• Chassis # 317758
  • Engine # 317758
  • 1 Of Only Approximately 200 Ever Produced
  • A Numbers Matching And Highly Original Example
  • Showing Just 3,174 Miles From New
  • Recent Thorough Servicing By Marque Expert
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The Overview

The story of the Norton John Player Commando is one that begins with the rubble and rebirth of a once infamous British motorcycle manufacturer. The early 1960s saw the Norton name under the ownership of the British motorcycle titan AMC, which held such historic names as Matchless, AJS, and Villiers. This time period, however, was not very kind to the British motorcycling industry and in 1966 AMC, unfortunately, went under. Banking on the history of the brands held under the AMC name, Dennis Poore and his Manganese Bronze Holdings Ltd. purchased AMC and set about restructuring it to what would become known as Norton Villiers Ltd. Almost immediately, they brought in Dr. Stefan Bauer (formerly with Rolls-Royce) to lead production on their new offering to replace the Norton Atlas, which had been the range-topping model offered by the company. Testing and final production proceeded quickly and by 1967 the all-new Norton Commando was released to the public. 

The new Commando featured a 750cc parallel-twin in an effort to keep it relevant in the displacement wars that were beginning to kick off. The Commando was received well by both the public and reviewers of the day who were both enthusiastic about the power and the handling of the new Norton offering. In an effort to bolster sales further, the factory hired former Suzuki racer, Frank Perris, to head a new racing team with the lead sponsor being John Player, an English cigarette manufacturer. The team, which featured riders Peter Williams, Dave Croxford, and Mick Grant, proved to be highly successful winning a total of 14 international races in 1973 on their Norton Monocoque design. In order to celebrate the success of their racing team, Norton decided to design and release a road bike that looked strikingly similar to their successful Monocoque race bike. 

The task of leading the design of this new homage was given to Mick Olfield, a stylist/product designer who had joined Norton in 1972. Like designers throughout history though, Mick was unfortunately strapped by the men above him in the accounting department but he made the best of what was available to him at the time. Originally the John Player Special was conceived as a cafe racer, more in line with a production racer style, but when the race team began entering endurance events and had to rework their monocoque fairing to include 2 headlights, it was determined that the new homage would follow this direction.

The John Player Norton was introduced in late 1973 but would not be publicly available until April of 1974. These special bikes were assembled right next to their more mundane Commando counterparts on production lines at Andover and Wolverhampton in the UK. Although most were delivered with the 850cc engine of the MKIII commando, it was possible to order one with a 750cc short-stroke engine, intended to allow them to be run for U.S. racing in 750cc classes popular at the time. The fairing they designed beautifully emulates the monocoque design utilized by the race team. The tank was elongated and covered in a fiberglass housing, as fiberglass tanks were illegal for road use at the time. A number of other small additions were made to differentiate the JPN from the standard Commando, one of the most obvious being the addition of the sweeping Black Chrome exhaust pipes. Total production numbers were set for 1,000 units but unfortunately, the John Player Specials did not sell as well as the Norton Villiers company was hoping. The styling was perceived as odd to the general public and the price, which was set at $2,995, was almost $500 more than a standard Commando at the time. These factors and others caused these special motorcycles to sit in dealer showrooms for extended periods of time. In the end, only approximately 200 were produced, with about 120 of those examples being sent to the United States. To make matters worse, John Player Tobacco ceased sponsoring the Norton team at the end of the 1974 season, leaving these very special homages to a successful racing season, to be largely lost to the passage of time. Throughout the years, true Norton enthusiasts continued to understand the significance and the value of these John Player Specials, cherishing them along the way. More recently, as the pricing of good Norton Commandos has steadily climbed over time, the John Player Special has seen a resurgence in desire as people once again discover the significance of these rare and interesting motorcycles. 

