On top of the world

Oc­ca­sion­ally in this sport­ing world of ours, a mo­tor­cy­cle be­comes as fa­mous as the rider. Two such ma­chines will be await­ing in­spec­tion at The Clas­sic Dirt Bike Show at Telford on February 17 and 18.

Classic Dirtbike - - Contents - Words: Tim Brit­ton Pics: Mor­tons Archive

Are there two more iconic tri­als bikes than Sammy Miller’s Ariel and Gor­don Jack­son’s AJS?

There are a num­ber of com­pe­ti­tion ma­chines which have taken on a life of their own and be­come equally as well known as the rider who used them to good ef­fect. It’s ar­guable with­out the rider do­ing what they did these ma­chines wouldn’t be so well known but the fact re­mains they were equal part­ners in cre­at­ing a leg­endary pair­ing. While any num­ber of ma­chines could fill this spot we’re con­cen­trat­ing on two tri­als bikes which pretty much rounded off the big bike era in the Six­ties and the rea­son for this is they’re both go­ing to be on dis­play at the Clas­sic Dirt Bike Show at Telford. These two ma­chines are as close to the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of what could have been, had their fac­to­ries pro­duced them for pub­lic sale yet nei­ther ma­chine was re­ally suit­able for any­one other than the riders who won on them.

Even with­out the ac­com­pa­ny­ing pic­tures it’s prob­a­bly easy to guess we’re talk­ing about GOV 132 and 187 BLF – Sammy Miller’s Ariel and Gor­don Jack­son’s AJS.

Miller’s Ariel was the re­sult of pa­tient de­vel­op­ment over a num­ber of years, de­vel­op­ment which be­gan al­most the sec­ond it was de­liv­ered to him and ul­ti­mately be­came more ‘Miller’ than ‘Ariel’, whereas Gor­don Jack­son’s AJS was pro­duced for him by the comp shop at AMC. Gor­don’s views and needs were taken in to ac­count and the AJS built to his re­quire­ments. Both Miller and Jack­son had rid­ing styles unique to them­selves and sub­se­quent own­ers of the ma­chines didn’t gel with the bikes as well as they did. It didn’t stop the world want­ing repli­cas though. The prob­lem was most of Miller’s ma­jor suc­cesses on the ma­chine and the pe­riod when it be­came a leg­end hap­pened af­ter Ariel

ended four-stroke mo­tor­cy­cle pro­duc­tion and AMC too were in the fi­nal throes when they built 187 BLF for Gor­don to win the 1961 SSDT on.

The AJS was so spe­cial AMC turned down an or­der of 200 repli­cas of the bike, prob­a­bly re­al­is­ing not ev­ery­one could do what Gor­don could on such a ma­chine… even Sammy Miller pro­nounced it un­ride­able yet Jack­son won on it. In Ariel’s case their par­ent group – BSA – were not in­ter­ested in al­low­ing the Selly Oak mar­que the op­por­tu­nity to pro­duce repli­cas of Miller’s ma­chine.

It is doubt­ful if an ex­act replica of each ma­chine could have been pro­duced and guar­an­teed for pub­lic sale as the level of hand-fit­ting on each bike couldn’t have been jus­ti­fied by the sales depart­ment. Miller did pro­duce a kit for sale to help peo­ple up­date their Ariels and had at one time toyed with the idea of mak­ing repli­cas him­self, but with­out the fac­tory back­ing and know­ing for­eign shores were beck­on­ing, the project was stalled. Iron­i­cally for the AJS, the fi­nal bikes to leave the fac­tory in 1964 were pretty much a true replica of what Gor­don had rid­den.

Both mo­tor­cy­cles were the sub­ject of con­tem­po­rary magazine ar­ti­cles and the Ariel images are taken from a test con­ducted by The Mo­tor­cy­cle’s Peter Fraser – him­self no slouch on a tri­als bike – and the AJS photos came from a shoot we did for CDB is­sue 19 when I also got the chance to ride 187 BLF. Though I’ve rid­den many an Ariel HT5, I’ve not rid­den GOV 132… yet… won­der if that’s a big enough hint?

