There has always been a desire by enthusiasts to get their hands on factory machinery. The AJS and Matchless machines were one and the same, except for minor details and were brands that lesser lights sought to own.
Words: Trials Guru – Martyn Adams – Eric Adcock – Gordon Blakeway – Ian Harland – Gordon Jackson – Gordon Mclaughlan – Don Morley
A number of AMC trials bikes were released into private ownership after use by the Plumstead competition department, but only a few really ‘escaped’. One such escapee is the 350 Matchless G3LC the father of Trials Guru’s John Moffat purchased, OLH722. This was achieved by a single telephone call to the factory competitions department of AMCs in 1957. It was an ex-Ted Usher/Sid Wicken machine that had been in both long and short-stroke powered format in its four year period of use with the Plumstead factory riders. Similarly, the Matchless OLH723 which Usher also rode, was also released for sale in 1957 but released as an AJS and ridden in that year’s SSDT by Thornaby’s Robin H. Andrew, whereas OLH721 had been Artie Ratcliffe’s factory 1954 SSDT winning mount when in rigid frame form.
OLH722 had past through the capable hands of Fred Hickman, Gordon Mclaughlan, Bill Lomas and Sid Wicken before ending up with Usher as his last factory supplied machine in 1957, just prior to the Matchless team being disbanded. The machine is still in the Moffat family, but that is a different story.
This is the story of another AMC factory machine that got away. A motorcycle that hasn’t been stored away or kept in a museum, but one that has continued to be used in anger as it was designed and built for – competition, and has won in the process.
WJJ580, where are you?
We set about tracking down the story of the 1959 registered AJS 16C with the index number WJJ580, one of a batch of similar machines used by the factory. Built as a long-stroke 350, it eventually became a 410cc variant which the factory wanted to try as a bigger bore machine. These special motors ranged between 401 – 420 capacity.
The discovery of WJJ580 opened a veritable pandoras box of information. With Trials Guru on the case, we find that there were three such machines made available to riders around the same time period.
The competitions department at AMC had been experimenting with competition short-stroke motors as early as 1956, these were issued to their factory supported riders replacing their long stroke units. Production short-stroke trials models would not be available until six years later, and a full year after Comerfords asked for Jackson replicas to be built, following his 1961 SSDT win. The first short-stroke would be the Matchless in 1962 followed by the 1963 AJS ‘Expert’ 348cc models.
The factory registered their team machines in their name ‘Associated Motor Cycles’ with some AJS machines being registered as a Matchless. One such machine was the 1961 AJS used by Mick Andrews from 1962-1964 which was registered as a Matchless 347cc as 644BLB.
Gordon Jackson told Trials Guru: “When the factory disbanded the Matchless trials team in 1957 to concentrate the brand in scrambles and motocross, they asked me to use a Matchless tank on my works bike just to keep the brand name going in trials, but in reality the bike was simply my AJS with the different tank fitted“.
In September 1959, AMC trials models brought with them the bespoke trials frame with a much lighter and slimmer rear subframe, and a swinging arm taken from the lightweight road machines of the era. The previous competition models had the wide set rear subframe accepting firstly the Jampot rear suspension, and then latterly Girling suspension units with bottom clevis mounts.
With the launch of the ‘new’ trials model, the factory had registered a batch of 350cc trials models for their retention by the Competitions department under the watchful eye of former rider, Bob Manns. These were all registered consecutively on 1st January 1959 as WJJ578/579 and the subject of this article, WJJ580.
The ever helpful Don Morley, professional sports and news photographer, and author of many books on motorcycling, looked up his records for Trials Guru and confirmed that Roger Kearsey had been issued with WJJ578 as a Matchless as did Ron Langston in 1960, Cliff Clayton with WJJ579 and Gordon Mclaughlan with WJJ580; the machine we are featuring.
Don Morley told Trials Guru: “The motorcycle manufacturers worked under the same legislation as private purchasers, in that they had to pay purchase tax which started in 1940 and went on until 1973 when it was replaced by Value Added Tax, when registering any motor vehicle back then. This was the main reason why they simply replaced the machine between the number plates on more than one occassion. Triumph however didn’t seem to do that“.
