- Engine: 350cc air-cooled OHV 4-stroke single, 72mm x 85.5mm, 9:1 compression ratio, 18hp @ 5,750rpm
- Top speed: 78mph (claimed)
- Carburetion: Single Amal Monobloc 389 1-1/8in
- Transmission: Chain primary, wet multiplate clutch, 4-speed AMC gearbox
- Ignition: 12v (6v stock), coil and breaker points
- Frame/wheelbase: Duplex full cradle frame/56in (1,422mm)
- Suspension: Norton Roadholder forks front, dual Girling shocks rear
- Brakes: 8in (203mm) Norton TLS drum (Norton SLS stock) front, 7in (178mm) Norton SLS drum rear
- Tires: 3.25 x 18in front and rear
- Weight (wet): 420lb (190.5kg)
- Fuel capacity/MPG: 5gal (19ltr)/67mpg (est.)
- Price then/now: n/a /$1,500-$6,500
If there’s a perfect embodiment of the decline, collapse and demise of the British motorcycle industry, the AJS Model 16 could be it.
That’s not to say it was a bad motorcycle. Based on sound technology and refined over decades, this classic British 350cc single represents everything that was both good and bad about British bikes of the 1960s. It was solid, strong and reliable with a storied heritage steeped in motocross and trials victories. But it was also a 30-year-old design in a market that was turning over every couple of years.
For example: in 1965, for pretty much the same money as the 18 horsepower AJS, you could buy a 28 horsepower 305cc Honda CB77 that would top out at over “the ton,” where the A-jay was all done at 78mph. In addition, the Honda had carefree electrics and a twin leading shoe front brake. It was also 30 pounds lighter — and it even had electric start! But traditional British singles have a timeless charm; heavy flywheels and an overbuilt chassis combine with muted mechanical noise and sonorous, thumping exhaust to provide steady, smooth progress, all while evoking an era that was altogether more sedate.
Not dead yet
In 1931, motorcycle manufacturer AJ Stevens & Co, owner of the AJS brand, went broke. But the company also made a broad range of respected motorcycles and had a history of racing success. Enter the Collier Brothers of London, makers of Matchless motorcycles. The Colliers bought the brand and the assets, and continued to sell motorcycles under both names. Initially each brand used different designs, but before long the two ranges started to overlap, especially after 1935. In that year, the similar 348cc Matchless G3 and AJS Model 16 were introduced; and from 1938 the G3 adopted a new frame borrowed from the Model 16. In the same year, the parent company changed its name to Associated Motorcycles.
Then World War II loomed, and like other bike makers, AMC offered military versions of the G3 and Model 16. BSA, Norton and Triumph had the inside track on supply, but after the Triumph factory was destroyed in the Coventry air raid of November 1940, AMC was called on to fill the gap.
It’s reported that AMC had supplied 80,000 350cc singles by the end of hostilities. Badged as a Matchless, the 348cc single became the forces’ choice, especially after the girder front fork G3 was replaced by the lighter, telescopic fork G3/L.
After the return to peace, AMC was quickly able to offer repainted G3/Ls as civilian models, pending the introduction of a new range of 350 and 500cc machines in 1946. These were all based on the G3/L and badged either as AJS or Matchless, though they were all built on the same production line at the Matchless factory in Plumstead, London. The principal difference between the brands — the position of the magneto, either in front of the cylinder (AJS) or behind it (Matchless). All shared the same stroke of 93mm, with 69mm bore for the 350s and 82.5mm for the 500s. The 350 was either G3/L or Model 16, the 500s were G80 or Model 18.
All the engines had vertically split crankcases and a built-up bottom end, the crankpin being a taper fit into the flywheels. The crank ran on a combination of two ball races on the drive side and bush/roller on the timing side, while the one-piece connecting rod ran on roller bearings. Two separate cams operated the valves by means of pushrods inside external tubes, with coil spring return. Engine lubrication was by an unusual worm-drive rotating plunger pump, while the notoriously leaky pressed-steel primary case took care of external oiling! The single-row chain primary drove a wet multiplate clutch feeding a 4-speed Burman gearbox. Electrics were 6-volt and fueling was by a standard Amal carburetor. The first post-World War II chassis was rigid at the rear, while the front suspension used AMC’s own Teledraulic fork.
