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23rd March 2007


Opinion: AMC Anorak 23
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Art for art's sake; isn't that what they say? A devoted student of the art of motorcycling, Frank Westworth has long been a fan of old adverts...

Old bike ads are great. If you're a fan of the bikes featured in them, then they are a reminder of how smart they could look when the bikes were new. If you're a fan of the graphic arts, then they are a glorious trawl through changing photographic and design techniques, through the golden age of the airbrush. And if you're a fan of more general human history, then loads of social studies are laid out before you, from the very stylish early gothic ads, all scroll and beautiful penwork, through the startling art deco illustrations of the immediate pre-war period, via the 'never had it so good' phase as UK Ltd stumbled towards the Beatles era, right up the penniless days as the olde Britte Byke Industrie stumbled and fell. It's all there.

'As soon as that boat is out of the way, we jump. Ok?'

There are more AJS and Matchless ads in my modest collection than ads from any other marque, although Norton and Triumph are fairly close behind. And with the aid of my lovely assistant, one of my Matchless favourites should be heading up this column - a particularly evocative example from 1962, featuring that year's new high tech development in petrol tank badge design, and a colour I have never seen on a motorcycle - more's the pity, because it really is a very fine shade of red (Cardinal Red or Hades Red? I need to know!). The Matchless G12 in the pic also boasts a magneto sparkler, and a dynamo to power the battery, even though I've never seen a 1962 twin so equipped. I thought that Lucas had discontinued mags and dynamos by then, but I could of course be wrong.

Although the advert dates from 1962, and the original pre-airbrushed bike from some earlier indeterminate year when Harold Macmillan was Minister Most Prime, Cliff Richard was but a youth and consumer durables were but an American dream (and Honda Dreams were just a nightmare on the horizon), there is a wonderful period charm to it.

Check out the spirit of Empire in the graceful form of the P&O cruise liner Canberra, herself almost new to service (launched in 1961), as she chugs luxuriously past what may well be the fabled white cliffs of Dover. Given AMC's home in South London, that's probably where the bike is supposed to be moored. If in fact the big white ship had been that close to the Kent coast she would probably have been on the rocks … but it was the bike's builders, AMC, who were fast approaching that unhappy position.

Later advert series for AJS and Matchless (and indeed for Norton, the other AMC 4-stroker) would become progressively dated, as though the company itself was already nostalgic for its glorious past. Those boom years were only a few years away, too; peak sales had been in 1959.

The ads became less and less exciting until the end arrived, and the once great Associated Motorcycles empire - like the British Empire - was no more. Ironically, and it's a shame that there's no room here to share these ads with you, as soon as the dust of collapse was settling, Norton and AJS ads burst into life with mid-60s vim, vigour and excitement, as the new owners of the marques, Manganese Bronze Holdings, promoted their new two-stroke Ajays and flamboyant Norton twins. Oh… they built Matchless G85CS singles for a while, too, but promo material for those is hard to find.

Looking again at this rather splendid example of the airbrush artist's effort, observe if you will the protective riding gear which our glamorous couple chose when they rode off on their shiny G12 to watch the big ship sailing back to Southampton (still home to P&O, in the way that Plumstead is no longer home to motorcycle manufacture). Is that a pair of cashmere sweaters? Is he really riding in short sleeves and slacks? Gaze in wonder at those fine hairstyles, untroubled by crash helmet or passing breeze (or did the proud couple perhaps take a quick ten minutes sprucing up their coiffeur so that they could wave happily at the Great British ship as she cruised by?).

Random Matchless Stuff on eBay.co.uk

Being a romantic sort of soul, I just know that hidden out of sight is a matching set of Belstaff Black Prince riding suits, glistening protectively in shiny black PVC, alongside a pair of Everoak Corker crash hats … these guys are far too modern for a Stormgard or DR coat!

Did folk like these really buy big bikes? Didn't folk like these (comfortable middle-class semi-detached dwellers of the already wealthy South-East) in fact aspire to a nice little car? Didn't real bike buyers wear studded leather jackets, sea boot socks, white silk scarves and quiffs by Brylcreem? Didn't they twist, jive and stomp to the racket of the great rock'n'rollers, rather than aspiring to the sweet sounds of Cliff and The Shads, and crooners of the Frank Ifield ilk? Were the great trad Brit bike builders missing something here? Were they in fact ignoring reality as it crept raucously up on them? Was the changing face of bike-riding Britain in fact completely alien to the increasingly elderly chaps who sat on the boards of Big Bike Builders UK? Were they building bikes which fewer and fewer riders wanted to ride … and were those riders skint anyway, spending their wages on birds, booze and the bits needed to transform their pedestrian tourers into caff racers?

We know the answers to all those questions, of course, and although I have no wish, no wish at all to live in those days, I do wonder how it is that the bikes which failed to sell to the bike-buyers of 1962 are in such demand today. And yes, I'd love to find a 62 G12 De Luxe like that one, and yes, I think that a cruising life on the ocean wave is rather fine too…

Close up of the bike. Note lack of centre stand... or any feet for the rider and passenger!

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