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…
An Electric-start Matchless? Frank Westworth waxes nostalgic for a bike he’s never owned (although he did get close)…
The cover of last month’s Jampot magazine (by which Frank means last month to when he originally wrote the article, back in 2005), the monthly organ of the mighty AJS & Matchless OC, really unleashed the floodgates of memory down here at RCHQ in the deepest West Country!
In case you somehow, mysteriously, are not a member of that excellent club, I shall tell you which shot graced their cover. On the cover of last month’s most splendid Jampot there was a Matchless G80. A red one. And not just any old G80, either. For this was one of the very rare Devon-built G80s, one of those handsome machines which are more commonly known as ‘Harris G80s’ and which boast a loyal – if small – fan club of their very own. I am proud to say that we have one, leaning decoratively against one wall of The Shed. And very fine it is too. The only person who can start it is in fact Jampot Editor, Mr Chris Read. Which is but a tiny trial, of course…
The G80 on the cover of The Jampot is much more unusual than our old black beast, though. For a start, it’s easy to start (ho ho, etc). That’s because it is fitted with an electric foot, thus removing all that embarrassing leaping, sweating, swearing and failure with which I am so familiar. Why Mr Harris didn’t fit all of his otherwise splendid Matchless singles with this electric trotter, I cannot imagine.
I was in at the launch, you know. Although back in 1988 (I think) I was gainfully employed in a world entirely dissimilar to the thrusting publishing milieu in which I now find myself, I was in fact Editor of The Jampot. One of the many delights and benefits of this was that when Les Harris, proprietor of LF Harris Ltd, builders of Bonnevilles following the Meriden Triumph factory’s collapse, and suppliers of Triumph spares to the Trade for many more years than that, decided to build bikes bearing the illustrious winged ‘M’ on their tanks, he sent details of it to me. In fact, just to share a tiny amusement with you, because I wrote back immediately (it was a world without email, of course), Mr H sent me a pic of the prototype bike and an invite to its launch. So, because no ‘proper’ magazine could be bothered to reply, The Jampot got a world-wide scoop. While MCN ran a story about the bike with a pic of a G50CSR (the only other Matchless ohc ‘roadster’), The Jampot had a pic of the real thing! Hurrah for the good guys!
Anyway, I went to the launch at the Newton Abbott works, along with Mr Doug Almond, who brought along what RealClassic types would call a ‘real’ G80 to add a little balance to the occasion. And I have to say that I rather liked the looks of the new bike. It was light, and although I was not inspired by the standard silver colour scheme, it looked purposeful. I begged a test ride, but real journalists were out on the available test machines, so I contented myself with eating and drinking my way through all the array of free food and drink, and arranged a test day for when I was next down in Cornwall for a holiday.
Which wasn’t long. In those days I could afford holidays. And I needed them, due to the stresses and strains of having a ‘real’ job.
When I returned to the Matchless factory in Newton Abbott (and how strange does that sound!), Mr Harris himself showed me around, talked me through how the bikes came about, why he’d decided not to continue building Bonnevilles, and how much fun (not) it was sourcing all the parts which make up a motorcycle.
After that, legendary Triumph designer Brian Jones introduced me to the bike, topped off the fuel tank and sent the then Mrs W and I off into the Devon countryside. His only instruction was that we enjoyed ourselves, and that I reported back my honest views of the new bike. OK. It’s great. Now what…
Actually, although the G80 spun along well enough, I was fairly underwhelmed by it. OK, it was carrying two folk, one of whom was less than a lightweight, but I was used to riding a 650 AJS and thought that the G80 should be at least as quick as that. It handled really well; the Devon / Cornwall borderlands are certainly the place to test a bike’s handling, and it stopped decently enough, although the single front disc was showing every sign of strain as it hauled us down from the 80 or so the bike would struggle to. But it was only a single disc, so I wasn’t too unhappy with the way it worked.
If the Stop was reasonable, though, the Go was much less so. Uphill overtaking was much more of a trial than it should have been, and the Rotax sohc engine was very woolly. I was sad about this, not least because I really wanted to be able to report great things to Matchless fans everywhere.
We pulled up for snaps high on Dartmoor. The sun was blasting down from a cloudless blue firmament. It was very warm. Rider and pillion were swathed in real UK summer riding gear: heavyweight waterproofs and big gloves. Mrs W2 was also carrying a large bag full of whatever goes into large bags, but certainly included a heavy camera. And film. Possibly a spare bungalow. But probably not an ice pack or a handy fridge full of chilled cider. However, the pics were good. It’s hard to take really bad pics when the light is so bright, the skies so blue and the bike so handsome…
Then it was time to get going again, to head off in search of refreshment.
What followed was no joke. No joke at all. Do not laugh. I could not start the bike. I was entirely sound in wind and limb in those days; hey, I was even fairly fit, so I was able to operate the unfamiliar and awkward left-foot kickstart with gusto. And vim. And vigour.
And ferocity. And finally fury. Then I sat down on the verge, unable to cope any more with Mrs W2’s hot laughter, as she stripped off her Bobo leathers and remarked that it was a shame that the mobile phone was yet to be invented. I may have made that last bit up. But my memory of the heat, the steaming, cursing, brain-frying heat … that’s very clear.
In the cause of art, I had of course parked the G80 to take its picture in what Devonistas call a ‘dell’. A dell is usually located at the bottom of one or several hills. There was no downhill, only uphill from where we steamed. The bike sat smug on its centrestand. Wearily, I pushed it up the longest slope. This took a while. It was very very hot. No-one came by.
I turned on the ignition, checked for sparks; there were plenty, all of them big, blue and plainly visible in the baking sunshine.
I bumped the bike downhill, and after a handful of steps it fired up. A little sootily, it’s true, but it was ticking over by the time I returned to Mrs W2. We rode, dripping only slightly, back to the works, and collapsed in front of Brian Jones, famed Triumph designer.
‘What’s up?’ he cried. I explained. He was aghast.
‘I’m aghast,’ he said.
He walked over to the G80, turned off the choke and kicked. He was quite an old chap. The G80 fired up first kick. He looked amused, in a gentlemanly kind of way. He turned the engine off. Switched it on again and kicked it. It fired up at once. He suggested that I cool off by riding for a few miles with the choke off. The choke on the Rotax engine’s Italian carb, he explained, worked in the opposite way to that of an Amal. We agreed that this was that day’s Interesting Fact. I went for a ride. With the choke off.
It was great. The little bike really flew. It started really easily, hot or cold.
Somehow I failed to mention the business with the choke when I wrote the bike up. But I can always offer sound advice when new owners of late, very late Matchless singles wonder why theirs won’t start…