John Player Norton Commando
Years produced: 1974
Total production: 200 (est.)
Claimed power: 50hp @ 5,900rpm
Top speed: 115mph (est.)
Engine type: 828cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin
Weight (dry): 435lb (198kg)
Price then: $2,995
Price now: $8,000-$15,000
There are many collectible classic Norton Commando motorcycles, including high-pipe S and SS models, Production Racers and high performance Combat models. But one of the most appreciated and best remembered classic Norton Commandos is the John Player Norton.
And it’s easy to understand why. The eye-catching white fairing, accented by red and blue stripes, looks exotic. The twin headlights are undeniably futuristic, and the flag on the tail leaves no doubt where the bike came from. And even though under all that flashy bodywork is a bone-stock European-spec 1974 Mark 2A Norton Commando (although perhaps with taller gearing), the John Player Norton exudes the aura of a race track special.
The John Player story starts in the mid-1960s. Norton was then owned by AMC, a classic British motorcycle conglomerate that also counted once-celebrated and now long-gone classic British motorcycle marques among its stable: Matchless, AJS, James, Francis-Barnett and Villiers. Unfortunately, AMC, along with the rest of the British motorcycle industry, was in trouble, and in 1966, AMC went under. The wreckage was bought by Dennis Poore and his Manganese Bronze Holdings Ltd. Poore reorganized the remains into a new company named Norton Villiers Ltd. Implicit in this new construct was the belief that Norton’s racing heritage and its popular parallel-twin 745cc Norton Atlas sport bike made it a viable brand.
Introduced as an export-only model in 1962, the Norton Atlas quickly gained a reputation for speed, handling and rattle-the-fillings-out-of-your-teeth bone shaking vibration. Aside from gaining dual carbs and 12-volt electrics, the Atlas continued without major change until Norton Villiers Ltd. took over. To upgrade the Atlas, the new firm hired Dr. Stefan Bauer, formerly with Rolls-Royce, to head a development team (including engineers Bernard Hooper and Bob Trigg) tasked with building a new motorcycle that would handle and go like the Atlas, but not vibrate like it, despite retaining the Atlas’ basic parallel-twin engine.
By September 1967, a prototype was on display at the annual Earls Court show in London. The parallel-twin engine was tipped forward and housed in a new frame featuring a 2.25-inch backbone welded to a double cradle. The rear gearbox cradle mount was cushioned in rubber, as were other engine attachment points. These rubber mountings, patented and trademarked as “Isolastics,” isolated the rider from most (but not quite all) engine vibration, while providing a very sporting ride.
In its March 1970 issue, Cycle magazine tested the 1969 crop of Superbikes. Of the seven bikes tested, a Norton Commando SS ran the quarter mile fastest, at 12.69 seconds. The new Honda CB750 could stop more quickly, but the Norton was still faster. “Handling is extremely light and precise for such a big machine,” editor Cook Neilson said, further praising the Norton’s flat power band, lack of vibration and easy shifting gearbox, although he panned the bike’s brakes, at that time both drums. A front disc brake appeared in late 1971.
The Norton Commando sold well, and the factory, enthused by the potential of the big engine, hired former Suzuki racer Frank Perris to manage a factory race team. The team was sponsored by John Player, an English manufacturer of cigarettes, and its three main riders, Peter Williams, Dave Croxford and Mick Grant, did well in the Formula 750 races popular in the early 1970s. Norton decided to capitalize on its popular race team by designing a road bike that looked like the factory 750 racers.
Fresh out of art school, Mick Olfield started working for Norton in 1972. His job description was stylist/product designer. “At the time, most design was what draftsmen drew on a drawing board,” Mick explains. “Ergonomics didn’t come into it too much, and parts were designed on an individual basis. Some things were integrated, some were not. I was brought in to improve the ergonomics of the motorcycle, and make it look different in subtle ways.” He soon discovered there were stringent financial limits on what he could do. “There was a lot of money wasted. The company owners did not want to invest in the factory, and this was true throughout the British motorcycle industry,” Mick recalls. “BSA, especially, was owned by people who were not interested in bikes. If there was any money, it went elsewhere.”
