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A Matchless Motorcycle – Better Than The Rest?

red matchless g12 with rider through the corner

Not many people would embark on a 3,000-mile trip through BC and Alberta on a 45-year-old motorcycle. But that’s what Rick Fisher did. The only problem: a broken brake return spring. You see, Rick believes that if a British motorcycle is put together right, it will work right. 

But then the Matchless motorcycle was always reckoned to be a little better than the rest. Harry and Charlie Collier built their first motorcycle in 1899, attaching a home-built engine to the front wheel of a Matchless bicycle manufactured by their father’s company, Henry Collier & Sons of Plumstead, London. They shared, with Norton, the honours at the first Isle of Man TT, Norton winning the “Twins” race and Matchless the “singles” title. Both riding 432cc OHV JAP-engined bikes, Harry set the fastest lap—but Charlie was home in the quicker time! The Collier brothers were also frequent competitors at England’s then newly-built Brooklands banked oval circuit, all of which continued to build the company’s sporting prowess.

In the 1930s, Matchless became the preferred engine supplier for both the Morgan car company and Brough Superior. That the Colliers’ engines were good enough for George Brough is a singular indicator of their quality. Two other notable Matchlesses appeared during this time, the Silver Arrow and Silver Hawk. As adventurous as (and arguably better conceived than) Edward Turner’s 1930 OHC Square Four, the Matchless engines were both narrow-angle Vee, the Silver Arrow a 400cc side valve Twin, and the Hawk a 600cc OHC four. And like the Square Four, the touring Arrow and sporting Hawk both arrived at the wrong time, 1930 and 1931, when few punters had the money for expensive, high quality bikes.

Matchless soldiered on, almost literally, into WWII, producing what was the preferred (by its riders, anyway) British wartime motorcycle, the OHV single cylinder G3/L, a powerful lightweight that easily outperformed the contemporary 16H Norton and M20 BSA, with the added benefit of the company’s new “Teledraulic” fork. And it was the “heavyweight” 350 and 500cc singles that maintained Matchless’s sporting tradition in the post-war years. Through the fifties, the bike to beat in off-road competition was a 500cc Matchless “thumper.”

red matchless g12 sitting by the ocean front angle

IN THE LATE 1940S, LIKE EVERY MAJOR BRITISH BIKE BUILDER, Matchless (now the principal brand in the Associated Motorcycles conglomerate) needed a Twin. Launched in 1949, the 500cc Matchless G9 Super Clubman differed in having separate cylinder heads and barrels, replaceable oil filter, pivoted fork rear suspension, and a center main bearing to support its nodular iron crankshaft. With the crank supported at each end by roller bearings, the center support used a plain white metal bearing through which oil was fed evenly to both crankshaft big end bearings. As well as providing the oil feed, the center bearing provided lateral location for the crank.

In a period interview with The Motor Cycle, Matchless designer P. A. Walker also described how the light alloy connecting rods contained “no less than 11 times the amount of new metal required to meet the full load at 7,000 rpm.” Walker predicted that, if failure occurred “the engine would have to be run at full revolutions for about 50 years …”

Typically for the brand, the end result was a motorcycle just a little better than the competition. Though Triumph’s Twin had established the basic layout, Matchless had improved on the design—internal pushrod tubes, quieter timing and valve operation, and better cooling. Just as typically, the Matchless price was higher, and the G9 sold in smaller numbers than its competition. But with its swingarm rear suspension (using AMC’s own “candlestick” and later “jampot” suspension units), Teledraulic forks, sophisticated engine and Burman gearbox, the G9 was arguably the best of the new Twins.

Responding a little late to the demands for more power from its US market, AMC produced the 600cc G11 for 1956—a full five years after Triumph’s 650 Thunderbird and BSA’s 650 Flash. (A small number of 550cc export-only G9Bs had previously been shipped to the US.) The capacity increase was gained by taking the bore from 66mm to 72mm while the stroke stayed at 72.8mm. The company finally caught up in 1959 with a further stretch to 646cc by increasing stroke to 79.3mm—the G12. Especially popular with the café racer crowd was the G12 CSR version with 8.5:1 pistons and more chrome. In 1960 a new cylinder head was brought on stream with increased swirl for better combustion efficiency, distinguished by two extra cooling fins under the exhaust port.

“I JUST KNEW I WANTED AN OLDER BIKE,” SAYS RICK FISHER WHEN HE’S asked why he bought the Matchless. Fisher had recently finished restoring a Rickman Honda and a Triumph T160. “And I didn’t want to do a Bonneville,” he says.

Originally sold in Canada, this G12’s early history is unknown, but one Rod Gustafson is known to have purchased it in 1972. He then sold it to Stan Verbicky, a machinist in the Naval dockyard where Rick was a Chief Petty Officer. Rick bought the bike in 2001.

“It was a roller,” says Rick. It had some wrong tin on it, but it was all together—sort of.”

The motor had been less than fastidiously assembled at some time in the past, so Rick entrusted it to Maurice Keeler in Seattle. Maurice found the center main bearing shell crushed, the result of fitting an undersize shell to the standard-size crank journal. Potentially catastrophic, this would have blocked oil supply to the big ends—a blow up waiting to happen. There were some similar horrors in the top end. A mild steel threaded rod had been glued into the heads in place of the correct studs, and the exhaust ports had been hobbed out to accept Sportster pipes. 

Keeler dynamically balanced the bottom end and fitted 0.040”-over 9.5:1 pistons, a high-capacity oil pump, super sports camshafts, new valves, guides and springs.

Keeler also modified the oil filter with a replaceable element from a Triumph Trident. Rick then fitted a 220-watt three-phase alternator, Podtronics regulator and Boyer micro-digital ignition with 40KV coils. The Boyer trigger unit is built into the original magneto housing. Rick also replaced missing tinware with help from Domiracer, Walridge Motors in London, Ontario, British Matchless specialist Richard Gaunt, and the AJS/Matchless Owners’ Club. Gary Vallquist  created dies for a new air cleaner while the period luggage was an e-Bay find.

The result is a testament to what a British bike can be if properly screwed together.

By Robert Smith Canadian Biker #219

red matchless g12 sitting by the ocean side shot

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