Historic Motorcycle Brands
Matchless is one of the oldest marques of British motorcycles, manufactured in Plumstead, London, between 1899 and 1966. A wide range of models was produced under the Matchless name, ranging from small two-strokes to 750cc, four-stroke twins.
1905 Matchless 2½hp Motorcycle – SViambo
Matchless was the trading name of Collier & Sons, run by father Henry Herbert Collier and his sons Charlie and Harry. Like many motorcycle manufacturers of the time, the boys had started as bicycle manufacturers.
The first Matchless motorcycle was made in 1899 and production began in 1901.The Matchless tank badge was a winged ‘M’.
The 1905 Matchless motorcycle was powered by an engine form J A Prestwich and Company Limited (JAP). This V-twin-powered bike had one of the earliest swing-arm rear suspensions, combined with leading-link front forks.
1912 Matchless Motorcycle – Thruxton
Matchless had a long history of racing success that began when a Matchless ridden by Charlie Collier won the single-cylinder race in the first Isle of Man TT in 1907, at an average speed of 38.21mph in a time of four hours, eight minutes and eight seconds.
His brother, Harry, didn’t finish in 1907, but won in 1909 and Charlie won again in 1910. These successes brought Matchless motorcycles to the attention of the public.
Matchless produced mostly single-cylinder bikes, but they also made V-twins from 496cc to 998cc displacement. Matchless made its own engines from 1912.
At the 1912 Olympia Motor Cycle and Cycle Car show Matchless showed a V-twin powered cycle car, with two wheels at the front and a single drive wheel at the rear.
1917 Matchless Vickers 8B2-M – Morio
Matchless was not given a contract to make motorcycles for the British Army during the First World War, but did produce a machine-gun-carrying sidecar model for the Russian Army that never saw service, thanks to the 1917 October Revolution.
Peacetime production resumed in 1919, concentrating at first on V-twins for sidecar use and single-cylinder production didn’t resume until 1923.
In 1926, Henry Collier died and, by 1928, Matchless was a limited company.
1929 Matchless V-twin – NZ Museums
In 1929 came a narrow-angle, 400cc V-twin called the Silver Arrow, designed by Charlie. It had a side-valve engine that displaced 394cc. And, unusually, the two cylinders were set at 18 degrees, within a single casting and under a single head.
The result looked like a single that was too long, with the exhaust emerging from the manifold at its right corner and the carburettor in the middle of the block on the left.
Matchless Silver Hawk – Stahlkocher
In 1930, Matchless released the advanced 593cc, OHC V-four, the Silver Hawk. The Silver Hawk was designed by youngest brother Bert, who was now active in the company and he was responsible for design until the advent of Word War II.
In 1931, Matchless bought AJS from the Stevens brothers. After that the only ‘true’ AJS models, as far as AJS enthusiasts were concerned, were the racing 7Rs, ‘Porcupines’ and the AJS Four. The shared models were considered by some AJS fans to be badge-engineered Matchless models.
Matchless supplied engines for the V-twin versions of the Morgan three-wheeler from 1933 until Morgan production was halted by the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
Matchless Silver Hawk – Thruxton
From 1935 on Matchless was Morgan’s exclusive supplier of V-twin engines. (A dozen surviving unused engines were still in storage at the Morgan works in 1946 and were used to build a final batch of V-twin trikes for a Morgan dealer in Australia.)
In 1935, the Matchless/AJS hairpin valve springs made their first appearance.
Between 1935 and 1940, Matchless also supplied engines to the Brough Superior works. These engines were made to the specifications of Brough Superior and differed from engines used in Matchless motorcycles. The Brough Superior engines used ‘fork and blade’ connecting-rod configuration, camshafts ground to different specification and larger ports.
1939 Matchless G3L
Matchless bought Sunbeam in the late thirties, but sold it to BSA in 1943.
Associated Motor Cycles (AMC) was formed in 1938, as a parent company for Matchless and AJS motorcycles, with both companies producing models under their own marques.
In 1941, Matchless introduced telescopic front forks called ‘Teledraulic’ forks that were a major innovation in British motorcycle front suspensions.
Matchless WG3L 350 – Midnightbird
During World War II, Matchless manufactured 80,000 G3 and G3L models for the armed forces.
In 1947 AMC absorbed Francis-Barnett, followed by the acquisition of James in 1951.
Post-War releases were the Matchless/AJS 350cc and Matchless G80 500cc singles, developed from the Wartime Matchless G3. Competition models of the singles were produced from 1948 and gave the company some memorable wins.
In 1949, the first Matchless/AJS vertical-twin, 500cc engine was produced.
