Union Motorcycle Classics builds a tribute to Peter Williams and his John Player Nortons…
In December 2020, the motorcycle world lost one of the greatest GP racer/designer/engineers of all time, Peter Williams. The son of a respected TT racer, Peter trained as a draftsman and worked at a Ford car factory while beginning to race motorcycles in the early 1960s, competing in Gran Prix from 1966 to 1973.
Though Williams only took home a single Gran Prix win — the 1971 350cc Ulster Gran Prix — his contributions to the motorcycle world were groundbreaking and incredibly influential, impacting the bikes we still ride today. In 1969, he created the Tom Arter-backed Matchless G50 nicknamed “Wagon Wheels,” with solid-cast six-spoke “Elektron” wheels and disc brakes:
“On it he pioneered the use of both disc brakes and cast wheels rather than wire-spoked wheels—concepts that have since become near-universal in motorcycling.” —Cycle World
In 1973, Williams won the Isle of Man Formula 750 TT on a motorcycle of his own design, a semi-monocoque John Player Norton (JPN), lapping the course at 107.27 mph. That wasn’t far off from Mike Hailwood’s outright lap record on a Honda six-cylinder — not bad for an air-cooled pushrod Commando engine with just 76 horsepower!
Williams had concentrated on offsetting the bike’s power deficiency with a small frontal area and low center of gravity, designing a double-skin monocoque chassis built from 600 individual pieces of 22-gauge stainless steel and an integrated fairing with handlebar blisters, reducing the drag coefficient to just 0.39.
Enter Mike Watanabe and Luke Ransom of Union Motorcycle Classics, who operate out of the remodeled “milking parlor” of a 100-year-old Idaho barn.
“No longer home to lowing bovines, we now attend to the gentle rumblings of a slightly more untamed beast.”
The bike you see here is a 1974 Norton Commando 850 — their version of a John Player Norton replica. The bike is running Morris mags, Norvil discs, AP calipers, Koni shocks, electronic Lucas replica instrumentation, and more. The seat rails were reengineered to fit the oil tank and seat, the exhaust system custom-fabricated, and the paint done in-house.
Mike says the bike is “period powerful,” handles great, and honors one of his personal heroes:
“We are very proud of how the bike came out as a total package. It seems to fill the design plan of paying homage to the great Peter Williams and his groundbreaking Norton race bikes. He is a bit of a hero to me. The true Engineer/Designer/Racer. A rare breed of human.”
Below, Mike gives us the full story on the build.
Norton Commando 850: Builder Interview
• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
Union Motorcycle Classics has been operating for approximately a dozen years. I am partners with Luke Ransom. Luke is a professionally trained mechanic and MX racer. He grew up restoring cars and bikes with his dad. I have a degree in fine arts and most of my professional career has been centered in graphic design and art direction.
Luke came up to me at a motorcycle show and asked me about an old commando I was showing. He was curious about the who built it and where the bodywork came from. I told him that I built the bike. I had shaped all the plugs for the body work and my friend Bret Edwards made the molds and parts out of fiberglass. Bret and I had been fabricating parts for a while because we couldn’t afford what was already out there. We started doing bikes in the mid 80s. That lead to the formation of the fiberglass company Glass from the Past.
Luke bought a fairing for us (GFTP) and then the two us started discussing his build. One thing led to another and soon we were working on bikes together for other people. I grew up farming out of a 100-year-old barn in Idaho. When the time was right we converted that old barn into a bike shop and opened Union Motorcycle Classics.
Luke does a lot of work on exotics for customers scattered across the Western part of the country. I never imagined that old barn would house MV’s and rare race bikes. It’s a joy to walk into the shop and work around those bikes. I only get involved in the handful of custom bikes we do. They are as much a labor of love as a business proposition. Luke handles the engine mechanicals and electrical work. I take care of most of the design work. I would say that Luke has picked up more of that aspect of custom bike building than I have of the mechanics. We split fabricating duties. There is a certain art itch that gets scratched when doing the fabrication that nobody ever really sees.
• What’s the make, model, and year of the donor bike?
Bike is a 1974 Norton Commando 850.
• Why was this bike built, what was the design concept, and what influenced the build?
Customer called and asked us to build a Norton Commando for him. Funny thing is that he asked us to duplicate the bike that Luke had seen and approached me about a decade earlier. We told him that we built a duplicate of an original build once before. There wasn’t as much joy in building a duplicate custom bike. We told him we were not going to do that again. We then said we would build a commando if he let us build a Peter Williams inspired Norton Commando. Essentially our version of a John Player Replica. Customer said he really didn’t like the lines of the Norton Factory Replica. We told him to look at actual race bikes not the factory replica. He finally said that he trusted us fully. Our other bike builds gave him the confidence to go forward with us blindly.
I created a design concept and then we went in search of the donor bike and some race parts. Mags and Norvil brakes were a must in my mind. The oil tank system also had to be completely changed to make the profile right. We got really lucky and found an abandoned JPN project in our hometown of Boise. Best part — it had Morris Mags already! We were able to use the motor, frame, isolastics, trans, motor mounts, and the tank that came with the project. I then shaped the fairing and seat. I always thought Norton JPN’s should have shock shrouds. So that was important to incorporate into the design for me. Shaped forms were sent to GFTP and Bret made the parts. Frame was altered from the seat rail front intersection back. The new seat rails were engineered in conjunction with the new oil tank and seat.
We were also able to use the rear disc set up that came with the bike. Front fork legs and floating Norvil discs were sourced out of England. AP calipers provide the stopping power. Rear shocks are Koni. We did something unusual with the instruments. Legendary Cycles supplied electronic Lucas replicas. The mags didn’t give us a good option for a speedo pick up. Luke built the exhaust. Front fairing mount took a bit of head scratching to get right. Those two headlights made space a bit tight for all the stuff that has to go up there. Luke and I do our own paint. He sprays and I do the layout. The paint scheme was super fun to do on this bike. It harkens to the original with a few twists….
• Can you tell us what it’s like to ride this bike?
Bike is “period powerful”. Stops on a dime. Handles great.
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
We are very proud of how the bike came out as a total package. It seems to fill the design plan of paying homage to the great Peter Williams and his ground breaking Norton race bikes. He is a bit of a hero to me. The true Engineer/Designer/Racer. A rare breed of human.
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