We normally associate the words ‘worthy’ and ‘workaday’ with AMC’s heavyweight 350 singles. After riding the Sceptre Sports, Stuart Urquhart would like to expand that vocabulary with ‘wow!’
We normally associate the words ‘worthy’ and ‘workaday’ with AMC’s heavyweight 350 singles. After riding the Sceptre Sports, Stuart Urquhart would like to expand that vocabulary with ‘wow!’
When I first clapped eyes on the AJS Sceptre Sports perched proudly upon Sandy Bloy’s bench, I fell on my knees and begged my friend for a ride. On catching his charitable grin I risked pushing Sandy a little bit further. ‘How about a road test for our revered magazine?’, I teased. The jolly good fellow and RC member patiently nodded, not at all fazed by my tomfoolery. He knows I’m an excitable chap – especially when confronted by an unusual and rare motorcycle. Fortunately we share a common love of post-war classics, and there are far too many in Sandy’s emporium that I would like to ride home.
Sandy Bloy needs no introduction to readers, being the proud owner of two Norton twins already immortalised in RC ink. I stumbled across his short-stroke Sceptre while writing up his red Dommi feature, and I was in confident mood that he would consent to another outing.
For me it would to be a déjà vu experience, for I had owned an AJS Sceptre M16S in the early 1980s. A decade earlier I also had a ’62 Mercury G3, but I only ran the Matchless for one summer before I became bored with its modest performance. Being young and impulsive, I swapped it for a broken Ariel VH, which was delivered in a van load of crumbling tea chests that didn’t auger well for their
contents. Needless to say I never got the Ariel running, and ended up yearning for my G3.
The Sceptre I bought for a song, restored it at great pain and cost, and then sold it for a sonnet. I should have realised that no self-respecting biker would be seen on one, especially when the 1980s spawned the superbike era. Collectively, we became obsessed with Jotas, Le Mans and Z1s, and sadly British motorcycles were boring old hat.
Moving on... How did Sandy acquire this rare AJS Model 16 Sports?
‘ The bike turned up through the AJS & Matchless Club. My friend and fellow member Dennis knew I was looking for a winter project, and pointed me in the direction of the Sceptre,’ said Sandy. ‘My interest waned when Dennis informed me it was a 350cc machine, and was located in the midlands with Ken De Groome, a well-respected restorer and AMC guru. But later, when Dennis emailed his follow-up comments about “a rare interim model from the 60s”, I decided to probe further.
‘Ken explained that the bike was in boxes, but complete. He had acquired it as recompense for restoration work undertaken prior to the owner’s sudden death. Ken had completely restored the engine and gearbox. The deceased owner’s estate offered the motorcycle as payment and Ken graciously accepted.
‘Ken sent me digital photographs of the work he had completed, along with receipts and copies of the registration documents,’ explained Sandy. ‘He confirmed that the AJS was indeed a rare 1962 Sceptre Sports model, and that it would be well worth viewing. As I was already aware of Ken’s fine reputation, we haggled over the phone and I bought the bike unseen.’
When the courier delivered the bike, Sandy was pleased to find that all the disassembled parts were neatly boxed, labelled and accounted for – all, that is, apart from the exhaust. This was apparently so beyond repair that it was binned before Sandy appeared on the scene. On the upside, the rebuilt engine had a shiny new piston poking from the barrel. The detached cylinder head was also fitted with bright and shiny new valves, springs and valve seats – all work accounted for on Ken’s receipts. The same receipts confirmed the bottom end had been treated to new main bearings and seals throughout, and the oil pump had been re-conditioned – all good news for Sandy.
As Sandy was unfamiliar with the Sceptre model, he decided to undertake a dry build before committing to the chassis restoration work. After several days Sandy had the rusty bike assembled on his work bench and began to compile a list of missing parts. The absent items were then identified using factory parts lists, but also with invaluable help from Steve Surbey at AMC Classic Spares. Steve supplied most of the missing items plus several replacements, including a wiring harness, alternator, solid state rectifier and a gel battery. At this stage Sandy had decided to convert the electrics to 12V. Other miscellaneous parts were sourced via Sandy’s Wassell catalogue – check their website to find your own local dealer of their spares.
Armours struggled to identify the correct exhaust system from their inventory – only to find some NOS exhausts after Sandy supplied the dealer with several factory photographs. The rims were in a grim state and the wheels were stripped so the hubs could be cleaned and powder coated in bright silver, prior to being rebuilt. Sandy takes up the story...
‘I was concerned about how to finish the restored mudguards after my friend and craft-welder Mark had skilfully filled in the myriad rust holes and pitting by welding, grinding and polishing. We both agreed that the restored surfaces were not smooth enough to accept a chrome plated finish. Instead, I decided to have them powder coated to match the splendid silver hubs and chainguard that IPF Coatings of Glenrothes had produced – the silver finish was amazing and looked just like polished alloy.
