When Kenny Cummings set about rebuilding his 1974 Norton Commando motorcycle after crashing it during the mid-1990s, his mechanical knowledge was scant. He owned neither wrench nor screwdriver, and had no option but to use the pavement outside his Manhattan apartment as his open‑air garage.
Twenty-four years later, Cummings presides over a vast workshop equipped with an arsenal of tools and machining equipment. He’s also become the go-to man for anyone looking for a classic Norton that starts, stops, runs and rides better than it did when it first left the storied maker’s Birmingham factory.
Norton, founded by James Lansdowne Norton in 1898, won the inaugural Isle of Man TT in 1907, notched up a further 19 Senior TT victories in the course of the next 45 years and, during the 1960s and ’70s, made the Commando model that became the chosen bike both of better-heeled Rockers and the police who chased them.
Then, in 1977, Norton ceased production, a victim of the British motorcycle industry’s decimation by competition from Japan. There have been various attempts to revive it as a manufacturer – the most recent of which got under way in April when the company was purchased by the Indian engineering giant TVS. But it’s thanks to Cummings that the glorious sound of a classic Norton looks set to stay with us for some time yet. Since the accident in 1996, he’s established one of the most respected specialist businesses on America’s east coast, restoring, repairing and improving examples of the marque. His work has attracted a global following of fans: clients include Billy Joel and the organisers of Art Basel Miami, for which he collaborated with Chilean designer Sebastian ErraZuriz to build a bike with a taxidermy bird set into the fuel tank.
Cummings has always been a dogged learner and fanatical perfectionist. Raised in Seattle, he started a career programming state-of-the-art synthesisers for stars such as Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello and Patti LaBelle. He later switched to a more stable, but ultimately “soul-destroying”, job in publishing.
The motorcycle project represented “a clear, sub-conscious reinvention of my life”, says Cummings. Or perhaps it was destiny? His father owned a Norton – and photographed him astride it as a very small boy.
“I had the crash just a few months after buying the Norton, which was my first bike,” he recalls. “It left me feeling lower than I had ever felt in my entire life and, psychologically, I knew that the only way to lift my spirits was to put the machine back to its pre-crash state – the rebuild simply consumed me.
“At first I didn’t know how to do any of it, but just as I once learned to programme synthesisers, so I learned to dismantle and rebuild every component. It developed into an obsession. Later I went to a motorcycle show where there was also racing going on. I walked into the paddock and there discovered my nirvana – guys who were working on bikes, not thinking about originality but purely about function.”
The meeting prompted Cummings to build a Norton Commando motor from scratch and fit it into a Featherbed frame in order to go racing too – something else he had no idea how to do. In 2007 he won the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association’s National BEARS 750cc championship.
“The following year the economy tanked and I lost my publishing job. But people had been commenting on my race bike and I received a commission to build a similar machine for the motorcycle clothing brand Rev’It. Another order followed – and suddenly I realised I had the makings of a business.”
By then, Cummings and seven other motorcycle enthusiasts were sharing workshop facilities in what was dubbed “SpannerLand”, a 4,000sq ft space within a giant former railway depot in Jersey City. The others gradually left, Cummings remained, and, since incorporating his business in 2010, it has been the official headquarters of NYC Norton.
“There is no formula to what we do, because every bike is different and every client has different needs,” explains Cummings of his careful restorations and meticulous upgrades. “We build to personal specifications while creating a bike that is both as usable and as reliable as possible – my main aim is to avoid receiving a call on a Sunday morning from an owner who has broken down on the highway.”
To that end, NYC Norton uses its own tried and tested modifications to iron out all the well-known Norton glitches – such as the famous oil leaks, the fragile gearboxes and the inherent problems of the once state‑of‑the-art, anti-vibration “Isolastic” frames – while tweaking design elements to make a bike more user-friendly. If required, he will remodel it altogether to create a full-on racer or a unique build for the road. Once completed, every project is carefully run in, shaken down and retuned before delivery. It is, says Cummings, the start of a lifelong relationship between him, the client and the machine.
At an entry price of around $24,000 (plus the cost of the bike, which could range from $5,000 to $15,000), an NYC Norton rebuild is certainly not cheap, but with around 60 machines already in circulation, 12 more in the works and seven owners awaiting slots for ground-up restorations, there are clearly plenty of people for whom the Norton name still resonates. And to them, SpannerLand is nothing short of a motorcycling mecca.