The AJS With Reverse

Road Tales by Kelly Ashton

‘DOING UP’ AN old, piece of crap motorbike and using it as your only transport may not be the smartest thing to do, but when I was a young fella with more enthusiasm than sense, that’s what I’d do because, well, it was what you did.

See, I had to own a motorbike, but not for me was the standard method of selling your soul to the finance companies and buying a Honda Four or Kwakka Nine on hire purchase. Two reasons: 1, I didn’t like the concept of finance and 2, I didn’t like the concept of Jap bikes.

So I stuck with my old 500 cc AJS single, a fine 1950 model. When it broke down, I’d fix it back up again; and when it got too tatty, I rip it off the road for a few weeks and get everything painted and chromed again. No probs, Bob.

It was in 1976 and I’d only just given it a freshen up — new black paint on the tank and frame with a new silver pin-lining job (my first and last attempt at that malarkey), new alloy mudguards, rebuilt wheels with re-chromed rims (complete with chromed spokes, and didn’t they look sexy on the move under street lighting). 

The crowning glory was a big, beautiful chromed ‘Brooklands Can’ fishtail muffler. That muffler, while a few decades out of place on a ’50s bike, always looked fantastic on a 1930s Norton or some other racy vintage bike, so I had to have it. I used to love fangin’ down a long, steep hill, snapping the throttle shut before looking over my right shoulder to watch the flat sheet of purple/blue flame shooting out with every over-run backfire.

Anyway, I thought it looked cool and a wrong-era muffler was the least of my worries in the few weeks this rebuild had been on the road as I’d broken the layshaft in the Burman four-speed gearbox. It happened as I tried chugging the bike up Goondari Road in top gear. It was merely an experiment, and when the bike crested the top of the steepest hill in Allambie Heights with no dramas, I was well pleased — although my head-wobbling self-congratulation was short-lived when I searched unsuccessfully for third gear, then second then first. There was nothing. Four neutrals and a top gear was all I had.

Funnily enough, the legendary torque of the Ajay’s 500 cc motor enabled me to ride from the Northern Beaches to work in the city every day for a week — in top gear only. I’d already obtained the new layshaft and gaskets, but had ascertained it was a Saturday arvo job, so the bike was pushed into service and the clutch was given a mighty hammering. 

Although this was 1976, there was no need to leave the suburb to procure the spare layshaft; there were a heap of old blokes with shitloads of spares in their sheds, plus the knowledge to correctly diagnose the problem. Of course, the obsolete bike was only 26 years old then, and it’s a different story now; there are not the oodles of AJS/Matchless parts just laying around for the grabbing today. The bike is now 70 years old so if anyone’s out there has a five-spring clutch centre that’s useable, contact me through the magazine.

I got into real trouble on the Thursday night, though. Still with top gear only, I’d been to the pub, then up to my mate Skraps’ place in Beacon Hill to kick on. Of course, it involved some clever shortcuts and inspired riding to make it from just above sea level to just shy of the highest place in Sydney, but the mighty Ajay made it, and Skraps and I could kick on with takeaway beers.

Finally it was time to go home. I had a choice: my place was due south as the crow flies so do I go up and over Beacon Hill and down Allambie Road to my house, or down Beacon Hill Road and up Allambie Road. It was much of a muchness in distance, the only consideration was the hammering the clutch would get at the very start of the up-and-over route, or easy-then-tough for the down-then-up method.

Down won that night and damned near cost me my licence.

To avoid the tiresome right turn arrow, my cunning plan was to head towards Manly, turn right at the easy intersection of Kentwell and Pittwater, then trundle along Kentwell Road between the golf course and time the lights to perfection. And that’s what I did, opening the throttle at the precise moment I saw those orange lights for the crossroad. Bang on green, the mighty Ajay flashed through the intersection, bucking wildly over the bumps and dips before being thrown down hard left to viciously attack the first and nastiest bend. We made it, and made it in such fine style that the Ajay hardly chugged, more roared onto the next challenge, picking up precious revs all the way. 

The sweeping, uphill right-hand was a peg-scraping bonanza, leaving a glorious trail of spark in our wake. A little uphill left, then a more serious right and the motor was humming and happy within its designated rev range. 

But there’s always some knucklehead to spoil your fun, and in this case, the knucklehead count was three. Three dickheads in slow-moving cars were idling samba-like towards the last real impediment to my trouble-free run up the twisted spine of Allambie Heights — a huge, off-camber left hander which is the key to a successful assault on the south face of Allambie Mountain. It’s the same wild corner a mate, Crusty, got into all sorts of trouble some time before involving a black motor Kwakka Nine, death wobbles and an oncoming cement truck.

