1956 AJS 18CS

A dirt bike for the streets

| November/December 2008

Years produced:
Claimed power: 32hp
Top speed: 81mph (period test)
Engine type: 497cc OHV, air-cooled single
Weight (wet): 171kg (375lbs)
Price then: $425 (est.)
Price now: $4,000-$7,000
MPG: 45-50mpg (est.)

John Niesley is the kind of guy you’d love as a neighbor: friendly, easy-going and unpretentious. But back in 1958 riding his first AJS 18CS, he would have been feared as a bit of a hell-raiser.

In 1950s America, motorcycles were still very much a minority taste and not quite what nice people did. Honda’s “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” campaign was still a few years in coming, and the few enthusiasts around were divided into the British motorcycle crowd and the Harley and Indian folks. Although a few British bikes had been imported to the U.S. before World War II, they weren’t exactly numerous over here. But events combined to make the bikes from the U.S.’s biggest war-time ally into Harley-Davidson and Indian’s biggest threat in the postwar days.

During the war years, American GIs fighting overseas had the opportunity to become acquainted with the light and agile English machinery, and they were impressed: Where our bikes were lumbering twins, theirs were mostly slimmed-down singles. Soon after our boys came marching home, civilian versions of British military bikes went on sale at a discount in America. England, desperate to pay off war debts, had devalued the pound and pushed manufacturers to export, and export they did.

Dirt bike for the street
Although the 1956 AJS 18CS was basically an offroad competition machine (what would now be known as a motocross bike) in England, the used 18CS that John bought in 1958 on his return home from military duty was set up as a road bike, as apparently were all 18CSs imported to the U.S. He found it at Ghost Motorcycles, the AJS/Matchless dealer in Port Washington, N.Y., one of the largest bike dealers on the East Coast. “I was fresh out of the Marine Corps,” John remembers. “I commuted on it and I loved it. It was a fun bike.”

Although the AJS motorcycles imported to the U.S. apparently had lights already bolted on (in England, lights were an extra charge item), a plug built into the bottom of the headlight shell made it easy to detach the headlight for a day of scrambles or flat tracking. Cooper Motors, the California AJS/Matchless importer, advertised the AJS 18CS as “a real sports motorcycle, ready to go in the dirt or on the road” and capable of “over 100mph,” which was more than a little optimistic.

bike on highway

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