Home built AJS V-4

The re­mark­able story of one man’s dream to recre­ate what could have been one of the world’s most de­sir­able mo­tor­cy­cles.

Old Bike Australasia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos Jim Scays­brook

When AJS threw back the wraps on their star ex­hibit at the Earl’s Court Mo­tor Cy­cle Show in No­vem­ber, 1935, the col­lec­tive in­take of breath al­most sucked the car­pets off the floor. Here, in solid metal, was per­haps the most mouth-wa­ter­ing, evoca­tive and quite de­li­cious pow­ered two-wheeler ever of­fered to the pub­lic; a 50-de­gree vee with four cylin­ders, each with a sin­gle over­head camshaft driven by a cen­tral tim­ing chain. It even car­ried a price tag – 89 guineas (when the av­er­age UK wage for a farm worker was about 100 Pounds per an­num), sug­gest­ing that the or­der book was open for busi­ness. The de­sign was the work of Bert Col­lier, of the orig­i­nal Match­less fam­ily who ac­quired AJS in 1931. Alas, the V-4 not only failed to pro­ceed to pro­duc­tion, the sole ex­am­ple dis­ap­peared im­me­di­ately for­ever, although the ba­sic con­cept lived on as a racer, which was ini­tially air-cooled and later wa­ter­cooled. The rac­ing ver­sion ap­peared in the 1936 Isle of Man TT, with Lon­don butcher Harold Daniell and long-serv­ing AJS rider Ge­orge Row­ley form­ing the team. Nei­ther fin­ished and the V-4 pro­ject went silent for two years, reap­pear­ing with a su­per­charger. In 1939, the blown V-4, now with wa­ter-cool­ing, was en­tered for the pres­ti­gious North West 200 in Ire­land, where Bob Foster over­came a bad start to hit the front be­fore a head gas­ket failed. At the TT, Foster and Wal­ter Rusk made nu­mer­ous pit stops for fuel and wa­ter, but at least fin­ished – in thir­teenth and eleventh re­spec­tively. In Au­gust 1939, Rusk recorded the first-ever 100 mph lap at the Ul­ster Grand Prix, and im­pressed by lead­ing the race un­til a bro­ken front fork link side­lined him. The post-war ban on su­per­charg­ing put paid to any fur­ther de­vel­op­ment, although the V-4 did man­age a vic­tory in June 1946 at Chi­may in Bel­gium, rid­den by Jock West. One week later at Albi in France, West was again at the head of the field when the engine seized, and a few months later came the ban on su­per­charg­ing. The rem­nants of the sole re­main­ing wa­ter-cooled V4 (still seized) ini­tially went to the Beaulieu Mu­seum be­fore be­ing ac­quired by Sammy Miller for his mu­seum in the same district of south­ern Eng­land. The re­stored Miller ex­am­ple has ap­peared at sev­eral events, in­clud­ing the Isle of Man in 1984 and at the NZ Clas­sic Fes­ti­val at Pukekohe.

Back to 1935

The mo­tor­cy­cle dis­played at Earl’s Court was in essence four 125cc sin­gle cylin­der top ends, with di­men­sions of 50mm x 63mm, giv­ing 495cc, on a com­mon crank­case. Both heads and bar­rels were in cast iron, with wide-an­gle valves and a hemi­spher­i­cal com­bus­tion cham­ber, giv­ing a com­pres­sion ra­tio of 7.9:1. Each cylin­der head car­ried its own camshaft driven by a sin­gle chain run­ning be­tween each pair of cylin­ders. A half-time pin­ion drove the chain which ran up and over the front camshaft sprocket, down un­der a ‘Weller’ jockey pul­ley, up over the rear camshaft sprocket and back to the driv­ing sprocket. The engine was in ef­fect four over­head camshaft sin­gles mounted on a com­mon crank­case; the bar­rels, heads and cam boxes be­ing sep­a­rate cast­ings. Hair­pin valve springs, with du­ra­lu­min rock­ers op­er­ated the valves via short tap­pets. Each cam box was se­cured to the cylin­der head by four bolts. Forked con-rods were used, with five ball and roller bear­ings sup­port­ing the crankshaft. Two Amal car­bu­ret­tors sup­plied the mix­ture, one on each side of the engine, mounted on in­duc­tion pipes be­tween the two cylin­der banks. A bevel gear taken from the off-side of the crankshaft drove a short ver­ti­cal shaft which in turn drove twin BTH mag­ne­tos, while the lower end of the bevel shaft drove the in­let and scavenging oil pumps. A Bur­man four-speed gear­box was fit­ted. The forks, brakes and wheels were iden­ti­cal to the cat­a­logued AJS 500 sin­gle. At the front of the engine sat a dy­namo, but AMC’s spruik­ers at the show ‘sug­gested’ that a su­per­charger could oc­cupy this space with­out too much trou­ble. Its fail­ure to reach pro­duc­tion de­prived the world of a sen­sa­tional, ground-break­ing mo­tor­cy­cle which would surely have be­come one of the most iconic de­signs of all time. Clearly, thought Dan Smith, this was a sit­u­a­tion that needed to be rec­ti­fied, al­beit seventy years on.