Two major changes arrived for 1948: Inside the cylinder head, hairpin valve springs replaced the coil type; and swinging fork rear suspension became an option. A pair of coil-spring/damper units controlled swingarm travel, their slender dimensions earning the nickname “candlesticks.” These were replaced in 1951 with fatter units having more oil capacity, known colloquially as “jampots.” And a light alloy cylinder head replaced the cast iron item. In fact, all through their production, AMC singles benefited from upgrades that had been tested on competition Models — which is as it should be!
The 1952 Models are distinguishable by their lack of nickel/chrome plating, a result of the Korean War; and both brands positioned the magneto ahead of the cylinder. This was a boon to Matchless owners, the generator previously being buried under the magneto, and generator maintenance necessitated time-consuming removal of the timing cover — which also meant losing the timing settings.
A dual seat replaced the single saddle in 1953, and an Amal 376 Monobloc of 1-1/16-inch diameter was fitted for 1955. In 1956, AMC’s own 4-speed gearbox replaced the Burman item; and in ’57, proprietary Girling shocks replaced the jampots. Alternator electrics arrived for 1958, displacing the magneto — though purists decried the move, and the engine did look rather naked without it. But it did provide the opportunity to replace the pressed steel primary case with a less-leaky cast alloy one. And a new duplex frame arrived in 1960.
Around this time, the process of rationalizing the AJS/Matchless/Norton ranges accelerated. (AMC had purchased Norton in 1952.) First the Model 16’s Teledraulic fork was swapped out for a Norton Roadholder in 1964, while Norton items replaced the front and rear hubs. That meant the Norton 8-inch full width front brake — an improvement on the previous item, though not by much. A new shorter-stroke engine was installed based on the 350 competition model with 72mm x 85.5mm bore and stroke. This meant the pushrod tubes disappeared, with the pushrods now running in tunnels inside the head and barrel castings. At the same time a Norton gear-type oil pump replaced the plunger. This was the last version of the AJS/Matchless singles, of which Derek Smith’s bike featured here is a prime example.
And in the ultimate insult: for 1965-1966, Matchless G3s and AJS Model 16s were also re-badged as Norton ES2 and Model 50 MkIIs. Production of street-model AJS, Matchless and “Norton” singles ended with the collapse of AMC in 1966.
Derek Smith’s AJS
Motorcycles have been a central part of Derek Smith’s life since he was old enough to ride, earning his street license at 16 on a 250cc BSA C10L. Unlike the more usual parental disapproval, it was Derek’s mother who suggested he get a motorcycle, influenced by happy childhood memories of riding with her parents in a sidecar outfit in England.
After the C10 came a 650 Golden Flash, a Honda four, a BSA Spitfire and Firebird; but singles were always Derek’s first choice.
“I’ve always been a singles fan,” he says.
Derek later worked for motorcycle dealer Deeley’s in Vancouver while riding offroad in his time off, eventually getting sponsored rides on a BSA Victor 500 in motocross and enduro events. So how did an ex-racer end up with the mild-mannered AJS?
Derek found his 1965 AJS Model 16 in a friend’s unheated basement, where it had been for a decade.
“It was a sad sight,” Derek says. “The forks and rims were rusted, the brake adjusters were out to the ends, the tank badges were cracked, a piece of nylon stocking was zip strapped over the carb as an air filter. That was in April of 2012.”
“I recognized the AJS as being a rare bike in Canada as soon as I saw it.”
That said, Derek was unwilling to pay the asking price at first and sat on the idea for a year until he began to appreciate AJS singles and realized their value. And the A-jay was mostly complete, including the tinware. It was also a 1965 model, meaning it had the later alternator engine with buried pushrod tubes, Roadholder fork and Norton brakes and hubs. And while the use of Norton parts was controversial at the time, the last AMC “heavyweight” singles were probably the most durable and reliable.
“So I went back and gave him the asking price,” says Derek.
Derek brought the AJS home with the intention of getting it running and riding it. But after some preliminary investigation, he realized it would take a lot of specialized work. So he took it to Kevin Wilson at International Classic Motorcycles in Coombs, British Columbia.
“My initial thinking to take it to Kevin was to go through the engine and transmission mechanically, check the brakes, and we could leave it at that.”
But about a week later, Kevin phoned to report that the gas tank was rusted inside and needed sealing and coating. And with the best will in the world, Kevin couldn’t promise to keep the paint-dissolving sealing chemicals off the outside of the gas tank. That would mean fresh paint. Kevin also wanted to replace the rusted wheel rims and spokes “with stainless steel and good English chromed rims.”
