Match Made in Plumstead
The Model 16 was certainly worthy of a long service medal. A trusted steed that left the AMC works in 1945 and would continue in various incarnations for two decades; post war Britain needed affordable, reliable and rugged transport that would perform on very low octane fuel. The AJS 16 developed from its twin the Matchless G3 (CX500 of its day) was a machine well-proven during the war as the dispatch rider’s choice. The only differences between the early versions was the position of the magneto and the badges. It would not be unfair to claim the 350cc AJS played its part in getting Britain back on the move and its popularity ensured a long production run. History books state that by the 60’s this models reputation was ‘solid but uninspiring and light on the pocket’ it continued to sell nearly 20 years after launch. This particular bike, first registered January 1st 1960 has a traceable legacy over nearly half a century. The remains of the ‘buff’ logbook shows it resided in Stafford during the sixties before heading south to Portsmouth, then via Horsham to current custodian Colin Melhuish in 1972, who takes up the story.
‘I was still at school when a pal found a BSA Bantam in bits dumped in a local forest, I dragged them home and put it together; my parents didn’t approve of bikes but it all started there for me. The same pal had this AJS and the temptation resulted in £25.00 changing hands. At 17 the law required a full licence or the 250cc rule applied, the alternative was three wheels. The local bike emporium in those days was Peter Hyde’s in Horsham and a further £14.50 resulted in one second hand sidecar (delivered) and I attended my sixth form everyday on the AJS, complete with L plates. The trick was, just prior to the school take the sharp left too fast and arrive at the entrance on two wheels with the sidecar as high in the air as possible’.
The 350 was completely original at the time and whilst being used daily would offer Colin a chance to become more mechanically inclined; in the early 70’s it transported him to college in Bristol. Engine issues around that time forced the removal of the trusted 350 and for a mere £5, a trip to Hastings resulted in a 1955 unit of 500cc complete with gearbox. The engine swop wasn’t as straightforward as it might have been; preferring the AMC gearbox to the Burman type, young Colin took to modification. The 1955-year engine enjoyed a steel primary drive case, Colin preferred the 59 alloy version and this mod was achieved after some adjustment with an angle grinder and lashings of Hermetite. ‘It was the seventies and customising was perfectly normal, when you think this was just a 14-year-old British bike with no particular value at the time’ Colin recollected. Another issue, the alloy chain case housed an alternator but the 500cc motor was minus such luxuries, it drove a dynamo. ‘I just chose to run a total loss charging system’ Colin smiled ‘a 6-volt battery I charged up every now and then’. 1975 and the street scrambler look was all the rage and not wanting to miss out, further ‘enhancements’ followed, including blue Hammerite frame and various other parts the coating would attach to. Colin produced a hand written list from the time detailing all the parts purchased to transform his AJS, emulating the hard-core scramblers from Saturday afternoons ‘World of Sport’. The fuel tank was mounted using cut down walking stick ferrules saving a few bob and quite ingenious. The original mudguards were scrapped ‘now probably priceless’ quipped Colin and whilst away at college his mother had given the original 350 motor to the dustman, thus confirming there would be no turning back. Alloy mudguards were acquired for the new look and they remain on the bike to this day. The world of work approached and with that ‘sensible’ transport was required, a Mini-Moke was sourced and the AJS sat in the garden with little use. A friend David Dale showed great interest, his father Jack was a renowned fabricator who also enjoyed the older machines. Colin sold for £75.00 and immediately regretted it.
