Finding a gem in the rough is a fantasy for everyone in the classic motorcycle hobby. You know the dream, the one where you open a heavy door on creaking hinges, revealing the inside of a dim and dusty shed. Peering into the gloom, soft light glints off the faded chrome of a handlebar. Slowly, the hulking form of an abandoned machine begins to take shape.
It can happen, and the world of the internet has made it easier — don’t believe that all of the “barn finds” have been snapped up, because this story is proof that old motorcycles are out there just waiting to be found.
Less than two years ago, restorer and rider John Whitby of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was going through his morning routine of combing Kijiji.com, an online ad site. He was in the Classic Cars section of the Saskatchewan listings and paused when he saw a post for a Mercury. Curious about the car, he clicked on the ad.
“I was looking at the photos of the car, and in one picture I could make out the remnants of a motorcycle,” John says, adding, “I could see a girder fork, a bit of chrome on a gas tank and handlebars that were tipped up like cow horns.”
John might not have pulled open a door to a dusty shed, but he’d discovered the proverbial barn find in a poorly lit photo in an internet ad. So, he dashed off an email to the Mercury seller: “Sorry, I’m not interested in the car, but what’s that bike I can see?” John asked.
Instead of a brush-off, John got a reply that the bike was a 1931 AJS S8 DeLuxe. Not surprisingly, John’s next question was “Is it for sale?” Yes, indeed it was. The seller had owned it for 45 years, but was downsizing and the toys had to go. A price was agreed upon and John simply asked when could he come get it.
On Dec. 19, 2014, John and his wife, Sue, drove through snow and ice fog some 375 miles from Calgary to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where they loaded up the AJS in John’s truck. The story John got from the seller was that the bike came out of Kapuskasing, a town in Northern Ontario, in pretty much the same condition it was in when John got it — rusty, well used and abused. A few parts had been gathered for the project, including a rebuilt Lucas magneto plus a brass-bodied Amal carb. When John landed the AJS in his suburban two-car garage, he got to work researching what he’d found.
In the beginning
The history of AJS goes back to the late 1800s, when industrial engineer and metalworker Joseph Stevens started the J. Stevens & Company in Wednesfield, England. With his wife, Sarah, the Stevens raised nine children. Eventually, all of the siblings ended up in the family trade — metal and machines.
According to historywebsite.co.uk, Joseph Sr. bought an American-made Mitchell 4-stroke single-cylinder engine to power machines in the family factory. While it was deemed as not a high-quality product, the engine interested Joseph’s son, Harry, who determined the Stevens’ company could engineer a more efficient powerplant. In 1899, they began the Stevens Motor Manufacturing Company in Wolverhampton, constructing gasoline engines for use in industrial applications.
Harry soon realized the potential of bolting an engine into a bicycle, and he put the old Mitchell engine in a BSA bike frame, with a leather belt driving the rear wheel. This new machine caught the attention of the Wearwell Motor Carriage Company, and the Stevens were soon supplying engines to fit a Wearwell heavy-duty bicycle. By late 1909, however, Wearwell was bankrupt and the Stevens brothers decided to produce their own motorcycles under the name AJS, for one of the boy’s initials, Albert John Stevens, also known as Jack.
In 1910, AJS displayed three motorcycles at the Olympia Cycle Show in London; the 2.5 horsepower Model A and Model B, plus a 3.5 horsepower V-twin. Much interest was shown in the AJS products and orders were brisk. Solidifying the reputation of AJS machines was their performance in the 1914 Isle of Man TT Junior 350cc race, where riders Eric Williams and Cyril Williams placed first and second, respectively.
Capitalizing on the success, AJS expanded and continued to refine and develop new models into the pre-World War I years and came out swinging post-war with an array of machines. AJS sustained its winning ways at the TT races, and by 1929 had introduced an updated range of motorcycles. New and improved, the machines were equipped with saddle gas tanks — the style that fits over the frame top tube — and were powered by a range of sidevalve and overhead valve 4-stroke engines from 349cc to 996cc. All engines were also now equipped with dry-sump lubrication. Notable was the AJS M8, a 498cc motorcycle with an overhead valve, single-cylinder engine offered with either a single or dual exhaust port cylinder head.
By 1931, AJS faced serious financial trouble, but continued to produce well-sorted and reliable machines. The M series had become the S series, and included the S8 and S8 DeLuxe. These models were equipped with a twin-port overhead valve 498cc single-cylinder engine. The dimensions were 84mm by 90mm bore and stroke for a displacement of 498cc that, oddly enough, made 4.98 horsepower. The inclined cylinder and head was topped off with enclosed rocker gear and exposed valve springs.
According to the 1931 AJS brochure, the engine featured an improved system of mechanical lubrication, a detachable cylinder head, an aluminum piston, roller bearings on the large end of the connecting rod and ball bearing crankshaft supports. Power to the 3-speed handshift Sturmey-Archer transmission was via chain in an enclosed primary drive, and to help smooth power pulses a ramp-type sprung shock absorber was on the end of the crankshaft. Sparks were supplied by a Lucas magneto, and for an extra fee AJS would fit a Lucas magneto/generator setup known as a Magdyno.
Engine and transmission were in a rigid semi-cradle frame with duplex rear chainstays — basically, there’s an extra tube supporting the rear frame dropouts. AJS used its own girder fork and beefy 1-inch handlebars, and wheels both front and rear were 19 inches in diameter. The internal expanding rear brake was 7-1/4 inches in diameter while the front was smaller at 7 inches.