‘So I decided to have all the cycle parts powder coated in the model’s original Cobalt
Blue with bright silver detailing to replace chrome. Other parts would be black but the rare as hen’s teeth petrol tank’s badges were also treated to a “robust and ever-lasting coat of brushed silver”, to quote the enthusiastic salesman at IPF.’
Sandy then popped the hubs round to local wheelbuilder George Spence to have them laced up to stainless rims and plated spokes. Sandy also used stainless fasteners throughout the build, the majority of which were supplied by AMC Classic Spares. While the Sceptre’s cycle parts were away being powder coated, Sandy stripped and rebuilt the rear shocks and front forks, renewing all the internal bushes and seals before polishing up the alloy fork legs. The hub covers were also treated to Sandy’s polishing mop. The tatty dualseat was restored to its original splendour by coachbuilders Jim Watt of Almondbank – renowned leather finishers and car seat restorers.
The engine only required minimal work, given that Ken De Groome had already carried out an extensive and thorough rebuild. This was backed by Ken’s professional QC statement which stated that ‘he doesn’t do anything half-arsed!’ (How we laughed!) So the engine was ‘good to go’, confirmed a delighted Sandy. The gearbox also came with a similar De Groome seal of approval, leaving Sandy with the simple task of adding new fluids. On inspection, the clutch proved to have excellent steel and fibre plates, but new primary and drive chains were added to Sandy’s growing list of wanted parts. All the Sceptre’s sprockets proved to be in excellent condition despite the fact that the bike had covered over 50k miles, so Sandy is certain that an earlier owner had replaced them.
‘Other cycle parts such as the petrol tank, oil tank and both side panels were in good condition and just required cleaning prior to being powder-coated. The non-standard alloy handlebar levers were pristine and appear to be Unity Equipe accessories added by a previous owner,’ continued Sandy. ‘Others, such as the kickstart, gear lever and rear brake arm looked as if they had spent their latter years effervescing in the deeps of the North Sea!’
Any parts that were deemed beyond restoration were replaced. All the control cables were in poor condition and, rather than hunt down suitable items, Sandy made up a set of his own. While inspecting the automatic advance and retard unit Sandy discovered it was seized solid. The device had also been fitted with unusually heavy springs that inhibited normal bob-weight function and thus probably affected the ignition timing, so Sandy had no choice but to rebuilt the unit and add factory specified springs to sort out the problem.
The Amal Monobloc carb was thoroughly cleaned and a new needle, main and pilot jets, plus other crucial parts and seals were replaced in the interests of smooth running. When Sandy bench tested the speedometer it turned out to be working perfectly and only required a light polish. There was no rear brake light switch to be found, so he adapted
a Norton unit to be operated by the Sceptre’s rear brake arm.
‘As it turned out, the hassle of a dry build was fundamental to everything falling neatly into place,’ affirmed Sandy. ‘ There were very few problems and in less than a week I had a rolling chassis ready to accept the engine and gearbox. I would have to admit that I was initially uncertain about the colour scheme when I added the mudguards and petrol tank. But as the build reached its final stage, I instead turned my attention to wiring up the battery, adding fuel, engine oil and checking for that vital spark. I was then ready to fire her up.
‘I was ecstatic when the Sceptre started on my second kick and instantly idled away on a warming engine. My first outings were problem-free but, despite several successful runs, I became disappointed with the Sceptre’s bland performance. I put this down to “BIG Sandy, SMALL bike!”
‘But I was also being over-cautious in using the throttle on a newly-built bike. After several hundred careful miles I began to push beyond my self-imposed 50mph barrier, and I soon sussed that the AMC short-stroke engine thrived on revs. I began to enjoy a much livelier motorcycle and I knew then that we were going to have fun together!’
Sandy has certainly made a cracking job of his AMC sporting single. He’s an accomplished hand at restoration and his Sceptre looks striking, festooned in its powder-coated new clothes. We photographed the bike at Scone Aerodrome where Sandy’s business is located, and
it wasn’t long before our activities attracted ground staff like salivating bears to a honeypot. As word filtered through the airbase, inquisitive workers and colleagues turned up to admire Sandy’s new baby and congratulate the doting dad. Then we togged-up and rolled out the bikes for the coming road test. It was an exciting moment, as you can probably guess.
Memories of my old Sceptre came flooding back as soon as I familiarised myself with the
controls. There is a largely redundant valve lifter situated below the clutch lever. I say ‘redundant’ because although the Sceptre’s short-stroke engine has a respectable 8.5:1 compression, it really is a pushover to kick into life. As Sandy quipped, ‘If you can’t start her up on the first prod, then your technique badly needs attention!’
