Matchless man Ian Massey likes his AMC machines to be traditional and flavoursome, so a 500 single should be just his cup of tea. But wait! There’s something wrong with this Matchless. It’s, erm, an AJS…
I’ve heard it said by Matchless aficionados that AJS bikes were built with the bits rejected by Matchless quality control, while AJS fans reckon that AMC used the best 10% of their parts to assemble Ajays. Both tales are I’m sure apocryphal nonsense, myths and fairy tales. However this does go to show just what a strong following these two marques had individually. Back in the day you were either an AJS devotee or a Matchless fan. Never mind that the bikes were virtually identical and had travelled down the same production line, only to have one or other identity conferred on them by the man with the number and letter stamps and the guy who screwed on the badges. Who knows now what process decided which bikes would have which identities? AMC started down the road to badge-engineering way back in the 1930s, long before BMC and British Leyland did something similar. After the war the differences became less and less.
It wasn’t always this way. Prior to the depression of the 1930s, AJS and Matchless were entirely separate companies. The Collier brothers built Matchless motorcycles in London and produced some fine, individualistic machines including early TT winners. By the late 1920s their range consisted of machines from 250cc to 1000cc with side or overhead valves, and one to four cylinders. The Matchless V-twin 1000 motor was even sold to George Brough for his eminently superior machines, as well as being used by Morgan to power their three-wheeled sports cars. Of course it was also used by Matchless themselves in their Model X.
By the mid-1930s, Matchless Motorcycles Ltd had produced a couple of very technically interesting, inline, narrow angle V-engine machines, the V-twin 400cc Silver Arrow and the 600cc V-four Silver Hawk. Both were sophisticated machines but unfortunately too exotic for the cash-strapped 1930s biker.
Meanwhile, up in Wolverhampton, the Stevens brothers were producing their own excellent products. AJS may have been a little later coming to the party but between 1909 and1930 they became famous competitors in the TT races, with 250, 350 and 500cc singles achieving much success, especially the 350 cammy singles. In the 1930s AJS produced a 1000cc blower V-engine machine for an attempt at the world speed record. However, by then AJS’s golden years of the 1920s were behind them and, as they entered the hard times of the 30s, they found themselves hopelessly overextended, having expanded into the production of sidecars, a light car, commercial vehicles and even wireless sets.
In 1931 AJS went into liquidation and was bought by Matchless. So it was that AJS, one of the newer motorcycle manufacturers, was amalgamated with one of the oldest. Matchless had won three TTs before AJS had even begun production! AJS production was moved to Woolwich to be produced alongside Matchless, with perhaps the most individual AJS of the period being the rare V-four machine. Soon the ranges began to run down the production line together, and by the end of the decade the singles had much in common.
WW2 bought production of most models to an end and AMC (Associated Motor Cycles since 1937) focused on the Matchless G3 350. Some 80,000 were produced during the
conflict for the forces’ despatch riders and the machine quickly found favour with the Don Rs… especially after the introduction of the Teledraulic front fork in 1941, making the company first in the field with this design. It was this machine, proven and reliable, which became the bike that AMC offered for peacetime production.
With no time to think about fresh designs for 1945, a range of four machines was decided upon: single-cylinder 350 and 500 models called the 16M and 18M under the AJS badge and G3 and G80 for Matchless. So the post-war range of badge engineered singles came into being and would continue in one form or another virtually to the ultimate demise of the company in the mid-1960s.
I believe that motorcyclists are basically tribal by nature and fiercely loyal to their chosen marque. That’s how AMC produced virtually identical machines for buyers of both brands, with each customer being convinced their chosen brand was better than the other. Me? I’m a Matchless fan through and through. Over the years I’ve owned most of the postwar models, always being fiercely proud of the winged ‘M’ motif and mostly pleased with the bikes I’ve owned.
My one dabble into AJS territory was a 500 twin of a slightly rough disposition. That was bought because a Matchless G80, c1958, which I had hoped to buy from my uncle had been sold without reference to me. The 500 twin remained the only AJS I have ever owned… until recently. You see, that G80 500 single remained the object of my dreams for the last forty years. When I’ve had the money, one hasn’t been available. Or when I’ve seen a nice one, I haven’t had the money to spare.
I do own a pair of 350 Matchless singles, and so pleased am I with them that eventually I no longer lusted for a 500. I was content in the knowledge that a 500 would take more effort to start, probably not be as smooth, and be not much quicker. One of those 350s had belonged to a good friend, Pete, who had sadly passed away some time ago and had left a large collection of bikes. I’d been helping his wife to find good homes for some of Pete’s machines. During that time, a solitary bike stood apart from the others saying, ‘Hey, look at me.’
Slowly, over a couple of years, this bike worked away on my subconscious mind until I realised that, despite being an AJS, this bike is the 500 single that has been missing from my riding life. So my Matchless twins now have a big sister, although we all call her Auntie Ajay!
