At various low moments, the AJay had been set on fire, cut apart, chopped, bodged, and finally neglected for decades. It was a horrid mess. Deciding the abuse had gone far enough, Doug Bone pulls out the old 1946 AJS for a round of major TLC.
There’s snow in the yard but today I found some bare gravel on the back roads. So after decades of neglect and a lot of recent TLC, I got to take the old 1946 AJS 500 single for its first ride in 46 years. Was I really 15 the last time I rode it? Was I really ever 15?
In a fit of inappropriate optimism I started the project about a year ago. The bike is now mechanically rebuilt from one end to the other, but because I like the barn-fresh, rat-bike look, I have preserved, groomed, and even cultivated the rust and weathered patina. Okay, that could be a rationalization. Maybe the truth is, I don’t have the coin or the longevity to do a full-on restoration, and just want to get it running and go riding.
When I was 13 in 1964, thanks to near death brushes on prairie trails with Kordell Josdal’s 650 BSA and Mike Bouclin’s Allstate moped, I had to have a bike, any bike. So I paid 50 bucks for the AJS to Ray Marchand, who I also went to school with here in Elrose, Saskatchewan. I thought it was really cool, leaning there against Marchand’s back shed, but even when I first saw the bike, it was a rusting, non-running hulk with a cracked piston and an old Harley dual seat with a door hinge front pivot welded to the frame.
That winter my mom helped me wrestle it down my parent’s basement stairs. With Bernie Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics as my shop manual, I located a high compression-racing piston (all that was available) in Winnipeg, and with much hammering on the wrist pin, finally got it installed and the engine reassembled.
Anticipation was high when I got it outdoors in the spring. After a few violent backfires that launched me through the kickstart, the high compression and my lack of body mass soon taught me the “starting lunge,” the purpose of the decompression lever, and most importantly the care needed in setting the manual spark advance. That “Summer of 65” the native grass pasture west of town became my playground.
The next year though the Ajay caught fire due to a leaking fuel tap and owner negligence. The gas tank didn’t explode, but the fire consumed the fuel and things got warm enough to fry the tires and melt the end off the Burman gearbox. Eventually, good buddy Gord Torrance and I took the cooked remains apart and started converting it into a chopper by installing a crudely extended Ariel girder front end.
It was probably for the best the chopper project never got very far, and after high school the frame and pile of parts went to my future brother-in-law Greg Wickwire. It spent about a year outside in boxes at his parent’s farm, partially housed in a tumbled down chicken incubator or some such. I think it was that year the forks filled with water and split from freezing.
By this time the 1946 AJS was really a mess, but friend Wayne Jones rescued it and carefully stored what was left in his shed, adding several of the badly needed transmission parts to the heap. Sometime in the 1980s, Wayne kindly donated it back and I stashed it in an old granary on my farm, eventually moving it into my shop where it has continued to fester for many years.
I recently had an epiphany however, and it occurred to me there was a distinct possibility I may not live indefinitely so I’d better do something with the pile of AJS rubbish if I didn’t want my children to forever curse my name when the time came to dispose of my assets.
Challenges abounded, but nothing a MIG welder, time, and interesting packages from England couldn’t solve. I don’t remember how, but the rear fender had been broken in half, gobbed together with about a quarter pound of brass, and then further bobbed with a hacksaw. The rear gas tank lugs had also been torched off the frame. It took me over a day just to rebuild that one faux pas. Of course there were virtually no fasteners left and lots of other crucial parts were also missing. On top of that, I had thrown pieces of a post-war Matchless G3L and a 1950 AJS 350 (that had spent time submerged in a Manitoba flood) into the mix. I thought this stuff would mostly be interchangeable. Not! I’ve since learned the Plumstead Road London factory was notorious for making small changes incrementally year to year. So it’s taken a lot of detective work with photos, parts lists, the meager diagrams available, and trial and error to get it to this stage, lots of trial and error.
