14th September 2007
Maligned by many, AJS and Matchless lightweights can be a lot of fun. Frank Westworth, no lightweight, tries to convince himself...
My second bike was my first AJS. It was a 1948 Model 18 of fond memory, and although I have recaptured a Matchless G80 of similar scruffiness which has restored those fond memories to a large extent, I have failed to recapture my lost youth. I have talked about that AJS before, so it would be unkind of me to do so again and risk somnolence. However, I don't think that I've ever told a perfect stranger (have you ever met a perfect stranger? I've met many imperfect ones, but…) that my very first bike was almost a Matchless G2.
Strange. But true.
Come back in time. Live in the past, if you will. It was 1970. My sixteenth birthday was upon me. Although wonderfully fit, I was very bored with pedalling my Triumph Palm Beach bicycle about the hills of Somerset. Someone stole my Triumph Palm Beach bicycle. Oddly, this was no help at all. I replaced it with a racing bike (I'd always wanted a racing bike; 6-speed Derailleur and a double clanger, whatever that was) but although it meant that I rode faster, I rode no further and it was impossible to lure gurls to ride with me. I had spotted that boys with gurls also typically were boys with cars, good looks and charm. A car was out of the question. Then as now, finance was a tricky business. Good looks and charm were also a bit lacking. Life can be hard.
Although there may be a certain romantic charm in strolling along with your best gurl, arm around her slender shoulders, talking twaddle and dreaming fondly lustful daydreams, that romance tends to be snipped in its prime if your other arm is propelling a bicycle. Even if that bicycle is a Claude Butler racing bicycle. Gurls are unimpressed by racing bicycles. Trust me on this.
I took a chance. I mentioned to The Best Gurl that I was considering a motorcycle. I shook with fear while she digested this notion. 'Angus has one.' She finally replied, which was less of a mysterious remark to me then than it is to you now. Angus was her brother, and although I didn't know this, for he was older and a student in a very far away place, Angus did in fact ride about the dreaming spires of his alma mater aboard a Vespa. Teenage wisdom somehow stopped me explaining the difference between a Vespa, be it ever so noble, and a motorcycle. Several of my chums rode motorcycles, and even at that tender age I could tell that mentioning the words 'motorcycle' and 'Vespa' in the same sentence was unlikely to impress them.
But I needed something better than a bicycle upon which to scoot about the place, and I rode my first powered ride aboard a friend's … Vespa. It was appalling. I couldn't cope with the dexterity required to operate gears and clutch with the same limb. I fell off. My friend was unamused.
Another friend (those were the days; chums everywhere, how times change) taught me to ride his BSA. It was a C15T and was probably the perfect learner bike. Despite producing a terrifying amount of power (something less than the 15bhp produced by a standard C15) it was wonderfully low-geared and almost unstallable. Even by me. I loved it. True Romance was born. I needed to have one.BSA C15
The word went out. Frank wants a bike. Everyone knew where there were bikes, loads of them. The choice was vast and truly improbable-sounding in these strange classic days. My chums Geoff, Jim, Glenn and I looked at loads of bikes. They all suffered from one of two faults - or from both faults combined. They were either bigger than the 250cc that the L-law demanded, or their owners wanted money for them. Both of these posed problems.
Then we found the Matchless. It was huge, scarily big. It had chrome mudguards; vast heavy things which crinkled with flaky rust but would, I was assured, clean up nicely. That was its good point. It had flat handlebars, which I was assured was very good and made it impressively rapid. It was called a 'G2S', where 'S' stood for Sports. Gosh. I was impressed. It was free. It was free because it did not work.
The bike I actually wanted was a Vincent. A farmer out in the wilds near Stogumber had a Vincent in a greenhouse. It had a sidecar attached and a tree growing through it. It had been in the greenhouse for some time. The sidecar meant that I could ride it on my provisional license, for no reason I have ever understood, but although the price was right the farmer refused to let us either demolish the greenhouse or uproot the tree.
Back to the Matchless G2S. It was free because it did not work. This was not, apparently, a problem. It was a problem to me because I didn't have a clue how Matchlesses worked, or why they didn't, and would never be able to fix it. No problem! cried my chums in chorus. They could fix it.
Time passed. My thighs became mighty from pedalling. My Best Gurl and I walked everywhere I didn't pedal. One of my friends remarked that I was an over-muscled oaf. I have never forgotten that. I wish it were still true. Now I am merely an oaf.
And no-one could make the Matchless run. It had sparks, it had fuel and it had compression. Ergo, my chums with a bent towards oiliness assured me, it would run. It did not run. I would soon be able to grow a beard.
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