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How reliable is your bike?

Forums

Mine is a 1972 commando and I do 500 to 1,000 miles a year on it.

In the past 11 months, I have now had to get the recovery service to get me home on 2 occasions.

In 40+ years of driving and 20+ years of bikes these 2 instances are the only time I have had to use the recovery services.

It’s getting to the point where I don’t trust it to get me home, I think one more instance and I will have to sell.

In the last year, it’s had new premium Amal’s, 2 new coils, HT leads and plugs, ran sweetly for a couple of 60+ mile runs and then yesterday on my way to a VMCC run and about 6 miles from home it starts playing up resulting in the recovery service.

My leg is still sore from the numerous attempts to kick it over.

So, my question is am I unlucky or is this norm?

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Presumably when you get home you find out what's gone wrong?

How long have you had the bike, and was it previously reliable? Do you still have points or electronic ignition? If the former I'd fit new condensers (capacitors). Does it die gradually or suddenly just stop?

There's no reason why a 45+ year old bike should be unreliable. In fact there's less to go wrong than a modern one. I struggled for ages with a modern(ish) Honda 400 4 and finally discovered one of the plug caps was intermittently going open circuit which effectively killed 2 cylinders.

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When I got home I just left it in the garage in disgust, I will look at it in the next few nights.

Ive had it 4 years, its never been super reliable mostly difficult to start when left for a few months but I've been able to sort out, it has electronic ignition.

The breakdown yesterday happened when it stopped at a set of lights, got it going after a few kicks but was backfiring and not revving very well, went for about another mile like this and then just gave up going altogether.

I'm sure its electrical / ignition but I went through all that hence why I replace the coils etc a few months ago.

 

 

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10K miles since last July, well used throughout the winter months as well.

Start from the beginning and check the basics first, connectors corrode with that little use. Before parting check the wire entering each bullet etc, earth connections. Battery connections - is the battery strapped in, surprising just how many aren't.  

As the bike starts to die or play up, listen, it will tell you a lot, misfiring on both electrical, on one it is carb related. 

It is a Commando, the riding style of a VMCC run would not help it labouring at 50mph, thrash it and you may find it will be more reliable. 

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To my mind, true unreliability involves rods exiting crankcases or cam followers disintegrating. Ignition and carburation can be sorted with persistence.

Electronic ignition needs a good stable power supply. First thing I'd do is put a meter across it and check that there truly is 12v....

I go through my harness each year and clean all connectors and switches with a quick squirt of switch cleaner - the mechanical action of pulling the connectors apart does the rest...If one of the under-tank connectors has gone a bit 'dry', this will cause the symptoms you've described...as will a fracture of the ignition pick-up leads where they exit the rear of the timing cover - The Commando engine jigs around, particularly at tick-over and that wiring is a fatigue-failure waiting to happen.

 

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I have acquired a Honda supabike, with only 10000miles on it.  I understand that the cam chain tensioners can fail at any time from new,resulting in a wrecked engine that may write the bike off. I think I will prefer to use the 60 year old unrestored 99. I heard of a £50000  BMW  that hit a sleeping policeman a bit quick, The computer decided the car had rolled and fired off all the airbags.  The bill is £20000.  and not covered . Simple is good.

As Richard said this is not unreliability, its an issue not properly addressed.  How do you store the bike? is it in a clean dry environment with trickle charge to keep the battery healthy, and heating as appropriate to eliminate condensation etc.  Remember the alternator is  designed to maintain the charge in a battery not recharge a flat one and run the electronics, lights  and other ancillaries...

 It sounds like there is a deteriorating connection as described by RP. Carbs have been  eliminated, it does start at the initial outset and only fails after a journey.  This introduces   vibration, heat, condensation and possibly rider interaction (weight compressing suspension and moving wiring loom or boots, gloves moving wiring whilst riding).

It is the simple stuff that will catch us out, but go back to basics; test, clean, test, protect, test and  record.  Know what you have when its running, know whats missing when its not.  There is not  much required to get one running.  And start from the source...  Battery!  then, connections,  ignition switch, connections, coils, connection, pick ups,  HT, caps and leads .