The convoy of slow-moving cars caused the Ajay and me to seriously break the law as we swooped over the double yellow lines and into the unknown without backing off. We were well and truly out in No Man’s Land when a car coming the other way started flashing headlights and tooting horns. I was just in the process of saying, “Boo Hoo — deal with it, arsehole — I’m ridin’ here,” when a third warning device was activated — a bloody police siren! Of all the double lines to be on the wrong side of, and of all the vehicles to meet up with, a Highway Patrol car is the last you want. 

I continued on my frightfully dangerous and highly questionable overtaking manoeuvre and briefly pondered my current situation. Another man might’ve pulled over and copped his lumps from a frothing copper. Still another might’ve ducked into a side street and hidden until the heat died down and worried about a top-gear start up a steep hill later. We had the revs, the speed and the local knowledge to travel the next few kilometres uphill to the safety of home, so we went just went for it. 

Allambie Road was our domain, and I knew it would take some time for the XC Ford Coupe Highway Patrol car to turn around. Plus, he still had the three dickheads to pass before he got clear air and all four barrels open. 

We were still two blocks from home when Ajay’s engine coughed and spluttered and ran dry of fuel. I fumbled for the reserve fuel tap, then remembered doing the same thing earlier that day. We coasted to a halt a mere 50 yards from home. We were out of juice, we were rooted and we had company.

By the time the big white coupe roared into view with sirens blaring, I was propped on the Ajay’s seat and pulling my soon-to-be-suspended licence from my wallet. Things quietened down for a minute as the cops parked carefully behind us, stepped from the car and placed their Gestapo caps on their bonces.

They sort of just stared at me as I proffered my licence.

“What were you thinking, mate?” one of them finally said.

“Nice old bike, matey,” the other one added. “Why do you ride it like an idiot?”

I proceeded to launch into the greatest sob story I’d ever told. “Aww, I’m having so much trouble with the old bitch of thing,” I whined. “I just spent mega dollars and time doing it up, and now the gearbox is broken. I’ve only got top gear and that’s why I had to overtake on the double lines, otherwise I wouldn’t made it up the hill and wasn’t going to leave it parked for someone to steal because I love this bike just so much but sometimes it just breaks my heart when it treats me like this…”

If I had’ve been wearing sunglasses, I would’ve dropped them down a little, then peered over the top and raised my eyebrows like John Belushi did in the ‘Blues Brothers’ movie, just to see if sob story was working. It needed more. “I just needed to get the bike to my place so I could pull it apart and start again. But then, I started to run out of petrol, so switched it to reverse tank, but reverse tank was empty. That’s why I pulled up short.”

“You switched it onto the reverse tank?” the copper quizzed.

“Yeah,” I replied nervously. “Switched him onto reverse and nothin’ happened…”

“You mean the reserve tank,” he added authoritatively.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant — the reserve tank…”

“You had anything to drink tonight, sir?” he asked in a much more official tone.

“Umm, yeah, but not much, really,” was my hopeful reply. 

When they stop calling you ‘matey’ and replace it with ‘sir’, you can start allowing for bus fares eating into the money you save from a zero petrol bill.

“It certainly is a nice bike,” the AJS single fan commented. “It would be a shame to smash it up riding drunk or speeding or overtaking on blind corners over double lines and smashing into the front of a cop car,” he added, alluding to some recent events. “I reckon you’ve been dealt a bad hand with a broken gearbox, especially after making such an old bike look so shiny, so I’m saying your front tyre is a bit bald and I’m going to book you for that.”

“But that’s a brand new Avon Roadrunner — cost me nearly a hundred bucks less than three weeks ago,” I protested.

“Jesus, you’re thick, mate,” the copper said in exasperation. “I said I was going to book you for a bald tyre, not pissed riding, not speeding, not ‘ride in a manner dangerous’, and not ‘drive on incorrect side of unbroken centre lines. You’re not getting off scot-free.”

A little 40-watt globe flickered furtively above my head. I was getting an idea of what was being offered to me. 

 “Aww, shit yeah!” I exclaimed. Look at that sucker — bald as a badger; thanks for pointing that out to me, Constable.”

With the lightweight bald tyre infringement notice in my top pocket — right next to the licence I still owned — there was a definite spring in my step as I pushed the expired Ajay the final 50 yards up Allambie Road to the safety of home. 

The gearbox was fixed by Saturday. It’s still going strong, but presently, I’m putting together a spare gearbox and clutch, so remember, if anyone out there has a spare five-spring clutch centre for an early1950s AJS or Matchless 500 Single, contact me through Ozbike magazine.

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