The very concept of truth is an interesting one. For example, take the speed of light. This is universally agreed to be 186,000 miles per second. So, empirical scientific values are, give or take new discoveries, good examples of the truth.
The problem comes when indefinable values are thrown into the mix. Some things generate such wide spread agreement that they represent the widely accepted truth. Few GP fans would dispute that Valentino Rossi is one of the greatest motorcycle racers of all time. This opinion is backed up by the statistics.
There is a general agreement that a fruity white wine suits fish and chicken better than a big, bruiser of a red. But are girls with light blonde hair pretty or just too pale? Now, we’re getting on to really subjective areas…
And if the subject of what makes someone attractive is contentious, how does one assess a collection of motorcycle parts which, individually, range from mediocre to merely acceptable but when gathered together become a really memorable motorcycle. Now that really is a tricky area.
Enter then the Matchless/Norton hybrids produced by Associated Motorcycles (AMC) – the owner of both of these iconic brands – from 1963 until the company finally collapsed 1966. For those ardent students of history, the specials continued for another two, or maybe even three years, under the ownership of Manganese Bronze Holdings.
The specials went under the not too snappy model name of Matchless G15 – although they were also sold as the Norton N15 CS. It’s a confusing story but a wonderfully transparent window on the last days of the British motorcycle industry.
The core of the problem was that by 1963, AMC was on its last legs. Forget drinking at the bar of the Last Chance Saloon. AMC would have been grateful to quench its fiscal thirst in the horse trough outside the establishment.
Desperate measures were required and one of these was to close the Norton factory which was a slum building located in Birmingham, 115 miles away AMC’s London headquarters. Norton had reached an agreement to deploy to a new, more modern, factory in Birmingham but AMC vetoed the move and instead insisted that the funding be used to keep the ailing company alive at Head Office.
Only one member of the Norton staff was moved south. This was the chief storeman who was the only one who could identify the boxes of Norton parts which arrived, unlabelled, at AMC.
There were only two parts of Norton of any value. The first was the iconic Norton “Featherbed” frame which housed the Norton twin cylinder engines. The other was the 750cc Atlas engine.
Although originally designed for the single cylinder Manx race engine, the “Featherbed” worked well as a road bike chassis and was well liked by the fast dwindling number of Norton customers – and these were diminishing almost by the hour in 1963.
As for the Atlas engine, this was the bored and stroked grandson of Bert Hopwood’s 497cc, Model 7 motor which he drew in 1947. I’m not much of a fan of Hopwood but he did a competent job with the Model 7 producing an affable long-stroke, ohv Twin with 29hp of very pleasant power. Certainly, it was just as good – or maybe bad – as the offerings from the rest of the British factories.
Hopwood’s engine had a serious makeover in 1960 when the first 650 appeared. This was effectively an all-new engine from the crankcases up. The 68mm bore was retained but the stroke was increased to 89mm. As American customers pressed for ever more power, Norton produced the 745cc Atlas which was based directly on the 650 – now with the bore enlarged to 73mm but still with an 89mm stroke.
The idea was that these long stroke engines would stop customers revving the man bits off them and so destroying their hands, genitals – and their motorcycles – with vibration. Producing 49hp, the Atlas really did have tractor quality pulling power but the resultant vibration was savage – truly hand numbing.
Norton testers complained bitterly about the vibes and so a cheap fix was to lower the compression ratio to around 7:1 which softened the motor somewhat and, as a vital by-product, enhanced reliability. Not exploding was going to be a key factor in the Atlas’ transfer to an AMC chassis.
Meanwhile, AMC were struggling with their 650cc engines. The more power that was coaxed out of these motors, the less reliable they became. The engines were constantly improved but everyone except hard-core Matchless acolytes knew that it was impossible to use them hard.
In a terrible quirk of fate, rescue was potentially in sight for AMC because the American motorcycle market was about to explode. In 1964, riders in the US were developing a rabid thirst for powerful motorcycles. With decent management, AMC was eminently rescuable.
Their savior was, almost, Joseph (Joe) Berliner. Joe was a remarkable self-made Hungarian millionaire who had been incarcerated in the Auschwitz concentration camp simply because he was a Jew. He immigrated to the USA and within a few years was importing a range of iconic European motorcycles ranging from Zündapp to Ducati – and all of the AMC range.
Joe knew his customers intimately and what they wanted was cubes – a 45-incher to be exact or a 750cc in foreign money.
His customers were also clear on the style of bike they liked – and it wasn’t British café racers. In fact, at the time there was virtually no road racing in America with which customers could identify – but there was a lot of off-road competition.
Here’s where the story gets really interesting. Matchless had a long history of making successful dirt bikes in the form of both motocross and trials bikes. The motocross bikes in particular were winners at British national, and international, levels and they had two of the best riders of their generation in Chris Horsfield and Dave Nicholl. The bike they used was the Matchless G80CS and although it was prehistoric in terms of being a brazed lug frame, it really did handle a treat – absolutely as good as the best. Clearly, Matchless understood dirt bike handling.