Down in the base­ment

I had come to Dan and Eileen’s home in Van­cou­ver pri­mar­ily to see a trio of mo­tor­cy­cles that Dan had con­structed vir­tu­ally from scratch, lit­tle re­al­is­ing there was much more to this amaz­ing man – a de­voted mo­tor­cy­clist and a vir­tu­oso of the work­shop. That work­shop is what Dan calls “The Base­ment”, lo­cated un­der­neath the fam­ily home and a vis­ual over­load from the mo­ment you set foot in­side – an or­gan­ised clut­ter of ma­chin­ery, ma­chine tools, pat­terns, cast­ings, hand tools and gad­gets, books and me­mora­bilia. From within these some­what cramped con­fines have (so far) come three mo­tor­cy­cles which Dan feels epit­o­mise Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cle en­gi­neer­ing from the golden era be­tween the wars – orig­i­nally from AJS, Ve­lo­cette and Vin­cent. His busi­ness ca­reer as a skilled ma­chin­ist cer­tainly helped make the tran­si­tion from dream to re­al­ity. “I re­alised very early on that if I learned how to be a ma­chin­ist, I could make my own mo­tor­cy­cle parts.” Dan’s cramped by com­pletely func­tional work­shop is de­cid­edly old-school, in that it con­tains no mod­ern com­puter-con­trolled or as­sisted ma­chin­ery. It’s de­cid­edly slide-rule stuff; prac­ti­cal and pre­cise. Ev­ery­thing starts with the draw­ing board and pro­gresses from there. That’s all fine, ex­cept that ref­er­ence con­sisted of a soli­tary, grainy pho­to­graph of the mo­tor­cy­cle it­self, and an ex­ploded draw­ing of the engine. Scal­ing up the in­ter­nal com­po­nents from the ex­tant ma­te­rial was in it­self a Her­culean task as the engine draw­ing had been done in per­spec­tive, with up to six “di­min­ish­ing points”, mean­ing ac­cu­rate mea­sure­ment was al­most im­pos­si­ble. Even the sole­ex­ist­ing su­per­charged and wa­ter-cooled V-4 racer owned by Sammy Miller wasn’t much help, as the engine lay­out had been com­pletely re­designed by Matt Wright in 1939 in a bid to make it com­pet­i­tive. Dan had some V-4 ex­pe­ri­ence, hav­ing res­cued a Match­less Sil­ver Hawk from the scrap heap a few years pre­vi­ously, a task that in­volved recre­at­ing many of the in­ter­nal com­po­nents. But this was a com­par­a­tive breeze com­pared to the AJS. While he worked on the engine pat­terns, Dan set about ac­cu­mu­lat­ing cy­cle parts, which at least were some­thing of a known quan­tity. “I looked at us­ing a frame from a 1000cc V-twin AJS”, says Dan, “but it was too big and heavy. In­stead, I man­aged to get one of the frames that Bert Denly used at Brook­lands, with a 500cc sin­gle cylin­der engine, and I made a full-sized wooden mock up of the V-4 engine. When this was mated to the Bur­man gear­box, it fit­ted into the frame – just. These frames are much the same as the stan­dard AJS sin­gle frame of the time ex­cept for the rear end which has an ex­tra lat­i­tu­di­nal tube run­ning to the rear axle mount.” “I went to UK to look at Sammy Miller’s bike, but I soon re­alised that the wa­ter-cooled engine and the orig­i­nal air-cooled one were com­pletely dif­fer­ent. The wa­ter-cooled one was more com­pact, with

