amazed me how much resurfacing material technology has improved. Media blasting and powdercoating for instance, and holding a piece of pitted aluminum to a buffing wheel for a while and seeing it come out looking like new was just magical to me. Also, learning how everything is machined at the factory to “close-enough clearance” and then shimmed into tolerances of thousandths of an inch. It was a lot of trial and error that went into this, and I developed a fascination with the fact that this was all designed on paper with slide rules and micrometers.
TG: Really satisfying then, I take it, to discover these methods while sort of learning them experientially as you rebuilt it.
CH: Super satisfying. You nailed it. Towards the end, my dad had put on the low-hanging bars, and he also put on a set of rear-sets and really started to turn the bike into a café racer, so I kept a lot of those parts but then continued down the path too; new shocks, shortened fenders, better engine mounts, a scooped seat. Of course new pipes too.
TG: Beyond the sense of completion, what’s it like to ride?
CH: Tremendously satisfying. My last street bikes were a 2009 Ducati Sport 1000-S and a 1998 Ducati Monster M-900 prior to that. Both very fast, very versatile, and very curve-hungry bikes. I knew this wasn’t going to be the same performer as those, but still, Nortons were built from the racing knowledge acquired from competing against Triumph on the track, so it’s not a simple cruiser either. The most rewarding experience I’ve had getting on and riding this Norton as I was shaking it down after the build was completed, was certain feeling that I’d had on the Ducatis, a similar sense of confidence that you have going into a really complex set of turns with the bike feeling totally planted underneath you. Like the suspension will just kind of tuck in and compress and you set your line, and then you just open up the throttle and it’s not nerve-wracking at all to ride out of the turn accelerating, which being that I turned every bolt myself, there’s always a paranoia of something’s going to come undone in the turn and a wheel will go rolling out from under me. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet. I’m riding in the Distinguished Gentleman’s ride this year though, so fingers crossed it stays this way!