There were other differences over the restoration: Derek suggested a switch to 12-volt electrics:
“I suggested it to Kevin, because he told me the coil had been squashed, overtightened.” That meant it would need to be replaced.
“And I said, ‘Well, you might as well go to 12 volts.’ And he looked at me with a stern face and said, ‘What for?’ So I said, ‘All right. Okay.'”
By this time, the estimate for the work required was close to what a concours restoration would cost. So that’s what the AJS got. Fortunately, most of the parts were either restorable or available from AMC specialists like Walridge Motors in London, Ontario, Canada (www.walridge.com). And while the restored bike is as close to stock as possible, the single-leading-shoe Norton front brake was replaced with a later twin leading shoe item. Derek considers the original SLS brake as no more effective than that on a Yamaha DT1.
“And those are not very good brakes for a reason. It’s a dirt bike!” he says.
Derek is reluctant to point out any other faults with the Model 16, except one: “I respect it for what it is. But I guess the only thing that doesn’t work very well is the side stand.”
On his first ride after the restoration, Derek parked the AJS on a neighbor’s driveway that had a slight downhill slope. As he was dismounting, the AJS rolled forward on the sidestand. “I caught it before it hit the ground. But it was that close,” he says. Now he only ever parks it on the centerstand.
Derek has entered the AJS in the local Squamish Motorcycle Festival three times and won “best classic motorcycle” each time against more than 50 other bikes.
Model 16 in context
Derek Smith’s 1965 AJS 350 is one of the last of the AMC singles, which makes it particularly rare and not necessarily less desirable — though that wasn’t the case when it was produced. As well as being a bit of a dinosaur, the crossover of components and badges from Norton, AJS and Matchless pleased none of the fans of any of those brands and offended most of them.
That said, it is arguable that the last of the AMC heavyweight singles were the best. The engine was pretty much bulletproof with race-style hairpin valve springs and a solid bottom end that benefited from components used in the competition Models. The AMC gearbox (as used later on the Commando) was sturdy and silky in operation; the Roadholder fork was the best in the business at the time; and the 8-inch Norton brake was best of what was available.
The AJS Model 16 was a rugged, reliable and durable motorcycle with few vices — other than hauling all the weight of the 500cc Model 18 with only two-thirds the power! MC
The AJS in the Field
I swear this story is true, though sometimes I have trouble believing it myself. Walking home from junior high with a couple of buddies, we spied an AJS 350 leaning in the hedgerow beside a farmer’s field, apparently abandoned. The question: Would it start? We pulled it from the hedge, and one of our more adventurous friends lunged on the starter pedal. A steady exhaust beat answered the question. One kid who had ridden his older brother’s bike hopped on and was soon chugging around the field. Then came my first ride on a real motorcycle. The exhilaration of bouncing along the dirt path and shifting gears with the engine thumping willingly below is seared into my memory, and an obsession seeded. Of course, the AJS eventually ran out of gas. We pushed it back into the hedge, obscuring it as much as possible. But when we reconvened with a can of gas, the A-jay was gone. Of course. — Robert Smith
What really killed the British motorcycle industry?
In his book The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry, Dr. Steve Koerner points to three phases of decline: During the 1930s’ depression, with its demand for cheap transportation, most British manufacturers were still producing expensive motorcycles for enthusiasts. In the immediate post-World War II period, they also failed to respond to the opportunity for mass production of commuter-style mopeds and scooters (For example, between 1946 and 1968, BSA built around 500,000 Bantams, while Vespa alone built close to four million scooters!) And having eschewed serious mass production, the British industry was unable to respond to the influx of small Japanese bikes in the Sixties.
Ultimately, the major failure of the industry was that rather than create new products to fulfill the demands of the changing marketplace, British manufacturers continually sought new opportunities to sell its premier products — superannuated, high-capacity singles and twins. Eventually, the only market left was the U.S., and the industry had all its eggs in that one basket. And while British bikes still sold well in the U.S. until 1970, BSA-Triumph hit the wall by missing the critical U.S. sales season in 1971-1972 around the oil-in-frame fiasco, allowing the Honda 750 to grab their market. The bankrupt BSA-Triumph was taken over by Norton-Villiers, makers of the Commando, in 1973. The new company, NVT soldiered on for a couple more years before owner Dennis Poore pulled the plug in 1975.
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