Cliff Clayton rode the Scottish Six Days Trial in May 1959 on ‘579, but it did not have the complete new style frame at this time, instead it had the factory 1958 ‘prototype’ rear subframe heavily altered at the top damper mount and used a Girling unit with the alloy clevis type lower mount mated to the old style swinging arm. It also utilised the heavy full width alloy rear hub, but the 1959 style 5.5 inch half width front hub which was from the 41′ WD G3L military machine. The fuel tank was blue with gold lining and the AJS monogram. A departure from the traditional black/gold combination. The new rear 5.5 inch trials rear hub would be introduced in the September 1959 and eventually all WJJ registered machines would be retro-fitted with the new style frame and lighter wheel hubs by the competitions department.
Morley: “I do remember having a ride on WJJ580 during a visit to the Isle of Man some years ago“.
AJS, the brand:
Probably the most famous AJS trials machine of all time is that which was used by Gordon Jackson to win the 1961 Scottish Six Days, losing a solitary one mark, the lowest ever recorded score. It was registered in December 1960 as 187BLF and is now owned by the Sammy Miller Trust, having been re-discovered in 2010 by Miller and positively identified by Jackson. 187BLF had never left the UK, this was contrary to popular belief.
Factory rider, Gordon Blakeway who had ridden for Ariel and Triumph, took over 187BLF when Gordon Jackson retired from trials in late 1962.
Gordon Blakeway told Trials Guru: “I rode 187BLF not as a short-stroke, but as a long-stroke. The bike was changed by the factory before I received it and Hugh Viney reckoned because I had ridden the long-stroke Ariel, then a long-stroke AJS would suit me better. I was slightly disappointed at this because I had been keen to have Gordon Jackson’s sharper short stroke motor“.
Blakeway continued: “When the factory eventually closed its doors in 1965, they asked me what I was due in expenses and I said it was about £55. I asked what they were going to do with 187BLF and they said it was for sale and they wanted £100 for it. I bought it, handing over the balance of £45 and about three weeks later I sold it on for an acceptable profit“.
It had been universally believed that 187BLF had been exported to Australia in the 1970s, even Blakeway believed that this was the case. However that was most likely to have been confused with the exportation of 644BLB, the 1961 registered Mick Andrews’ machine (1962-64), which Cliff Clayton also rode in the 1961 SSDT as an AJS, although it was registered as a Matchless.
WJJ580, the beginning…
Looking at the original buff log book, WJJ580 was registered as a 59/16C AJS on 1st. January 1959 to Associated Motor Cycles Ltd at 44 Plumstead Road, London SE18 listed as a ‘350cc’. However, it would not always be ridden as a 350 but as a 410 sometime later.
The AJS was retained by the AMC competitions department until 1963 when it was sold into private ownership to a Mr. Stone in Birmingham. After 12 months, he sold it to a Mr. Hopkins of Swansea, Wales.
The machine’s colour scheme was originally recorded as blue/black, being a blue tank and black frame, which was by then a colour option on production trials models.
Trials Guru tracked WJJ580 down to its’ current owner, Ian Harland who lives in the Isle of Man, he is the father of James Harland, a past winner of the Pre’65 Scottish on a Triumph twin in 2013.
Ian Harland: “I bought the AJS from the rider/dealer Bob Gollner of Denmead, near Waterlooville, Hampshire in 1989, it had been restored for him by Peter Pykett and I think he won the Talmag Trial on the bike“.
Harland: “The AJS has a lot of history in that it had been built within a small batch of similar machines for the factory riders. One of which was Gordon Mclaughlan who rode it in the 1960 Scottish. Unfortunately, it was believed that Gordon didn’t get on with the 410 motor and sent it back asking for a long-stroke 350. He was then allocated 164BLL which he rode until the factory closed its’ doors and the AJS team was finally wound down. Gordon retained the AJS, 164BLL for his own use after that“.
Harland: “According to the original buff log-book WJJ580 was first registered as a 347cc machine. If this dislike of the over-bored mtor is correct it happened around 1960-1961. The reason the crankcases are stamped ’61’ is because a replacement motor would have been fitted. Apparently, the conversion to 410cc involves long stroke 350 crankcases and an 74mm bore. So to change from a short-stroke 350 to 410 involves a complete engine change, not just the barrel and head. Presumably, the change back to a 350 involved the installation of a new engine in 1961 which is still in the bike today. I met an ex-AMC competitions shop employee at the Manx Classic a few years ago who remembered some of this. I understand that Malcolm Adams from Leeds owned the sister machine, WJJ579 the ex- Cliff Clayton bike”.