shorter con­rods, so the over­all di­men­sions were all dis­sim­i­lar. The cut­away draw­ing I had was not ac­cu­rate ei­ther. It had been done so as to look right on pa­per, so the an­gles shown are not con­sis­tent. It was im­pos­si­ble to scale, so I had to re­sort to what I thought would be cor­rect. I knew the bore size and the an­gle be­tween the cylin­ders and af­ter I worked out the length of the rods I was able to cal­cu­late the “deck heights” for the bar­rels on the crank­case. I spaced the mag­ne­tos at 60 de­grees to make room for the bevel driv­ing gears, and the pair of re­duc­tion gears to achieve the half-time drive.” Com­plet­ing the pat­terns for the crank­case was a mile­stone, en­abling the first cast­ings to be made prior to com­menc­ing work on the crankshaft it­self. “I used five main bear­ings in­stead of the orig­i­nal six. They (AJS) had two main bear­ings on the drive side but I fig­ured with a power out­put of about 40 hp and run­ning at 6,000 rpm that was un­nec­es­sary. I used two bear­ings in the cen­tre, two out­side the fly­wheels and one in the tim­ing chest to con­trol end-float. I didn’t see the sense in re-en­gi­neer­ing ev­ery sin­gle com­po­nent, so I used things like Vin­cent valves, rema­chined, be­cause I had plenty of them. Why make what you don’t have to?” Sim­i­larly, Dan used pis­tons from a DR100 Suzuki, and copied the Suzuki com­bus­tion cham­ber de­sign and cam pro­files. “I used vernier pin plates on the cams, like a Manx Nor­ton,” he says, “with ec­cen­tric ad­just­ment for the rock­ers.” Like the orig­i­nal, he used al­loy rock­ers, and made small scav­enge pumps for each of the cam boxes to re­turn the oil. Suzuki also pro­vided the ex­tra-long cam chain – two chains from a DR400 that have been joined to­gether. Hair­pin valve springs orig­i­nally from a 250cc NSU Max fit­ted nicely. Twin BTH mag­ne­tos sup­ply the spark; one found lo­cally in Canada and the other com­ing from Tas­ma­nia af­ter Dan dis­cov­ered it on eBay. He made the gear cut­ters for the mag­neto bevel gears, as well as the gears them­selves. A BSA 10 was the donor for the oil pump. Un­like the orig­i­nal AJS de­sign which used a sin­gle float cham­ber for each of the Amal car­bu­ret­tors, Dan used twin float bowls for each. The orig­i­nal AJS used cast iron heads and bar­rels, but Dan opted for cast al­loy com­po­nents in the name of ef­fi­ciency and ex­pe­di­tion.

Engine and rolling chas­sis were united in early 2006, af­ter which Dan was able to de­sign the re­main­ing ma­jor com­po­nent, the pri­mary chain case. Again, it was a case of care­ful mea­sure­ment and draw­ing be­fore pro­duc­ing a pat­tern and cast­ing. With the ma­chine ba­si­cally com­plete, it was then time to pull it all apart for plat­ing and paint­ing. Now with the wind in his sails, Dan had the bike back to­gether later in the year and af­ter con­sid­er­able hard graft to ar­rive at ig­ni­tion tim­ing, clear­ances and car­bu­ret­tor set­tings, it was time to give it a kick. Whether the 1935 Show bike was ever started, or in fact whether it had the engine in­ter­nals to al­low it to run, Dan’s cer­tainly does. It wasn’t able to be started dur­ing my visit, but Dan says the ex­haust note is un­like what you’d ex­pect from a V-4, and more like a Laverda triple. The stun­ning ma­chine has since clocked up over 10,000 miles, and has even been dropped, al­beit at slow speeds, by a vis­i­tor. Dan him­self has given the V-4 a good work­out on oc­ca­sions. “I’ve had it to 95 (mph). I repli­cated the han­dling too. I got this frame off a 600, and all that is a se­cond mem­ber go­ing back to the back wheel that stiff­ens up the back end a bit, but it’s the front end that’s flimsy. It goes fine, but I had an Aus­tralian chap here who rode it and he must have loos­ened off the steer­ing damper, and then the fol­low­ing week a chap from NZ, Frank Platt was vis­it­ing and we went out, (I was on my Ariel Square Four), and I said ‘Go ahead, roll it on’, but he shut off the throt­tle real quick and it went and spat him right off. He bailed off and hit the road run­ning; he was a guy my age and he never re­ally went down but the bike hit hard. We were sched­uled to go to Colorado to an in­vi­ta­tion car and bikes show, so a cou­ple of things had to be plated and doc­tored up but it wasn’t too bad, it could have been much worse.”

A com­mit­ted cou­ple

When Dan Smith re­tired in 1998, he and his wife Eileen de­cided to take a lit­tle trip. He’d worked hard and built a suc­cess­ful en­gi­neer­ing busi­ness, and along the way had col­lected some de­sir­able mo­tor­cy­cles, no­tably Vin­cents. And so his Rapide, suit­ably but subtly mod­i­fied for the task with a big fuel tank and lug­gage car­ry­ing equip­ment, was read­ied for a jour­ney that would take the cou­ple from their mod­est home in Van­cou­ver, B.C. where they had lived (and still do) for 52 years, to as far south as roads would take them – to Tierra del Fuego on the tip of South Amer­ica.

