It’s -2C and there’s a dusting of snow on untreated roads.
But 69-year-old John Thompson is unfazed, donning his leathers and firing the 1958 Matchless G3LS that’s been with him for more than 40 years into puttering life.
The rugged Matchless, which wears the patina of age you’d expect from a bike in constant use for most of its life, is as sure-footed as its experienced rider on the country roads of west Norfolk.
John, a former mechanic before swapping overalls for a police uniform, bought the 348cc, single-cylinder bike back in 1974 for just £25 as an MoT failure from the local headmaster.
And despite owning other bikes both before and since, he has never once considered selling the “special” Matchless that once carried him to and from work in all weathers and still takes to the roads at least once a week.
“It was my main means of transport for work, pleasure, everything – it’s so easy to ride and it’s got character,” he says, hunting through photo albums for old pictures of the bike.
No way would I ever sell it
“It’s special. I never reached a point where I thought about selling it, and I’ve turned people away who have wanted to buy it over the years. No way would I ever sell it.”
A grandfather of four children under 10, John remembers denying two men at Cadwell Park who wanted to buy the Matchless, or just the number plate, 141 AH.
“It was at a vintage motorcycle meeting about 10 years ago. I got off and leaned it against the fence and two men shouted at me wanting to buy the bike,” he says.
“When they realised I was not going to sell the bike, they said ‘what about the number plate? We’ll give you a good price for it’. I said that doesn’t come into it.
“They just could not understand that I would not sell the number plate without the bike. It’s part of the history of it. They got a hump on and walked away.”
John had already owned a number of bikes by the time he bought the Matchless at the age of 26, “a succession of mopeds followed by a Raleigh Roma scooter, which was a horrible, terrible thing”.
“It had cable-operated gears and the night before I was due to take my bike test they packed up,” he says.
“I’d booked a day off to take my test, but I went into work at Browne’s Garage that morning on a pushbike. They said ‘what are you doing here?’ I said the bike packed up so I can’t take my test. Ernie at work had a motorbike which I could ride legally – it might have been a Tiger Cub – and he said don’t waste the test, take my motorbike, get them to write a cover note out and take the test.
“I had ridden motorbikes on fields but never on the road. I was feeling my way with the gears, but I passed. I could not believe it.”
Fed up with the errant Raleigh, John bought his own Triumph Tiger Cub, but an accident in the snow on his 17th birthday could easily have ended his budding love affair with bikes.
“I was going up Loddon High Street to work, and Phil Harris in his work minibus came out of a side street with a gang of builders in the back,” he says.
This could be a painful experience
“It just came straight across and knocked me and the bike right across the other side of the road. I landed at the feet of people waiting for the bus. I came to and I said to somebody ‘for Christ’s sake pull the plug lead off’, as it was revving its guts out between my legs and I thought ‘this could be a painful experience’.
“I’d just overtaken an old man called Hubert Scribner, who used to smoke a pipe and drove everywhere flat out at 20mph. I got impatient.”
The Dickensian-sounding Mr Scribner came striding over to the stricken young man and his bike to add a touch of levity to the incident.
“He said ‘I knew you weren’t going to get far’. They dragged me in the paper shop and sat me down. I’ve never come so close to fainting in my life. People from the garage drove me home, I had a week off work, and was black and blue all down one leg.
“It didn’t put me off, but it put my mother off me getting motorbikes. It didn’t stop me getting another one though!”
Another Tiger Cub followed, “nowhere near as good as the first”, before John discovered the 16-year-old Matchless lurking unloved in the headmaster’s garage on June 17, 1974.
“It was his son’s motorcycle,” says John. “He was a submariner working all over the world in submarines. The bike was in the garage, it had failed its MoT and was stripped out.
“I never did meet the son – I just paid his father £25 and took it away. To get it back on the road all I did was cleaned the bearings up, sorted the brakes, put it back together, and it passed the MoT.”
At the time, John was working as a lorry fitter for the Electricity Board in Norwich, and would use the Matchless to travel daily the 15 miles to and from work from his home south of the city.
I rode through all weathers
“I didn’t bother about rain, snow or anything,” he says. “I rode through all weathers, but now although all my bikes are road legal all year round, it all depends how I feel on the day. In bad weather I go in the car.
“The roads, and life in general, was totally different then. It was much simpler and there wasn’t the volume of traffic.
“These days I just stick to the back roads and slow roads with the old bikes because people just try to run you off the road.
“If you are just a little way from the verge they just try to crowd past, and get closer and closer until you finish up in the ditch. Everything is totally different now.
“My biggest fear is diesel on the roads, particularly on roundabouts. It’s more common in the countryside, particularly in sugar beet season.”
When he bought it, the Matchless was already an ageing bike, a direct descendant of the G3L, a favourite of the forces during the second world war thanks to its revolutionary “teledraulic” front forks.
This innovative suspension, while contemporaries BSA and Norton were still employing unforgiving girder forks, made the bike perfectly suited to off-road sorties in the midst of battle.
But it wasn’t just war-time dispatch riders and scouts who loved the rugged British bike, in post-war civvy guise the G3LS remained a popular commuter workhorse, in production until 1961.
The war-time G3L was itself an evolution from the original, pre-war G3 from the mid 1930s, the L standing for “lightweight” specifically for military use, and the later S for “springer”.
Matchless had originally lost the War Office contract for lightweight bikes to Triumph, but stepped in when the latter’s Coventry factory was bombed, destroying a batch of machines ready for despatch together with blueprints and tooling for the Ministry’s preferred machine (the Triumph 3TW).
Every available Matchless was requisitioned by the military, and the G3L went on to be used by the forces into the 1960s.
