Road Test: 1973 John Player Norton Monocoque

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Photo by Kyoichi Nakamura
The 1973 John Player Norton Monocoque.

1973 John Player Norton Monocoque
Claimed power: 76hp@ 7,200rpm
Top speed: 158mph
Engine: 746cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin
Weight (dry): 350lb (150kg)
Fuel capacity: 6.35gal (24ltr)

Although only three John Player Norton monocoques were ever built (plus a fourth prototype chassis), all of which competed for just a single race season in 1973, its unlikely success against much more powerful 2-stroke opposition cemented the JPN as one of the benchmark race bikes of the modern era.

The John Player Norton story is much more than a footnote in the history of Britain’s oldest and most historic marque, denoting a brief revival of race track fortunes in the face of a burgeoning Japanese onslaught. Thirty-eight years ago, Norton’s tiny race shop not only established the prototype of the modern fully sponsored road racing team, it also created a race-winning bike that, while essentially a 2-wheeled anachronism thanks to its archaic air-cooled pushrod 2-cylinder engine and separate gearbox, was arguably the most sophisticated and avant-garde motorcycle in terms of chassis design that the world had yet seen.

The John Player Norton story began in 1971 when Peter Williams, a Norton engineer who successfully combined his day job with GP racing at the top level, was given a budget by Norton chairman Dennis Poore to build a one-off open-class racer using the firm’s production 750 engine. That bike performed well enough to convince Poore to go racing in the new Formula 750 class, where the BSA/Triumph corporate cousins were already tasting success.

The Norton-Villiers performance shop at Thruxton circuit turned its attention to the manufacture and development of the new machines. Freshly crowned 250cc world champion Phil Read was recruited to ride alongside Williams and former Suzuki GP rider Frank Perris signed up as team manager. As the final ingredient in what was to prove a fascinating cocktail of talents, former car racer Poore used some of his contacts in motor racing to attract Imperial Tobacco to sponsor the Norton race effort via its John Player brand, the first example anywhere in the world of a bike team fully supported by an outside sponsor — let alone a cigarette one. John Player Norton had been born. MC  

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