“Are Chinese motorcycles any good” is a phrase so often Googled the search engine suggests it after typing just the first two words.
It’s a subject that’s bound to provoke strong views on both sides of the argument, some more informed than others, and we recently took a look at some of the best 125cc bikes coming out of China.
But what’s out there for the British biker looking for an affordable new bike with a little more history and heritage?
AJS Motorcycles is a famous British brand with more than a century of racing and manufacturing history behind it, today dealing exclusively in imported Chinese bikes.
But that doesn’t mean a series of identikit cheap bikes: the Cadwell, their new 125cc bike, harks back to the glory days of the British cafe racers of the 1950s and 60s, bringing affordable new bikes with classic styling within easier reach of bikers on a budget.
Nick Brown, the man behind the modern-day AJS, says Chinese bikes do not deserve their patchy reputation: “The design and quality has improved dramatically over the years and they’re a good inexpensive option for a lot of riders.”
Founded in 1909, A J Stevens & Co, as it was originally known, built its name on the back of bikes designed to compete in the Isle of Man TT, winning multiple trophies and once holding a staggering 117 world records.
The company even built equipment for Entente troops during World War One but, by the late 1930s, financial trouble eventually saw the business sold to Matchless, another big name in the TT circuit.
Both marques later became part of Associated Motorcycles, but throughout it all AJS held on to its racing pedigree and was still producing race-winning bikes when it was sold to Norton Villiers in 1967.
Several new bikes bore the AJS badge under Villiers in the decade that followed, including the Stormer, a motocross bike designed in part by keen scrambler and AJS competition manager Fluff Brown, Nick’s father.
Fluff later bought the business from an ailing Norton Villiers, and set up shop dealing in spares for the Stormer and selling trail and motocross bikes.
For the past 20 years, under Nick’s stewardship, the famous AJS brand has traded in imported Chinese motorbike and scooters.
We’ve found Chinese bikes to be incredibly popular here in the UK
“I first started looking into the Chinese market after getting my hands on some Easy Rider monkey bikes,” Nick told us. “Demand for those in the early 2000s was surprisingly high, and we soon moved into bikes aimed at children and stocking the spares for them too.
“After speaking to some other people in the industry, we moved fully into stocking Chinese imported bikes, under a Chinese brand at first but eventually they were all AJS badged. We’ve found Chinese bikes to be incredibly popular here in the UK.”
While ‘top beginner bike’ guides throughout the internet are dominated by low-end Japanese bikes like the Yamaha YBR and Honda CBF, both cheap 125cc options, the market for Chinese imports has grown rapidly in the last decade.
But despite their increasing popularity, many people still doubt the quality of Chinese bikes compared to Japanese or European alternatives.
“Chinese bikes definitely got a bad reputation when they first hit the UK market, but I don’t think it was one that they deserved,” Nick explained. “The problem was that people were importing cheap bikes to make a quick profit, but not backing that up with the spare parts and service that the bikes needed. So when something went wrong, you couldn’t get your bike repaired – and people took to thinking the bikes themselves were bad.
“If there’s a good supply of spares, like we offer at AJS, then there’s no reason for a Chinese bike to be any different to a Japanese one – after all, even the YBR is manufactured in Chongqing, China.
“I’ve found that the manufacturers themselves in China have become a lot more conscious of what people expect over here in Europe too, and they’ve been working hard to improve the quality of their bikes. We’ve recently been working with a factory that supplies us to make sure all of our bikes comply with ‘Euro 4’ legislation on bike efficiency and emissions – it’s a lot of work for them, and a big commitment to changing how they work, but I think it shows that they understand the UK market now.”
The Cadwell brings the British history of AJS to the affordable Chinese range.
“We’ve obviously got a fantastic history as a business, and I think the Cadwell goes some way to helping new riders or people on a budget to access a bit of that British heritage,” Nick said. “It’s similar in style to a lot of the bikes that we produced ourselves around the 1950s, and I think it’s proof that buying Chinese doesn’t have to mean sacrificing looks and reliability.
“People have responded well to the combination of its looks and affordability, and it definitely stands out against the crowd. It’s been so popular that we’ve struggled to keep up with demand, so there’s obviously a market out there for these vintage-look bikes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more like this from China in the coming years.”
Later this year the AJS and Matchless Owners Club will be raffling off a new AJS Cadwell bike, with insurance up to £250 provided free by Bikesure. Locations of places to buy tickets will be announced in the coming months, so check back here for more details soon.
Have you ever owned an AJS bike, old or new, or are you considering picking up a Chinese import soon?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or comment on our Facebook page.
You can read more about the history of AJS and see their full range of bikes at www.ajsmotorcycles.co.uk
To find out more about getting insurance for a 125cc motorbike, visit our 125cc insurance page