Gordon Mclaughlan was issued with WJJ580 and rode the 1960 SSDT carrying the riding number 147. It was obvious that the short-stroke motor was used at this point, evidenced by the matt black rocker-box which indicated an ‘elektron’ item. Elektron is a magnesium alloy made by the Magnesium Elektron company for AMC, which it used from the early 1950s. These componenst were usually retained by the factory when machines were sold to be used on other machines. It had the integral push rod tunnels. It also sported the long down-swept exhaust system with the short silencer. ‘580 was also fitted with the new style 14 inch Girling rear damper units which bolted on to bosses on the frame and swinging arm. Steel wheel rims were still being used at this time with the standard 21 inch front and 19 inch rear. Dunlop ‘Trials Universal’ tyres were fitted to all the team bikes.
Gordon Mclaughlan spoke to Trials Guru, confirming some points raised by Ian Harland: “It’s a long time ago now and I have read a fair bit about my factory bikes over the years and it would appear that people know a lot more about them than I ever did! I suppose I was just too busy riding them to note down all the important facts and figures about them. However what I can remember is this. My bikes were always prepared by the works. I used to take whichever bike I was riding to Thornaby railway station and send it to the factory at Plumstead. They would fettle the bike and send it back, wrapped in cardboard and taped up to protect it in transit and I would go and collect it from the station.
I remember that the factory gave me a spare fuel tank that was a Matchless one, so that I could enter some trials with the AJS as a Matchless and I would cover over the AJS emblem on the timing cover.
I really liked the long-stroke motor as the sharp motor that Gordon Jackson used was just a bit too quick for my liking. I recall that some of the engines in my bike were as high as 420cc or at least that is what the factory told me. It was to try and win the 500cc cup at events on what was an over-bored 350.
I did ride WJJ580 for a year or so, before the factory asked for it back to do some work on it and back came 164BLL, that would be around late 1960, early 1961. It was before Gordon Jackson won the SSDT and we were given similar machines. I used 164BLL until the factory shut down, I was due eighty-five pounds in unpaid expenses and I was given 164BLL as payment. I kept it for quite a few years and then sold it as I was too busy to ride it when I was building my business, Gordon Mclaughlan Motors in Guisborough. We sold AJS motorcycles and Lambrettas to start with then I started selling second-hand cars until we became Morris agents which became BMC and then Austin-Morris, British Leyland and finally Rover until I retired“.
Trials Guru research revealed that Gordon Mclaughlan’s 164BLL was registered on 1st. January 1961 as a Matchless, even although it was built as an AJS and used primarily as such, and as a 350cc. I mattered not that Gordon’s AJS was actually registered as a Matchless, because the MOT test which commenced in 1960 was originally a ten year test, reduced to seven years in 1961. The factory didn’t retain machines much above three years from the date of registration.
Mclaughlan continued: “I did ride one of the first Pre’65 Scottish trials at Kinlochleven on a replica AJS I had built, I think that would have been around 1984. I enjoyed my time riding for the factory from 1954 after a couple of years on my own Norton 500T. The first AJS I received was a rigid, but I can’t recall the registration number of that bike, if anyone has any photos of it I’d be keen to see it. I know it wasn’t an ‘AJS’ private registration number as Gordon Jackson, Hugh Viney and Bob Manns had those.
Hugh Viney was our team manager, he was quite an aloof, reserved character, a rather serious man.
It’s amazing how many ex-works bikes were sold off by the factory after use. Ted Usher’s bike OLH723 ended up near to us, a local lad from Thornaby called Robin Andrew bought it in 1957. He was a fairly good local club rider“.
Sadly the factory machine 164BLL issued to Gordon Mclaughlan, was completely destroyed in the fire that destroyed many historic motorcycles at the National Motorcycle Museum at Bickenhill, Solihull on 16th September 2003.
Ian Harland continued the story: “When I bought WJJ580 the engine wasn’t the sweetest, it was actually very ‘rattly’. Martyn Adams, then based in Brighouse, West Yorkshire re-sleeved the barrel and found a new 7R piston for it. The motor has run ever since in many trials over the years ridden by myself including a number of Pre’65 Scottish, most Manx Classics, Talmag, Mons in Belgium etc. I’ve retired from trials now so the engine top end is again being rebuilt, the barrel being re-sleeved again by Martyn, now in Adelaide, Australia“.
