Every manufacturer has a skeleton in its closet, and in Norton’s case, it’s the Hi-Rider. Arguably the first factory-produced custom, it looked like powered version of children’s bicycles such as the Schwinn Sting-Ray and Raleigh Chopper. Which themselves were parodies of choppers with banana seats and ape-hanger bars.
History has now come full circle, and the ungainly Norton is teetering on the verge of coolness. This heavily customized 1974 Commando 850 Hi-Rider, built by Frenchman Julien Azé, tweaks the Hi-Rider’s gawky lines and is one of the most original builds we’ve seen in a long time. As with most interesting bikes, there’s an equally interesting story behind it.
“I bought the bike from Yves Delamare, an importer of English motorcycles,” Julien recalls. “For Yves this bike was incongruous in his stable—but for me, it was the Holy Grail. Despite its numerous stylistic faults, this English bike just reeked of California.”
The Commando had also been butchered. “The previous owner had the ideas, but not the means,” Julien laments. “Mechanically, the bike was not functional. The front tire was from a car, and the sissy bar looked like it had been chewed by teeth. Everything had to be redone.” Julien was thrown in at the deep end.
As luck would have it, one of his neighbors is Vincent Prat of the Southsiders MC, the crew that organizes the annual Wheels & Waves festival in Biarritz. “The Norton got me thinking,” says Vincent. “Why do we see rigids based on Triumphs and BSAs, but never Commandos? It’s an unanswerable question, but we are very proud of the finished build.” Vincent put his knowledge and garage at Julien’s disposal, and over the next two years, the Commando took shape.
After learning the ropes helping to build Florent Graglia’s stunning 1973 Norton café racer, Julien tore down the Hi-Rider and painstakingly reconstructed it, piece by piece. “I would go off riding, and it would break down. I’d repair the problem, and then find another,” he says. “Our relationship was up and down: full of joys and despair, frustrations, the desire to abandon the project, and then to start it again.”
Compare a stock version of the Hi-Rider to Julien’s machine, and you’ll see that it was worth it. The handlebars, sissy bar, oil tanks and bobber seat are all handmade. The headlight is a 1930s Cibié, as found on the legendary Chanel Triton.
The 19” front wheel is a restored original fitment, but the back rim has been dropped from 18” to 16”—instantly making the Norton look less like a pushbike and more like the 1960s choppers it originally hoped to emulate. And the way the line of the exhaust meets the base of the sissy bar is genius. “Everything was done in the garage,” says Julien, who benefited from the Southsiders’ famous camaraderie and skills.
The work paid off. “The engine now runs like clockwork, and the roadholding lives up to its promises—with the bonus of watts à gogo as it accelerates!”
Several days ago Vincent and the Southsiders crew took took turns on the Commando on the road. “As I saw their collective smiles, I said to myself, the project is validated,” Julien smiles. “Until the next breakdown!”
Images courtesy of Benoit Guerry.