12th October 2007
Have you ever ridden a real, genuine, internationally successful competition Matchless? Frank Westworth has ridden several, strangely...
It is all true. Despite an entire lifetime spent studiously avoiding anything to do with 'competition' in most of its sweaty, athletic forms, from time to time I have been forced to ride about on pukka competition machinery. I have no idea why this is.
It's not that I am opposed to competition on grounds of socialism, where we should all achieve the same result, or elitism, where only I should win anything, or indeed any other form of 'ism'; it's simply that although I've enjoyed competing in all the healthy stuff that boys do when they're pupils at boys' schools; swimming, running, jumping, kicking, throwing, shouting, maiming, rending, gouging and so forth, I discovered at a very early age that competing in any form of two-wheeled sport results in inevitable pain. I have no problems if others wish to inflict bone-breaking agonies upon themselves, but can find no enthusiasm for it in myself.
Sensible though this approach to a fulfilling life may be, from time to time sundry chums have inflicted their competition bikes upon me. 'Ride this!' they cry, dropping some filth-encrusted wreck against the door to The Shed and laughing. They always laugh when inviting me to ride their bikes. What does it all mean?
A long time ago, a pal turned up aboard a bike he'd been trying to acquire for some time. He was delirious with joy about finally having bought it, too. I have no idea to this day why he lusted after this particularly horrible machine, but he really wanted it. He reckoned that all the problems in his life would be solved if he could just ride about on some ghastly pre-war AJS ohc race bike. 'Ride this!' he cried, laughing. I did. It was dreadful. It made more noise than a steam hammer, leaked more oil than an open bottle of oil turned upside-down, and it was very slow. He loved it.
Happily for his sanity, and quite suddenly, he ditched the ghastly AJS and replaced it with a Matchless G50. Yes, a real, genuine, everyone-needs-one 500cc ohc race bike, all gold-coloured castings and formidable oil leaks. It also wore a megaphone of volcanic dimensions, had stick-on registration letters stuck-on to its racing seat, and, being a real race rocket, completely lacked a kickstart. He loved it. 'Ride this!' he cried, laughing. I felt like crying. It was dreadful. Not as dreadful as the pre-war atrocity, but dreadful enough.
It put me off all forms of road-race bikes so much that when I was offered a 350 Manx Norton and an AJS 7R for very little money back in 1975 or so, well, I declined the generous offer. Whatever happened to all those entirely worn-out but cheap old warriors? You must have been offered them too, surely?1948 Matchess G80C
Less unhappily, lots of my two-wheeled chums preferred the gentler sport of mud-plugging, and rode about on trials bikes. Do you remember when old trials tackle was improbably cheap, and quite frequently available? They certainly were where I grew up in Somerset, but that may just have been the county where old comp bikes went to die. In my last year at school, 1971 if memory serves, I had one acquaintance whose shed boasted about a dozen all-alloy AMC comp engines. His mum probably threw them all away when he went to university. As they do.
From time to time, though, old competition heroes emerge, blinking, into the modern daylight. This is much more remarkable today than it was back in the 1970s, not least because the world of classic competition has been so thoroughly exploited over the last several decades, with all manner of tatty rubbish getting tarted up and passed off as genuine competition kit. And the past year has found me riding probably a half dozen real, genuine comp bikes, from a terrifying Métisse, via an ohc Norton to an utterly delightful Matchless G80C, all rigid frame and gentle chuffing charm. I really liked that bike, and had I possessed more than one active brain cell, I would have bought it - not least because it was offered to me at a completely improbable price. I am an idiot.
'Ride this!' cried my chum, laughing. There is a pattern here, as you can see. And, rather wonderfully, I set off into a sun-soaked Somerset afternoon with a song in my heart and a skip in my step (the latter caused by my left foot falling off the short-cut footrest the first time I applied the back brake) for one of the best rides of the year.
In the way that old road-racers are grim things, prone to shaking, loud droning noises and persistent leaks - and the bikes are no better - the old off-roader was a delight. It started first kick every time. It ran smooth and quiet. So quiet in fact that I wondered whether there were no valve clearances at all! But it had a gentle compression, and it started easily, so my fears were plainly unfounded.
The ISDT, as you can probably guess if you know what the initials stand for, involved riding about on the same bike for six days. I couldn't have ridden about on any of those ohc road-racer horrors for six hours, never mind six days, but it was instantly plain why AMC's pushrod comp bikes were once so great in the more muddy milieu. This G11CS was gentle. This was easy and friendly and comfortable. I sagged in the saddle and wandered off into the Somerset Levels, all twisting, rising and falling, blind bends, high hedges and cowsh. The bike was perfect. We drifted along together, reminding me of why it is that old bikes are so popular even today in this strange cash-obsessed society which we inhabit. Some things are worth more than mere money. I have never liked competition machines. But this could change…
Buy Me, Baby!
If you would like this very excellent Matchless G11CS, go to www.ventureclassics.com and see if it's still for sale...
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