The engine was already warm when I climbed on board and kicked the Sceptre into life – first kick, I should add! Earlier, I had observed Sandy engaging the choke for a cold start, but this procedure is unnecessary once the engine has warmed. The shortstroke engine idles like a Swiss watch. I was agog at the eerie absence of transmission chatter or clattering tappets and, if it wasn’t for the presence of the quietly burbling exhaust note, I could have sworn I had been struck deaf. The clutch is very light, and pulling away in first, then into second, was crunch-free and seamless, thanks to AMC’s exceptional one-up and three-down box.
My first surprise was the Sceptre’s crisp and thumping exhaust note. Deep, wellspaced notes hung in the air and reminded me of my own Model 18’s heartbeat. My second surprise was the responsive and dynamic motor – a revelation I was not expecting. AMC’s short-stroke (74 x 81mm) competition-derived engine was introduced on the roadster singles by 1962. The new competition alloy head, larger valves, high comp piston and shorter stroke delivered a peppy and rev-happy engine with a correspondingly high-pitched exhaust note – yet I could easily imagine I was trundling along on any AMC long-stroke single, so familiar was the Sceptre’s classic-sounding beat.
The riding position was familiar too, although I did notice that the footrests are located further back than on Sandy’s Dominator. Controls are excellent; hands and feet are relaxed and well-positioned and I was made to feel very comfortable by the M16’s armchair ergonomics. The large, modern Smiths speedometer, centrally positioned within the headlamp shell, is easy to read and is an acceptable change from the old, bold, chronometric instruments. The ammeter is sited close by, but at a precarious angle on the starboard side of the headlamp. Not ideal: because if you like to check that this batterydependent, coil ignition motorcycle is storing vital energy during the ride, then you may need to remember and wind your neck back in, before you’re head-butted by a tree…
As I mentioned, a pleasant characteristic of the short-stroke motor is its perky performance. In theory the rev-happy 350 is capable of producing 23bhp at 6200rpm which would take it to 84mph. In third gear especially it proved to be a willing and nippy machine, managing to keep pace with Sandy’s Dominator throughout the day. Admittedly, we were not thrashing our mounts, but on some sections we were clipping along at speeds in excess of 65mph and yet the Sceptre felt happy and relaxed. The power delivery is uncharacteristically smooth for a single, and contrary to some reports I’ve read, I found the Sceptre delivered smoother bangs as its speed increased.
Building up real speed requires a drop into third and hanging an open throttle until she romps up to 65mph, followed by a rapid change into fourth, which should carry you up to top whack. She’s no lightweight, but I was impressed that she carried her portly 382lb well – that was until we clambered up one steep gradient and a drop down into third was required in order to keep up with Sandy’s disappearing twin. But this is the way with singles.
The upside was a 70mph dash following Sandy and his Dommi along the dual carriageway to Scone Airport, with still some to go! The Ajay’s engine was singing gaily beneath me and the exhaust was beating out its dramatic chorus. The Sceptre felt very much alive and in its element, and I was certain we could run happily all day long at this pace. I do remember wondering ‘Would my old rigid Model 18 maintain such a composed and stress-free pace?’ I think not.
Any classic enthusiast can have lots of fun with this engine, which is one step removed from AMC’s successful CS-type competition engine. Obviously the Sceptre Sports is no Gold Star, or a 7R replica for that matter – far from it – but blasting around at speeds above 55mph is addictive and fun. The only
reminder of this engine’s modest origin is a mellow vibration that rises through the pegs above 40, before dispersing again at around 50mph. Then it’s smooth progress all the way.
It was 1958 before the infamous AMC tin chaincase was retired in favour of the oil-tight and attractive alloy version fitted to Sandy’s machine. However, the shift to coil ignition and the consequent removal of the magneto from the engine resulted in what many believed to be an uninspired timing cover. The new iron barrel was updated with cast-in pushrod tunnels and although oil leaks were now firmly in the past, many diehards lamented the passing of chrome pushrod towers.
The arrival of the Model 16’s twin cradle frame was another concession to modernity that undoubtedly improved the Sports model’s handling. Despite some criticism to the contrary, AMC were committed to making their motorcycles more competitive and appealing throughout the 1960s – just when cheaper European and Japanese lightweights began to lure customers away from a once dominant British motorcycle industry. Cheap four wheeled transport, such as the Mini, also challenged domestic motorcycle sales. Unfortunately, two-stroke lightweights were about to change the UK motorcycle market for decades, eliminating the need for an overpriced, heavyweight, 350 single. Sadly, by the mid-60s, AMC were fighting for survival.
