Retrospective: 1974 Norton Commando 850 John Player Replica

1974 Norton Commando 850 John Player Replica.
1974 Norton Commando 850 John Player Replica.

This was a minor marketing coup: Dress up a stock Norton Commando to look like the genuine race motorcycles that had been doing well in the Formula 750 races in 1972 and 1973. As one quite literate journalist wrote, it was “a titivated sports bike with a flashy fairing…” To save you looking up the word, titivate means “to make small enhancing alterations.” All the company did was put a race-worthy fairing on an 850 Commando, which knocked out 50 horsepower on a good day, substantially less than the 70-horsepower 750 Commando that was seen on the track.

1974 Norton Commando 850 John Player Replica.Some history should intrude. In 1971, Norton had the right to feel a bit proud; the company was making more money than any other British motorcycle manufacturer. Dennis Poore, the company commander, had decided to limit production to just Commando models, and five were in the lineup, from the Fastback to the regrettable Hi-Rider. At the Isle of Man that year, factory rider Peter Williams finished a respectable third in the new Formula 750 race.

The Commando was first seen late in 1967, with a 750cc OHV parallel-twin engine (73mm bore, 89mm stroke) and the innovative Isolastic chassis, which isolated the vibrations from the parallel twin by using rubber mounts for the engine and drive assemblies. It worked quite well and provided very good handling…presuming that the rubbery bits were not worn. It put out 49 horsepower at the rear wheel at 6,500 rpm, with a 9:1 compression ratio, which was nothing too exceptional. The 850 came out in the spring of 1973, the idea being that slightly increasing the cubic capacity by enlarging the bore to 77mm and lowering the compression ratio to 8.5:1 could result in the same horsepower, yet make it more comfortable to ride…and more reliable. A magazine dyno test for the 850 engine showed close to 49 horses at 5,500 rpm.

But racing was expensive, so Poore went looking for some money. An English cigarette company was willing to sponsor the roadracing team. It should be noted that before the medical world deemed cigarette smoking to be hazardous to your health the tobacco companies were putting out major bucks to see their logos on the track. Roadracing meant bikes with big fairings, which had lots of space on which to put words like JOHN PLAYER, writ large. In December of 1971, the company signed a deal with Norton to go on the racing circuit.

1974 Norton Commando 850 John Player Replica.The new John Player race fairing could easily incorporate a whole lot of writing, maybe the entire Bible if done very small. The extensive fiberglass was all for aerodynamics, decreasing wind resistance in the front and hoping for a little push from the roiled air at the rather large rear. And the red and blue colors denoted the colors of the pack on the No. 10 version of cigarettes, which John Player was keen to promote.

The initial deal was to sponsor Norton at the most important of the new F750 races, Daytona and Imola, as well as some well-known production races. In 1972, a John Player finished fourth at the Daytona 200—the first four-stroke behind three Japanese two-strokes. That year Nortons came in first and second at the grueling Thruxton 500 in England, and overall sales were up more than 50 percent: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday, as the old adage went. In 1973, Williams came in first at the F750 Isle of Man TT, a choice bit of advertising for John Player. Later that year Norton introduced the 850 John Player Replica.

1974 Norton Commando 850 John Player Replica.The JPR was all image, having the look, but not the race-worthy power. And the look cost the consumer 20 percent more, adding some $500 to the average $2,500 price of most Norton Commando models sold in the U.S. Norton had sensibly contracted with the Avon fairing company to do the fiberglass for the street-legal JPR, and since Avon had also built the race fairing for the F750 models, the company had most of its work already done. This was no see-through motorcycle, as the fairing swept back to cover the upper half of the engine, and side panels ran up to the single seat, backed by a very obvious butt-stopper. The large tail section was actually useful to a road rider, as the storage space could hold a rainsuit or other light gear. To add to the racing heritage, the exhaust system was done in black chrome. Though somebody added shiny chrome to the bike in the photos, perhaps not liking the quiet 80-decibel sound of the original.

Rearset pegs, clip-on handlebars, all the necessaries to promote the racer image—if not the rider’s comfort. The only real problem would be the headlight, or headlights, as the case may be. The stylists decided that a pair of six-inch orbs would stand out, perhaps not seen on a production motorcycle since the Harley DL of 1929. And a fiberglass cover concealed an unattractive 3.2-gallon gas tank.

1974 Norton Commando 850 John Player Replica.Once the key was in the ignition—difficult to access—and the rider had tickled the carbs, perhaps choked a cold engine and kicked over the 8.5:1 compression, the ride began. Perfect for a twisty back road—except enthusiastic cornering was limited by side- and centerstand scrapes on the left side. Super-enthusiasts could scrape the exhaust system on the right—or even lowside. The JPR was not sold as a pukka racer, but as a styling exercise. Probably fewer than 200 were ever built, and most were sold in the United States.

Norton finances slumped in 1974, and John Player withdrew its support at the end of the year. Poore declared the company bankrupt late in 1975.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here