Photos by Peter Domorak

We all love beautiful things, and some people have a flair for creating beauty. It’s like cooking: you can give the same ingredients to a dozen chefs, and maybe, if you’re lucky, one will prepare a dish that’s simply exquisite, makes you roll your eyes back in your head, remembering the smell of madeleines, and the bicycling days of your youth. There are quite a few builders of Seeley-framed race bikes and café racers based on Norton Commando and Matchless G50 motors, but there’s one builder who stands head and shoulders above the rest combining these ingredients – a master chef named Kenny Cummings. His NYC Norton has a reputation for building impeccable race and road bikes around the Seeley frame, which is a great spine on which to hang your work. What is it that makes his bikes so special, especially as there have been so many Seeley-framed special builders since the 1960s?

A wicked Seeley-Norton Commando roadster as only NYC Norton can build: a café racer extraordinaire. [Peter Domorak]
The difference is an artist’s design sense: line and proportion and construction harmonized into a perfect whole. Harmony is apropos in Kenny’s case, as his first love is music: growing up as a musician, playing with various bands in Seattle, moving to NYC and clocking in with artists from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Costello.  His day job was in contemporary art book publishing, to fund his dream band, Shelby. And on the side, motorcycles played a part starting in the 1990s, when the pull of two wheels proved irresistible, and he bought a Norton Commando. Years later that he discovered Nortons were in his blood, after a reunion with his father, where he was presented with an early 1970s photo of Dad with a Norton N15GS scrambler. Such a coincidence begs the question: free will, or fate?

“Everybody in the club right now, Tell the DJ – turn it up loud.” Jon Thorndike playing mixmaster at the lathe. [Peter Domorak]
Kenny bought that first Norton Commando in 1995, as he was smitten with its style.  But the learning curve with old British bikes is steep, and can be harsh, and he was shortly educated in their highs and lows. “I was riding my Commando around the West Village, and it conked out at 6th Ave and Bleeker. I knew about Hugh Mackie at Sixth Street Specials, so I pushed it to 6th St and Ave C – that’s 1.8 miles. Hugh told me I needed a new alternator, and it would cost $1000. This was right after I’d spent all this money to buy it. Pretty soon after that, I heard a jingle in the motor – the exhaust threads in the cylinder head had stripped. Hugh said, ‘that’s another $1500.’ I sat down on the stoop of his shop, totally bummed out about spending all that money, and Hugh sat down beside me and said in his Scottish brogue, ‘Keeeneeey, the guys who ride these bikes, they’re everything to them. They think about bikes when they eat, when they sleep, when they’re screwing their girlfriend. Maybe you should get a Honda.’ I think about that all the time, what would I be doing if I’d bought a Honda? Would I do shit that normal people do in Tri-burbia? It sounds enticing, because what I do is all consuming.   They go to playdates with their kids…what do people do with their time? Because I have none.”

A Seeley-Norton Commando racer with track muffler, necessary to keep the sound below the required 92dB limit [Peter Domorak]
Regardless the peerless reputation of NYC Norton, running a bespoke motorcycle business is not an easy calling. “The margin on this work is tiny, I’m busy as shit but there’s no money in this. I’ve got commitments years out, but it’s not polished alloy tanks on Instagram every single day. It’s like you [Paul d’Orléans] said in your Instafamous/Instabroke article ‘a like is not a dollar’. I’ve got a collaborator who helps with our social media marketing, and we have the metrics, but what does all that mean? I have a friend who makes fun of me, and says my complaints sound like ‘my gold bricks are too heavy’.”  To an outsider, the veneer of a successful motorcycle builder is as glossy as a new paint job, but if you haven’t run your own business, kept up a bi-weekly payroll, juggled overhead with cash flow, and dealt with customers, you can’t grasp what hard work it is. “It’s something everyone in the motorcycle industry understands: I don’t think anyone does this to get rich, they all do it for love, because the margins are slim. If you get into this business, you’d better love what you do as it’s not an easy road.”

The Man himself, Kenny Cummings of NYC Norton. [Peter Domorak]
Then again, Kenny asks “What else would I be doing? When I lost my publishing job in the 2009 crash, I worked on my own bikes, not thinking that was a career choice. But I asked myself, should I do back office work at JP Morgan? Hell no! I’ve worked in the art publishing business, but that was to support my band Shelby. I wasn’t put on this earth to do publishing.” [Luckily, some of us are! – ed.]
The object of our affection: a Norton with aluminum big-bore cylinder barrel for racing [Peter Domorak]
NYC Norton builds immaculate café racers and road racers, and even dabbles with the odd British enduro, and every build is superb. Their Seeley-framed customs are known around the world, and The Vintagent team encouraged Kenny – who doesn’t think of himself as a custom builder – to make a bike for our Custom Revolution exhibit at the Petersen Museum.   When we pointed out that café racers are a huge part of the custom bike legacy, he began to see our point, and put together an exquisite machine – ‘Blue Monday’ – which you can see in person through March 2019.  It’s top shelf artisans like Kenny that inspired Custom Revolution: they work with the same ingredients as everyone else, but what emerges from their workshops is simply magic.

Not just racers, but breathtaking café racers and even street scramblers emerge from the NYC Norton warehouse. [Peter Domorak]
[Blue Monday is also featured in our Custom Revolution exhibition catalogue, with 100-pages in  full-color: a limited number are available, signed, in our Shop]
Jon Thorndike enjoys tending to interesting machinery at NYC Norton. [Peter Domorak]
A belt primary drive conversion is essential for keeping oil off the racetrack. [Peter Domorak]
Like an animal tensed to leap forward, the Seeley Commando is an elegantly aggressive design. [Peter Domorak]
NYC Norton is located in an enormous warehouse complex in Jersey City, NJ, just across the river from Manhattan, where real estate prices have forced out small businesses. But Kenny still lives in TriBeCa. [Peter Domorak]
“Success is not the end of work. It is the beginning of new work.” – Kung Fu [Peter Domorak]
Kenny Cummings with a Titchmarsh-framed Seeley-Matchless G50 racer [Peter Domorak]
Many thanks to Peter Domorak for providing the excellent photography the inspired this article.  See more of Peter’s work here.

 

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