Some old bikes rack up re­ally high miles, criss-cross­ing the coun­try. Oth­ers stay rather closer to home. This sport­ing stro­ker is a truly lo­cal light­weight, never stray­ing far from its roots. Henry Greg­son re­ports…

Some old bikes rack up re­ally high miles, criss-cross­ing the coun­try. Oth­ers stay rather closer to home. This sport­ing stro­ker is a truly lo­cal light­weight, never stray­ing far from its roots. Henry Greg­son re­ports…

Real Classic - - What Lies Within - Pho­tos by Henry Greg­son

As a move to­wards re­duc­ing the num­ber of ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing young mo­tor­cy­clists, in 1961 the gov­ern­ment of the time changed the law to re­strict learner rid­ers to ma­chines of 250cc or less. This meant that many man­u­fac­tur­ers of light­weight mo­tor­cy­cles re­alised that they had to come up with some­thing that would prove at­trac­tive to the young buy­ers. His­tory has shown that, with rare ex­cep­tions such as the Cot­ton Con­quest, the Bri­tish of­fer­ings couldn’t com­pete with the in­flux of so­phis­ti­cated small Ja­panese and Ital­ian ma­chines on per­for­mance. So what the Bri­tish bikes lacked in speed they needed to com­pen­sate for by at least look­ing as if they could go fast. Prob­a­bly the most suc­cess­ful of these glam­orous of­fer­ings was the le­gendary Royal En­field Con­ti­nen­tal GT.

The gi­ant AMC con­cern man­u­fac­tured James, Fran­cis-Bar­nett, Nor­ton, Match­less and AJS mo­tor­cy­cles. They pro­duced sporty fourstroke light­weight twins in the Nor­ton range; sin­gles from AJS and Match­less with their CSR mod­els, and from James, the Sports Cap­tain. This was a two-stroke 200 with an Ital­ian styled flair to its de­sign which it was hoped, along with com­pet­i­tive pric­ing, would woo the young pur­chasers.

In­tro­duced for 1961, the Sports Cap­tain was pro­duced un­til the demise of the com­pany in 1966. The ini­tial 1961/62 mod­els fea­tured the same petrol tank as the stan­dard Cap­tain, but there­after the Sports was fit­ted with the quite at­trac­tive and very Ital­ian look­ing ‘jelly-mould’ tank. Maybe this tank was used by other com­pa­nies too, as sev­eral sport­sters of the era use them, and they do look very sim­i­lar…

In­evitably, the av­er­age Sports Cap­tain was sub­jected to a hard life by the bud­ding racer / learner rider who bought it, and the bikes are now quite rare. One ma­chine that has sur­vived the years, and with very few miles, is the ex­am­ple seen here. It be­longs to re­tired en­gi­neer Harry and it has a very com­pre­hen­sive his­tory. It’s never lived more than 10 miles from its ini­tial sup­ply­ing deal­er­ship, Whit­tak­ers Mo­tor­cy­cles of Black­pool, a shop that was owned by long term VMCC mem­ber Dick Isles.

The James was first reg­is­tered by that deal­er­ship on Oc­to­ber 8th 1963, pur­chased by WM White­side of Stain­ing. Within twelve months he had traded it in for a car at Freck­le­ton Mo­tors, around half way be­tween Black­pool and Pre­ston. It must have resided there for some time as it was not un­til June in 1966 that it found a new owner, a Mr Bowl­ing, who lived just a cou­ple of miles away.

Mr Bowl­ing must have ex­pe­ri­enced some prob­lems with the James, be­cause in 1967 it was taken off the road and stripped down. It stayed that way un­til 1986, when Harry was told he could have it – pro­vid­ing he col­lected it within two days.