WJJ580 was used in effect as the works ‘hack’, a machine that would be allocated to various riders who had either expressed a wish to ride for the factory or were chosen, some ‘selected’ by the well-known doyen of trials journalism, Ralph Venables.
Venables would effectively ‘scout’ for the factories as he had the ear of the competition managers, two of which were Hugh Viney and Bob Manns of AMC.
History records that Dave Rowland was ‘selected’ in 1961, prior to being snapped up by BSA, and was issued with 580 when he had been at Bordon doing his army national service. However it was not a happy arrangement and Rowland sent the machine back as he didn’t get on with it. But in his customary style, Dave sent a polite letter with the returned machine in 1962, thanking Hugh Viney and the factory for allowing him to try it over a period of time.
Roger Kearsey from Upwaltham, Sussex who competed with the Matchless WJJ578 for a spell went on to ride for Royal Enfield.
Eric Adcock of DOT fame also rode WJJ578, but eventually sent it back, preferring to stick with the two-stroke DOT.
Eric Adcock spoke with Trials Guru and provided photos of ‘578 that he had taken, plus the letters that he received from Hugh Viney, the competition manager at the AMC factory. Eric is still heavily involved with the sport and is a Director of North Western ACU and is their Permit Secretary and Treasurer.
Eric Adcock: “I received correspondence from Hugh Viney, the competition manager at AMC and I was sent WJJ578 to try out”.
Adcock: “I had been demobbed from national service by then and was open to offers of a machine, I was in the Mechanical Transport division at Borden from March 1956 to December 1957“.
WJJ578… Adcock’s test
Adcock: “I started in trials on a BSA Bantam in 1951, then on to a Francis Barnett and eventually on a DOT in January 1954, with a short spell on a Triumph Cub in 1958 which I had been sent by Henry Vale at triumphs, but couldn’t get on with it at all, so I sent it back. The Matchless I got on reasonably well with and quite liked it, winning an event in the process, but it was a bit too tall for me. I had the bike about three months before I sent it back to Plumstead, deciding to stick with DOT Motorcycles“.
Adcock: “I took some photographs of WJJ578 when I had it and held on to them, along with the correspondence from Hugh Viney, I hope it brings back memories for your readers“.
And so back to WJJ580 – Harland’s machine that got away:
In 1962 it was the time for the factory to move on the AJS, WJJ580, with new stock having been taken from the production line and retained by the competitions department, headed by Wally Wyatt.
This was how it was done by the works: The machines would be selected by dispatch staff from the production line and the frame and engine numbers were all noted in the production ledgers as being retained by Comp Dept. These selected machines would be wheeled away to the Competitions department. The machines would be registered in the company name and then stripped down and modified by the competition staff with lighter components replacing standard parts as required. One such item was the primary chain-case, the factory had these fashioned from aluminium alloy instead of the standard steel pressing with a separate, detachable clutch dome also fashioned from aluminum alloy. This practice had been carried on from the immediate post-war years.
Around 1955, the practice was to steepen the steering of the standard trials frame by heating up the frame tubes and forcing down the headstock, this also required new engine plates in dural to be made up as the gearbox became closer to the motor and a shorter primary chaincase was also fabricated out of alloy. The result was a sharpening of the steering which the factory jockeys preferred.
Fuel tanks could be altered to sit on the machine closer to the steering head or otherwise to riders preferrence. Usually the area of the tank where the riders knees would make contact would have the paint polished off and abbreviated lining used.
The replacement 1961 stamped engine in Harland’s bike is definitely non-standard. The motor uses a 8:1 high compression piston and is a forged item as used in the AJS 7R racing motors. The valves are much bigger than the standard AJS 350 single utilises. It also has much more power than the standard 350 motor produces.
Around the year 2000, the original frame cracked at the headstock. The AMC trials frames were susceptible to this type of occurrence and it’s amazing it lasted so long. An Andy Bamford from Fleet frame kit was obtained which has been used ever since.
Harland: “I still have the original works frame which one day I’ll get repaired. These bikes are like ‘Trigger’s broom’.