 

 And come back to us when you find it.  your not on your own with his one :-)

 

Jon

 

 

    

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Hello Keith

As others have said obviously needs investigating.

A few things worth checking if it's electrical:

Check all Lucar spade type connections. On my bike I've replaced many of these with ring-type connectors, e.g. earth points, coil wiring.  The spade type have a tendency to loosen over time. Using ring connectors also reduces the number of joins.

Check the HT leads are still fitting correctly into the coils. I have had these vibrate out. Solved by using HT Silicone PVC insulators for distributor cap (HT14A-GS) from Green Spark Plug Co.  These are tightly cable-tied (using correct tool) at the coil and HT lead ends.

There are also coils with screw-type HT fittings although I have no experience of these. https://www.classicbikeshop.co.uk/6v-screw-top-ignition-coil.html

Ensure your EI has a good earthing point.  I read recently that its is best practice to earth these back to the battery terminal.

Make sure you have the earth/ground wire fitted between the top of the cylinder-head (head steady mount bolt) and a good earth point on the frame.  The earth point must be to clean bare metal.  This wire was missing from my bike - also a 1972 Commando.

Hope you get things fixed and decide to persevere with your Commando.

Andy

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There are many Commandos doing huge mileages, so they are capable of it. I often think that bikes that are not used much can be problematical than well used bikes. 

Its really a Zen thing with preemptive maintanance and a matter of getting to know your own bike and being sure that everything is in the best condition you can get it before you take it out.

A tiny spot of rust can block a pilot jet, a bit more can jam a float valve. 

Either you think it's worth putting the effort in or buy a new modern bike. 

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" Either you think it's worth putting the effort in or buy a new modern bike. "

But just possibly maybe something other than a new Norton...

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I did have a quick look at it last night.

Battery is less than 2 years old, well secured, is showing 12.2 volts and during the winter time is put on a trickle charge. 

It is garaged at all times not heated but the garage is adjoining the house. 

I swapped HT leads with others I had, cleaned the plugs as one was a little sooty and checked the timing I use 31 degrees.  

Looked over some of the connectors but nothing obviously wrong, tried a few kicks but nothing. 

Took the plugs out and rested them on the head but I could not see any spark. 

I would love to have more time to ride my bikes. One of my problems is finding time, I’ve just come back from 2 months working abroad and even now I don’t get home till gone 8pm.

It will most likely be the weekend before I can get a decent look into the problem. 

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12.2v is low for a 12v battery in good condition. It should be at least 12.7 if fully charged.

I think the point with the wiring is that one can't see anything 'obviously wrong'...They need pulling aprt rigorously...If anything breaks off then it was about to happen anyway.

Try running a 12v feed direct from the battery to the ignition unit, i.e. not via ignition switch, kill switch etc.

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.. is effectively flat. Some electronic ignitions will refuse to work at that level. Maybe as others have said it's down to dodgy connections. Are you measuring the voltage at the battery itself? With ignition / lights on or off?

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Dump all of the mission-critical Lucas crap (or just leave it in situ to look right) .

Checkout Youtube "Triumph T120 Modern flywheel magneto. Triumph electronic ignition."

Lose the alternator, the battery, the zener, the distributor and just have one tiny lost-spark double ended coil hidden up under the tank.

You can buy the optional Electrex 12 regulator/rectifier and have a tiny battery (and run led bulbs), or just run the lights off unrectified  a/c. 

I have had more than enough disagreements with Mr Lucas over the past 50 years. We are having a trial separation.

 

 

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... except that most of it is decades old. I find most problems are bad connections, corroded cables, bad (or non-existent) earths and flat batteries.

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74 Commando, owned since 1985, broke down twice, layshaft bearing went but got home in 4th once I had bump started it in 4th down a hill, 2nd time was a recovery as the wiring loom gave up after 42 years and some internal fault lost me all power. 