‘I purchased the AJS from Colin in 1975 when I was sixteen, it was to be my first big road bike once I turned seventeen and passed my test’ David explained. ‘When I was eighteen I bought a 750 Norton Commando and the AJS was then taken off the road, but never forgotten. In the early 1980s I was getting itchy feet to have a go at VMCC Vintage Racing. I had only recently married and had a mortgage, so funds were very tight. The race bike would have to be a converted road bike and the most suitable bike, for eligibility reasons, was the AJS. My dad and I then hatched a plan around this. I purchased second hand leathers from Kelvin Tatum and they were pre-owned, some cheap Frank Thomas boots that were seconds and a new Griffin Clubman crash helmet; I decided my gloves were OK. With me sorted the bike was treated to one new Dunlop TT100 and a part worn from a spare Norton Commando wheel I had. The only other new parts I can remember buying was a larger gearbox sprocket, vinyl for covering the seat, plastic race number ovals and the race numbers "298". The rest of the conversion was done by using scrap materials as follows: alloy seat pan, front race number cowl, primary chain guard and rear chain guard fabricated from a Rover car bonnet. The exhaust pipe was adapted from old Morris Marina exhaust tubing and the silencer from scrap sheet mild steel. Clip-ons were a gift from a neighbour, whilst the rear sets were all hollow levers also made from sheet steel with a chrome rod from an old cooker grill. The rear brake cable was a Morris Marina handbrake cable, utilising the integral grease nipple. The engine and gearbox were in good condition and we reasoned that there was no point in tuning until I had learnt the circuits. The bike would be a bit faster anyway due to the higher gearing, lighter weight and more aerodynamic riding position; this proved to be the case. I had change from £200 including the original purchase of the bike and luckily dad had an Austin A60 van which could be used as race transport. I was able to test the bike during a VMCC Nostalgia Day at Goodwood. It was going very well and showed an indicated 90mph but on the second lap the piston nipped up and that was it for the day. Then my wife gives me the wonderful news that she was pregnant and so I decided there and then that I would only do one race meeting. This would be the 17 July 1983 meeting at Brands Hatch. The day came and it was gloriously hot and sunny. I had the support of my wife, who was now six months pregnant and family. The AJS sailed through scrutineering, I entered three races and each had a full grid of thirty-two starters. My first race was an unlimited championship race that included 750cc bikes, I finished 26th, second was also a 500cc championship race, I finished 21st and third was an AJS, Matchless, Scott and Triumph marque race that included many 650cc bikes. I finished 20th and was never lapped by the leaders’.
Returned to the Fold
Colin confessed he kept tabs on ‘his’ bike and always endured a hankering to get it home, so when a rumour David was looking to advance to a Vincent the chance to be reunited proved too strong. ‘I was getting married at the time and had been saving, I had a bit of cash so looked to get the bike back. To cut a long story short, I spent the honeymoon money, some £900, returning the bike to my garage’. Anne, like so many long suffering biker’s wives stepped in and paid for their post wedding break; everyone was happy? The around the world trip was adjusted to a South of France break, no complaints especially from Colin, the 500 was back where it belonged. The bike had certainly enjoyed major alterations and Colin approved of the work although some repairs were required including swing arm bushes, replaced locally. The bike that returned in 1992 is pretty much as it sits 24 years later, this AJS has been refashioned enough, Colin just enjoys and wants to preserve the attitude the AJS now adopts. It’s far from perfect and maybe that is part of the charm this bike enjoys, ‘my garage is somewhat damp sure, it’s more of a ‘patina acceleration chamber’ the words of a happy man as he is about to enjoy a blast.
Time to hit the ‘A’ roads around Sussex but first the challenge of firing up; the kick start adapted from a Norton Commando offers rear set clearance and by employing two chunks of timber Colin also enjoys the extra height to heave the 500 into action. With the clip-on bars restricting space, the decompressor has long gone, thus care is required turning over this beast of a motor; ‘get this wrong and I could be the second Brit on the space station’ he smiled. Several sweat induced efforts later the plug was removed, cleaned and refitted and she blasted into life; I instinctively stepped back. Adjustment of the advance-retard lever and slightly less choke left the AJS ticking over happily, it was time to shift into gear. On the move it was akin to following a thunderstorm as the boom from the megaphone exhaust filled the countryside. Colin also displayed remarkable confidence in the tyres which even he described as ‘Bakelite’ in appearance. Whilst this machine may only enjoy 4-500 miles a year, every ride is surely an experience, ‘you can see mothers pulling their children indoors as we approach’ Colin joked. Performance was certainly brisk although braking is anything but, anticipation is compulsory with any part of the ride. Once warmed the motor started pretty much on queue during our time out and gear changes looked precise and faultless throughout. This AJS is quite a character, no pretence of being a ‘concours’ star but has a style of its own, born the same year as Jeremy Clarkson it may look a bit rough around the edges but still enjoys great attention, oh and is rather loud.
Thanks to Colin, Anne and David also Amberley Museum for the backdrops.
Colin offers the pilots view....
I am guilty of not using the Ajay as much I should but nowadays it has to compete with a Triumph Sprint and a TVR for the same bit of sunshine. But when its turn comes around, it’s a real blast, in more ways than one. If Anne, my wife, is not sure where I’ve gone, she just has to poke her head out of the door and listen for all the car alarms that have been set off by the vibrations as I’ve passed by. I love not worrying about it. That’s how it was when I first bought it as everyday transport and even with all the mods over the years, it’s just the same. Not too shiny and even preparation for this photo shoot only required a bowl of petrol, a paint brush and an oily rag. Would I sell it? That’s a question often asked, mostly frequently by Anne who would like to see a return on her indirect investment of nearly 25 years ago. Sorry, but “No”.