“It’s a nice bike to ride. The mud flap on the front fender is a great thing for keep­ing for­eign ob­jects off the back tyre. I went to South Amer­ica and back and never had any­thing punc­ture my tyre in 30,000 miles. Eileen and I were nine months on the road, 15 thou­sand miles down to Tierra Del Fuego on my Rapide. I made the big tank and put the rack on it and set it up so it was OK for tour­ing. That was ‘98 shortly af­ter I re­tired. We couldn’t ride all the way back – it was the year of the big El Nino and the hur­ri­canes were com­ing through Cen­tral Amer­ica and the north­ern part of South Amer­ica and the roads got washed out. We got to within 7 de­grees of the equa­tor com­ing home and we had to go back into Lima and fly it (the Rapide) from there. The trip was over but when we got back we went up to the mid­night sun in Alaska. We didn’t camp, we stayed in a ho­tel ev­ery night. I never had any­thing phys­i­cally go wrong with it. If you’re on your new BMW and some­thing breaks you gotta wait un­til the parts come out. I had a wet ig­ni­tion sys­tem, and we went through three hur­ri­canes. I broke the rear frame from bump­ing it back onto the rear stand; that was in Mex­ico so I had that welded up and it’s still the same, but noth­ing me­chan­i­cally went wrong all the way down and back. It’s put to­gether more or less like a stock Shadow with inch and an eighth carbs, has a 4 speed whereas my Shadow has a 5 speed. The Shadow is short rod­ded – the rods are 5/8 inch shorter – the pushrods just clear each side, you take a fin off the top and one off the bot­tom of the muff. It has a ti­ta­nium oil tank and alu­minium fas­ten­ings, on 10.6:1 it goes like stink. That was made from noth­ing, I ac­quired a set of cases and I got car­ried away mak­ing a hot rod out of it. It will do 140 if you’re drunk enough. Jet­ting the carbs I was do­ing 125 and still com­ing on, shift­ing into top gear. It has a Sur­tees 5 speed gear­box, his first one. I was draw­ing up a five-speed when I got wind that John Sur­tees was do­ing it so I got on the phone and said I’d take one. It was 3 years later when I got it and it was a close ra­tio box – no good for the street – so I had to change low and se­cond which was eas­ier than mak­ing a whole gear­box.”

But wait, there’s more

From read­ing this far you will have gath­ered that Dan Smith has leg­endary sta­tus in the Cana­dian mo­tor­cy­cling scene. His en­thu­si­asm is in­fec­tious, his en­gi­neer­ing skills truly in­spi­ra­tional, and the prod­ucts of his lit­tle work­shop al­most be­yond be­lief. In fu­ture OBA is­sues you will read of two more of Dan’s cre­ations – his Ve­lo­cette Roarer and the first of his Vin­cent HRD Se­ries A repli­cas (the se­cond was still un­der con­struc­tion at the time of my visit). How­ever he ad­mits that the years of hard work are tak­ing their toll. “I still spend eight hours a day in the base­ment,” he says. “I still en­joy it but it’s not get­ting any eas­ier. I’ll be eighty soon. That’s why I have de­cided to sell the V-4 AJS and the Roarer. I am not in any hurry be­cause who­ever buys them will need to have deep pock­ets. I’ll keep the Se­ries A be­cause I ride that one of­ten.” Whether it’s a mu­seum or an in­di­vid­ual who ends up with the bikes, these ma­chines rep­re­sent an in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment in en­gi­neer­ing terms and in sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion. In the case of the AJS, it also means a pro­to­type that scarcely saw the light of day now ex­ists in a form where it can be mar­velled at by cur­rent gen­er­a­tions, more than seventy years af­ter it was con­ceived.

Dan Smith – man and ma­chine.

The only pho­to­graph re­leased by AJS prior to the 1935 Earl’s Court Show.

LEFT Wal­ter Rusk with the V-4 AJS at its last TT ap­pear­ance in 1939. BE­LOW Sammy Miller’s 1939 AJS V4 at the 1980 Isle of Man TT.

Heart of the mat­ter. The V-4 engine, built en­tirely by Dan.

ABOVE Over­head draw­ing with Dan’s an­no­ta­tions. RIGHT The Max Mil­lar cut­away draw­ing was all Dan had to start with.

Each Amal carb has twin float bowls.

ABOVE Oil tank is a mod­i­fied AJS com­po­nent. BE­LOW RIGHT Bur­man 4-speed gear­box. Rear mag­neto was found in Canada.

CEN­TRE LEFT Fuel tank came from a ‘thir­ties AJS 600 sin­gle. LEFT Apart from the muf­flers, the rear gives lit­tle away. BE­LOW LEFT Hand­some pri­mary chain case was the last ma­jor item to be made.

LEFT Road’s end. Dan and Eileen Smith and their Rapide at Tierra del Fuego in 1998. ABOVE Dan and Eileen in the garage of their Van­cou­ver home, with the much-trav­elled Rapide. Note the HRD’s front mud­flap, a vi­tal piece of equip­ment says Dan. BE­LOW All his own work. AJS V-4, HRD Se­ries A and Ve­lo­cette Roarer.

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