Once the deal was agreed, I arranged to get both the Ajay and a 1964 Norton-forked Matchless G12 CSR from the same collection up and running. I drained two gallons of somewhat stale fuel out of the tank (my old Jag gulped it down: it never noticed the taste) and I replaced it with fresh. The engine had wet-sumped a little during its period of standing around, so all the oil was drained out and a fresh SAE 40 monograde poured in. With the battery charged and fitted (it’s got coil ignition), it was ready to start. Two kicks to draw in some fuel, then ease over TDC. Ignition on, a good ‘swinging kick’ and… duff, duff, duff. The old girl was running. Deep joy!
The clutch was free so pop her into gear and potter up and down the driveway. Result? I am a happy, lucky, man!
The CSR was somewhat more difficult to
get going as it hadn’t run this century, but that too burst into life with 20 or so kicks. Just how many kicks does the average, 60-plus bloke have in him? I was almost on my knees when it eventually fired up, and bruised my ankle with a couple of angry kickbacks along the way. My how I laughed (and hobbled) when it eventually fired up. The sound of the CSR was sharp and ferocious when compared with the 500, but I knew the willing 500 was the bike I wanted to own.
The deal was done and eventually, after waiting 47 years, I had my 500 single, a 1958 Model 18. This bike has an interesting early history as it spent the first four years of its life with various owners on the Isle of Man. It still has its old IoM logbook and was first registered on the mainland in 1962.
That purchase took place over two years ago, and since then I’ve bonded with Auntie Ajay. It’s been a period where I’ve spent endless hours turning a bike which initially looked so promising into a bike I can trust and can take anywhere. After the initial euphoria of purchase, the Model 18 was thoroughly checked over and readied for its MoT (which it still needed then). The ride to the testing station resulted in a pass, which I was pleased about, but otherwise it was a disappointing ride. The engine was sluggish and rough once hot and, my, did it get hot. It also had an annoying misfire at low revs. It occurred around 25-30mph, making smooth progress at these speeds almost impossible.
Also, the Model 18 was no quicker or powerful than my standard 350 and my 350CS could run rings round it. The two mile journey had seen the engine run mad hot, with the barrel and head smoking profusely, burning off all traces of old oil. I was glad to get her home and turn the engine off before any real harm was done. Fortunately Auntie Ajay is a strong old girl and, once she’d been left to cool down, she seemed none the worse for her misadventure, but clearly she wasn’t fit for purpose. Yet…
A cursory look round showed an exhaust which was now deep blue for its first 8-10 inches. The Ajay also had a shocking ability to backfire on overrun, sometimes drawing fuel into the cylinder. Turning on the ignition would result in detonation of amazing
proportions, without even a kick. This led me to believe that the ignition timing must be badly retarded. Since the bike started so easily, I hadn’t considered checking something so basic as this. I had no idea if Pete had actually used the bike; I don’t remember seeing him with it. I’m guessing he never got to ride it as it wouldn’t go far as it was, and Pete was pretty fastidious.
I took the timing cover off; the points gap was OK. Find TDC, poke measuring implement down plughole to find timing position before TDC – and look on in amazement. At the point where the contact breakers should be opening, they weren’t even near the cam tip. Clearly I’ve got it wrong; I’ll recheck with the manual and recheck my procedures. Same result. To get the points to the position where they should start to open, I needed to advance the camplate by a quarter inch! Now I’ve been round bikes long enough to know that a 500 single can give you a nasty bruised ankle if too far advanced. I didn’t want to spend the next couple of days walking with a limp, so what next?
A strong cuppa in my favourite AJS mug is what followed, with time for a think. Could the ignition timing really be so far out? On return from my strong brew and cogitations, I did a final check, took some brave pills (always handy if you can find them), tickled the carb and attempted a start. A hefty kick resulted in a first time start and the Ajay sounding much improved; less woolly and much crisper. Fully warmed up, helmet on and off down the road for a trial. What a result! The bike felt completely different; sharp, responsive and considerably more powerful, not to mention an engine which now ran at normal temperatures. A hot restart was successful so I parked Auntie in the garage and retired with a satisfied, slightly smug smile. She still had a tendency to pop and bang a little on the overrun, but nonetheless started and ran much better. A little fine-tuning further improved things.
I’m a firm believer that when a new bike comes into my possession I must build up some trust with it. That happens by taking it out on little runs at first, not too far from home, so that problems can be sorted out when they occur… as they undoubtedly will. My theory is that when a bike can achieve a run of 50 miles without incident then it can go anywhere. This seems to work for me. Over the next few months with the Ajay, so it proved, gradually building up the miles until the magic 50 miles had been reached.
The electrics seemed all original and the charging system wasn’t up to much, so I carried a spare, fully charged 6V battery on longer runs – if one went flat and ceased to create sufficient sparks then I knew I could get home with the other. 12V bulbs and batteries are much easier to get hold of, so last I winter converted the electrics to a solid state regulator, 12V coil, bulbs and horn.
