Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Rod Coleman aboard the AJS E95 'Porcupine' in 1954
While Grand Prix circuit motorcycle racing is almost as old as the 20th Century, the World Championship racing series was only introduced in 1949.  From 1924-37, a single race on the Continent determined the 'European Champion', and a points-based racing series was introduced in 1938, a more accurate measure of success over time, although it was still a European Championship.  The first years of the World Championship, in 1949 and 1950, saw several manufacturers win the top prize in their respective capacities, before disappearing forever from the rosters of GP history.  The 1949 World Champions included AJS (500cc - Les Graham), Velocette (350cc - Fred Frith), Moto Guzzi (250cc - Bruno Ruffo), Mondial (125cc - Nello Pagani), and Eric Oliver/Denis Jenkinson (sidecar - Norton).
The E95 with pannier tank removed, the 'wet' sump clearly visible beneath the engine
The following year, AJS was absent from the World Championship list, never to return.  Velocette managed again to claim top spot (Bob Foster aboard) one more time, but that was the end of their dominance in the 350cc class, taken over by Featherbed Norton of young wonderstar Geoff Duke the next two years.  After that, a British motorcycle would never again howl under a World Champion.
The compact lines of the E95 are clear, even if the tank is huge!
The AJS which emerged victorious in that first Championship year was an unusual machine, and the only twin-cylinder racer ever to win the big prize.  The AJS 500cc 'E90' was drawn up during WW2, as a replacement for the very naughty supercharged AJS V4 racer, a tremendously powerful machine with a chassis too light for the weight and torque of the engine.  While extremely fast, its camelish handling meant lighter, better balanced racers eventually won more races.  AJS designer Vic Webb drew up a new twin-cylinder racer, the engine nearly horizontal, with double overhead camshafts driven by a train of gears.  Weight was reduced by extensive use of magnesium castings. Space above the gearbox meant a supercharger was possible, but Webb hedged his bets and made it possible to run the E90 with unaided breathing.  The complicated cylinder heads were reputedly cast in solid silver at first, for its superior heat dissipation qualities, but no one has ever seen such heads, and the story may be apocryphal, or somehow related to the foundry which cast the E90 heads, in Sheffield (known for its silversmiths).
A compelling work of mechanical poetry; the clutch alone is a mesmerizing sculpture.
The press dubbed E90 the 'Porcupine' for its distinctively spiky cylinder head finning, and while the bike was very fast and handled well, carburation was always an issue, as was a propensity for snapping the magneto driveshaft.  Still, a win at the Hutchinson 100 in 1948, plus several GP podium positions, meant AJS were on the right track.  Development continued, and enough issues were sorted by 1949 for Leslie Graham to win two GPs and secure that inaugural World title.

AJS redesigned the machine in 1952 and dubbed it the E95, which had cylinders more upright (and less spiky), and a chain drive to the magneto.  By 1954, a huge pannier fuel tank lowered the center of gravity, but required a fuel pump keep the carbs fed... and the mechanics to stand the bike on its rear wheel before a race, to prime a header tank for the fuel pump!  Jack Williams took over the race team and development of the E95, working out most of the bugs, resulting in a smooth and reliable engine which produced 58hp @ 7800rpm.  One last win at the Swedish GP, plus 2nd at the Ulster GP, were the swansong of the E95, as AMC founder / racing legend Charlie Collier died that year, and direct involvement in Grand Prix racing was wound up for good, although AMC continued to provide their legendary single-cylinder AJS 7R and Matchless G50 racers until 1962, for privateers.

A single AJS E90 survives, as do all four of the E95s built.  They're fascinating and beautiful machines, the technical equal of any racing motorcycle ever made.  The ex-National Motorcycle Museum E95, restored by Rob Ianucci's Team Obsolete,  will be sold by Bonhams at the Quail Motorsports auction on August 18/19, 2011.  If you happen to be in northern California the week of Pebble Beach/Quail/Monterey Historic races, definitely stop by the Bonhams tent for a rare view of this exceptional motorcycle.  (The Bonhams sale page can be viewed here)


Anonymous said...

If this bike even comes close to its estimate, which it should, it will be a new world record for a motorcycle sold at auction. Kind of exciting. -JZ

Pipérade said...

If you're fascinated by motorcycle road racing in the immediate post-war era, then try and find a copy of Denis Jenkinson's "Motor Cycle Road Racing: The 1950's in Photographs". This is a goldmine of a book and one to dip in and out of for years. I was privileged to be introduced to him once at a motorcyclists pub night near Alton (Hants) around 1990 (I was running a Silk 700S at the time). He was famously Stirling Moss's co-driver during their epic Mille Miglia win for M-B in 1955.
I must admit to being intrigued that you rate the E90/E95 so highly. I've always thought of them as promising bikes but with something of a "what if" tag about them.. What if those engines had been well & truly sorted.. What if they'd been mounted in a decent frame?
This blog is fast becoming a reference source - there's enough material here for you soon to have your own shelf in a public library!
Another great post..

Anonymous said...

Hallo Paul.
Many thanks for the wonderful pictures of the E-95 and a well written story.
Feels good to see an article as this, as an exchange to all the less interesting reports from the gatherings of the "pretty people" and all new buildt faked so called "original old bikes".
Hope you will excuse me for enlightning you about the championship races before the 2:nd great war.
European champions (not World Champions) were decided at a one race basis, the so called European Grand Prix, during the years 1924 to 1937, run in different countries.
In 1938 and -39 the European championship were decided from the aggregate results from several races.
After the war the European Championship was again decided at a one race basis in the years 1947 and 1948.
From 1949 onwards it was, as you say World Championship decided from the results of several races.
Once again, many thanks for your (mostly) very interesting blog.
Yours etc.
Bo E.

The Vintagent said...

Thanks for the clarification Bo!

Anonymous said...


Without getting into the particulars of the E90/95 race history, or the Team Obsolete rebuild (both well chronicled elsewhere), let me just observe that the historic record of British manufacturers on the race tracks of this world is a subject never to be forgotten nor under-valued. Thanks for keeping the flame alive. Even if the Porcupine goes for a 1/4 million plus, or considerably more, the money-wielders are only temporary custodians, and in fact less than that. The voracious power of (unchecked) capitalism can take almost everything away from you, but the best of the Brit bikes are forever. History lives in minds, not in portfolio printouts.


The Vintagent said...

Jim, as JZ mentioned, the Porcupine is expected to fetch a new world record price at auction. One interested party was very concerned that the machine is in running condition, as he was keen to parade it, which would be the best outcome for everyone.
It would still take another 'zero' to buy a race car with such provenance...its a relative bargain!

Ian Huard said...

This is the first time I have seen the bike without the tank and it certainly looks much slimmer and lighter without it. A wonderful bike that could have been a winner with a bit more support from the factory.

daveinnola said...


Anonymous said...

...what happened at the auction...did it sell...for how much?