Both bikes are at the show courtesy of the Sammy Miller Mu­seum and are able to be in­spected quite closely. The Ariel is prob­a­bly the most highly de­vel­oped of the two as Sammy him­self was re­spon­si­ble for most of the work and ideas behind it. By his own ad­mis­sion the early in­car­na­tions of GOV 132 fol­lowed more to stan­dard Ariel prac­tice than the later ver­sions. Sammy had taken up em­ploy­ment with Ariel and was in their ex­per­i­men­tal depart­ment as well as the comp shop. As an em­ployee he was of­ten un­sure just how far he could go when mod­i­fy­ing the oth­er­wise mas­sive ma­chine, recog­nis­ing the need to be seen rid­ing what the com­pany sold but also recog­nis­ing the need for the com­pany prod­uct to be seen win­ning of­ten meant he would park his ma­chine out of sight if he’d done some­thing as rad­i­cal as fit­ting a high level ex­haust sys­tem for in­stance.

His task in pro­duc­ing the light­est ma­chine pos­si­ble got off to a good start as the Ariel HT5 was al­ready the light­est of the big bikes and of course Sammy had the run of the Ariel spares depart­ment so could mix and match com­po­nents as he strove to gain ground clear­ance, lose height and re­duce width and weight.

Low­er­ing the height of the bike was ac­com­plished by chop­ping the bot­tom out of the fuel tank and sit­ting it fur­ther down on the top tube, this needed the oil feed to the rock­ers re­vers­ing to clear the un­der­side of the tank but worked with­out be­ing ob­vi­ous and when al­lied to a lower seat – even­tu­ally to be­come a pad rather than sad­dle – gave the ben­e­fit of less re­stric­tion when the need to foot arose.

As the frame was an all-welded rather than brazed lug and tube con­struc­tion, nar­row­ing things at the mid-sec­tion in­volved cut­ting and weld­ing, though this would still re­main prob­lem­at­i­cal un­til post-1959 when Miller had a freer hand to de­sign his own frame

and could dis­pense with the oil tank by us­ing frame tubes to carry the lu­bri­cant.

Weight was saved by cast­ing such things as fork yokes from al­loy to re­place the steel com­po­nents, us­ing hubs from the Ariel twostroke Leader/ar­row range and drilling holes in as many parts as pos­si­ble. To bring things in a lit­tle at the footrests an ear­lier gear­box main­shaft was used and the clutch brought inside the chain­case rather than be­ing in its own com­part­ment – the clutch it­self was a Manx Nor­ton unit and al­ready quite light be­fore the drill got to it.

As with many such projects there are lots of de­tails which aren’t ob­vi­ous at first but add up to an ef­fect and while al­loy can re­place steel and plas­tic can re­place al­loy noth­ing is lighter than a hole. Once the bulk of the big bits had been re­duced, Sammy looked at re­mov­ing things such as clamps and ad­justers, pre­fer­ring welded-on brack­ets for levers and brazed rings for the rear sus­pen­sion springs to sit on. Bolts were as small as pos­si­ble and from ti­ta­nium wher­ever prac­ti­cal, wheel rims be­came al­loy, chain size went down and so it went on.

So it was in this form Peter Fraser was in­vited to try the bike out as Sammy had just won the tri­als ‘Grand Slam’ – the SSDT, the Scott and the Bri­tish Ex­perts. Fraser found an un­ob­tru­sive bike which was de­cep­tively quiet in op­er­a­tion and seem­ingly docile in ac­tion un­til the throt­tle was cracked open when the cams would rocket the bike up, say, a steep in­cline. Fraser took par­tic­u­lar note of how easy the con­trols were with brakes, clutch and throt­tle feath­erlight in op­er­a­tion and the sus­pen­sion set to per­fec­tion and all-in-all pro­nounced the bike as ‘…prob­a­bly the most suc­cess­ful of all time…’

The view from the south

AMC, based in Lon­don, was pretty much a lo­cal com­pany for Ken­tish man Gor­don Jack­son and by 1961 he’d been in the works team for a good few years, he was ac­tu­ally com­ing to the end of his mo­tor­cy­cle tri­als ca­reer and soon to be try­ing car tri­als where he would at­tain equal star sta­tus. AMC also had a love/hate re­la­tion­ship with the press and of­ten re­fused to ad­ver­tise thanks to a mildly crit­i­cal re­port in a magazine feature, or so leg­end has it. Thankfully by the time Gor­don Jack­son had won his third SSDT in 1961, by los­ing only one mark for the whole week, AMC were more pre­dis­posed to jour­nal­ists and The Mo­tor­cy­cle’s Ge­orge Wil­son was in­vited along to try what was to be­come the leg­endary 350 AJS. Still cov­ered in the peatier bits of Scotland here was a bike that would eas­ily be on the start­line for an­other SSDT with lit­tle more than a rinse off, change of oil and the petrol tank topped up.

