Tuesday, 10 November 2009

30. Optional read: Two wheel interlude

The 500cc Matchless G80CS was a competition motorcycle aimed squarely at the US market where the model was arguably the one to beat in off-road events such as hare ‘n hounds, scrambles, desert races and enduros in the fifties and early sixties. It could never be described as a lightweight, as it was always rumoured that Matchless kept adding 3lbs of metal to the frame where it had broken in competition until it stopped breaking. The result was the almost bullet-proof, highly reliable, late model G80CS which, in its final incarnation, weighed in at some 380lbs.

This was the image (below) that sustained me during the long search for my bike and then again during its subsequent restoration. It belongs to Dave Campbell up in Alaska and is the perfect example of the model. 

After searching in vain for 8 years in the UK for an affordable G80CS, I finally stumbled upon one advertised as a basket case in Walneck’s Classic Cycle Trader magazine while on a lengthy business trip to Seattle in 1998. Belonging to magazine proprietor Buzz Walneck himself, Buzz had bought it from the estate of the first and only owner. It had been dismantled many years before and had apparently been dry stored in the first owner’s basement ever since. I called Buzz in Illinois (1500 miles to the east) and asked him how complete the bike was. He told me that it was 98% all there. I then asked him if the engine would turn over and if there was compression? The answer was yes to both of these questions. Finally, I asked if gears could be selected – again, yes.

A couple of days later a set of photos arrived from Buzz that showed the dismantled G80CS in all its glory - underneath a thick crust of thirty year old mid-Western topsoil - and they are the ones in the first 55 seconds of the following slideshow:

After taking a long deep breath I decided to buy it (while the bike might have been 98% all there - was I?). When I finally got to inspect the various parts after its arrival in the UK, it looked like the first owner had in fact raced it because all the quickly detachable (Q/D) parts - headlight, silencer, rear light, chainguard, speedo - were like new. The speedo showed only 603 miles on it when I bought it.

The bike is one of the very last of the illustrious line of Matchless competition singles to be made – it was manufactured in April ’67 before full-time production ceased a month later. Tall, slim, & functional, it was lent an additional massive presence by that beautiful all-alloy short stroke engine. It oozed charisma (but not oil!)(well, not much..) and had character in spades.

With the original Amal 389 carb fitted, starting was always something of a lottery despite following the approved procedure. Starting from cold, I used to tickle the carb until petrol showed. I would then pull the exhaust valve lifter and turn the engine over a few times to fill the cylinder with mixture. Retarding the ignition a tad, I would then administer the traditional “long swinging kick”. It would usually start within 5 kicks - provided there wasn’t an audience! Anything after this caused my leg to grow weary due to the 8.7 piston so I would revert to a “run & bump” on a nearby hill. I fitted a new carb body and a chrome slide from Hitchcocks which did improve things a little but even then I was never able to achieve predictable starting and a satisfactory tickover.

Out of the blue, a colleague at work offered me a new Dell’Orto PHM40 carb at a price I could not resist. I wanted to fit the Dell’Orto in such a way that originality would not be compromised. I asked a friend if he could make up a new manifold that would allow the original Amal to be re-fitted if necessary. A skilled precision engineer, he did a superb job of machining a new manifold from solid alloy billet.

With the Dell’Orto now fitted, starting at last became reliable. The routine was then: petrol on, retard ignition a tad, open air lever a little if cold, give the twist grip a couple of turns to squirt some neat petrol into the cylinder, followed by 2-3 long slow strokes of the kick starter with the exhaust valve lifter lifted. Following the first serious kick, it usually boomed into life and settled down quickly to a slow even tickover.

The clutch action was light (to me) and gear selection was foolproof. Finding neutral was simply done. The engine smoothed out once the heavy flywheels were spinning and the faster the bike was ridden, the smoother it got. It sat comfortably at 60-65mph with snarling power instantly available beyond that. I had it up to 80mph for the odd brief period but wind pressure made life uncomfortable at that speed. Cruising at 60mph was far more preferable and sustainable. The exhaust note was a constant source of pleasure to me but some bystanders might have felt that its healthy crackle to be excessive by today’s standards. A plodding Matchless single it wasn't! The riding position suited me – the seat height was 33” and I didn't feel cramped at all. As far as roadholding was concerned, potholes or white lines didn't disturb its line through bends and it never shook its head. I think that, in common with most other bikes of the same era, its braking ability was the only aspect of the bike that showed its age in the cut and thrust of modern traffic.

Best bike I ever had.

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