Now when I say ‘stripped’, I re­ally do mean stripped. Not only had the en­gine been dis­man­tled, but the en­tire bike as well! Harry is a bit mys­ti­fied by this, be­cause when he com­menced the re­assem­bly, apart from the in­evitable odd miss­ing bits, the only fault he found was a dam­aged pis­ton (a pic­ture

of which should be dis­played some­where close by). The pis­ton is of an un­usual de­sign with cast-in trans­fer ports, as can be seen, which en­gage with a pair of de­flec­tors in the cylin­der head. The idea here was to make the cylin­der bar­rel eas­ier to cast, as in­stead of hav­ing con­ven­tional trans­fer ports cast-in, there were sim­ply de­pres­sions in the bore to per­mit gas move­ment. Why the strange de­sign? It would ap­pear that the idea didn’t catch on…

The dam­age to the pis­ton looked to have been caused by the bike be­ing stored in a damp garage for decades, rather than through me­chan­i­cal fail­ure. Work­ing from a photo in a magazine, Harry loosely re­assem­bled the James and found that the kick­start gear and han­dle­bars were the only things miss­ing. A re­place­ment gear was lo­cated at Vale Onslow, where his en­quiry was met with the an­swer ‘How many do you want? Ban­tam John had some han­dle­bars.

The miss­ing parts lo­cated, the James was re­built and sub­mit­ted for an MoT… which it promptly failed. The rea­son? As men­tioned, Harry had used a photo of a James Sports Cap­tain as his guide. Un­be­known to him, the photo had been re­pro­duced as a re­versed im­age, so he had put the front wheel in the wrong way round!

That wasn’t the only prob­lem he en­coun­tered. The de­tails en­tered on the orig­i­nal log­book also caused some con­fu­sion. The ‘S’ stamped as part of the frame num­ber (S for Sports) had been in­ter­preted by the li­cens­ing au­thor­i­ties as be­ing a num­ber five. It took some cor­re­spon­dence be­fore this is­sue was even­tu­ally cleared up. Once the prob­lem was solved, the James was re­turned to use. De­spite now be­ing 55 years old, it has still only cov­ered 3000 miles from new, 2700 of those while in Harry’s own­er­ship.

Associated Mo­tor­cy­cles were a longterm cus­tomer of Vil­liers, the com­pany who pro­vided the en­gines for their twostroke James and Fran­cis-Bar­nett ma­chines. How­ever, spare pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity within their own fac­tory en­cour­aged AMC to pro­duce their own en­gines of 175, 200 and 250cc, de­signed by the Ital­ian, Vin­cenzo Pi­atti, with pol­ished port­ing. How­ever, the shape of the sup­pos­edly ‘gas flowed’ trans­fer ports caused a prob­lem by trap­ping the pis­ton rings. Be­fore too long, both de­sign and pro­duc­tion prob­lems soon gained the en­gines a poor rep­u­ta­tion for re­li­a­bil­ity. AMC were placed in the em­bar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tion of hav­ing to seek help from their old sup­plier, Vil­liers, even­tu­ally re­vert­ing to buy­ing in pro­pri­etary en­gines again.

De­spite this, when tested by the press the Sports Cap­tain was praised for its per­for­mance, han­dling, steer­ing, brak­ing and ease of start­ing, so there re­ally didn’t

ap­pear to be much wrong. Top speed was in the re­gion of 60mph and at this speed the ma­chine had a re­ported fuel con­sump­tion of around 70mpg. Cruis­ing speed was more in the re­gion of around 45 to 55mph.

It is one of these now quite rare 200cc four-speed AMC 20TS en­gines that pow­ers Harry’s James. Although the en­gine can­not in all hon­esty be de­scribed as sport­ing, Harry says it can ‘hold its own’, in traf­fic and cruises quite hap­pily around 50mph, giv­ing a very eco­nom­i­cal 100mpg.

Does the poor rep­u­ta­tion of the Pi­atti / AMC en­gine mat­ter to­day? Well, in its present in­car­na­tion as a clas­sic it will be treated with a lot more re­spect than it was shown by 1960s teenagers. And since it’s been put back into reg­u­lar use, the James has proved to be re­li­able. It starts eas­ily and the clutch is light.

Harry does strug­gle a bit with the four­speed gear­box. This is no fault of the James, it’s just that the one-up, three-down ac­tion is the op­po­site to the Tri­umph Harry also owns. Con­fu­sion can set in at times and he de­scribes the ac­tion as ‘up­side down’ (other opin­ions are avail­able…). Still, at least there is no chance of the James drop­ping a valve!