Matchless G45 – Ron Saunders
On the racing front, AMC fielded the supercharged AJS Porcupine and the AJS 7R alongside the 1951 Matchless G45 500cc vertical-twin. After supercharging was banned, Les Graham won the 1949 500cc world championship on a naturally-aspirated Porcupine.
For 1952, the Model G45 twin-cylinder production racer was introduced. Its pushrod, 500cc, OHV vertical-twin engine was based on the roadster Model G9 and was housed in a modified AJS 7R chassis. Derek Farrant won the 1952 Manx Grand Prix at 88.65mph, and AMC put the G45 into limited production.
1950 Matchless 3GL – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
In 1952, AMC further extended its empire by taking over Norton.
In 1953 came a Clubman range of Matchless/AJS 350cc and 500cc singles.
Facing fierce competition from other European brands, AMC withdrew from factory-supported road racing at the end of the 1954 season, following the death of Ike Hatch.
1951 Matchless G9 – Thruxton
In 1956 came a 600cc vertical-twin road bike and, in 1959, a 650cc vertical-twin, taking the range to eight models.
In 1958, the Matchless/AJS road bike range was enhanced by 250cc and, in 1960, by 350cc lightweight singles.
1961 Matchless G50 500cc Racer – Lars-Goran Lindgren
A Matchless G50 single-cylinder racer was made available for privateers in 1959 and competed against the Manx Norton. Although its 50bhp engine and 135mph top speed were slightly down on the Manx’s performance, the lighter Matchless had an edge on tight and twisty circuits.
During the amalgamations that occurred in the British motorcycle industry in the 1960s, the Matchless four-stroke twin was replaced with the Norton twin, ending a long history of independent production.
In 1960, AMC posted a profit of a little over Stg£200,000, in comparison with BSA’s Stg£3.5 million. That was followed by an AMC loss of Stg£350,000 in 1961.
AMC was forced to close the Norton plant at Birmingham in 1962 and merged Norton and Matchless production. The future was beginning to look rather bleak.
With sales declining, AMC took the commercial decision to focus on Norton twins and Matchless/AJS singles.
1959 Matchless G12 – Thruxton
The Matchless G15 built on the merits of the G12, but with many changes to frame, forks, swing-arm, primary chain-case, transmission, cycle parts and lubrication system.
The G15 series was offered in three brands: Matchless G15 comprising G15Mk2, G15CS and G15CSR; AJS Model 33 comprising M33Mk2, M33CS and M33CSR and the Norton N15CS. Incidentally, no Norton-branded roadster was made, because it would have competed against the Atlas.
The G15 series was produced from 1963 to 1969 and was initially for export only, but by1965 these models were available in the UK and Europe as well.
The Matchless engines were given improved bottom ends and Norton gear-driven oil pumps that replaced the old, 1920s reciprocating design.
The revised bottom end was shared by 350/500 roadsters and the 500CS (G80CS and M18CS), the engine of which was later adapted to the G85CS. The new lubrication system helped big end and piston lubrication, as well as the top end of the high-performance singles.
The 1964 G85CS 500cc engine had a 12:1 compression ratio and was further tuned for 1966, with a new piston providing a 12.5:1 ratio. An Amal GP carburettor was standard fitting, making the bike difficult to start. Maximum power rose to 41bhp at 6500 rpm.
Matchless/AJS built predictable handling, comfortable, well-made, reliable and economical motorcycles, for their day. Unfortunately such attributes were not enough to keep them in business.
1968 Matchless G15 CSR 750cc – Piero
Continuing poor sales led to Associated Motorcycles going bankrupt in 1966 and the company was taken over by Manganese Bronze Holdings, which formed Norton-Villiers. The Matchless singles ceased production.
Norton was the only motorcycle brand in the company that was making money, but not enough, as it tuned out. The Norton P11 series and the Matchless G15 series sold in reducing numbers until 1969 and then the plug was pulled on production.
Rebirth – sort of
Businessman Les Harris’ ‘Matchless G80’ single was released in 1987, powered by an Austrian Rotax four-stroke, SOHC, 500cc engine. Front and rear Paioli suspension and Brembo disc brakes were fitted and the frame doubled up as the oil tank. Although electric start and twin disc brakes were options, priced at Stg£2700 – Stg£500 more than a Yamaha motorcycle of similar specification – meant that this effort was doomed to fail by the early 1990s.
Matchless London was later bought by the Malenotti family, previously owners of heritage biker brand Belstaff. The Matchless brand was reborn in 2013 with a new line of motorbike-inspired luxury apparel, highlighted by Kate Moss.