This article was first published in Real Classic Magazine, June 2011
In the Beginning…
In the Beginning…
Way back in the late 1970’s & early 1980’s I was meandering through a world of motorised transport in several directions. I was interested in driving, but a school friend had mentioned getting a bike because his brother had one – he talked about Hondas & Harley Davidsons, Ducatis & BSAs and I was bewildered – but it sounded exciting and the flame was lit. Every day, on the way home from I would walk past Bob Hill’s shop in Hertford and stare at the Ducati 900SS’ & SD’s in his window.
At a second-hand bike dealer in Chingford, possibly inspired by a friend’s SP370, I swapped the 400F for an SR500. It was a horrible thing which would never start, but it was a step in the right direction...
Right now I can’t remember how, but possibly from the pages of Classic Bike, or maybe MCN, a likely looking (read cheap) candidate appeared in the form of a 250 cc Matchless. This was not too far away, in Essex – West Hanningfield actually. The family car at the time was a white VW Variant estate, which we used to sleep in on occasion, and this was pressed into service as a bike transporter.
FNO157B, an Essex registration, turned out to be a lucky find. It was complete (or so I thought) & sound. It had wheels & tyres and looked vaguely like an old bike. It ran. It came with a reprint, from Essex County library, of an instruction book for AJS Motorcycles. In the flyleaves, there were a couple of receipts from somewhere called ‘Hamrax Motors’. Someone calling himself ‘Chopper’ had sold a re-bored barrel & +.020 piston, along with a gearbox sprocket & some pushrods in 1978, and there was an MOT from a garage in Stalham, Norfolk.
But I did know that I’d bought a Matchless, it said so in the advert and it was on the registration document. It had a great big petrol tank which had once been chromed but was now covered in scratches. The engine was huge and aluminium and it said ‘G2CSR’ before the engine number. It had a big Amal carburettor with a trumpet and no air cleaner.
Other than that it was a rat.
I fitted some high bars which probably came off a GS750 I had. I’d seen lots of Triumphs with balloon hand grips, so I fitted a pair of those. I discovered Armours in Bournemouth, and I bought some universal alloy mudguards which I believed would be the ‘right’ ones for my bike, as if there were a Great Mudguard God watching over me and ensuring the correct parts would magically appear. For the finishing touch, I put some ‘Matchless’ labels on side panels.
One of the less salubrious bike shops in Hertford was Keith Potter Motorcycles in St. Andrews Street. I’d started buying parts from them, and taking my bikes there for MOTs, and they had British bikes in the shop. They were the only choice for the Matchy’s MOT. This was one of those old-fashioned MOT’s where the guy looks at your bike and prods & squeezes, then writes out the ticket for you. No rolling roads or computers here! This time, as you can see in the pictures, I had to make some mudguard stays.
But that was it; I was on the road on a Brit bike. Not the biggest, fastest, most expensive bike I’d had by a long chalk but it had more of me in it than any of the Japanese bikes I’d had.
It was great. It ran really well, started easily, stopped, and I spent a happy summer thudding around Hertfordshire lanes & back roads. It’s interesting to reflect that in all the time I had it, I never noticed that the brakes or handling were any worse than any of the other bikes I had had. It ground the foot pegs easily. It whirred & clanked and made very un-Japanese noises and I worried about it, but it always went.
I went through two sets before I realised they were supposed to have lock nuts on the inside. Comical, but I knew nothing.
Later on, while I was at University in London, I used to frequent a tiny bookshop in Charing Cross (can’t remember the name now). This place was about the size of your average garden shed but was stuffed from floor to ceiling with motoring books. One of my prizes from there was an old copy of Fred Neill’s ‘Service & Overhaul’ guide for AJS & Matchless singles, and about the same time someone (Dad probably) bought me a copy of Roy Bacon’s ‘AJS & Matchless Motorcycles’.
The years of ignorance were waning.
A Bit of History
The engine was enclosed on either side by two bulbous covers which gave the appearance of unit construction. AMC were keen to give their new baby a modern look, but not at the expense of radical technological departures from what had gone before. However, while a traditional plunger oil pump rested in the timing case, operating the usual dry sump lubrication system, the engine also enclosed a chamber containing the oil, similar to that used by Royal Enfield and avoiding the need for a separate oil tank and the clutter of separate oil lines.
The gearbox again was a little unusual. Internally, it used a typical English mainshaft & layshaft arrangement with a barrel quadrant selector but this was housed within a cylindrical enclosure that was clamped against the crankcase and could be rotated to adjust the primary chain.
The exhaust was a typical AJS/Matchless pattern with a sweeping curved pipe and a silencer with offset inlet & slash-cut outlet. Very racy.
The cycle parts were completed with deeply valanced mudguards, side covers with shiny chrome screws and a painted petrol tank in black, with blue pin striping for AJS variants – the ‘Model 14’ - and red pin striping for Matchless variants. The bulbous engine covers included matching coloured flashes. It sold for £196 9s 8d.
They were good for around 70 mph, had safe road holding and decent brakes and were released to the home market in 1958. The engine produced 18 bhp, which was about the same as the standard 350 cc heavyweight G3L. A scrambler was added the following year, with higher compression at 10:1 and better forks, and a 350 followed in 1960 designated the Matchless G5 or AJS Model 8. In 1961, a sports model – the G2S or Model 14S – offered more bling, with a chromed tank, mudguards and chain guard. It had low ‘Ace’ bars but was otherwise standard.
These were followed in 1962 by two more sporting models – the G2CSR and the Model 14CSR.
In 1964, the year my Matchless was built, the G2CSR cost £243 17s 11d and could manage 83 mph. A factory modified 14CSR was raced in the Thruxton 500 mile race that year and, with the legendary Peter Williams and Tony Wood riding, won the 250 class at an average of 61.6 mph.
The CSRs continued with a few changes as the industry went into decline. The valve springs changed to coils, the compression ratio went up again, to 9.5:1, the gear ratios closed up and the cigar shaped silencer appeared. The lightweights had disappeared, along with most of the other models, by 1966.
Here I have to thank Roy Bacon for his extensive contribution to my education. On with the story…
Looking through Roy’s book, I learnt that my 1964 G2CSR ‘Monitor 90’ wasn’t supposed to look like the Rat Bike I had built. Realising I had to work a bit harder, I returned to the small ads and eventually bought another bike from somewhere. This one was a 1966 AJS ‘Sapphire Ninety’, a Model 14CSR for which I paid £85. It had the cigar shaped silencer, the right rear mudguard, the larger headlamp & good set of AMC heavyweight forks. It also had a wheel with the correct ‘British Hub Company’ brake, complete with fake air scoop. I had had these bits knocking about in the garage for a short while and from somewhere acquired the front mudguard and a chain guard.
Now, I’m normally a pretty obsessive sort of person, afflicted by some kind of Motorcycle OCD, and this time was no exception. Airfix kits never lasted long in our house and the Sapphire 90 went the same way. I soon had both lightweights in bits again. Luckily, the Francis Barnett forks used in the standard lightweights and fitted to my Matchless, now christened ‘Madeleine’, had taken all the impact load from the accident without damaging the frame – no-wonder really, I can’t imagine who considered these things ‘lightweight’!
It’s still out there somewhere!