One of his first projects was the race replica. Mick explains that the John Player Norton was originally conceived of as a café racer, a concept he describes as “warmed over production racer style.” The race team started entering endurance events, using a special fairing with twin headlamps designed for these all-night affairs. At this point, Mick was halfway through the project, but decided to change to the twin headlight look. The prototype was built of hand-formed aluminum. The gas tank started as a 2.6-gallon Roadster tank. “We welded a lump on the rear to extend the mileage. At the time, fiberglass tanks were illegal, so we made the tank out of metal, with a fiberglass hood over it. The JPN tank holds 3.5 English gallons, or about 16 liters,” he says.
“The exhaust was black chrome, not black enamel, and the racing hump behind the single seat had storage you could get at with a couple of twist fasteners. A lot of people think all John Player Nortons were 850s, but you could get the bike with the 750 short-stroke engine, which was built to homologate for U.S. racing. You could get the short-stroke engine detuned for street use. The John Player with the 750cc engine is in the catalog I saved, but I don’t know how many were built.”
The John Player Norton (quickly abbreviated JPN) was introduced in late 1973 and reached the public in April 1974. Many people think it was put together by the race team, but Mick says only the production racers were built by the race team, not the John Players. In actuality, the JPN was either built at Andover, in a separate facility, or on the main production line at Norton’s Wolverhampton factory.
Most JPNs went to the United States. It’s believed that of the approximately 200 JPNs made, 120 were sent to the U.S. All factory JPNs (as opposed to home-built copies) were made in 1974, with the shifter on the right and 30mm intake ports. Tapered manifolds connected the ports to 32mm Amal Concentric carburetors. The front brake was a disc, the rear a drum. All factory JPNs had forged aluminum brackets on the back of the fairing. There are some copies floating around, but these have welded brackets.
Unfortunately, the JPN banked on a collector’s market that did not then exist. To most potential buyers, the fairing and twin headlights looked weird instead of fashion forward. Young men looking to lure the fairer sex objected to the lack of a passenger seat, while other buyers objected to the price tag. At $2,995 — $495 over a standard Commando — it was the most expensive production Commando. JPNs sat on dealership floors. To make matters worse, John Player Tobacco quit sponsoring Norton at the end of 1974. And that was the end of the John Player Norton.
In 1970, Phil Radford was working for Imperial Tobacco as a mechanic when a friend announced he had a 1961 Norton twin for sale. Phil bought it, liked it and joined the English Norton Owners Club. Contacts with the California Norton Owners Club led Phil to vacation in California in 1980, borrowing a bike from a California club member. That year, Art Sirota showed up at the United States Norton Owners Association Northern California Rally in the Redwoods, riding his John Player Norton. Phil had never seen one before. “I fell in love with the looks,” he says.
Phil decided to move to the United States in 1981. A year later, he was driving past a garage sale and saw a 1972 Commando parked there. “It was well priced and actually ran, so I bought it,” he explains. The next year, he found himself secretary/treasurer of the Northern California Norton Owners Club. He was buying a lot of parts from Norvil (then called Fair Spares) in England and inquired at one point if there was a U.S. distributor. The supplier asked if he would like to be it, and that’s how he became a Norton parts dealer.
A few years later, Phil came across the JPN featured here. “I heard through the grapevine that this guy was moving and wanted to sell his John Player,” Phil says. It was in good condition and, aside from a little reassembly, needed no restoration.
Phil is an excellent mechanic, but even he can’t figure out why all the John Players he has ever owned run better than the garden variety Commando. “The gearing is taller, but that doesn’t explain it. It’s hard to quantify,” he says. “Somehow, they are all smooth and go well. They are quiet at higher speed, and a great bike on sweepers. The only problem is the clip-ons and rearsets. The older we get, the sooner clip-ons and rearsets become uncomfortable.
“I brought my John Player to the Utah International Norton Owners Association rally a couple of years ago,” Phil continues. “There were seven John Players there, probably the most that have been in one place recently. A couple of us were riding on this long downhill stretch. There was a Honda rider behind us. He said later that he was doing 110mph and we were pulling away from him. I have no idea how fast I was going, but it must have been about 115mph. My eyes were glued to the road. It was the fastest I have ever been on a Norton, and it was very steady at that speed.”
Maybe there’s something to all that bodywork after all. MC