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Steve Marshall, Iv had a couple of Jap dirt bikes with fly wheel magneto, direct lighting with no battery and it's a wonderful simple reliable system. I did years ago slightly look at the possibility of converting my Commando to this but there was nothing on the market at that time. 

What I did do was put a Sparks 3 phase alternater on with a Sparks regulator rectifier. This gets rid of the zener, the rectifier, the 2MC capacitor and all the dodgy wiring and joints associated with them, so I have a decent reliable charging system. I put a high quality 14 ah dry cell battery on, and changed the charging indicator warning light for one of those LED voltage indicator types. So I know at any instant what my loom voltage is and how well the battery is being charged. I fitted Pazon ignition with a single duel output coil (RGM) to minimise the amount of terminals and possible problems in the low tension side.

So far,  "touch wood", this all has been problem free for ten years and the bike starts within a few kicks even after long periods of unuse, and the lights and indicators are as bright as any modern bike.

I know some blokes will keep it all bog standard, also some blokes will do what you suggest and best wishes to one and all, but I'm happy with my solution.

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I know breaking down is a real pain, but it does give you the opportunity to fix the bike and try and ensure the fault does not reoccur.

This year I've killed two motoblat batteries having fried the reg rec as it was getting too hot mounted on the battery box behind a hot engine. Now its front and centre just below the steering head in a constaint streem of cool air. 

This time Im using a Chinese rev req off bang good.com cost less than a fiver.

 

Regards Paul 

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Somewhere above a few words of wisdom said that if you have electronic ignition then running on one cylinder will be acarburation fault-not so if one coil fails on a twin with tow coils then it can be one coil .messing. about. In fact I have seen the fault where the working cylinder had a coil shorting to earth stopping the other good coil sparking. Any doubts with any one coil-change both.

Another misnomer above was with an Electrex system-'fit a small battery' Now the Electrex system MIGHT do things different to Zeners and reg/rects but both the latter need 5 Ahr batteries as minimum. REASON-one charge characteristic of the lead acid battery used in our bikes is time. If you nip down to the club or cafe and then back home in the dark (lights on) you get away with a small battery. But do 100 miles or more-no lights and you then start to over charge any smaller than 5 Ahr battery.

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A very good friend and fellow Commando owner once said to me, (over the sixth or seventh malt whisky, I suspect).." If your bike breaks down, at the moment that you pull in the clutch and coast in to the kerb, you should be 99% certain what the cause is and know exactly which tools you have to get out".

It calls for regular riding and a certain sense of optimism, but it's true...and the feeling of self-sufficiency when you whip the fuel tank or points cover off, find the problem and proceed on your way is unequalled. Don't give up. If there has been no catastophic failure then all that is necessary is roughly the right fuel/air mixture and a spark at more or less the correct time. Commandos are ever-so forgiving in a get-you-home sort of way.

 

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On one trip through France my 850 Commando started coughing and spluttering in the late afternoon the day before my booked overnight ferry from Cherbourg. I found a handy little hotel to spend the night and eventually worked out that the rectifier had failed giving no charge. I had about 250 miles to go to the port....

Early the next morning I nursed the bike to a local garage where they put the battery on a fast charge for a couple of hours. I then set off after disconnecting the charging circuit as well as the brake light switch to minimise the load on the battery. I made 150 miles or so before the missing and popping started again - found another garage and another hour or two waiting as the sun sank in the west while the battery charged till I could set off again.

The sun was starting to set as I reached the long downhill through Cherbourg to the ferry terminal - reduced to about 30 mph as the missing was so bad - so I freewheeled down the hill and made it to the terminal. Having a couple of hours before the ferry I walked into town for a meal - when I returned the battery had just recovered enough to ride onto the ship.

On board the ship, I found a Portsmouth phone book and discovered a Maplins not far from the port. The next morning there was just enough in the battery to make it as far as the police station car park where I waited till 9 am for Maplins to open. A few pounds for a bridge rectifier, the Norton started and off I went home with the engine running as smooth as you like.

So yes, they'll get you home if you take care of them......

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I now have had 4 attempts to see if I can find the problem but still with no luck.

