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Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
At some point in their career, every good custom motorcycle builder sees a client point at a bike in their portfolio and say; “build me one just like that.” It comes with the territory—especially if your work is as good as that of Union Motorcycle Classics.

Union’s Mike Watanabe and Luke Ransom have a long list of classic restos and stunning customs to their names. So they found themselves in that position not too long ago, when a customer called and reference a Norton Commando cafe racer he spotted on Union’s website.

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
“Our response was: ‘We’re happy to build a Commando custom, but we have something else in mind’,” Mike tells us.

That ‘something else’ had to do with Union’s fascination with Peter Williams, and his John Player Norton. Back in 1973, Williams took Norton’s outgunned pushrod twin, built a monocoque chassis and aero-fairing for it, and cleaned up at the Isle of Man TT.

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
Mike and Luke weren’t out to build a pure replica—but sure wanted to pull inspiration from Williams’ groundbreaking design.

“The customer said that he really didn’t like how John Player Nortons look,” says Mike. “We asked him not to look at the factory production bike based on the Roadster model—we asked him to look at the actual race bikes.”

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
“This sold the deal. The customer basically said ‘I trust you fellows—have your way with the idea’.”

Luke tracked down 1974 Norton 850 Commando donor in Boise, Idaho. “It was a pile of parts that someone was building into a John Player-inspired bike in the 80s,” Mike explains. “It sat unfinished for years.”

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
There was enough left to kick off the project, and a few bits and pieces were still in usable shape. And, to Union’s delight, the Commando came with Morris mags—a style of wheel they assumed would be hard to track down.

To build new fiberglass bodywork for the Norton, Union called in help from frequent collaborator Bret at Glass from the Past. The fairing started as a copy of an old race fairing, but soon underwent significant changes.

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
Mike cut up the seat that came with the donor, and used it as a base to form the plug for the new perch. Then Interior Revolution handled the seat upholstery.

“I have always thought that shock covers should and could have easily fit the factory racers,” Mike says, “so I added those and drastically shortened the profile.”

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
Luke handled all the frame fabrication. He altered the rear end with new seat rails, not only to stiffen things up but also to make room for a custom oil tank. “We had to sit around a long time to talk through all the brackets and frame mods,” Mike tells us. “There’s more fab than I can list.”

Luke also overhauled the Commando’s motor, which now looks clean enough to eat your dinner off. There’s a new Tri-Spark ignition in play too. The exhaust is a combination of Norton SS headers and mufflers made from Cone Engineering parts.

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
Mike and Luke have picked an impressive set of parts to round out the build. There are Norvil Production Racer forks and floating discs up front, with AP racing calipers all round. The front master cylinder is from AP, while the rear is a Brembo.

Other parts include Koni shocks, Heidenau tires and a Sprocket Specialties rear sprocket. Union also took the original rearsets, remodeled them and had them re-chromed. And the cockpit is now sporting clip-ons, and a dash with a GPS speedo and tach from Legendary Motorcycles.

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
The Commando’s new livery is classy and striking, like the Commando itself; a simple white base with red and blue highlights. “Luke and I did the paint,” says Mike. “Striping looks easy, but we had to get creative to get what we wanted, and still keep a nod to the factory bike.”

As massive Norton fans, Mike and Luke are going to have a hard time letting this one roll out the shop. And who can blame them?

Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics
It’s a winning combination of nostalgia, craftsmanship and well-judged parts selection. We’d take it home in a heartbeat.

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Smoking: A homage to the classic John Player Norton Commando, by Union Motorcycle Classics

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