Riding a race-replica: Steve Jenkins lets rip on a 1970s JPS Norton - an unusual oldster which gets ridden all year round
In 1979 a JPS Norton loitered at a bike show in Walsall. Mick Woolley was wandering around the show with £1800 burning a hole in his pocket. Mick was on his way to buy a new Honda CBX1000 -- and then the JPS caught his eye. A dilemma presented itself. A brand new, top-of-the-range Jap superbike, with six -- count 'em! -- six cylinders, awesome performance, impressive reliability, and full manufacturer's warranty. (And handling to match, well, to match any pregnant hippos you might race against).
On the other hand, a five year old Norton, a rarity and a fine looking one, with absolutely no guarantee, being sold for only £150 less than the Honda. No contest. A bit of haggling later, and the price of the JPS bike was agreed at £1650.
A bit of history for you: the Norton JPS first appeared in 1971. That same year, the readers of MCN voted the Norton Commando 'motorcycle of the year' for the fourth time. Norton produced many variants, including the rare Combat-engined Interstate. Peter Williams was winning the 750 production race on a Norton when he ran out of petrol on the home stretch. He still achieved the fastest lap, at an average 99.99mph. Malcolm Uphill won on a Triumph Trident, and another Commando rider came third. A Commando 750 was winning the formula 750 race at the Isle of Man when an electrical gremlin struck, and that race was also lost. A new lap record of 101.06mph was set by the unlucky rider before his early bath.
In 1972, JPS sponsored the Norton race-team in the formula 750 class and saw some impressive results. Yet again in 72, the readers of that weekly paper voted the Commando motorcycle of the year. In 1974 Peter Williams crashed out of his career on an 850 Norton Commando. Also in 1974, those fine engineers on the Norton production line built 200 Norton JPS 850 Commandos. Most went to collectors abroad but a few stayed in the homeland.
After those wonderful days when it must have seemed that Norton were still up there with the big boys, it all started to go downhill. Norton still got airtime on the TV with Trevor Nation and Steve Spray racing the distinguished Black Rotary Thing but, alas, we all know the rest.
Back in 1979 Mick took the Norton home and dismantled the engine. There wasn't anything apparently wrong with it, but Mick wanted to make sure it was OK before he ventured to the Isle of Man on it. £1650 was a lot of dosh in 1979. He found one or two little problems, but easily rectified those and pronounced the JPS fit.
The JPS has the same isolastic frame as the standard Commando, but this one has since been upgraded to the Mk3 type, with micrometer adjustment. The tank on the JPS is longer than the standard, and of course it has the fibreglass body kit. You either love or hate the bug-eyed front fairing, but when you crouch down behind it on the road you feel every inch the racer, with the racy clocks and the clip-on bars.
The front brake is a Norton-Lockheed hydraulic single disc, and the rear is a cable operated drum. As with all early hydraulic brakes, the front disc is never awe-inspiring, but it is predictable and confidence inspiring. I know which I prefer. The rear brake works surprisingly well and, in the hands of a good rider, the combination must be extremely effective.
The 450lbs dry weight comes to rest on Avon tyres, 100/90/19 Roadrunner rear, and 90/90/19 Super Venom front. Mick assures me they suit the bike in all weathers, as this particular JPS is ridden all year round, and has been used as a commuter, track bike at Donington and the IoM, and on a recent trip to the Ace CafÃ©. He also has a twin seat conversion which has been used for two-up touring.
The original black chrome pipes have been replaced by thunderous Dunstall exhausts. They may well be illegal now, but they sound lovely! On the other side of the engine, Mick has taken the inlets out to 32mm to match the twin carbs. Lucas Rita ignition keeps all the sparks in the right place.
Other little tricks which have been employed to keep everything in order include a replacement centrestand, and forks that have been re-machined and then 10-thou of chrome attached. Apparently the Norton used to suffer from weak chrome around the seals, and this would wear away and cause the seals to leak. Not any more on this bike. Mick also uses a pair of 5-spoke mag wheels for the winter, because they're easier to keep clean than the spoked ones.
I felt highly honoured when Mick let me ride this unique motorcycle. I've certainly never ridden anything else like it. I settled into the riding position of the JPS. It's a bit of a stretch to say the least, but it's also comfortable. A firm kick and the 850 twin rumbled easily into life. With a blip of the throttle the rumble becomes a full-throated roar, reminding the rider that this is no ordinary motorcycle. Right then, let's be off.
Pull in the heavy clutch, and away we go. My first impression was that the bike felt incredibly long and heavy. Back to basics, relax, loosen the arms, feel what the bike wants to do, then let it know what you want it to do. This is no pussycat to ride. After a short time aboard, I felt better. On corners and roundabouts the short clip-ons really need levering to turn the bike, but once it's leaned into a corner it feels sublimely surefooted. I really wanted to see how far this wonderful beast could lean, but that sensible voice in my head kept saying, 'It's been raining, the roads aren't dry enough, you haven't checked the tyre pressures, there might be diesel, it's not yours, you can't afford to fix it if you dropped it, etc, etc.'
Eventually I succumbed to the voice of reason and just enjoyed the ride. The engine roared up to about 4000rpm before I changed through the box up to fourth, top gear. Redline is at 6000rpm, but I didn't feel the need to go anywhere near that. The engine produces something like 60-65bhp, and you can almost feel every one of them. Modern Ducati riders could take a ride on this bike and experience what twin cylinder torque is really about.
As for street-cred and kudos, this bike has both in spades. As I toodled along a local twisty stretch, a guy on a new generation Triumph was travelling in the opposite direction. He quickly U-turned and came after me to have a look. A devilish little voice in my head screamed 'Race! Race!' but common sense prevailed. Even so, the Norton and me were hardly hanging about, and the Triumph took a while to catch up.
Alas, all good things come to an end, and I reluctantly turned about and headed back to where Mick was waiting for his pride and joy. The JPS Norton left me rather more than impressed. Awe-struck definitely, and even saddened in one respect. No one makes motorcycles like this anymore, but they should. They really should.