The example on offer here, Chassis number 317758, is a 1974 Norton John Player Commando. It is a numbers matching example, with the engine showing the corresponding number of 317758 as well. This motorcycle has been in our possession for approximately 6 years now, where it has been displayed prominently in our showroom. We purchased this motorcycle from a collector in Connecticut who owned the bike for approximately 15 years, during which time it occupied a special place in the office where his collection was housed. The odometer currently displays 3,174 miles which is believed to be correct given the overall condition of the bike. Although it cannot be fully confirmed due to lacking history, it is believed that this motorcycle retains all its original finishes. The finishes through the motorcycle are all consistent in their appearance and the presence of original stickers, such as the shift pattern indicator sticker still affixed to the top of the tank, lead us to be fairly confident in the extreme originality of this example. This paint shows wear in the form of discoloration, some minor cracking around edges, and some fisheye cracks in places like the top of the rear hump. Lifting the seat flap off the rear hump exposes the bare fiberglass of the hump section and is stamped neat and clean is a 1974 production date. The backside of the seat flap still has original glue in place, which has browned over the years but again points to the extreme originality of this machine. The decals retain good color but show some peeling and cracking around the edges in some spots, which one would expect from an original example. The carburetors are the correct Amal 932 with R33 designation for the right side unit and L34 for the left side unit. Please be sure to thoroughly review the photos in the above gallery to get a true idea of the overall condition of this motorcycle.

Recently we sent this JPN (John Player Norton) for an extensive service with J&M Enterprises of Cedarville New Jersey, an industry specialist with British motorcycles. While there, this motorcycle was completely gone through with special attention being paid to preserve the originality of the machine. A new battery was put in, the tank was cleaned, the carburetors were rebuilt, and the braking system was gone through. While the motorcycle was apart, the engine casings and surrounding area were cleaned and polished. All in all the service totaled $2658 and has left this Norton in excellent running condition. The tires currently on the motorcycle are the correct style Pirelli Phantom +1, with DOT date codes reading 223 in the front and 273 in the rear. DOT date coding starting in 1971 was done by this 3 digit numbering meaning these tires are either original, having been produced in 1973, or are from 1983, it is, unfortunately, impossible to tell. It should be noted that either way, the tires are too old to be ridden on and would need to be replaced (keeping these to the side as they very well could be original), in order to undergo any serious riding. 

This wonderful machine starts with relative ease, needing a few kicks to jump to life but once ignition has been achieved, it settles into an easy idle. The throttle is responsive and acceleration is smooth and linear with plenty of power as you climb higher in the range of the dash-mounted tachometer. The exhaust note sounds superb, emanating from the twin sweeping black chrome mufflers. The riding position is slightly awkward given the long tank but not nearly as bad as one would expect when first looking over the machine. Shifting gears is smooth and easy, accomplished by the foot shifting mechanism located on the left side of the bike, with 1 being down and 4 up. The foot brake is located on the right-hand side of the bike. The brakes work as they should although overall braking power would be considered adequate given the time period. The rear brake light does not illuminate from the right-hand side foot brake as the controller has gone bad and it is next to impossible to find a new one. The brake lights do however work when operating the hand braking mechanism. The twin Lucas branded headlights mounted in the fairing work as they should and the remainder of the Lucas branded lights on the machine are all clean and free of cracking. Some of the rubber control components were replaced during the recent servicing in addition to adding a new set of the correct style handlebar grips. The remainder of the controls etc. appear to be functioning as they should during our brief testing.

Overall, this 1974 Norton John Player Commando represents an important period in Norton’s history. A time when they walked the brink of destruction under the AMC name and rose to produce some of their most successful offerings, both on the road and on the track. With only 200 of these unique machines ever produced and only 120 making their way to American shores, this motorcycle is sure to continue to appreciate in value, pushed from below as the more mundane Commando offerings become more valuable as well. Given its originality and excellent mechanical condition, this JPN will undoubtedly be a hit at any motorcycle gathering, British or otherwise, and would make for some exhilarating back road rides with your chin tucked to the tank and fantasies of blasting around famous European tracks in 1973 playing through your head.