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21st July 2006


Opinion: AMC Anorak 17

Where did it all start? No no, not the AJS and Matchless marques; Frank Westworth's fascination with AMC motorcycles, that's what...

I was dead chuffed to receive an email from a RealClassic reader the other day, pretending that he enjoyed this column and asking where my obsession (his word; I think I am very restrained) with AMC bikes came from. After being dead chuffed, I of course completely forgot about the mail, and normally the gentle pleasure of a compliment would have faded warmly away, but at the last Kempton Park autojumble I was bemused to be asked the same question - twice! And by different folk. That's a puzzle…

My first bike was a Panther. It was so entirely awful that even though it was free (a friend rescued it from a dustbin) it was still too expensive. It was of course a two-stroke, and its memory has blighted my view of strokers until this very day. I doubt that will change now. The rest of the Panther was as appalling as its engine, but the hysterical derision of my schoolboy chums was tempered by a tiny smidge of respect; the common view was that anyone who could ride the hideous Panther could ride anything. I encouraged this view; it takes a lot of hero worship to compensate for the ignominy of riding a seriously smoking Panther with top gear missing, a throttle operated by a box spanner, and a frame broken just above the swinging arm pivot.

But it taught me to ride. And we shall close that chapter there.

Black. The proper colour for motorbikes. This is a 1955 AJS 18S jampot

Then I found a 1948 AJS 18 in a barn, covered in an old stormcoat and probably fifteen years' accumulation of chicken shoot. The exact circumstances of this discovery are probably best left alone, this being a family magazine, but the bike was mine for just a fiver, cleaned up reasonably (although I was entirely penniless, hot soapy water was free and I did have plenty of spare time) and after a few mishaps it ran, too. It ran well, received official approval in the form of an almost honest MoT, and transported me through my own summer of love in 1970 or so. Sadly, JYD 363 is no longer with us, according to the DVLA.

And then I answered an ad for a 1961 G12. 321 KUP (also no longer with us; is there a pattern here?) and it was really great. I bought it in Scotland on a Thursday, and rode it down to Somerset the following day - or rather night; I rode it overnight from Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast to Taunton in the balmy West Country. It took about ten hours and the Matchbox missed not a beat. After that, how could anyone not fall hook, line and bobweights for the products of Plumstead? And just to show you how much of an anorak I am; my first ever published words appeared in the austere pages of the lamented Motorcycle Sport in 1971, singing the praises of that G12. A surprise prize to anyone who can find the issue!

A 1958 AJS 18S, yesterday.

There was another hidden advantage to AMC fandom, as there is today, of course. That is that the bikes were not wildly popular. No no! Don't send the hitman around (again), I mean this in the kindest possible way! While all my schoolie chums were signing away their firstborn on HP tickets to get a T120 Bonneville (or more likely a T25SS Trailblazer) I could always find some leaky old stalwart with either the finest set of initials in the motorcycling world or a magnificent winged 'M' on its tank. It was superb; for years I bought and sold a long succession of AJS and Matchless machines. I'd buy them as non-runners and make them work. Then I'd ride them for a few weeks, just to bed in the new MoT, and sell them. AMC kit is so tough, so determinedly durable, that it was always easy to fix the ignition fault which had laid the bike low.

And you can still do this; only a short while back (well, in geological terms…) I picked up another AJS 31 at the VMCC's excellent auction at Shepton Mallet, very cheaply. It took no time at all to find some sparks and the engine was fine indeed, as was the rest of the bike. I traded it for a late single with the inestimable Richard Gaunt, and the new owner to whom he sold it sent me a letter saying how pleased he was with the old boiler. Yes, that is the sound of fingers being crossed!

The most remarkable feature of AJS and Matchless machinery is the way so much of it still turns up, almost as it left the factory and almost always at an affordable price; why, as I've been typing this, a friend in the US has sent me pics of two (!) G80CS machines he's turned up. Tiny mileages, very original…

Jacket and cap by Distractions Beach Wear
Random AJS bits on eBay.co.uk

Those chums who tried the same trick but with lesser marques, like BSA or Triumph, usually discovered that when they'd sorted the sparks and fired the beast up, the entire engine belched oil in every direction, through joint faces warped to oblivion by ham-fisted previous owners and their screwdrivers, with every other thread stripped just to make economic repair impossible. I have never understood why Triumph twins fetch such good money; Mr Turner's engine isn't a patch on the Plumstead product, although I cannot deny that some Triumphs are better-looking than some AMC bikes. But not many.

One of two of my old schoolfriends became Noted Experts in the fixing Nortons field, and I was so terrified by their attempts at repairing dodgy Dominators that I avoided the things like the plague for many years…

But that's quite enough of me, living in my own past. How and why did you become entangled with the heavy metal output of some old factory deep in either London or the steaming Midlands? That's what I would like to know


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