There is a video on YouTube “Boyer 101” which shows how the boyer should work, but mine is not doing any of the things that is shown in the video.

It is a new boyer system so I don’t think it’s the unit itself or any of the wires (I’ve checked all connectors are clean), but I don’t get any of the sparking at all.

When I connect a circuit tester to the battery earth and touch one of the connectors on a coil, and the ignition is in either the ignition only or ignition & lights position no light comes on when I kick it over, but when I have the key in the off or parking with lights position the lamp in the circuit tester comes on and stays on when I touch a coil tab.

Has anyone got any suggestions of what to check next?

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I had a Boyer running on one cylinder only, the fault finder says it cannot happen but it can and did. The fix in the end was to run a dedicated earth wire from the head to the +ve terminal of the battery. The old earth was going bad and only carried enough amps for one spark, a fresh earth fixed it. The Boyer is wasted spark and both coils should fire every 360 degrees, so twice the sparks over points and so if the earth path is flaky then you can get only one spark.  

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Because of the isolastic system, that lead is absolutely vital. Most old British bikes relied on current going through engine bolts etc which was never actually a brilliant idea due to rust, paint, grease etc getting in the way - I've attached an earth lead from the dynamo on my ES2.

Keith

I'm responding to this to try and help but hope that someone more experienced than me in matters electrical will chime in...

The symptoms you describe with the circuit tester indicate to me that your ignition switch may be faulty or incorrectly wired.

I'd try running a lead directly from the battery (-ve) to the Boyer unit black lead by-passing all switches and run your Boyer tests.

If the tests pass then the switch or wiring in-between the switch and the Boyer are suspect.

Do you have access to a multimeter?  Also where are you located?  There may be a NOC member nearby who can help.

There are different versions of the ignition switch.  Take a look here for some photos and advice https://www.accessnorton.com/NortonCommando/ignition-switch-wiring.5383/

Andy

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hello Well in the past 18 months or so I been a Bit of a mess  and not been well enough to ride any Norton  ,But  the last time out in a big thunder storm  and very very heavy rain  were it very hard to see thought your visor  as the rains that heavy and hitting you hard at 80 mph  and your Norton engine is by now reassembling  a steam engine with the heavy rain hitting is by now a water cooled engine  and  most  modern bike are under flyovers keeping out of the rain and heavy stormy conditions  where as I just plowed On  thought  It all in the Fast lane,  when I arrived home  the hole yard was like a river  and the roof was like a water fall  But My Old Norton Manxman 650  fitted with a Lucas K2FC  never missed a beat  that was I real of how reliable  Lucas Mags are  It had gone though all that very heavy rain  and never missed one beat  in  26 miles from Hull To Howden  , she only ever let me down once  in the 15 years I have had this bike  It was  coming form  Whitby  when about half way the ATD dissided to undo its self  and I was at the side of the road for over two hours waiting for the RAC  witch  they got me back home  and when I took the timing cover  off there it was the ATD and chain  in  a neat  pile at the side of the mag shaft end, It was the  riding up some of them steep hills of North Yorkshire Moors  that as put that extra pressure on the chain and engine making the ATD bolt come undone  So can say  a near 60 year old Norton Are  fairly reliable  even tho there old tech,  And I do  wonder  How reliable they be  after a EMP  Attack  ,As your Modern Motorcycles electronics  will be fried  and not going anywhere,  I do be-leave  that  if a magneto is looked after  it will look after you  ,but what more interesting is now there making  updated  fly wheel magnetos  with contactless ignition  witch makes the job much cheaper,  but the test of time will tell all  to how good they are,   But I find that Lucas Are Good if there fitted together right  ,  yours  anna j 

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Magnetos are used on aircraft, even today, for reliability purposes.

People forget that a 40 + year old magneto is going to get tired (insulation goes and capacitors die) but with a little TLC will soldier on again for ages.

 

Keith

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What, pray have magnetos to do with a Commando problem, unless someone decides to fit one of those ugly fixed advance Joe Hunt things ? I love mags but Commando's don't 'ave 'em..