AMC also had an excellent existing chassis in the G12 road bike, which already housed the company’s twin cylinder engine. The physically bigger Norton Atlas motor could be squeezed into the available space with minimal modifications. It was a tight fit but just about possible.
There were also other very satisfactory bits and pieces available to AMC without any new investment. First, there was the Norton “Long Roadholder” front fork which had two inches more travel than the road equivalent and two way damping. This was all rather good. The Norton hubs weren’t too bad either. Neither the forks nor the hubs were of the same standard as those produced by Husqvarna or CZ for GP motocross but the new Matchless wasn’t intended to go Grand Prix racing. It was a Sunday trail bike – and potentially a desert racer too.
The gearbox, lifted from the Norton/AMC parts bin, was excellent as was the clutch. The ‘box was only a four speeder when in truth it was crying out for a five speed cluster – especially when used off road – but it was as good as anything else on the market.
The rest of the bike was a typical British “parts bin” special of the day with rear shocks from Girling, and a Lucas magneto ignition. Instrumentation was a speedometer and tachometer and the lights were quickly detachable so that the bike could be converted to racing trim easily and quickly.
In terms of styling, the 2.2-gallon alloy fuel tank, lifted from AMC’s trials machine, was the highlight. Finished in polychromatic red, with a wing nut filler cap, the tank looked drop dead gorgeous.
In the winter of 1963, Chris Horsfield took the new bike to the Hawkstone Park Grand Prix motocross circuit and thrashed it round until everyone was satisfied that it performed well and wouldn’t break. The new bike was declared a success on every front.
The first batch of the new hybrids carried not Matchless but Norton badges and 200 left AMC’s London factory in November 1963. Joe Berliner loved them and the big bikes were an instant sales hit despite the niggles which accompanied the machines, all of which should have been resolved during development. For example, at a time when everyone did their own maintenance at home, it was impossible to remove the cylinder head without taking the whole engine out of the frame. Magneto adjustments, an almost weekly job on a British bike, were difficult too.
Against this, the G15 delivered exactly what it promised. With something around a genuine 50hp available in a bike weighing not much more than 400lbs, the G15 provided outstanding performance both on and off-road.
On road gearing, a G15 would romp through the magic 100 mph barrier without much effort and still had another 10 mph in hand.
Geared for off-road competition, the hybrid was brutally fast. Later in the bike’s life cycle, now badged as a Norton P11, Mike Patrick dominated the prestigious District #37 desert racing winning the championship in both 1968 and 1969.
The P11 was a step forward from the G15 with lighter hubs, better forks and an all welded frame. Naturally, the Americans were quick to claim all the credit for the bike. This may be another example of multiple truths. It is accurate that Berliner Motor’s key Californian dealer, ZDS Motor Corporation in Glendale, did put the Atlas engine into a Matchless G.85 motocross frame but it was hardly one giant step for mankind, as another rather well known American once said, because Mike Patrick was already racing a Norton badged version of the G15. Rather, it was more a logical development and, once again, an archetypal parts bin special.
So why didn’t the G15, and its road orientated siblings, save AMC? The answer is that the bike was too little and too late. A few thousand bikes sold in America was not going to save the massively indebted group against the Japanese invasion. Yes, the G12s were big, aggressive bikes for men with hairy chests and bulging biceps but the serious money was in Honda Cubs with a customer base of millions.
The bike also looked old fashioned at launch and ever more so as the Swinging ‘60s came to an end. I rode a couple of the G15s in the early 1970s and declared them to be dinosaurs and not worthy of taking valuable garage space from my lovely Bultaco Pursang race bikes.
The situation is now very different and it’s time to dispose of a few urban myths. Set up with low compression and electronic ignition the Norton Atlas motor is now as reliable as any classic engine. Better still, there is a perfect supply of high quality, brand new parts for the engine.
As for the Matchless chassis, this always did handle on or off-road and anyone who rides round the outside of you sneering about the superiority of the Norton Featherbed frame also races classics and is on a tricked out Manx Norton with modern suspension: that’s the truth.
Even ridden with a degree of joi de vivre, which doesn’t exist in the real classic world, the G15 chassis is superb.
The problem remains that the G15 is still perceived as a parts bin special and not a true thoroughbred like a Triumph Bonneville or BSA Gold Star. This is a bad news and good news story.
The bad news is that if you seek the kudos and status from sitting at top table with an acknowledged prestige bike then it’s going to be unsatisfactory. Even with Mike Patrick riding on your shoulder, you’ll never be classic motorcycling aristocracy.
This leads nicely to the good news. Because you will be riding a mongrel, the cost of owning a really nice G15 will be far less than its thoroughbred equivalent but for a motorcycle which is spectacularly good fun. Currently, except for the fact that there isn’t sufficient room to squeeze an anorexic gerbil into my garage, I would be looking to own a G15 or P11.
So there we are. The G15: rough round the edges mongrel or outstanding special? Choose your own brand of the truth.
Thanks to Laurence Rose of Classic Bikes for the loan of our test bike.