Jay Leno Goes Romantic Around His Norton John Player Special

Beautiful bikes aren’t strangers to Jay Leno or his garage. He’s hosted both other peoples’ stylish motorcycles and those from his collection. But while Jay Leno appreciates every one of his rides, he particularly cherishes a select few. Among the latter is a classic British bike that he loves both riding and looking at—a 1974 Norton John Player Special.

With John Player Special funding, Peter Williams turned the Norton Commando into a higher-tech racing machine

John Surtees (left) and Mike Hailwood on 1973 John Player Norton Commando 750s
John Surtees (left) and Mike Hailwood on 1973 John Player Norton Commando 750s | Victor Blackman/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The late 1960s and 1970s weren’t kind to the British motorcycle industry. Increasing pressure and technological innovation from Japan forced brands like BSA, Ariel, and Velocette into bankruptcy. And it left the surviving companies, including Norton, with little funding to develop entirely new products. For example, the Norton Commando was essentially an earlier Atlas with a repositioned engine and new transmission and engine mounts.

However, while Norton was hurting, famed racer Peter Williams would soon show that it wasn’t quite down for the count. Although Williams had to use the Commando’s 750cc air-cooled parallel-twin, he swapped the bike’s four-speed transmission for a smaller, lighter five-speed one. He also replaced the standard wet clutch with a more efficient dry one. And with financial help from British cigarette company John Player Special, Williams gave the Norton Commando a new skeleton.

Like all motorcycles of the period—and some modern ones—the Commando has a tubular steel frame. But Williams’ John Player Special Norton didn’t use it. Instead, it has a stainless-steel monocoque frame, Silodrome explains. That’s impressive even by modern standards. Although vintage Vespas have steel monocoques, only a handful of modern road-legal motorcycles, such as the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R, use this frame design.

Besides being stiffer than the tubular frame, Williams’ monocoque frame also keeps the John Player Special Norton’s center of gravity low. And, mirroring Buell’s decades-later design, the frame also holds the fuel and oil tanks. Meanwhile, a then-novel fairing makes the Norton more aerodynamic. Plus, instead of the standard Commando’s wire-spoke wheels, Williams’ race bike has lighter and stiffer cast-alloy ones, Cycle World reports. And predating the industry trend, the race bike swapped the Commando’s rear drum brake for a disc.

It’s not a race bike, but the Norton John Player Special is a Commando readied for the racetrack

The overhead rear 3/4 view of Jay Leno's white-red-and-blue 1974 Norton Commando John Player Special
Jay Leno’s 1974 Norton Commando John Player Special overhead rear 3/4 view | Jay Leno’s Garage via YouTube

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All these upgrades helped the Norton John Player, as the racing bike is called, win the 1973 Isle of Man TT. Unfortunately, Peter Williams wasn’t able to repeat the win in 1974 due to severe injuries. And Norton couldn’t put the racing bike’s monocoque frame into regular production due to its cost. However, it could still cash in on the victory, Motorcycle Classics notes.

That ‘cash-in’ came in late 1973: the Norton Commando John Player Special. Unlike earlier ‘race replica’ bikes like the Ducati Mach 1, the Commando JPS isn’t a copy of Williams’ racing motorcycle. Instead, it’s a ‘regular’ Norton Commando 850 with a few upgrades, including a fairing with a white-red-and-blue John Player Special livery and dual headlights.

But those upgrades aren’t simply cosmetic. Although it has a rear drum, the Norton Commando John Player Special has a larger fuel tank than the standard bike. And it has rear-set foot controls and clip-on bars. Also, rather than a flat seat, the Norton John Player Special has a racing-style solo seat with built-in storage.

Jay Leno will always have a spot in his garage for his 1974 John Player Special—even when he can’t ride it anymore

In 1974, the John Player Special was the range-topping trim for the Norton Commando. Jay Leno knows because he bought his bike new in 1974 for $3000, which was roughly 20-25% more than the regular Commando. He had to scrape the money together, but it was worth it because “I thought it was the wildest-looking motorcycle ever at the time,” he says. That might explain why he “lusted after it in [his] youth.” And even after almost 50 years of ownership, Jay Leno loves looking at his Commando JPS almost as much as riding it.

With 50 hp from its 828cc air-cooled parallel-twin, the Norton John Player Special isn’t necessarily powerful. But because it only weighs 435 lbs, it’s quick enough to keep up with modern traffic. And “on a twisty road, it’s just a wonderful bike to drive,” Jay Leno says. Leno’s Commando JPS is arguably better than stock, too, with its Performance Machine disc brake and oil-pressure alarm. He also modified the shifter slightly and fitted chrome exhaust pipes, though he’s kept the standard kickstarter.

“There’s something very romantic about this motorcycle to me,” Jay Leno muses. Apart from its looks, that might be because his 1974 Norton John Player Special is one of the last Commandos with the ‘traditional’ British control layout. Today, all motorcycles have shifters on the left and rear brake pedals on the right. But up until October 1974, British motorcycles had the shifter on the right and brake pedal on the left.

Jay Leno’s appreciation also stems from how this motorcycle rides. Above 55 mph, the John Player Special’s fairing funnels the wind so it takes the pressure off your wrists, Leno says. It also leans easily into corners, and the parallel-twin engine makes plenty of low-end torque. The fairing, though, does make it difficult to take your hands off the bars if, say, you’re being harried by a swarm of bees. But even so, it’s a ‘forever bike’ for Jay Leno: even “when I can’t ride it anymore…I’m gonna always wanna look at it.”

How much do these race replica Commandos cost today?

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Although $3000 seems like nothing today, that was the 1974 equivalent of $16,650. But while the Norton Command John Player Special is rare—the company only built 200—it’s arguably gotten more affordable.

Apart from some very low-mileage examples, pristine Commando JPSs typically costs $14,500 today, Hagerty says. And good-to-excellent ones often go for less than $10K, even at Bonhams auctions. So, waxing romantic like Jay Leno doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

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