Tribute: Peter Williams
Celebrated racer, inventor and Norton icon, Engineer Peter Williams passed away this month. As a youth in the 1970s I regarded top-level racing as somewhat distant and secretive – a club I didn’t belong to. Decades passed before I knew who Williams was or why he was so important, and the following explains how we met. It was somewhere around 2005 while serving at Moto-Euro magazine that a unique story idea dropped in my lap. Existing as the only original example of four Williams designed, monocoque-framed Norton works machines from 1973, the chance to photograph this rare John Player racer was only a trip to Minnesota away. Ringing the Rochester facility (where the bike was displayed on a pedestal) things seemed to fall through when the owners politely asked me to pound sand. Much gratitude goes to Moto-Euro’s PR savvy Larry Williams for confidently reestablishing relations, and we enjoyed a sweltering, but very productive August visit to the upper Midwest.
Thanks to some crack research provided by Minnesota’s Tim and Tom Frutiger, the trail quickly led to P Will himself. Via email, components of the US bike were confirmed and denied, but Peter was always quick to remind that things had left his control decades before. Drawing international attention, the JPN article boosting my resume’ and magazine sales. Organized by publisher Williams, the Monocoque story eventfully lead to the Norton being displayed in our booth at Cycle World’s New York expo. Guest of honor? Peter Williams. Traveling from his UK homeland with wife and children, seeing their smiling faces when daddy returned was a favorite part of our three-day ritual. Adored by his family, I’m grateful for the little while they shared him with me. Reserved but in a super intelligent way, we gravitated towards each other after all the mails. He knew I was a journalist (but so was he, and a very good one) and therefore keen for a story, but Peter liked me. At every break we’d resume our ongoing conversation, and the insights Peter shared while at Norton and his experiences as an industry employee were logged with amazement. When Williams learned of my background in the machine tool biz he became a fountain of information; from metallurgy to melting point, and beyond.
Prior to meeting I’d studied Peter’s bio, so I wasn’t surprised at his physical condition. A result of injuries suffered in 1974 at Oulton Park, it was no small effort to escort Peter from hotel to convention hall and back, but it all passed far too quickly. Spending the day signing posters and chatting with fans, Peter brushed aside the wheelchair as we worked through the show to the outside exits, stopped every fifteen-steps or so to pose for a photo or sign another autograph. Later, over coffee and pie in Manhattan’s breezy shadows, Peter’s zeal for country emerged without apology. “It played out well,” said Peter when I asked about the 1973 season. Starting slow, Williams literally rocked past the competition round after round, exploiting the Norton’s crafty build and aerodynamics. “I’d never been more comfortable or confident. Free to implement ideas directly from Peter the engineer to Peter the rider, it seemed I could do anything I wanted on the racetrack”.
(The only, original survivor among four monocoque-frame works bikes made in Norton’s race shop for 1973. Now under the care of collector/racer Jamie Waters, it was shipped to the US in 1974 for Dave Aldana. These shots are from a more recent event in NYC. (Joe King)
Outdated, out muscled and vastly underfunded compared to its competition, Williams was the advantage Norton used to turn the tide. Celebrity was gained showing the Monocoque’s louvered tail to Japan’s biggest and best in 1973, but it was Peter’s F750 class win at the TT that cinched some fat endorsements. Trim, fit and handsome with a shock of dark curls, the fast lane saw Peter marry a supermodel and continue his work with Norton. Williams explained the crash and his fight for life in detail, describing it as “the darkest time”. Friends disappearing and colleagues cashing out, it all became too much for Mrs. Williams too, who left the failing superstar to deal with his injuries and financial burdens alone. “As you can see, I survived,” smiled Williams, and suddenly we’re talking less about main bearings and more about everything else. “Don’t believe in anything that doesn’t believe in you,” Williams said as we rose to leave. “Getting up in the morning shouldn’t be a struggle now, should it?”
Still in the planning stages, Peter Williams Motorcycles did eventually release the Monocoque replica Peter dreamed of making. I followed along from across the sea, and believe the last mail from him came a year ago, give or take. “I’m certain this isn’t goodbye” Peter said as I left fully loaded for the airport. Sadly, it was. Unlike some of the other tributes you’ll find online, Peter and I didn’t work together, race against each other, nor were we lifelong pals. No complaints, as meeting Peter was a unique and gratifying gift I’ll always be thankful for. Bright and articulent, what P Will and the Norton team did in 1973 ranks as epic in motorsports history. Knowing he’d disagree, I’m hesitant to say we’ll never see the likes of Peter Williams again. Many believe the world constantly replenishes its talent and I hope that’s true, because we recently lost a big chunk of it. Nolan Woodbury