Another problem was the low speed, intermittent misfire which would come and go. It didn’t make rides that much fun although it never got worse. I’d changed the plugs, condenser and points; cleaned the carb and changed jets, needle positions and just about anything else I could think about. The problem remained so I got used to riding round it and thought of it as a flat spot.
Then came the winter and the 12V conversion. My thanks must go to Colin Farrington, a stalwart club member and purveyor of electrical gubbins. He provided me with all the bits I needed at a reasonable cost, and copious information on how to fit things… along with the patience to explain things more than once. Thanks Colin! I am by trade a fitter and welder who earns his living repairing steam locomotives and boilers, so I don’t deal with electrics much except as a hobby. I’m glad that motorcycle electrics on old bikes are relatively straightforward and basic.
I followed Colin’s instructions and the conversion went well, with good lights and a charging system which works. I will change the alternator soon because the motor has to spin quite fast to get a good charge rate. I don’t like revving engines hard, and the alternator is quite old – it’s not even encapsulated in resin – and I don’t want to push my luck.
Luck definitely played a part with Auntie Ajay. When I took it out for the first trial on 12V, it became apparent that the misfire which had proved so difficult to get rid of had completely gone, and it hasn’t returned. I can only assume that the old 6V coil was breaking down. I’d not considered that earlier, and fitting a new 12V coil is the only thing which could have affected the running. Result!
I’ve had Auntie nearly three years now and she has settled down to be a useful and usable member of my garage fleet. Until recently every journey has seen me tweak or adjust something, until the bike has settled into being a reliable friend I would take anywhere. I’ve totally bonded with her and enjoy riding her. I’ve now reached 65 and am taking on less work, so can enjoy my bikes more.
On this year’s holiday in Somerset, Auntie travelled over 300 miles around Exmoor without a hiccup. She behaved well and has worked her way into my affections, become the 500 I always wanted… even though she’s not a Matchless. That’s just an accident of birth and that’s fine by me.
The Model 18 has provenance too. I’ve already spoken of her time in the Isle of Man, and she seems to me pretty original. I think she’s just been repaired as required rather than restored. The paintwork has patina and is worn right through in places but it’s still able to hold a shine after a wash and polish – even if in places I’m polishing bare metal! That’s exactly how I like my bikes. Auntie looks her age, a bit like me, and carries her history with her.
So, back to the tribal thing: Ajay or Matchbox? Auntie will never be a Matchless, but it’s a close thing. I’ll always be a Matchless fancier at heart but I’ll keep my AJS M18 nonetheless. I still have my two 350 singles and recently I’ve acquired a Matchless G9 500cc twin, so now it’s time to compare single and twin.
It’s also been interesting to compare the AJS with a cheap Indian Enfield 500 Bullet I bought last year as a runabout. The Enfield is pleasant and has the advantage of an electric leg, should I need it, but the AJS has sharper performance and much more charisma. Really, who cares? This classic bike hobby is a lovely way to enjoy life, happy in the knowledge that the bikes we own have character and (failing a catastrophe) won’t cost us a fortune in depreciation. I’ll let you know how the G9 turns out…
I started by comparing the AJS Model 18 to a strong cup of tea and that sums up the bike. It has a comforting, soothing and a distinct taste to it. On Exmoor, Auntie would dig in at the start of a long climb and bark her way to the top; just like a steam loco, and that’s just my cup of tea. When she reaches the top and the road levels out she purrs like a kitten. What more can I ask?
A machine which just about defines the ideal working classic. Tremendously reliable, great spares availability and a delight to ride
By 1959, when this bike was built, AJS had abandoned their famously leak-prone pressed steel primary chaincases in favour of this neat alloy casing. The big bulge at the front houses the alternator
The big box houses the battery and a sensible toolkit – as in, it’s sensible to carry a toolkit. Neat rear brake adjuster, too
Practical touches abound. Like the genuinely QD rear wheel and high quality suspension, complete with AMC’s unique clevis fittings
Mild in the country, AJS style
Ian Massey’s true love is Matchless, for no reason we can understand. Apart from… this is another of his bikes, a rigid comp single, and it is very very nice. Even with the AJS knee grips
The Concentric isn’t the original carb (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but all else is decently stock. AMC gearbox, points easy to reach, nice shiny pushrod tubes. Who could ask for more?
AMC engines are easy to date. This translates as (have you guessed?) 1959 / Model 18
AJS 500 singles really are sweet machines, and with their coil ignition and alternator charging systems are easy enough to upgrade
AMC’s Teledraulic fork was one of the first telescopics on the UK market and was always good. When well set up they’re smooth and compliant, comfortable too. Change the oil every year or so…
AJS singles of this generation are still recognisably developed from machines which could be used off the road as well as on it
Two AMC singles. They ride together well…
Ian Massey, a happy man, plainly!