The spoils of war
1943 Matchless G3L
Claimed power: 16hp @ 5,600
Top speed: 80mph (Ugo's bike, claimed 90mph)
Engine: 348cc, OHV air-cooled single
Weight (wet): 344lbs
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3gal / 72mpg
Price then: N/A
Price now: $2,000 - $6,000
Back in 1967, life for a 20-year-old Piaggio employee wasn’t half bad; regular work at the Pontedera factory producing brightly-colored Vespas gave a decent wage that could be frittered away on pretty women, dancing, lazing on nearby sunny Mediterranean beaches and motorcycles.
“Happy days indeed,” sighs Ugo Cirri, a genial and typically warm Italian who resides in a small village not far from Pisa, and is the proud owner and restorer of this fine but unusual 1943 Matchless G3L. “We’d have improvised races on the way to work on our bikes, all small Italian stuff, but what we really desired were BSAs, Nortons, Triumphs — you know, proper motorcycles. We wanted Mini Coopers, The Beatles, James Bond, The Stones. It seemed everything cool came from the U.K. in 1967, especially if you lived in a small town in Italy.”
Just 20 years previously there couldn’t have been a greater contrast on the street in Italy. A war-torn infrastructure and shortages made life problematic, but there were a few consolations for the Italian people to help themselves get back to normality. The Germans, Brits and Yanks had all been in and out of Italy as invaders and liberators, and they had discarded or abandoned huge amounts of military hardware including tanks, trucks and motorcycles.
“The Italian authorities quickly organized theses vehicles into huge deposits called ARAR camps,” explains Ugo, “and the stuff was sold and auctioned off to make quick cash for the government, and provide cheap transport and raw materials for the people. My Matchless, which started life as a 1943 Matchless G3L British war department model, would have ended up on one of these heaps of metal after the war.”
And who’s to say that this Matchless G3L didn’t land in Sicily in 1943, work its way up through fierce fighting in Italy to end up in Tuscany, only to be abandoned ungraciously after its war service, to then pass into appreciative Italian hands? Ugo has no doubts that it was singled out for special treatment after being rescued from the scrap heap, as the difference between his example and the standard rigid-framed Matchless G3L is all too glaringly obvious, in the form of the beautiful rear end that could only be “made in Italy.”
Suspension of disbelief
Like some mythical mechanical Centaur, the Matchless G3L has at some point in its past been transformed into half war-department-plodder, half exotic-Latin-lothario racer, using the best ends of both. The rear rigid section of the Matchless frame has been completely discarded, replaced with a suspension and swing arm that was designed and patented by Gilera in the 1930s, and appeared on many of its road bikes and racers like the Saturno. Horizontal springs, adjustable in length, run in boxes along the rear frame rails and friction knobs connected to the swing arm provide the damping. It’s an elegant and effective system, and it’s light years ahead of the rigid frame and sprung saddle setup that most manufacturers used well into the late 1940s. A half-moon rear mudguard that looks like it came off a Moto Guzzi Dondolino racer and a round, chromed rear light emphasize the “Italianization” of the rear half of the Matchless. But how and why did it end up on an abandoned military machine?
“It became popular to convert the ex-military bikes after the war for two reasons,” suggests Ugo. “Italian roads had been destroyed by the war, so the rider, and more importantly, the passenger, needed a minimum of comfort negotiating ruts and potholes that rigid frames just couldn’t give. People were also sick of seeing military khaki vehicles after so many years, so they were keen to ‘demilitarize’ them, personalize them and paint them up as soon as possible.”
In fact, canny motorcycle dealers looking for a route back into business bought up these bikes cheaply, converting them in workshops across Italy, and then selling them to grateful customers who needed work and family transport. Angelo Menani, who became one of the most famous Italian producers of aftermarket brakes, handlebars, forks and frames, started off in business doing exactly this, and his experiences readied him for later years preparing competition machines. Ugo reckons Menani laid hands on this Matchless G3L: “The work on the frame has been carried out by a professional, not a back-street bodger. The welding is first class!” Ugo’s handiwork in returning this striking combination of old soldier and Latin lovely back to life has also been first class.
Finding … something
Unloading his tools from his van one day on his rounds as a lathe and industrial machine engineer, Ugo’s keen eye spotted the rear end of the bike under a rotting tarpaulin. “I saw whatever it was was a complete wreck, but I was fascinated because it had this huge racing-type rear mudguard, and two white racing number plates on either side. A race bike!” recalls Ugo, laughing now, although his slight disappointment is tangible when he recounts discovering it was an ex-military Matchless G3L rather than a factory Gilera Saturno racer.
“No matter, it was an interesting machine and English, seemed complete, had its registration plate [vital in Italy], and was mine in exchange for a couple of free maintenance visits to the owner’s factory!” continues Ugo.
