Sixty Years at the Top
by Deryck Wylde
(reproduced from Motor Cycle Weekly's January 22, 1983 instalment of the series 'Roost Rulers: Potted Histories of the British Industry', complete with the original illustrations)
In the early 1950s a British company was able to proudly boast that it owned and operated the largest factory, devoted solely to motor cycle production, in the world.
Bustling with activity as a result of a strong home market plus heavy penetration in the export markets, particularly those of America and Australia, the company was Associated Motor Cycles Limited, latterly manufacturing not only Matchless machines and their badge-brothers AJS, but also Norton, James and Francis-Barnett - but that's another story!
The company was originally founded as a general engineering manufacturer in 1878 by the prolific H.H.Collier; prolific in his go-ahead production ideas and concepts and
also a successful family man with two very able sons.
Based in South-East London, the family company operated from several locations in the Woolwich area until, by the early 1900s, they realised there was an imminent boom in personal motorised transport and began to produce motorised bicycles, perhaps influenced by the owner's sons in their twenties who obviously enjoyed the freedom and the sensation of speed.
Utilising other manufacturers' motors, mainly MAG and JAP, from the earliest models the motor cycles enjoyed a reputation for being well made and soundly engineered.
To our eyes they seem spindly and fragile, particularly when one realises just how poor the average road surfaces were at the time!
The boys enjoyed showing off the factory's wares and were at the forefront of competition motor cycling.
Harry and Charlie both reckoned to be able to get more from the motor cycle than most other men, Harry with a spanner and in the saddle, Charlie only as a rider!
When the first TT race was planned in 1907 they were in the thick of it, and on the eventful day their faith in the machines plus their own ability resulted in an outright win for Charlie with his 432cc overhead valve model.
Matchless had arrived!
Those first years of the TT saw dramatic - even epic - struggles. Obviously speed was an essential part of the competition but the ability to keep the machines running for the distance was vital. The sport was clearly very light-hearted but the realisation that results sold machines meant keen competition.
The second year saw Rem Fowler win on his Norton, beating Charlie into second place; the third year saw the brothers from Woolwich pulling out all the stops!
Charlie won the race with brother Harry in second place, and the die was cast; Matchless Motor Cycles gained a reputation as fast and, above all, reliable machines, and sales boomed.
The early success was firmly based on other people's motors but the Colliers were planning and building their assets.
When they went public, in 1928, they had the factory in Plumstead Road, Woolwich, producing a complete range of their own motors, 250s, 350s, 500s and 600s as singles with both overhead and side valve configurations plus a 900 cc side-valve 'V' twin.
The factory itself was a four-storey brick-built unit close by the Arsenal in Woolwich and, to the end, was known locally as Colliers; although the company was called Matchless
Motor Cycles Limited and then, after the purchase of the liquidated AJS company in 1931, Associated Motor Cycles Limited.
Acquisition of the AJS marque resulted in a rationalisation of the range through the 1930s with the original Matchless designs forming the basis of the everyday heart of the range, and the 350 and 500 overhead valve singles and the overhead camshaft models derived from the AJS designs supporting the competition activities.
There were esoteric models like the Hawk and the Silver Arrow - a 400 cc side-valve 26-degree V-twin, with cantilever rear suspension controlled by coil springs under the saddle like a Vincent ...
In the build-up to the 1939-45 war all the British motor cycle manufacturers were aware that many motor cycles would be needed if hostilities could not be averted. With the largest
factory in the world and a well-organised production engineering facility, Matchless were confident that they would get a large share of any potential military orders.
In the hectic competition to get models in military trim evaluated and accepted by the army, the Plumstead factory offered the W39/G3, an overhead valve 350cc model with rigid rear end and girder forks.
For military use the favoured hairpin valve springs were replaced by more mundane coil springs and the compression ratio reduced, but this was not enough.
With war declared the orders for motor cycle production were not placed with Plumstead, but with the factories in the Midlands; BSA with their M20 and M21 side-valves, Ariel with the WD/NG 350 overhead model and Triumph with their 3HW single-cylinder model.
There were many rumours as to why the Matchless offer was rejected - the popular one being that it was too heavy.
More likely was the worry that the factory was next to the Woolwich Arsenal and sure to be a target for German bombing raids!
Bert Collier, responsible, at that time for most of the design control, didn't take failure lying down.
He decided to revamp the model, chopping pounds out of the frame design and opting for a radical front end with a telescopic front fork.
Several British manufacturers had experimented with such devices but the most successful unit was on the German BMW; a sample was hastily acquired and stripped and the AMC Teledraulic front suspension 'designed.'
It was not a completely happy success story because in the midst of a private 'race' with another of the AMC managers, Jack Kelleher, Bert Collier and the BMW failed to make the corner at the bottom of Pol Hill and he was killed instantly. Bert was the son of Harry and his second wife.
