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…
Frank Westworth is supposed to know lots about AJS and Matchless motorcycles. So, naturally, people ask him questions about Nortons which turn out to be Matchlesses really. Really!
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Actually, that last cannot be true, because I’ve had some real treasures in the various Sheds over the years, and my memory is depressingly vague on a couple of the really good ones. There was this really fine AJS 31CSR, a 1963 example, and if I ever found it again, then…
But I never will find it again. Not least because like lots of the bikes we’ve all watched drip through our fingers, it will no longer carry its original number. I hate this. I have no problems with folk doing what they want with their bikes, or with any parts of their bikes (and a registration number is certainly a part of any vehicle), but I hate it when I am reminded that I am very unlikely to find any of my old wrecks again because some subsequent owner has converted part of its identity into cash. Needs must, so forth, but the OKA 841 on the plates of the 1953 AJS 20 I’ve had since the late 1970s is as much of its history as I am, and has been with the bike for a lot longer!
This particular line of almost-thought was brought on by a completely pleasant experience. At the recent Stinkwheel Show, I ran into one Ken Odlin, who I’ve not seen for years, and very jolly it was too. And no, I didn’t run Ken over; he was sat aboard his thoroughly glorious Norton Matchless G80CS hybrid (a stonking comp engine mounted in a Norton featherbed bicycle), and I was on foot, so both of us were safe.
I once had the pleasure (and a pleasure it indeed was) of writing a road report on Ken’s bike for the sadly defunct British Bike Magazine. Some bikes stick in the memory, even when you’ve ridden lots and lots of others, and Ken’s Very Special was one. It was great to see it again (and hear it again; silent it isn’t). And just like Ken himself, it didn’t look a day older than when I’d been invited to take it away to play, back at the Forest of Dean Jampot Rally in 198-something. I, on the other hand, look a lot older, mysteriously.
Ken surprised me by reminding me that he had one of my old bikes. This was a bit of a shock, because I had absolutely no memory of selling anything to him. Perhaps I’d given it to him after a particularly energetic night at the Frog & Ferret? ‘Which bike is that?’ I enquired, gently, as looking like a complete turkey is not a pleasant experience.
‘FAW!’ cried Ken. Enigmatically, I thought, and I beamed at him in what I hoped was a friendly, knowing kind of way, although I probably just looked as dim and bemused as I felt. I could think of only one intelligent reply; ‘Ah…’ I said, convincingly.
‘I bought it off Bob. Bob Boaden.’ Clearly my impression of an intelligent Man Of Letters was fooling no-one. Unhappily, I had no memory of selling a bike to the AJS & Matchless Owners Club’s one-time Chairman and indeed Treasurer and indeed transfer star. I struck a gripping, manly pose, with a grin to match. Plainly Ken thought I was enduring a senior moment, and reminded me of a short-stroke G80 I once had.
The scales fell from my eyes. Memories burst into prolonged active life. He meant the Norton!
Years ago, I rode my previously excellent AJS into the front of a Volvo. A Volvo coach, just to be different. And while I was recovering from this unhappy lapse of intelligence, a Trader chum insisted on taking me out for lunch. The Second Rule Of Journalism demands that all free food is fabulous, even if it’s sprouts boiled in cabbage water, and while I was forcing my chompers around a fine steak (told you my memory was good for some things), my chum produced pictures of a motorcycle and asked what it was and would I help him get it registered for the UK? It was a Norton, y’see, but was like no Norton m’chum had seen before.
This was because it was in fact a Matchless.
Being A Noted Expert, I had spotted the great big alloy-barrelled G80 engine, and the late Matchless bicycle, and was not fooled for an instant by the ‘Norton’ logo on the fuel tank. My pal had imported a pile of allegedly classic Triumphs from the US, and the ‘Norton’ had mysteriously arrived with it. The only genuine Norton bit was the front end, which came from an early Commando. In any case, the engine number’s prefix was ‘G80’, so this was not one of the incredibly rare and desirable Norton ES2 Mk2s, of which I appear to be the world’s only fan.
My chum was distraught. No-one, it seems, could sell Matchlesses, apart from Ernie over in the distant Northants Classic Bike Centre, so what was he to do? Probably in a successful attempt at encouraging him to buy a sticky toffee pudding to follow the steak, and with maybe another foaming glass or two to keep it company, I announced that I would underwrite the bike for him. In other words, I’d pay him what he’d paid. And I would register it myself. We did a deal, and the Norton became a Matchless, and was blessed with a period, half-timbered Shropshire registration, the ‘FAW’ which Ken Odlin had so mysteriously uttered.
Unhappily, although I could admire the G80, and successfully registered it, I could not start it, due at least in part to my recently smashed leg and a lack of intestinal fortitude. So I did the only sensible thing, and sold it at an incredible profit (possibly).
Which brings me, weary and staggering and panting only slightly, to my point. Without that FAW registration mark, I would never have unlocked my memory, and a little of my own – and others’ – motorcycling history would have vanished forever. Which would be a shame. Because that was a great free lunch, and I’m indebted to Ken for reminding me of it. Apparently the old Matchless, which was once a Norton, is still going. Amazing. Original numbers, like so much else, have a value beyond mere money…