ARCHIVE ALERT! This article originally appeared around two decades ago. Some things never change – RealClassic’s editor Frank Westworth is still a committed AMC Anorak – but don’t be surprised if some of the people and specialists he mentions are doing other things these days…
It’s Matchless memory time! Frank Westworth remembers distant days when he used to ride bikes from time to time, and A Glowing Tribute to The Wobbly Bike Shoppe
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Many many years ago, I pitched an idea for an old bike magazine at the publisher I was ‘working’ for at the time. He thought it was a sound idea, and Jim Reynolds and I went ahead with a funny little magazine, which lots of folk laughed at, but which is now claiming stunning sales figures and things like that. With only a huge sense of déjà vu, I appear to be doing the same things again – do we never learn?
Whatever, way back in 1990 when that other magazine was a black’n’white blotchy pocket-sized thing and a whole lot of fun, one of the concerns I had was that we’d never be able to find enough bikes to fill its crumbly pages, and although living but a few miles from a noted Triumph twin specialist meant that I could fill those pages with endless Triumph twins, finding a little variety might have been a problem.
What do Top Chaps do at times like these? Top Chaps delegate. However, as I’ve never been nor am I every likely to be a Top Chap, I rang Ernie Merryweather over at the Northants Classic Bike Centre and suggested in a careful, oblique kind of way that he might like to loan me a few bikes. The idea was that I would shuffle off slowly around the Northamptonshire countryside (which is indeed beautiful, bendy and bike-friendly), take a few pics and build up a little archive of shots of nice bikes. Useful things, archives. I was a little careful, because although I knew Ernie reasonably well from our shared days on the AJS & Matchless OC’s committee, we didn’t always agree on things, and, well, not everyone is happy to let a stout idiot ride off on their priceless motorcycles.
I need not have worried. Ernie’s response was brilliant. Apart from helpful suggestions, like ‘the twistgrip on the right makes it go faster’ and ‘you can go around corners a lot better if you lean the bike over a bit’, things like that, whenever I arranged to borrow bikes from The Wobbly Bike Shoppe, they were always ace. They always started, they always steered and they always stopped decently. Every single one of them was a hoot to ride, even the MV Agusta 750 America which Ernie demanded that I take out for a day. Can I think of any other Traders, back in those obscure days, who would gladly have offered a bike like that to a scruffy bloke from an obscure magazine? Only one, is the truth.
What was the MV like? Loud. And Red.
And on one day, one memorable day (it was a Tuesday, it was 1992, and it was raining) Ernie bought me lunch. I have never forgotten that.
When I smashed myself and my 1966 AJS 31 into the front of an approaching coach, Ernie rebuilt the shattered engine; when I decided that I really wanted to try another very late AMC twin but was worried about it (accidents like that leave mental scars as well as physical; as I hope you don’t know already), Ernie found me a really cheap 31CSR and guaranteed to take it back for the same money if I really couldn’t get to grips with it.
Even more remarkably, Ernie would, with every appearance of pleasure, perform for the cameras, whacking his own motorcycles through the same bend, time after time after time, while some bearded weirdo attempted to take photos of him doing it to put into the Wobbly Bike Magazine. This might sound like fun, but it really isn’t; going round and around the same roundabout for a half hour, to the fury of all other drivers, is dangerous and no fun at all, and riding back and forth over the same stretch of road, attempting to hit the same line every time so that the smudger can attempt to get some sort of focus (digital days were a long way away, and auto-focus cameras were unaffordable) is simply tedious. But Ernie had been a racer, and if I asked him to put his front wheel onto a chalk mark on the road every time he rode through the bend … well, he would.
And we would talk endlessly about AMC machinery. It was Ernie who explained to me why AMC twins wear their cams and followers, Ernie who explained why hanging an alternator onto the end of a twin crank intended to take a dynamo was not a great idea if you then wanted to rev that engine hard, and much more that I’ve now forgotten.
The point of this unusual trawl through my fading memories? Ernie’s moved on from the Wobbly Bike Shoppe, and I wanted to thank him publicly for all the help he gave me when I was starting out down a strange scribbling career. Thanks, Ernie.
But before I get too maudlin and start feeling my age (pah!), I was amused to be accused by an RC Reader (and fellow AMC Club member) that all my memories are rose-tinted; that all my old bikes were great, and didn’t I ever end up with motorcycles of the more canine variety? Well, yes I did, and if Mr Digital Martin has been able to use it, I’ve attached a pic of Probably The Worst AMC Machine I Have Ever Owned. The years was 1975, and as you might be able to spot, the bike was a 1958 G11 Matchless, and it was horrible. I can’t remember how I came into possession of it now, although I doubt that the transaction involved money (because I had none), and it came with a complete rolling chassis for another Matchless, this one fitted with Norton forks and wheels. I realised at once that this was someone’s idea of a joke and threw that chassis away. We all make mistakes.
My other mistake was to assume that I could make the oddly caff-racerised 600 twin run and ride like a good ‘un. I did make it run. It involved fitting a replacement magneto, if memory serves, and I had boxes of the things. Times change.
But make it into a decently riding bike? No hope. All the frame’s bearings were in good order, the frame was straight and the wheels were in line, but it steered like a drunken duck and was possessed of the least comfortable riding position possible. It was also very slow, although it accelerated very well indeed. Both due to the sidecar gearing. This meant that I could out-drag the local fast lads on their Triumphs away from the lights, but by the time I’d run out of gears they were howling past in an oily mist, and as soon as a bend appeared I was done for. Ho hum. So there, doubting people; a horrible Matchless. I sold it and bought a Norton Navigator…