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29th April 2005


Opinion: AMC Anorak 7

Living in the past is one thing; being reunited with it is quite another. Frank Westworth exhumes an old friend...

I am a very lucky man. No no, cease laughing at the back, that is entirely true; lucky I am indeed, and many times over. And although a potted luckiness autobiography is plainly not what you want to read, I am going to drift back a little into my own past, which does have a certain AMC bent to it.

My first 'proper' bike was an AJS. It was a 1948 AJS 18, in fact, and I unearthed it from under a prodigious pile of chicken pooh in a barn, back in 1971 or so. With the help of a friend, but we will not go into that, because that friend was female and as youthful as I and we were supposed to be revising our A-level Biology. I suppose you could stretch the sense of 'revising' and include a smutty comment or two about biology, but anyway, the barn was her dad's and I bought the bike from him. A Nice Man. Official.

This photo shows the very rare, 1953 only, Argenising. Probably. Random AJS Stuff on eBay.co.uk

As age has done what age does (gallop on, mainly) and a certain tiny affluence has accompanied it, I have gone back to live in the past, last year acquiring a 1947 Matchless G80, which has been the nearest I've managed to get to that seminal AJS 18. And a certain tiny sadness tells me that because of the fad for numberplate trading I will never ever see JYD 363 again. Even if I fell over it at the VMCC's fine Shepton Mallet auction I wouldn't recognise it. Sigh…

All through my roaring twenties I never forgot that Ajay, and as the 1970s drew to a tottering, hazy close I happened upon another one, a 1953 20, in a somewhat seedy bike shop in Crewe. It was love at first sight. I had a couple of Norton Commandos (a chap should always have a few of these worthy rattlers to entertain the natives, in my view), and although they were fine for the daily commute, quite plainly I needed a more noble machine to provide a little leisure riding.

After all, the 'classic bike' had been invented a year or so earlier, and I was delighted (if a little bemused) to learn that all those dodgy old nails which had provided youthful transport around the levels and hills of my teenage Somerset were suddenly worth something. I didn't really believe it, though, and neither did the proprietor of the dodgy bike shop, who thought he'd got the better part of the deal when he swapped that elderly AJS 20 for a Honda CB125, into the head of which I had recently inserted a camshaft bush (it's a long and dull story, involving the insanity of allowing 125cc learner bikes to run their camshafts directly in the alloy of the cylinder head. AMC would never have done that!).

The Ajay really fired me up, and I rode it for several years. Then I loaned it to a couple of chums, who didn't entirely destroy it, despite trying very hard, and then my brother appeared at my house at the wheel of a lorry with a tail lift, and OKA 841 was transported to the old family home in Somerset as I was running short of room in The Shed.

And I had acquired my first entirely addictive rotary Norton. And I was riding a 1966 AJS twin for Ajay Club stuff, things like that, and it was lots better than the 1953 20 in all ways apart from style. Both Ajays had plenty of character, as all Ajays of course do, but the 31 was a bit quicker, and boasted both lights and brakes, which are pretty good things, really.

As you can see, the Argenisation has already advanced beyond the typical second stage.

Then that was it. The years rolled by, a torrent of bikes came and went. Some of them were great and some of them were appalling. I'm always amused by the strange way that the rose-tinted classic view of life in the past demands that all bikes were great, way back when, but it wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. Were there any really horrid Ajay or Matchless models? I could certainly name a few disasters which passed through the character-building confines of The Shed, and I bet you could, too…

Meanwhile, life went on. A friend of my mum's would occasionally amble into her garage and wipe down the old Ajay with a damp cloth. I'm not entirely sure why he did this, maybe he felt that her garage was too dry? But he meant well, and the years rolled by, and then Chris Read, noble editor of The Jampot, the AJS & Matchless clubzine, and I found ourselves living close by each other; my fascination for all things AMC, which had been dormant for many years, was suddenly rekindled, and while Chris and I were enjoying one of our regular gasbag session over piled plates of best Cornish fish'n'chips, the subject drifted around to elderly Ajays (as you might expect) and it quite suddenly dawned on me that there was a really handsome AJS dripping gently in my mum's garage!

An expedition was plainly called for. Lara Croft never went old bike hunting, to my knowledge, but after an afternoon delving through that garage I was beginning to feel a bit like a tomb raider! Talk about the dust of ages.

Anyway, after only a couple of years of digging through mountains of rubbish, the old beast slowly emerged. It was a tear-jerking moment (why and how do tears 'jerk', exactly?), and millions of memories came flushing back. Memories of riding great distances very slowly. Riding very slowly in torrential rain. Riding very slowly in heatwaves. Riding very slowly past mighty oceans, through buzzing orchards and to countless Jampot Rallies.

Someone put me out of my misery. What is Argenising?Memories of the two 'restorations' I had inflicted upon the poor old thing seared into my consciousness, and as I stood gazing upon my flat-tyred, gently corroding old friend I understood that we had been together for half of our lives.

We are the same age (1953 vintage, the pair of us) and we got together in 1978 or 79, and quite suddenly I was indeed living in the past, recalling with metallic precision the manual mag, the weeping carb, the 1953-only 'argenising', the underslung pilot lamp, my delight at finding a seat with blue AJS piping, the improvement to the steering once the front wheel was rebuilt with the correct offset, the total gentle charm of the fat-tanked touring twin.

I might put it back on the road this year, time permitting, to see exactly how accurate are those old memories from half a lifetime ago. We've all read stories of folk rediscovering their lost 2-wheeled loves and their delight, too. Will it be the same for OKA and me? I wonder...


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