Keith, going back to your problem, I really think you have to go back to basics and check and clean every connection including kill and ignition switches.  With care, the ignition switches can be dismantled by gently levering the crimps back. There are a couple of springs, some brass contacts and a tufnol board. Make a drawing of the wiring first and bring the switch indoors...easiest on a clean white cloth. If the switch has never been apart it will be full of water, verdigris and old grease...we've all started off being scared of taking these things apart, but quite honestly you have nothing to lose as your bike isn't running.

Just do everything one step at a time and take lots of photos. I'm sure that this is a power feed to the ignition unit problem. There are no shortcuts

Was the old points lead re-used when converting to the Boyer ? If so, then I'll wager that's where the problem lies. It's 20p worth of twin core...best just to replace it.

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I am pretty much in agreement with Richard. An afternoon with a sheet of fine emery paper and an aerosol of electrical contact cleaner to clean every contact and earth will sort it out. 

He is also (as usual) spot on about the two wires to the points. The engine is jigling and vibrating about while the wires are clamped to the frame,,,,, surely a point of fatigue.

Most problems are not component failure, bur just 50 year old electrical conections. 

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An afternoon, Pete ? Don't rush things. Plan a weekend, brew lots of tea, treat yourself to a beer in the evening  and regard the possibility of performing maintenance as a plus-point to ownership :-) I have to start fettling mine for the Begonia Rally tomorrow - delayed by stupidly cutting my hand at work...Daughter's coming along so it has to be Commando rather than 16H.

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Good point(!) about the points lead. Check where it attaches to the Boyer stator board inside the old points cover. Boyer provide those nasty pre-insulated crimps to attach them and they're notorious for the conductors fracturing inside the insulation.

With regard to magnetos, I'm not aware that they're used on modern aircraft which are packed with electronics. Of course they're now dependent on competent programmers (and system designers....)

In reply to by ian_soady

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 Of course they're now dependent on competent programmers (and system designers....)

Nothing can go wrong ... can go wrong ... can go wrong :-D

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Well I feel such a dumb arse, in the end it was something so simple.

yes it was electrical, the earth wire from the coil to the earth on the frame has become detached. 

It was being held in place by the heat shrink over the wire and connector strong enough to withstand a minor tug, but when I got my cousin who’s a car mechanic to help to try and find the problem he gave it a more firm tug and the wire came out of the heat shrink tube. 

So cleaned it up and resoldered the joint and it starts 1st kick. 

Been on a 140mile run yesterday and all good. 

Thanks for all the comments, it sure is a learning curve for me. 

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There is nothing like sorting out a problem on your old Norton and getting it back on song. Like Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance there is a definite feel good factor involved. And you will never ever be stumped by a duff earth to your coils again. There are others that will test you of course, but you are many times more likely to have the right frame of mind to sort it yourself next time. Everybody learns this way - it's about having the will to stay the the course.

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As a new Norton Commando owner(as in bought it last weekend not a new type) its good to hear that a bike that breaks down twice in a year sounds like the exception rather than the norm?!. One of the insurance quotes i got included breakdown that could only have 2 recoveries in a year and i thought that might not be enough.

I might be easily impressed but i was pleased that 30 miles in the rain the day it was delivered(couldn't wait!)produced no dramas!

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My wife and I on two Commandos did a 1200 mile round trip to the South of Ireland in May, including a 370 mile day, no issues despite a biblical downpour near Stirling. Commandos are great long distance bikes, sure at times they will bite back but take some tools and some optimism and you will be rewarded 

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hello  Last of my treads  I am  retiring  well my bike very reliable of going no where but make up for it by being a big ornament  to clean  like me It thinks is retired  for now,!!    Now all have a good life walk tall and look the world right in the eye,   have FUN out there  BYE    yours Anna J 

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Mine has sat in the shed for about three months un looked at, but today started 7th kick and ran perfectly for 50 miles although the front front brake feels a bit spongier than than I remember it used too, and the tyres had lost about 6 lbds each.