For example, I discovered that if you put the bike together with the gearbox sprocket spaced too close to the back of the inner primary chain cover for the rear chain to clear, you have to remove the footpegs, battery carrier, outer primary, engine sprocket cush-assembly, clutch, and inner primary.
Now on the right side, off comes the exhaust system, outer transmission cover, (bonus: you can leave the kick start and gear change shafts and levers in place in the outer cover), kickstart ratchet mechanism from the end of the main shaft, and the inner transmission cover. You will need a pan under the tranny to catch all that fresh New Holland combine liquid grease you just squeezed in the day before. It will not drain out of the drain plug.
Next, slide the main shaft out of the transmission from the primary side in order to remove the nut and sprocket from the hollow sprocket shaft it passes through.
From the sprocket shaft you can effortlessly remove that extra spacer washer you hand-filed special because as near as you could tell, the parts book said it’s supposed to be there. And then you can roundly curse yourself one more time for assembling the whole bike around the transmission without first checking the sprocket and chain clearance.
All this dis-assembling and subsequent re-assembling went reasonably quickly though, quite painless really when you consider that to get the best working combination of parts we have had the transmission (and the other two and a half gearboxes in the mix) apart and back together at least four times.
The learning and adaptive experience continued the deeper I got into the process. I observed that with its 3.25-inch bore and a 3.65-inch stroke, the 498cc engine is tall, and the rockerbox extends into a recess in the bottom of the tank. Although air filters are listed in the parts list, they probably weren’t fitted for the home market and seem to be rare. I couldn’t even find a picture of one. Although I tried to keep the bike as stock as possible, I finally had to make do with a homemade affair, suitably antiqued. During the course of the rebuild, I also learned why there is felt packing around the bottom of the carburetor. The bike’s early standard Amal had air bleed holes around the bottom that fed air (and dust) into the intake—hence the bodge.
Immediately post-war the magneto was in front of the cylinder on the AJS engine, whereas on the equivalent Matchless made at the same factory, it was located behind. On both, the generator mounts through holes in the engine plates. With the gearbox end in the way on one side, and the primary drive on the other, it was a bugger to get at for servicing.
The finish had been totally burnt off one side of the tank, so the patina it has now was faked by applying steel wool to the paint and reapplying striping directly over the rust. The fuel tank hold-down bolts are originals and retained with copper wire, which has a part number in the factory list.
There was a shortage of chrome after the war so the bars were painted in 1946. The controls are crowded but correct, except for the NOS military brass choke lever on the right side. Beside it is the horn button. Below on the left is the decompression trigger and next to it is the dip switch, then the spark advance lever. Cloth and some original rubber covered wire were used and ratty cables re-used where possible. The rubber ties holding the wires are NOS military John Bull originals.
There were many irritations, challenges and setbacks during the restoration, but they were all worthwhile. Today, after 46 years, the Ajay started on the second kick and man, did it feel good to take that crappy looking old bike down the road. Almost like being 15.
Help from my friends
Resurrecting the AJS would have been impossible without help from several sources. The companies AMC and Russell Motors in Britain, and Walridge and British Cycle Supply here in Canada, have been very helpful. And the forum service of the AJS-Matchless Owners Club in Britain has been invaluable. Some very knowledgeable people have given advice on the project, and one club member, Ludwig Zech, from Germany went far above and beyond.
After I had assembled my engine without noticing a flared crankshaft thread on the timing end, I enquired on the club forum about a source for a left-hand 7/16-by-26 British Cycle Thread die. Ludwig replied that he would lend me a split die no less, that he had obtained from a friend who rescued a bunch of obscure dies from a scrap dealer. He shipped me the beautifully made tool from Germany and would not take payment for even the postage. It worked like a dream. Being split, it could be clamped on the undamaged portion of the threads and turned off with no danger of cross threading, re-forming the flared end as it went. Problem solved thanks to a generous fellow club member in Germany.
By Doug Bone, Canadian Biker, March 2013