The bike was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the pro­duc­tion ver­sion so, un­like Miller who had no need to be seen on what was be­ing

sold, Jack­son’s bike had to pay at least lipser­vice to the pro­duc­tion range. In re­al­ity the com­pany used quite a few tricks to make the bike more to Gor­don’s taste, the more rad­i­cal ones were inside or hid­den by paint. Less skul­dug­gery was needed with com­po­nents or­di­nary buy­ers could copy such as an al­loy oil tank be­tween the en­gine plates, al­loy rims for the wheels and rub­ber tube fork ga­tors.

Inside the en­gine were com­po­nents from the 7R road racer also made by AJS though for the Scot­tish ex-wd cams had been fit­ted to tame the bike down a lit­tle but it was still a feisty bike. This would be in part thanks to the lower weight of the 350 com­pared to a stan­dard bike and a big help in reach­ing the 265lb claimed weight must go to the Reynolds 531 tub­ing used for the frame and short­ened sub-frame. Al­loy en­gine plates and wheel rims also add light­ness as does a tubu­lar gear lever.

The en­gine is of course all al­loy al­ready but AMC used mag­ne­sium cast­ings for var­i­ous com­po­nents such as the rocker box cov­ers and gear­box cast­ings. A light­weight si­lencer on the end of a high-level ex­haust pipe shaved a pound or two off. As with GOV 132 as many nuts, bolts and wash­ers were made of light­weight ma­te­rial as was prac­ti­cal and there was ex­ten­sive use of the drill to cre­ate light­ness. One neat trick was to do away with the steel oil tank and fabri­cate an al­loy one which sat be­tween the en­gine plates above the gear­box.

When Wil­son fired the bike up, he was re­minded of AJS’S skills of mak­ing ma­chines me­chan­i­cally quiet and on the go the tremen­dous low-down torque of the motor too was noted in his re­port. What he wasn’t told at the time was AMC had repo­si­tioned the en­gine an inch back in the frame to al­ter the bal­ance point of the bike. He was given or al­lowed to mea­sure a few other di­men­sions though, such as footrests a cou­ple of inches fur­ther back and only 19in from tip to tip while the pro­to­type al­loy petrol tank mea­sured a mere 10in where the rider’s knees would be.

There is an in­ter­est­ing photo in the orig­i­nal feature with Ge­orge Wil­son in sports jacket and rid­ing breeches, tie and cap per­fectly straight as he tack­les a nest of rocks ob­served by Jack­son, AMC comp boss Hugh Viney and Ralph Ven­ables as he ac­cel­er­ates over the slab in front of him. The ra­zor-sharp han­dling, per­fect sus­pen­sion set­tings of AMC’S Tele­draulic forks al­lied to the slim­line Gir­ling rear dampers keep­ing the jour­nal­ist spot on line. Wil­son ven­tured in his sum­ming up of the model it had the renowned ‘plonk’ of Viney’s ear­lier works AJSS but al­lied to the zip needed for the chang­ing face of tri­als rid­ing. 

Gor­don Jack­son on 187 BLF dur­ing that win­ning ride.

On the very last day Miller rode GOV 132 com­pet­i­tively, he won.

Peter Fraser lines up GOV 132 to tackle some sec­tions.

Freshly re­stored and ready for ac­tion...187 BLF.

Is this the most fa­mous photo in all of tri­als rid­ing? The Dab!

When you get there Peter... wind it on.

It’s a big motor even if it is a short stroke.

Wear­ing Gor­don's num­ber from 1961.

View from the drive side shows lots of tuck­ing in for bits.

It is pos­si­ble to read the speedo when it's in this po­si­tion.

Both bikes will be to­gether at the show and un­doubt­edly Miller’s stand will be in­un­dated with peo­ple want­ing to get the real scoop, ask­ing which bike is best. Though I dare say I know the an­swer Mr Miller would give…

Come on Gor­don, let’s re- cre­ate the dab...

AJS al­ways had their mag­ne­tos at the front.

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