By the time the LS was introduced for the road in 1949, they could hardly be called “lightweight”, the 19bhp single cylinder engine having to haul about 390lb of metal in addition to the rider, luggage and any passenger.
But sparkling performance was never the main priority for a medium capacity home market commuter bike in the 1950s.
Classic Bike magazine describes a “supreme plodder” with a “very nearly bomb-proof” engine, producing “bags of low speed torque”, and which “feels completely effortless with minimal vibration (at) about 40-45mph in top”.
The engines changed little, based on simple, robust, pre-war mechanics, but for 1958 the LS received stronger stanchions on the front forks previously fitted to competition bikes, and the twin seat only previously available as an option was fitted as standard.
John remembers that original seat suffering more than its fair share of wear and tear, so he welded the rotten metal and sent the upholstery off for repair.
“The metal had all rotted through, so I took the seat off, welded new bits of metal in and sent the upholstery to a specialist who worked at Lotus and was the brother-in-law of someone I worked with at the electricity board,” he says.
“It took weeks and weeks, so I was riding back and forwards to Norwich to work with this cushion tied on the frame with a bit of string. It was just a soft cushion off a settee but it was quite comfortable – there was a different outlook with life then!
“I never did see any police, which was just as well.”
Pretty soon, John would get “hacked off messing about under lorries” and join the police himself in 1975, moving to a police house in west Norfolk in 1978.
The Matchless was still in regular use, but eventually it was time for a full strip-down and rebuild – in the upstairs spare bedroom.
By now, John had met and married wife Marilyn in the space of seven months in 1978, and the couple were expecting their first child, son Neil.
“I thought I’d just titivate it up and clean it up,” says John. “I ended up stripping the engine, fitting new piston rings and new main bearings. It’s still got the same piston and big end as when I bought it.
It was a rush job to finish it
“The bike had to come out in a hurry because, in February 1980, Neil was born and that was his bedroom. It was a rush job to finish it.
“I thought ‘how am I going to get it down the stairs?’ I’d got it in the bedroom in it bits, and never thought about getting it down! I had a mate called Jim, a massive bloke. He came up and we struggled but we got it downstairs and outside in the shed before our son came home to occupy the bedroom.”
Part of the bike’s reconstruction included a second hand exhaust bought from an autojumble at Founders Day at Stanford Hall for “30 bob”, that’s still going strong.
“There were two blokes with a pick up truck,” remembers John. “They opened the truck and all these exhausts went on the floor. I was ferreting through and there was this exhaust I’ve got on there now.
“The metalwork was OK, but the chrome was knackered. I got an aerosol and gave it a coat of aluminium paint. Every two years I take it off and give it a fresh coat, and it’s still going.”
The hardy Matchless carried on churning out the miles, while John also invested in other, more modern and powerful, machines for longer journeys, including an ex police BMW 750cc twin eventually replaced by a brand new BMW 650 CS when he retired from the police in 2003.
“Lind in Norwich was selling up and getting rid of all their stock, so I got a fantastic deal,” says John. “It worked out brilliantly, because the gearbox on the old police bike was knackered. Marilyn said ‘why don’t you have something new? You’ve never had anything new’.”
The BMW still resides in the garage alongside both the Matchless and a 1957 Douglas Dragonfly 350cc twin, bought six years ago as an unfinished project.
It’s been expensive, but the wife doesn’t know!
“It turned out to be a disaster!” says John. “The paintwork was all done, but the engine, gearbox, everything had to come out of it. It’s been expensive, but the wife doesn’t know!”
Of the three, the Matchless remains John’s favourite, bound up with memories of his youth and part of his life for even longer than Marilyn and his two children.
“It’s been so reliable over the years,” he says. “Touch wood, it’s only failed to get me home three times since I’ve had it.
“Once, a valve burned out, another time a wire came off inside the headlight and the other time a pushrod jumped out of the rocker. The first time, I pushed it round a mate’s who had a van, another bloke came to my rescue with a van and when the rocker jumped out I was in a recovery scheme. Three times in 43 years isn’t bad.”
As well as his weekly ride on the old bike, John spends time with all his bikes in the garage, when he’s not looking after grandchildren, doing voluntary work for the disabled or “annoying the wife”.
“It gives me pleasure,” he says. “I just think it gives you freedom, and something to play with. Fettling is the word! I’m always messing about in the shed.”
All of which is fine with Marilyn: “It’s his hobby and he enjoys it. That’s his time – he can go off and do what he wants. If he’s happy with his bikes, I’m happy. It works out well.
“People say ‘do you go on the back with him?’ No! I’ve been on the back of the BMW, but didn’t make a habit of it – it messes your hair up!”
Son Neil, now 37 and a technician at a Mercedes dealership, was forbidden from riding a bike when he reached 16, much to his annoyance, but he has ridden pillion on the Matchless and will one day inherit the bike.
When I kick the bucket the boy’s having it
“I’ll never sell it,” says John. “It’s in the will. When I kick the bucket the boy’s having it. He won’t know how to start it unless it’s got a button start though!”
“Fortunately Neil never went for motorcycles – we talked him out of that,” adds Marilyn.
“He was really hacked off with all his mates going to parties on motorbikes,” says John. “We said if you hang on until old enough for a car we will buy you a car.
“He’s been on the back of the Matchless. We went to Cadwell Park vintage day, but he got pins and needles in his bum before we’d got 10 miles. He was shouting ‘dad, dad, can you stop?’ – we still had 65 miles to go!”
One day in the future, Neil will finally get his teenage wish and take to the road on two wheels, keeping the trusty Matchless in the family in the process.
“He’s a big boy now – you can’t do anything now,” says Marilyn.
Leave a comment