Right, that’s a brief scrape through history, let’s get back to the exciting ride...
We were testing the Sceptre around some of Perth’s quieter B-roads where handling and bendswinging are a sheer delight. On one tight S-bend I met a speeding van head-on. To avoid crumpled metal and dented pride, a change of exit line was all that was required and the un-phased Sceptre cantered on. I gushed with admiration for this rare AMC classic.
Suspension fore and aft verges on the stiff side; another advantage for cornering agility. To say that it’s super stable and as flickable as Sandy’s excellent Dommi would not be an exaggeration – and a justified assessment, considering we were swapping machines throughout the day-long test. Even the muchmaligned narrow brake shoes fitted within the full-width AMC hubs coped well. Contrary to expectation, the front brake on Sandy’s Model 16 is a howler, out-performing the rear on every occasion.
While the Dommi was tagged a sportster in its day, the Sceptre was pigeon-holed as a dull and staid commuter. I would suggest that this humble AMC model has more to offer the classic rider than dreary looks and a comfy saddle. The Sceptre Sports I had been having fun on all day long reminded more of a 500cc back street cruiser.
Sure, this excellent but not so light motorcycle will plonk around town all weekend in top gear at a sedate 20mph, if asked. But you might instead prefer to engage the fun side of the Sceptre Sports’ personality and enjoy a spirited ride, hooning around your local countryside like a mad, delinquent, teenager. And as I discovered, boring A-roads can be delightfully cut short by zipping along at speeds of 65mph plus. Not bad for a fiftyfive year old, 350cc ‘boring’ classic.
Second time around I was impressed with the Sceptre’s qualities – virtues that I had somehow failed to appreciate during my misspent youth. I have convinced myself (and hopefully RC readers too) that the AJS Sceptre Sports is a versatile package. It is docile, predictable and dependable – but in the right mood the Sceptre can also be fun, perky and exciting. She will happily plod the highways from 20 to 70mph and more in top gear, all day long, without so much as a grumble or a stutter.
An interesting read was a road test by MCN in 1962 which rated the Sceptre Sports 9/10 for performance, brakes, handling and lighting – in all other aspects the single scored a very creditable 8/10. Blimey, and I need to repeat myself, for this cracking little single also starts first kick, nine out of ten times!
But I have a personal bugbear that I cannot shake, and much as I enjoyed the Sceptre’s performance, I still find myself agonising over its form. I want the Model 16 to be handsome, but feel the outdated and heavily-valanced mudguards are confusing its ‘Sports’ role. I have similar doubts about the relationship between the model’s classically-styled 4¼ gallon petrol tank and the oversize, modern,
angular side panels. The large alien tank badges I am just coming to terms with, although the AJS version is arguably more attractive than the Matchless alternative. More likely I’m just a boring old traditionalist at heart and others will adore the Sceptre’s 1960s styling.
I have never felt entirely comfortable with the short-stroke engine’s appearance either, although my fix would be a matching alloy barrel and cylinder head, which would do wonders for the engine’s sporting image. All said and done, the burning question is: would I buy one – again?
Sandy is selling his Sceptre Sports and I’m hoping someone will buy it and save me from myself. A tin of silver engine paint and one more day in the saddle could just swing it for me. Contact RCHQ if you are interested. Alternatively, keep an eye on RC Facebook group and the Small Ads. You might just get first dibs…
Although the engine’s internals were the same on both the Model 16 Sceptre and the Model 16S Sceptre Sports, a lower handlebar and added silver sparkle made it a whole new model Just another AJS 350 single, right? Well, almost. This is no ordinary Sceptre, this is a Sceptre Sports
Above: There’s always something mysteriously enticing about a ‘barn find’ motorcycle…Left: Pleasantly original, although the rust around the fuel filler looks nasty, and we wonder why someone swapped over the ignition switch and the ammeter! The handlebars look original; factory-tuned by turning them upside down…Right: The passing of time and the weather had effected their usual ‘patina’
Although the decently leak-free primary chaincase was a great improvement over the earlier pressed steel versions, the bulge for the alternator made it look disproportionately large compared to the slim single cylinder
Sandy and his Sceptre. Looking good together! Catalogue shots of AMC bikes need to be treated with caution. They’re often airbrushed versions of earlier bikes…
Excellent AMC 4-speed gearbox is entirely unstressed by the Sceptre Sports’ 23bhp, oddly Neat alloy levers aren’t stock – the factory preferred meaty steel items – but they look good and work well Below: Loved by some, hated by many more, the new-for-62 AJS tank badge is decently remarkableLeft: Renovated pilot’s view is something of an improvement over the rusty original. The ammeter is usually sited between the ignition and lighting switches
Using silver power coat to replace the vanished chrome is an interesting and effective idea