By the early 1970s, the golden era of British motorcycle manufacture that prevailed throughout the first half of the 20th century had lost its lustre. Machines from marques such as BSA, Triumph, Norton and Matchless that had once been common on the roads were more likely to be found languishing in backyards and garden sheds, their once-loyal owners having been seduced by the better built, better performing, more reliable offerings flooding in from Japan. On the racetracks too the Japanese were belittling the cash-strapped British manufacturers, whose outdated and often fragile single- and twin-cylinder engines were no match for the high-revving, seemingly indestructible multicylinder bikes being created in the east.
So when Norton’s 34-year-old chief race engineer and factory rider Peter Williams lined up among a host of Yamahas, Suzukis and Hondas for the start of the Formula 750 race at the Isle of Man TT in June 1973, only the most dedicated British motorcycle fans would have tipped him to finish in the top 10 – or even, perhaps, to complete the race at all. There was no doubting Williams’s talent as a rider; he had raced on the Isle of Man 11 times and achieved seven second places, won the Ulster Grand Prix in 1971 and finished fourth in the 1967 500cc World Championship. But the twin-cylinder engine of his John Player-sponsored Norton was based on a 30-year-old design, marking the bike out as an apparent underdog.
What few observers had accounted for, however, was the radical and ingenious stainless-steel chassis into which the ostensibly outdated engine was fitted. Personally developed by Williams, it featured a ground‑breaking monocoque design in which the fuel and oil tank were integral to the frame to centralise mass; it ran tubeless tyres on cast-magnesium wheels (the first to be used on a motorcycle); it sported state-of-the art disc brakes and was enveloped in a drag-reducing fairing that Williams had honed to perfection through hours of wind-tunnel testing.
In short, the John Player Norton Monocoque was something of a sleeper, a wolf in sheep’s clothing that, while down on power compared with the competition from Japan, made up for its deficiencies with sublime handling and perfect balance. And, against all the apparent odds, Williams raced it to victory on that hot June day, even completing one of the required five laps of the Isle of Man’s famously gruelling 37.75-mile course at an average of 107.27mph – a record for a twin-cylinder machine. His achievement was nothing short of momentous, proving to be the last great win by a British marque – and one that saw Williams and the John Player Norton enter the annals of motorcycle-racing history.
And it’s now possible to own a piece of that history, following the decision by Williams to build a limited series of 25 “continuation” machines, called JPN Replicas and costing £88,000 apiece. Although the continuation bikes have been slightly modified, with bolt-in fuel and oil tanks to reduce repair costs in the event of damage (the JPN is designed purely for track use), the design closely replicates that of the 1973 machine, even down to the magnesium-alloy wheels that have been made to the exact pattern of the originals, and the classic Norton Commando engines built from brand-new components.
For the purposes of this article, Williams arranged for me to ride one of the first completed JPN Replicas at Turweston airfield in Northamptonshire, near to where the bikes are built. Two things stood out on this initial encounter: one, that it is a truly beautifully engineered motorcycle; and two, it is absolutely tiny – a jewel-like creation that seems almost too exquisitely crafted to ride in anger, replete with crisp castings and artisanal welds. The fairing is just 24in wide (including its aerodynamic handlebar nacelles) and the area of bodywork where the fuel tank would be on a conventional machine measures only 10in across – tailored to accommodate Williams’ chest while lying flat in a wind-cheating racing crouch.
At about 6ft tall and wearing a somewhat unforgiving set of ancient leathers, I felt cumbersome on the JPN and, after a few passes up and down the airstrip, was amazed that Williams – who was a similar height when he won the TT – had been able to complete the 188-mile race at such prodigious speed. More noteworthy, however, was how delightful the 160mph-plus bike was to ride, having none of the “all or nothing” engine characteristics of many race machines, but rather a remarkably linear power delivery from an engine – built by Norton specialist Mick Hemmings – that seemed to become smoother the higher it revved.
“The JPN Monocoque was the best bike I ever rode, and I would have had to be a complete idiot to fall off it,” says Williams who, the year after his TT victory, had to stop racing after a devastating crash at Oulton Park on a Norton he hadn’t designed. He has since worked as a consultant to firms such as Cosworth and Lotus and the modern-day Norton concern, setting up Peter Williams Motorcycles two years ago in conjunction with fellow engineer Greg Taylor. “In truth, I wasn’t entirely surprised to win on the Isle of Man,” he says. “It’s a special circuit that requires one to get the balance of power and handling just right. And the JPN was perfect, steering beautifully and allowing me to go into corners hard and come out fast, which was the key to a good time. At the end of the race I felt like doing another couple of laps.”
So far, five JPN Replicas have been sold, attracting both die-hard motorcycle enthusiasts and wealthy investors. But for one buyer, Belgian communications technology executive Geert Blondeel, the JPN Replica simply offered a further opportunity to feed an addiction for anything related to the Norton marque. “I had to have one because my father passed on his love of Norton to me, and I have passed it on to my son,” he explains. “But the JPN Replica is something really special because it reminds us just what an amazing innovator Peter Williams was to be able to win against those big manufacturers from Japan, despite their huge resources. And I think the fact that he has given people the opportunity to share that innovation all these years later is remarkable.”
The JPN is not, however, the only hand-built, twin-cylinder British motorcycle to have recently become available. In the unlikely setting of an industrial unit at the Carswell Golf & Country Club in rural Oxfordshire, Gerry Lisi, managing director of Métisse Motorcycles, is now ramping up production of a road-going machine powered by a bespoke 997cc engine produced in conjunction with former Formula One engine designer Tim Baker and former Williams Formula One engineer Christian Sawyer. The Métisse Adelaide MK5 offers 97 brake horsepower and 135mph performance for £29,700, in Café Racer and Street Scrambler variants, with tuning kits available that can boost power by up to a third.
Lisi bought the rights to the Métisse name more than 15 years ago from engineer and road racer Pat French, who had bought Métisse in 1982 from its original owners Derek and Don Rickman, famous in the two-wheeled world during the 1960s and 1970s for making beautiful motorcycle frames for competition use. A few years ago, I reported in these pages on Lisi’s superb £15,500 Métisse-framed replicas of a desert racer owned by Hollywood star and motorcycle fanatic Steve McQueen, around 100 of which have now been sold worldwide. Five years before that, however, Lisi had already started designing his bespoke engine for the MK5, the first prototype of which was up and running in 2008. “I realised from the outset that, for Métisse to survive, we would have to design and build our own engine,” says Lisi. “It has taken as long as it has because if someone is going to pay £25,000-plus for a motorcycle, it needs to be right – and to get it right means careful design and considerable investment. We believe we’re there now, and the aim is to produce 30 or 40 MK5 bikes a year for high-end buyers.”
The British motorcycle industry may have seemed on its last legs when Williams rode to victory back in 1973 – but with the arrival of the JPN Replica and the Métisse Adelaide MK5, the ongoing success of Triumph, the revival of Norton and the return of marques such as Matchless, Brough and Hesketh (see “British motorbike revival” on Howtospendit.com), the Brits, it seems, are well and truly back on the two-wheeled track.