Friday, November 26, 2010


There is little more exciting than finding an old racing motorcycle literally in a barn, slathered inside and out with heavy oil, a solid gold tale of racing history attached.  More problematic is the task of documenting such provenance, for while any 80 year old bike is interesting, a claim that it placed 3rd in the Junior Isle of Man TT of 1927, Jimmy Simpson aboard, is very much more interesting indeed.

This lovely AJS H7 350cc overhead camshaft machine is certainly a rare beast whether roadster or racer, and one of very few from the category 'flat tank cammies', a super exclusive club.  Overhead-cam drive was typically adopted post-1927 by the motorcycle industry; the 'saddle tank' was the fashionable thing by that date, thus only early adopters such as Velocette (1925 - 'K' model) and AJS in 1928 with their models K7 (349cc) and K10 (498cc), but in this case, the letter referred to the year of production.  At first glance, the pannier tanks look to be the real deal, a factory racing item never sold to the public, and it bears a small plaque with '27 TT', plus the number '35'.  The early André steering and fork dampers look correct, as does the rare Binks twistgrip throttle assembly, and the Lucas horseshoe racing magneto. Curioser and curioser. (Above, Simpson making minor adjustments to his mount at the TT.)

The AJS was almost unique in using the simplest method of driving cams before the advent of rubber belts; a chain drive.  There had been plenty of chain-driven OHC motorcycles, cars and airplanes previous to this, but the recently-patented 'Weller' spring-steel blade chain tensioner (see above), used under license, meant the long travel from crankshaft sprocket to cylinder head was not accompanied by chain whip, nor the need to predict thermal expansion of the engine when setting up chain tension.  In short, it made such a drive elegant, and very easy to set up, as opposed to the Velocette/Norton/Ducati shaft-and-bevel drive, which took skills to get everything shimmed up just right, and was therefore expensive to produce.

Specification of the AJS overhead-camshaft engine was fairly advanced for the day, with a proper recirculating oil pump and aluminum rocker arms, although AJS had yet to discover that a camshaft acting directly on the rocker arms had different requirements from the whippy 'knitting needles' driving standard OHV engines.  The frame was a bit 'light' for a TT race, and the Druid sidespring forks primitive in their lack of movement...and in the case of this machine, the André friction fork damper would have simply slowed down the meager 1" of motion.  The brakes are nothing to celebrate either, for while the rear will lock the wheel, the front is good for one strong squeeze, then expect nothing further!  I speak from experience, having owned a 'Big Port' ohv from 1928... That said, while the chassis was strictly traditional, these 'flat tank' AJS' steer to a hair, even if they weave a bit at speed.

The oil coating under which this racer was found means somebody cared to protect it, even if the machine sat for decades.  The current owner first encountered the AJS 5 years ago, sitting in a cattle shed in Scotland, although the owner did not wish to sell.  Five weeks ago he was passing the same farm (370 miles from home), and stopped in to ask after the bike, on the off chance.  "The old man had recently gone into an old persons home, to which his son directed me, and that was that!  He told me the bike had stood in the barn for the last 40 years; it was full of oil - the engine, tanks, every part that could hold oil did and then some...a sort of very heavy oil all over.  He said it was Jimmy Simpson's 1927 TT bike, but could not find the paper work. Still hope of this turning up."  Yes, hope will be necessary; if the story pans out, this is quite a discovery.

Addendum:  While an interesting old motorcycle, recently brought to light is a Discovery to the new owner (and the rest of the world), of course there are persons who might have seen the machine many years ago, while it was still in action.  Such is the case here: the Discovery for someone 40 years familiar with this lovely old AJS was that the coveted old girl was in the pages of The Vintagent! 
It would seem unlikely this machine was Simpson's IoM racer, as the factory built 6 or 7 pre-production Works ohc machines for their team in 1927, and Simpson would probably have been given his racing mount to do yet more competition work, after the big race.
This Ajay has had an interesting life - the former owner, in his 80s now, owned this AJS from the age of 15!  His father forbade him to ride it, but of course, he did, and on one occasion pere arrived home and noted a warm cylinder on the AJS.  He than attacked the little bike with an axe, breaking the fins off the cylinder barrel and head.  A talented blacksmithing cousin welded the cast-iron fins back onto the engine, and of course the bike survived the insult.


mp said...

Thank f**k for that oil coating's all I can say.

Grandpa Jimbo said...

P: I love the little breather tube breathing down on the primary chain. Follows Velo theory: If there is oil anywhere, make sure it goes somewhere that might need it.

Jim A. Tucson, AZ

Anonymous said...

"the front is good for one strong squeeze, then expect nothing further"

love it, I used to think it was that I couldn't set up a front brake, reassuring to see it's a recognised condition.


occhiolungo said...

Neat bike. Did you spot the front brake lever? Its an early type, solid brass lever, not later folded steel type. But it has a ball end like the post WWII racers.

At first glance at the cam chain tensioner, I thought it was fitted to the tight side of the chain instead of the slack side. But then I noticed that the pinion gear causes the chain and the cam to turn 'backwards' compared to the crank. So the tensioner is installed correctly on the slack side of the chain.