By the end of 1931, mounting money problems led to AJS being purchased by Collier & Sons, makers of Matchless motorcycles. By 1938 the group set up the parent company Associated Motor Cycles, or AMC. Under the AMC banner were several other English makes, and over time included not only AJS and Matchless, but also Francis-Barnett, James, Norton and Sunbeam. AMC was defunct by 1966, and the company was taken over by Manganese Bronze and then called Norton-Villiers.
Reviving the S8 DeLuxe
John’s AJS bears serial number 63298. The first 1931 S8 production serial number was 62466, and the last 63365. Total production for the model year was 899 units, putting John’s machine close to the end of the model run and close to the end of the AJS factory under Stevens’ family ownership.
While John’s AJS might have been rusty, the engine turned over. There was no compression, however, and a previous owner had attempted to modify the ignition system by installing a distributor and coil. One of the original timing gears had been crudely brazed to the shaft of a distributor.
The wheel rims were badly damaged and the fenders were good only for patterns. An original Terry solo seat frame had been modified with a seat pan from either an Indian or a Harley-Davidson, and once this pan was removed the frame was usable. Before John even went to Saskatoon to pick up the AJS, he had begun collecting parts, and once he had the bike he spent another three months gathering close to 90 percent of what he’d need.
He found a headlight and taillight at Vintage Replica in the Czech Republic, while the handlebars, bar-end levers, magneto and choke controls came from Moto Mania in Austria. A replica front fender was sourced from eBay, and two C-shaped 6-inch wide fender blanks were also found online. John joined the AJS & Matchless Owners Club Limited, and found parts and knowledge in the Pre War section of the forum. John got a correct set of exhaust headers from a member of the group, while the 0.040-inch oversize piston came from British Only Austria.
John took some “before” photos on March 12, 2015, and then got to work. First up was pre-fitting the fenders, using the two eBay fender blanks to make the hinged rear mudguard. Next, he mocked up the exhaust system, and then he took the AJS to pieces. John built his own wheels using stainless steel spokes from Central Wheel Components in the U.K. and rims from the Devon Rim Company. The hubs and rims were powder coated black, and he topped off the rolling stock with Mitas tires. The bearings and brake shoes are the original items, as they were in great shape.
John made all the fasteners, including the girder fork spindles and engine mounting hardware, on his lathe. He also made the footpegs, the footpeg shafts and spacers, and the brake pedal. Working in his garage John painted the frame, fork, front fender and primary cover. The rear fender and subframe, homemade rack, centerstand, chain guard and oil tank were all powder coated black. By July 11, just four months after he started, he had a rolling chassis.
The transmission was opened up and the gears were in good condition. New bearings were sourced from the Vintage Bearing Company in the U.K. while a speedometer drive was found at British Only Austria.
The 498cc engine was still on its original big-end bearings, and the bore was also standard. However, a piston circlip had come out and scored the cylinder wall, so to get rid of the resulting groove Mike Briggs at Performance Cycle and Auto in Calgary bored the barrel to accept the 0.040-inch oversize piston. The cylinder head was treated to new valves, springs and keepers, and a replacement exhaust cam came out of Australia — an eBay find. John has a large ultrasonic cleaner in his garage and all of the aluminum cases spent time in the bath. The engine went back together with new rollers in the big end, and the small end of the connecting rod was fine. Roller bearings on the drive and timing side of the engine are off-the-shelf pieces from a local bearing supply store.
The oil pump was badly damaged, and all John had to work with were broken pieces of the pot-metal component. Using epoxy he glued the pieces together, using the result as a pattern to machine new parts out of brass. Instead of a Lucas dynamo John elected to install an Alton generator, and he made his own wiring harness. The engine was put back in the frame on Sept. 8, 2015.
John’s next task was repairing the gas tank, which was actually in pretty good condition. John made a replacement dash panel out of two pieces of sheet metal. The original panel was missing, but he used the shadow of an outline that remained on the tank top for the overall shape, and then worked from photos to get an accurate height. The panel houses a speedometer, amp gauge, clock and headlight switch.
To prevent sticker shock John had been having his chrome done in batches, leaving the gas tank until last. In August 2015 when he dropped the tank at the platers the AJS was almost complete, but John didn’t get the tank back until Oct. 30. While a talented painter himself, John didn’t attempt to spray the black over the chrome or apply the gold stripe by hand, instead turning the tank over to Guy St. Pierre of Cyclemania Art Works in Okotoks, Alberta. When the tank came back, though, John laid down the AJS waterslide decals.
On Dec. 19, 2015 — exactly one year to the day from when he picked up the AJS — John installed the last part, a copper fuel line he’d formed, soldered and nickel-plated at home, and started up the AJS for the first time. Since then, he says, the AJS has been a one-kick starter, needing only a tickle of the carb and a bit of choke. John hasn’t taken the AJS out on the road yet, but he has ridden it around the block, and he’s working on dialing in the adjustable oil pump to deliver just enough oil so it doesn’t accumulate in the crankcase. There is no scraper ring on the piston, only four compression rings, and in the AJS manual it says with the oil pump set correctly a blip of the throttle should see the engine emit a puff of smoke out the twin silencers.
John pulled off quite the accomplishment with his 1931 AJS. A rare machine, it was an unlikely internet barn find, and amazingly, it took him only one year to complete a stunning transformation. Job well done. MC