John Player Norton Commando

A collectible classic Norton motorcycle

| July/August 2010

John Player Norton Commando
Years produced:
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
MPG: 40-50

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.

Commando days

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.

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