Motorcycle Apprentice – Matchless in Name and Reputation, by Bill Cakebread

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In between destroying old bikes, Paul Morgan-Knight pauses a while to read about someone who used to build them, back at the old AMC factory in Plumstead…

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I was perusing a well known auction site for junk…..err, I mean ‘valuable spares’ for my almost alive Matchless. I stumbled across this book. As a person who enjoys a book I thought it would be an interesting read. I will freely admit that it was cheaper on Amazon where I got it.

The book is billed as ‘the story of one man’s apprenticeship and working life in the AMC factory, Plumstead, London’ (phew) so I was expecting stories from the inside, as it were, and not a lot else. In fact I was pleasantly surprised as some of it is more social history.

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The author talks about growing up during WWII, about his father buying a motorcycle in boxes, despite having never been near one before, and rebuilding it. He talks about his grandfathers too, one of whom was a steam engine driver and never drove a car, ever. The family saw vehicle owning as above their station. To me this is a strange worldview, even though it was only 20 years before I was born. At one point he talks about remembering the house getting electric lighting a few years before he started at AMC in 1958, which again is very strange to me as a child of the Sixties and Seventies.

The book is very well illustrated with photos from the author and others. This helps give a sense of history and helps with the descriptive style of the writing. The author’s stories of his first few weeks at the factory are very entertaining. One of the first jobs he was given was destroying bits of motorcycle that were allegedly not up to scratch, then he found out they were bits of the famous Porcupine race bike…

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Then there was the way he was treated by one of his superiors, causing him to almost give up. It rings true for me and I’m sure for a lot people who have been in the same situation. Bill Cakebread grits his teeth and sticks with it and his movements around the factory as his apprenticeship continues neatly gives book its different chapters.

Matchless motorcycles on

He served in each of the different departments, including the holy ground of the Race Shop. All sorts of incidents are documented, including the favourite trick of the assembly shop where Linklyfe-type chain oil (intended for the primary drive chains) was put in cigarette packets and either being thrown under someone’s foot or being thrown up to ceiling so it could warm up and slowly fall on a passer-by’s head. Stuff like that, which today would give Elfen Safety kittens, was the norm.

One picture in particular made me laugh. It shows the assembly line, and one operative was wearing sandals and another trainers. The caption reads; ‘The assembly line — obviously a posed picture as it was never that tidy’. One thing that keeps getting mentioned is the author’s opinion of the AMC bikes. He felt that they made a superb quality motorcycle but they were ‘grey porridge’, nice but not really exciting.

The book ends with two separate chapters on first the homecoming rally in 1989 and then the fixing of a plaque to the wall in 2007 to commemorate the site for the Matchless factory.

All in all I found it a good read. It’s printed in a fairly large text and the format is very easy to read. I would recommend that you beg, borrow, steal maybe even buy a copy, as although it deals primarily with Matchless/AJS products it’s also a good book on social history too. That makes it a good read in general.

Reviewed by Paul Morgan-Knight


‘Motorcycle Apprentice: Matchless – in name & reputation’ by Bill Cakebread is published by Veloce in hardback with 128 pages and 101 pictures. ISBN: 978-1-84584-179-9. RRP £19.99

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