Some detective work turned up the fact the bike had only ever had one owner and had first been registered for civilian use in 1948. The modified tank and forks, 21-inch wheels and race number plates also suggested the Matchless had taken part in Italian street circuit racing popular after the war, which just adds to its uniqueness and character. The stock Amal carb had been jettisoned at some point for a more reliable Dell’Orto SCF 25, a common mod that many older Brit bikes in Italy undergo.
Restoring a British bike in Italy can be challenging at times. “I was conscious from the beginning that it wouldn’t be straightforward for the language, and the lack of parts, and the rebuild took a year and a half, slow for me,” says Ugo.
It should be pointed out that Ugo is an expert fabricator and makes anything he can’t find. “I had the complete frame sandblasted, and then checked it for trueness in a jig I built. There was no damage, and I was able to appreciate how precisely and skillfully the Italian rear suspension had been added to the British frame.”
The crank required new main bearings, which proved to be a tedious job. Ugo thought nothing of fashioning a new oil pump worm drive from a lump of metal. “Quicker than sending off for it,” he laughs. The rest of the engine was in remarkably good shape considering it had survived both World War II and being thrashed mercilessly in competition.
“English motors and Burman gearboxes are very strong and impressive,” says Ugo. “I removed the plate between the cylinder and crankcase, and fitted a high compression Asso piston to give the bike, how do you say, some balls! I was so excited and nervous when I reached the moment of starting the Matchless for the first time, not helped by waves of fuel leaking straight out of the carb at first, but once sorted, I went through the classic ritual, and the Matchless sang again! Fantastic, and what a sound!”
The bike is now bellissima and goes as well as it looks. Ugo is especially enthusiastic about the handling: “The excellent ‘Teledraulic’ forks and Gilera rear suspension really complement each other. It handles brilliantly, and the motor’s strong and reliable.” A man content with his half-British half-Italian hybrid, but it’s missing just one finishing touch, a genuine Smiths speedometer. “When you get back to England, would you do me a favor?” asks Ugo. How can I refuse?
Matchless G3L history
The Matchless G3L was a reliable and well-constructed overhead-valve, single-cylinder motorcycle produced by Associated Motorcycles from 1941 to 1966. Developed from the earlier G3 which had girder forks, the 350cc Matchless G3L was a lighter machine (almost 60 pounds) and the first British motorcycle to have telescopic front fork suspension units, called “Teledraulics.” Its Burman CP gearbox with distinctive filler cap was extremely robust, and the G3L impressed the government and Armed Forces. Over 80,000 G3Ls were supplied to the British War Department, and its long stroke and low compression engine went on to prove itself in military applications all over the world. Excellent road handling, reliability and efficient fuel consumption made the W41/G3L very popular with dispatch riders and civilians alike. The telescopic-forked 350 was a forces favorite, and went on to form the basis of AMC’s peace-time Matchless range, retaining its rigid frame for many years, although “candlestick” rear suspension units were available from 1947. Ex-military G3Ls, along with BSA M20s, are commonly seen at shows and rallies in countries like Italy, France and Holland, where many machines were abandoned at the end of World War II. Never conceived to be a “sporting” motorcycle, the Matchless G3L nevertheless provided reliable wheels for thousands of soldiers — and civilians — during and after the war, and is now fondly regarded by collectors and enthusiasts across the classic motorcycling scene.
Italians and their Brit bikes
The British and Italian motorcycle industries have been around as long as each other, and although Italians have always been far more attached to homegrown products such as Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta and Gilera, there has always been a niche market for British machines and producers. Amal supplied carburetors for Moto Guzzi in the late 1920s and early 1930s until a fascist decree declared that foreign products had to be boycotted, so Dell’Orto carbs took their place. In fact, the inefficiency of early Amal carbs also played a part, and Italians have always been keen to fit Dell’Ortos, as seen on Ugo’s Matchless G3L.
The arrival of thousands of military Matchless G3Ls, Norton Big Fours and 16Hs, and BSA M20s during World War II saw an increase in British bikes in Italy, and many were “civilianized” with a fresh coat of paint and Italian suspension to make them a better riding machine than with their original rigid frames. Headlamps were often substituted for larger Bosch units, Girling shocks were swapped for Marzocchi shocks, and British touring-type handlebars were exchanged for racier Menani or Tommaselli clip-ons.
Of course, Italians are known for their workshop skills and ingenuity, and British engines were often used in Italian-framed specials. BSA DBD 34 500cc Gold Star engines were always sought after, and the importer for BSA in Italy, Ghezzi, was instrumental, along with engineer Coscia, in building motocross bikes featuring a Goldie engine, a modified and reinforced Goldie frame, Ceriani forks, and Salvai hubs and brakes. One of the bikes took third place in the 1963 Italian motocross championship.