The Spaceframe Norton of 1974 never lived up to the legendary ’73 Monocoque, but it’s a ‘beautiful loser’ well worth preserving, as this restored original proves
The spaceframe John Player Norton racer replaced the 1973 monocoque, but JPN collector Michael Braid questions whether it was a better motorcycle
With its sleek fairings and nickel-plated network of frame tubes, the 1974 750cc John Player Norton Formula 750 racer is a thing of beauty. But the story of the Spaceframe, as the ’74 Norton has always been known, is tinged with sadness. The Norton team, stuck with the ageing Commando twin engine, really struggled to compete against the Japanese multi-cylinder twostroke opposition. Number one rider and inspired engineer Peter Williams was never happy with the 1974 machine and a crash in August of that year ended his racing career and left him disabled.
Spaceframes were built for the ’74 season, to replace the celebrated Monocoque raced in 1973. All five survive: two owned by Joaquin Folch in Spain, another in Albert van der Huijden’s Norton museum at Best in the Netherlands and two in the UK. Of the two Uk-based bikes, one is owned by racer Rob Sewell, while the other – featured here – has emerged from the West London workshops of P&M Motorcycles in pristine track-ready condition. With 24/6/74 B stamped on its frame, it came up in a 2010 online auction, when a stash of Norton treasures were cleared out from a deceased Belgian dealer’s premises. Surrey-based John Player Norton devotee Michael Braid acquired it jointly with New Yorker Jamie Waters, whose Norton collection includes the only surviving unrestored Monocoque plus a Monocoque replica by Norman White Racing. The Belgian dealership in question, Motoshop Podevyn, had probably connected with the Norton team when Williams won a Formula 750 race at Spa in 1974. Given their Spaceframe after the 1974 season, Podevyn raced it briefly before parking it for more than 30 years.
“It was corroding from the bottom up, thanks to a damp floor,” Braid says. “The paint had been changed to slightly different colours without the John Player logos. The primary chain was off, probably to prevent unauthorised starting, and the Krober revcounter was missing, but otherwise it was complete.”
Braid is a retired water engineer who has worked as a consultant on Bond movie sets. In the late 1980s he bought the crumpled frame of a 1973 John Player Norton Monocoque, which had been made into a standard lamp and presented to team rider Dave Croxford after he crashed it spectacularly at Silverstone in ’73. Richard Peckett at P&M had the job of turning it back into a running motorcycle. Meanwhile, Braid was avidly collecting all the John Player team leftovers he could find and had a 1972-type tubular-framed Player Norton built by Norman White Racing. He went back to Peckett for a ground-up Monocoque build. Then, to complete the set, he commissioned recreations of not one but two Spaceframes, one for himself and one for Waters. They were already well-advanced when the original arrived at P&M in 2010.
Norton’s racing equipe, based at Thruxton circuit, had a strong 1973 season with the innovative Monocoque. It was the brainchild of rider/engineer Peter Williams, who won a Formula 750 TT and three out of six Transatlantic rounds on it, while his team-mate Dave Croxford was British 750cc Champion. But for 1974, the stainless steel Monocoque was replaced by a structure of similar
dimensions in short lengths of Reynolds 531 tubing. In motorcycling the spaceframe idea, first seen on Italian racing cars, had been pioneered by Moto Guzzi’s Grand Prix 350 in 1954 and the Norton version predated similar structures favoured by Bimota, Ducati and KTM. Its creators at Norton’s Thruxton racing HQ were fabricator John Mclaren and welder Robin Clist. “It took us six weeks to make a Monocoque, complete with exhaust pipes, tanks and seat,” says Mclaren, who recalls how his hands bled after cutting up steel sheet with snips. “The only way we could do new frames for 1974 in the time we were given was to use tube. Robin made a jig and I suggested straight, rather than bent, tubes to save time. The only bends are on two top tubes.”
Several team members have dismissed the suggestion that the change was to make the machine more accessible for mechanics in the paddock. They include Williams, who was out-voted over ditching the Monocoque and disliked the Spaceframe. His lap times on it were slower. Croxford, a carefree character not so intensely wrapped up in machine development, had no problem with the new frame, but struggled for results against Kawasaki H2RS, Suzuki TR750S and the newly-arrived Yamaha TZ750. The team’s finest hour in 1974 was at a wet Hutchinson 100 meeting, run anti-clockwise at Brands Hatch. Williams won the main event from Croxford, who again bettered the two-strokes to win the Evening News race. Their darkest hour was the horrific crash at Oulton Park that ended popular Peter’s racing career. While the 1974 frame has an identical 56.5in (1422mm) wheelbase and 62° steering head angle of its predecessor, Braid points out that the weight distribution is different, with the engine shifted both forward and upward. “I don’t know why they did that,” he says. “The Monocoque feels better balanced, even just pushing it around. I think they fell down in getting rid of pannier fuel tanks. But they had to move on. We reckon the Spaceframe is around 35lb (16kg) lighter.”