Fate took another hand in the AMC story on the night of November 13, 1940, when German bombers mounted a massive raid on Coventry.
One of the casualties was the Triumph works in Priory Street where the 3HW machines for the army contract were being manufactured.
The place was destroyed with most of the tools and machines, an urgent order went out to place a contract with an alternative manufacturer and the Matchless model 41G3L was selected.
Incidentally the model numbering with AMC always identifies the machine precisely; thus we have the year '41, the type G£ is the 350 cc overhead valve single and the 'L' stands for lightweight
for the new frame.
All WD models were designated 41G3L, irrespective of their year of manufacture - a unique anomaly in the Matchless series.
The models saw service in every theatre of the second World War but were most frequently praised as a result of their reliability in the sandy wastes of the North African campaign.
Their light weight, extra clearance and better front suspension made them far more popular than the WD BSAs, Nortons, Ariels and Enfields - all of which used to bog down in the sand with energy-sapping regularity.
It was not surprising that when hostilities ceased and civilian production started again, the success of the Teledraulic front fork was proved by the adoption on every model in the range.
It has always surprised motor cycle engineers that the 'botch' to get the BMW-copied forks into the girder frame front diamond was continued until the redesign of the frame in the mid-fifties!
After the war there was a complete rationalisation of the AMC production.
Although the names Matchless and AJS were retained, the models were actually identical - real 'badge engineering.'
One of the popular tales is that the models which were being photographed for the catalogues and brochures were frequently 'posed' on the factory roof, which gave a completely clear background on a clear day!
It was a awful struggle to get the machines there, so many times they photographed the model from one side with the AJS tank then turned it round and shot the other side with the Matchless tank.
The 41G3L, with its hairpin valve springs back in and a light alloy top fork yoke, alloy cylinder barrel and competition magneto emerged in 1949 as the 49G3LC in Matchless trim and as the AJS 16MC - a model which won seven of the first ten Scottish Six Day Trials after the war, culminating in the never-to-be repeated single dab ride by Gordon Jackson in 1961.
The factory used the competition side of their activities to promote the 'differences' between the two marques - even though there weren't any!
The trials team usually rode AJS models, whereas the works scramblers usually rode under the Matchless banner.
The racing team leaned on the pre-war success of the overhead camshaft AJS designs, so the 350 racer appeared in AJS colours as the 7R.
Markets in America seemed to prefer the Matchless name, so the 500 version was labelled the Matchless G50!
The Americans were enthusiastic and road equipped version, the G50CSR was exported.
The production racing twin, the G45 was sold under the Matchless banner - the esoteric works twin raced as an AJS Porcupine.
The company had also acquired Norton in 1952 - as well as James and Francis-Barnett just after the war - and badge engineering was in full spate with the two-strokes.
There was rationalisation of parts numbering with the Norton models and when Norton finally closed down their operation in Birmingham and production moved to the Matchless factory in Plumstead they even produced some hybrid machines; Norton front forks on Matchless fromes, Matchless motors in Norton frames and vice versa.
Into the early sixties the problems of the British motor cycle industry really began to bite.
There were many contributory factors but high on the list must come the organisation of the management from a sound engineering base - evidenced by Harry Collier and his father - into the hands of accountants to try to save their businesses.
In each case the prime problem had been ignored - the marketing of the product had always been on a very amateur basis and the prices charged had never generated the margins necessary to fund the replacement of ageing machine tools and production processes.
The factory began to chase its tail. Ill-conceived models were introduced - the infamous 'lightweight models,' the unit construction singles.
The public tried them and rejected them - even the works competition riders refused to ride them!
AMCs competition shop at Plumstead was closed without the factory ever having succeeded in capitalising on the results achieved.
Imagine what would have happened had they built a real lightweight sports model, based on the alloy-motored trials and scrambles models, instead of the diabolical unit construction ....
By 1966 the end had come for AMC and the company was sold.
The new owners retained the name AJS for a while on a range of Villiers-engined competition models, and the Norton Commando models were produced in Andover - but the largest motor cycle factory in the world had been superceded by the Japanese and the name Matchless passed into history.
And what of today? Over 2500 AJS or Matchless machines are recorded by the DVLC in Swansea as being in regular use.
The AJS and Matchless Owners' Club, formed in 1952, has 2,000 members in 33 countries and organises regular social and sporting meetings throughout the world with a comprehensive spares manufacturing scheme to help keep members' machines running.
Indeed, some of the spares are manufactured on machine tools that actually came from the Plumstead factory!
Incidentally the club records include one machine, now 24 years old with well over 100,000 miles on the clock, in regular use on courier duties between Luton and London.
Tell that to your Japanese friends!