The generic James / Fran­cis-Bar­nett rolling chas­sis copes quite ad­e­quately with the James’s mod­est power, but Harry does say the quite nar­row 5-inch drum brakes could be bet­ter. How­ever, he praises the 6V lights which he finds no prob­lem at all.

The James’s rid­ing po­si­tion is some­what cramped for a full-grown adult. Be­ing in ex­cess of 6ft tall, the only way Harry can get com­fort­able is by sit­ting half­way back along the seat. The sus­pen­sion and the seat are just

fine, it’s just that the bike would suit a smaller per­son. Ideal, re­ally, for the teenagers it was de­signed for.

This un­usual and at­trac­tive bike does get quite a bit of at­ten­tion from in­quis­i­tive ad­mir­ers. A nice touch which adds to its lo­cal his­tory is the ad­di­tion of a cast al­loy ‘Freck­le­ton Mo­tor­cy­cle Club’ badge. This club was formed in the 1930s, and was dis­banded at the start of WW2. The club met in the sta­bles of a Freck­le­ton pub, the Coach and Horses, which still ex­ists. In 1996 the club was briefly re-formed, and a wall plaque de­pict­ing the club’s badge was tem­po­rar­ily dis­played in the bar. An em­broi­dered cap badge was also pro­duced and just one of these re­mains.

How­ever, the cast al­loy badge dis­played on Harry’s bike has fared bet­ter. An orig­i­nal item was found in an old tool­box at a lo­cal garage and from that a fur­ther 10 num­bered repli­cas were cast. These were sold all sold to en­thu­si­asts within the Freck­le­ton area. Since then a fur­ther 10 have been com­mis­sioned for lo­cal en­thu­si­asts.

As we all know, in the long run the cos­metic makeover given to the Bri­tish lightweights wasn’t enough to fool the buy­ing pub­lic. The bikes may have looked Ital­ian, but they cer­tainly didn’t per­form in the same way. Nev­er­the­less, I do think that Harry’s ma­chine has a cer­tain sim­ple and at­trac­tive charm about it. If AMC had in­vested in an en­gine with bet­ter per­for­mance and a bi­cy­cle with some de­cent brakes, they might just have been able to jus­tify that ‘sports’ claim.

Is this the rea­son the en­gine was orig­i­nally dis­man­tled af­ter a tiny mileage? The rather com­plex – and heavy – pis­ton de­sign was in­tended to elim­i­nate the need for trans­fer ports to be cast into the cylin­der bar­rel Above & right: The Pi­atti-de­signed en­gine aimed to im­prove on the Vil­liers unit it re­placed, if only in cost terms, but it de­vel­oped an un­happy rep­u­ta­tion for un­re­li­a­bil­ity Only the be­holder can de­cide whether James’s at­tempts at Ital­ian styling are beau­ti­ful For many years, James had sup­plied econ­omy mo­tor­cy­cling for many, but by 1960 that mar­ket was van­ish­ing rapidly

An­other neat touch; a lit­tle of the bike’s her­itage Like all AMC prod­ucts, the James was ruggedly con­structed and well made. But a bright blue frame failed to dis­guise the fact that this was not a mod­ern ma­chine Harry and his Sports Cap­tain. It is in fact the per­fect clas­sic ma­chine for lo­cal rid­ing, with light weight and ad­e­quate per­for­mance Apart from a cer­tain leisurely ap­proach to the rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, one of the ar­eas which did not help James’s as­sault upon the sub-250 learner mar­ket was the front end. Spindly forks and a less than en­thu­si­as­tic front brake were not great

Neatly styled en­gine, a fold­ing kick­start and the rear-set foot con­trols all add to the bike’s gen­tle ap­peal Chrome side pan­els and an ex­tra trans­fer or two in­creased rider ap­peal in the 1960s, ap­par­ently Typ­i­cal light­weight fare of the day: small Smiths speedo flanked by Wi­pac elec­tri­cal bits. The ace bars present in­ter­est­ing ca­ble-rout­ing chal­lenges The ‘James’ logo was an un­fa­mil­iar sight on the side of the en­gine. And it’s not easy to see, but right at the bot­tom of the cylin­der bar­rel is a cast-in ‘AMC’ logo

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