A Schrader valve on a frame tube under the seat on the right side is an interesting detail. Peckett explains its function: “After the tubes were polished and bronze-welded together, the whole assembly was pressurised through the valve and submerged in
‘THE SPACEFRAME IS AROUND 35LB LIGHTER THAN THE MONOCOQUE’
water to check for any possible leaking from porous joints. During plating it would be put into a hot tank, when air would come out through any holes, then in a cold bath, when the chemicals would be sucked in and cause corrosion.”
The rear sprocket is secured with a quick-release threaded ring – a system often seen on American dirt-track racers – while the foldup footrests were there to comply with AMA regulations. A baffle beneath the 33mm-bored Amal Concentric MKI carburettors deflects air that has been warmed by the engine away from the intakes, while the cylinder and head finning is trimmed at the sides, a legacy of Monocoque fitting.
Although Commando-based, the engine is of the short-stroke type (77 x 80.4mm) that Croxford used in 1974, which gave 84bhp on the Thruxton dynamometer. Peckett replaced aged steel connecting rods with new Carrillo items, noting that this engine does not have the crankshaft with a welded-on flywheel he saw inside one of the two Folch-owned 1974 John Player Nortons. With more than 40 years of frame-making experience, he is critical of some aspects of the Norton team engineering.
“It does look very nice, but in my view this frame is overdesigned and more rigid than it needs to be. And while it might not take as long as a Monocoque to make, it still takes ages,” is his professional assessment. “They complained about not having enough power, yet they could have had more – they didn’t downdraught the carburettors and the bends in the exhaust pipes close to the ports are far from ideal,” he adds.
The transmission is carried over from 1973, with a Quaife fivespeed gearbox, a Williams-designed dry clutch supported by an outrigger bearing, a triplex primary chain and an engine sprocket shock absorber. Cycle parts similar to the Monocoque’s include alloy wheels, pioneered by Williams on his 1969 500cc Arter Matchless (see Classic Bike August issue), with Lockheed brakes doubled up at the front, modified AJS motocross forks and Koni rear shock absorbers.
The entire combined tank and seat moulding contains fuel. The front filler is lower than the rear, so it is kept closed and a breather on its neck leads to a tube with its open end fixed higher than the rear filler. The replicas have separate tanks and seats, also used in 1974. It is understood that Williams’ Oulton crash was caused by a one-piece unit coming loose. On all three of the Braid/waters machines, the front of the moulding is fixed to the top of the steering head. An earlier 1974 method was to loop rubber bands over moulded-in hooks on each side, while the first Spaceframe (one of the bikes now owned by Folch and different from the other four) featured bolted fixings.
The fairing was little altered from 1973, with side bulges to deflect air around the handlebars, echoing the Peel Mountain Mile fairing of the 1950s and 1960s. A new Krober revcounter has been fitted. Braid’s preserved original fairing patterns
‘THE ENGINE IS A COMMANDO-BASED SHORT-STROKE’
helped to make the replicas accurate – as did his cache of parts such as wheels, recently made by Creasey Castings in Kent, who supply the Peter Williams Motorcycles new-build Monocoques venture (as seen in the May 2015 issue of Classic Bike).
John Player’s three-year contract ended after 1974 and much of the 1975 season was wasted waiting for delivery of the dohc JA 750cc twin-cylinder engine commissioned from Cosworth Engineering. Ready for the last meeting of the season, the JA/B twin was not the panacea the team and UK race fans had hoped for. It failed to live up to expectations and by the time the prototype Norton-cosworth Challenge model that it powered was ready in the autumn, the main factory in Wolverhampton had closed down. Norton would not challenge Japan in racing again for nearly 15 years, when Rotaries from the Shenstone factory took to the track.
Now that Michael Braid has all three variations of Formula 750 John Player Nortons and has nearly finished restoring the JPN team’s Dodge Discoverer transporter, he has a superb equipe to present at historic racing events. And that’s not all – his two Cosworths also await restoration at P&M...
This view beneath the tank clearly shows the baffle that serves to deflect warm air away from the carburettor intake trumpets
The restored 1974 Spaceframe stands in front of P&M’S two clones Richard Peckett prepares to fire up one of his creations