I rode my son James’s 500 AJS in the Pre’65 Scottish in 1999 and l loaned WJJ580 to my good friend, Giovanni Dughera from Turin who was a works Ossa rider in the 1970’s”.
Martyn Adams, formerly of Serco in Brighouse, now living in Australia and trading as MDA Motorcycle Engineering picks up the technical details: “I reconditioned this engine over 25 years ago and don’t think there is too much to say. However finding a piston for the engine 25 years ago was an issue, as the bore size is 74 mm, not the usual 69mm. At first we thought it was an AJS twin piston, but not so, as the piston is a forged type and not the cast type. We then realized the piston is from a 1954 specification AJS 7R, not the readily available short-stroke type of 75.5 mm“.
Adams: “This is the reason we recently re-sleeved the cylinder as the piston was still in very good condition but has now been machined to take a modern oil control ring. Ian believed for years that the motor was a 410, but I think the crank is a standard 93mm stroke, which would give a capacity of exactly 400cc“.
Adams continued: “So I suppose the motor is really quite special as it’s a pretty unique mix of factory parts. Ian also has a another bike with a special short-stroke engine that I made a crank for and is very similar to the short stoke Ariels we call her the big bang motor“.
Adams added: “I haven’t checked, but would reckon with the domed piston and 74 mm bore, not 69mm, the compression ratio will be around 9:1. This is quite high for a trials machine. The cylinder head from memory has the later valves from the short stoke head with big inlet with a 5/16 inch stem and small head exhaust valve with a 3/8 inch stem. As I said a real mix of factory parts“.
So at least WJJ580 escaped the fate of many factory machines that were broken up for their parts and it was put to good use. To be ridden and competed on, very much in the spirit in which they were all designed and built.
WJJ580 certainly was – One That Got Away!
The numbers game…
The AMC factory road registered all its ‘road test’ and works retained trials machines locally in the Greater London area. The ‘XF’ index mark for example was London County Council, used immediately post second world war. The exception was the ‘GK’ index mark, as it was London South West area, whereas the factory was based in being Plumstead SE18 London. It is safe to say that all AMC factory trials machines were all London registered.
Known AMC Factory Trials Registration Numbers:
(*) Indicates those sold or still in private ownership
HXF641 * (Viney); HXF644; AJS775 (Jackson); AJS776 (Viney); AJS777 * (Manns); KYM835 (Viney); OLD865 (Viney); WJJ579 * (C. Clayton) WJJ580 * (Various); 187BLF * (1961-63 Jackson/63-65 Blakeway); 644BLB (registered as a Matchless) * (Location Australia – C. Clayton 1961/Andrews 1962-64); 164BLL (registered as a Matchless – destroyed in the fire that ravaged the National Motorcycle Museum in 2003) * (1961-65 Mclaughlan); UXO194 (Jackson); VYW659 * (Jackson); TLP686 * (Jackson); TUL654 * (Manns); VGK756 (Jackson)
MLX735 (1952 A. Ratcliffe); MLX736 (Dick Clayton); KYM836 (1951 D.J. Ratcliffe) NLF773 (1953 Usher) OLH721 (Ratcliffe); OLH722 * (1954 Hickman/1955 Mclaughlan/1955 Lomas/1956 Wicken/ 1957 Usher); OLH723 * (1954-56 Usher); TXX515 (1957 Wicken); WJJ578 (Kearsey/Langston/Adcock)
Martyn Adams Contact details: HERE
- David Lewis, London
- Iain Lawrie, Kinlochleven
- Eric Adcock
- Ross Mclaughlan
- Gordon Small, Newport on Tay
- Ian Harland, Isle of Man
- Martyn Adams/MDA Motorcycle Engineering
- J.J. McComisky
- Ray Biddle, Birmingham
- Philip Clarkson
- Moffat Family Archive
- Sammy Miller Museum
- John May, Godalming
- Charlie Watson, Hull
- Rob Edwards, Middlesborough
- Trials Guru / J. Moffat
- Trials & Motocross News, Lancaster
With Acknowledgement for their assistance in compiling this article to:
- Martyn Adams, Australia
- Eric Adcock
- Gordon S. Blakeway
- Ian Harland, Isle of Man
- Gordon L. Jackson
- Gordon O. Mclaughlan
- Sammy Miller, New Milton
- Don Morley, Reigate
- Trials & Motocross News, Lancaster