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Once a bike is sorted it should be reliable. Getting it sorted can be tedious. I use my classics for everything - normal transport, meetings, hospital appointments - occasions I can't afford to miss. I don't have a modern bike so mine have to be reliable.

Persevere, get it running properly and it will reward you.   

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Perhaps to end on a Commando reliability good news tale - my '73 Mk1A 850 sat unused in a garage for 30 years while I lived and worked in Africa and on UK return after changing all oils , fitting a new battery , unseizing / servicing front disc brake , pumping up the tyres and filling with fresh fuel , it started after half a dozen kicks. Took it out for a test ride where it ran pretty OK considering its long slumber. Then after performing all standard maintenance routines plus giving it a new pair of Amal Premiers , new plugs and upgrading front brake with a Norvil kit the bike was - and continues to be - completely reliable. Still on points ignition and with 19,000 miles on the clock , the engine has never been opened (including head never coming off) since it left the factory.  

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I was asked this question on the Isle of Man this year at the soggy TT by someone thinking of buying one.

I said, "It's 47 years old and still running, does that answer your question?"

 

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4 weeks ago I headed off for the Begonia Bash and had a great time thanks to the wonderful weather, good company and my 650 Dominator covering 500 miles with no problems at all. 

Last weekend I took the same bike across the Solent, by ferry,  to join in the Isle of Wight Weekend fun and guess what happened? I disembarked off the ferry. Rode just 200 yards and the reconditioned (12 months ago) Magneto decided to play up. The screws holding the chunk with the points inside decided to come loose and let everything flap about. Fortunately, I had a short screwdriver and was able to re-connect all the bits back together. I started up the bike and rode off towards Shanklin. All was good for about 5 miles when suddenly, out of the blue, the speedometer decided to to go to sleep. The cause of this being the ferrule end of my 1 year old Venhill drive cable stretching leaving the inner too short to reach into the speeo head..  

Back in August, knowing that I had a busy riding month ahead, I had checked everything else on my bike apart from the two items that actually failed.

 

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I believe Boyer had a reliability problem a few years ago. Modern electronic components are now pretty reliable. Its worth remaking all your earth connections. I believe in earthing the Headlamps back to the main Battery Terminal. The Commando has a rubber mounted engine too. Worth using copper HT leads, carbon string is not long lived. My 40 year old Triumph started 2nd kick after being assembled out of parts, Wassel ignition, homemade loom, and every circuit fused and earthed. Full marks to eBay. I have three Nortons on the go now, and generally parts are more worn than Triumph parts, I have a brand new 50 year old gearbox somewhere, when I can find it.

… fitted a new rear but front is original '77 vintage (TT100's). Front was brand new when bike laid up back in the day and shows no sign of cracks or granulation but still on the mental list of pending jobs ...

Boyer Ign' fitted to my 1974 828cc Commando: in the Isle of Man approx' 1976 TT; a wire broke, [why are they so frail??] embarrassing as roads were closing! Managed to get onto a side road on one cylinder and repair.

Fast forward to 1978; a frosty night in middle of Winter, low speeds for 40 miles [so low charge to battery]. After a LOT of kicks, next day, the bike "exploded" even after petrol had been turned off for some time. Damaged my foot /ankle so badly the physio' advised me to get something with an "electric boot". Very sorry to part with it.

For many years I was puzzled but [correctly] thought the Boyer must store a charge, [from just the crank rotation, kicking] when the battery is low, and release it when it feels like it! Moral; heed the advice above, get a new battery [best you can afford, correct AH ] and keep it in top condition with a modern battery charger, when bike is off the road.

Hope this helps

It was good to see you at the Begonia too, Phil..a touch too warm for comfort on the run out. Apologies that Emmelien cropped the photo a little too tightly on the rooftop terrace of the St. Bernadus brewery...but I know you were there...The second photo shows how a reasonably bolted-together Commando looks after a 350 mile round trip...Daughter-dearest fell asleep on the back on the way home. That's how boring reliable Commandos are.

 

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