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500cc AJS ISDT 1955

Following their win the previous year in Wales Gottwaldov in Czechoslovakia was chosen as the venue for the 1955 International Six Days Trial. The event – praised in period magazines for its superb organisation – was also memorable for some atrocious riding conditions resulting in numerous retirements. The combination of vicious blinding rain and mud –plus some tight time schedules – were extremely difficult to combat and by the start of day six only 119 of the original 243 starters were still going.

Of the 36 Brit’s who had started many had fallen by the wayside including works AJS rider Gordon Jackson. Jackson’s one day trials skill were ideally suited to the harsh conditions but he failed to start the last day when he discovered a broken front fork spindle clamp on his factory AJS. A frustrating end for Gordon who was hoping to add to the silver he’d won the previous year in Wales: on that occasion gold snatched away when he lost time repairing a leaking petrol tank and finished a minute outside his schedule.

For the 30th running of the ‘motorcycling Olympics’ Gordon – on the AMC twin RLH 351 – was teamed up with Bob Manns and Ted Usher in the manufacturer’s team and also with Jeff Smith and Johnny Giles in the British Vase A squad. Manns (trophy) and Giles won Gold but both Usher and Smith – with a drowned magneto - were among the 28 British riders who failed to make it to the finish.

In his post event review in the Green ‘Un Bernal Osborne wrote that the event itself ‘ran like clockwork’ and heaped praise on the Czech organisers comparing it to ‘an army being mobilized for war’. He also lamented about the dismal showing of the British riders and while he sympathised with genuine bad luck stories like Jackson’s he did question how much was down to misfortune and how much was down to faulty factory machine preparation. In fact one hapless British teamster only survived for the first two hours before he lost two engine mounting bolts, a simple case of somebody at the works forgetting to tighten them. By comparison the West German manufacturers teams of DKW, Maico, NSU ‘one’ and NSU ‘two’ all finished on Gold and their victorious trophy team didn’t lose a single mark.


The ’55 event would go down as Gordon Jackson’s second and last ISDT and from there on he would concentrate his energies on one day trials and scrambles. For the works twin it would be its one and only six days trial and on its return to the comp shop it was repaired and shortly after sold to a farmer in Sussex.

That could well be the end of the story but over fifty years later Gordon –thanks to present owner John Bassett - was reunited with his former works machine. Aptly is was at the Cedars in Barnstaple for ‘Down memory lane’ where after a splendid lunch I was lucky enough to talk to both John and a surprised Gordon about both the bike and the ’55 ISDT.

John is the current president of the Cornish ACU and a man who as I discovered has been around motorcycling most of his life. “In the late forties and early fifties I attended a lot of grass tracks with my parents and every Easter we used to go to watch competitors attempt Blue Hills Mine in the Lands End Trial. I acquired my first bike – a BSA Bantam – in 1951 and almost immediately joined the Camborne – Redruth motor club although it was another couple of years before I rode in my first trial. This was on a ‘suitable modified’ 197cc Francis Barnett road bike which I’d previously used to tour the Peak District, a trip which also included a visit to the Barnett factory and the Belle Vue speedway. The Barnett wasn’t a particularly competitive mount - although I personally blame the rider – and later in 1954 I exchanged it for an ex ISDT Triumph Trophy which I rode in MCC long distance events”.

In addition to competing in long distance classic trials John had become very actively involved with both the organisational side of the centres activities and also with motorcycle journalism. The latter a task which began as the editor of the Camborne club newsletter and later - with Colin Dommett – expanded to a position as MCN’s ‘roving reporter’ for Cornwall.

The Triumph Trophy – formerly ridden by privateer Alan Simons in the 1954 Welsh ISDT - was used as both a long distance trials and touring bike up until 1956 when a small ad’ in the Green ‘Un caught John’s eye.

“I’d been to the TT on the Triumph where I saw – and drooled over - what was undoubtedly an ex works ISDT AMC twin. I fell in love with it and some time later I saw an advert for a similar ex Jackson bike and knew I had to have it. I telephoned the owner – a farmer named John Buckland - who confirmed what it was and we agreed over the phone that subject to each liking what he saw he would take my bike plus some cash in part exchange. The biggest stumbling block to our deal was that he was in Sussex and I was in Truro”. Cornwall to Sussex was, and still is a long way but many hours after departing from home John arrived in Sussex and the deal was done. “On the return trip I was exhausted by the time I reached Exeter and decided to stay the night in a B&B. I arrived home the next morning, changed and rushed out to where my father – an agricultural contractor – was working to be met with ‘I thought that you were going to be home last night’. I was feeling dead chuffed with my new bike but the only reaction I got was ‘must be mad boy, it’s not as nice as your Triumph”.

It may not have returned from Czechoslovakia with gold but John loved it and for the next three years it filled a variety of roles from daily work horse to MCC trials iron. After competing in an ‘Exeter’ Johns friend Bob Jones sampled it and proclaimed it ‘the best bike he had ever ridden’.


However for all its attributes the AJS was no one day trials machine and in ’59 John was looking for a ‘proper’ trials bike so did a deal with John Miller. This saw the Ajay exchanged for a 197cc Dot and an ex GPO Morris van: one which John Bassett “almost immediately regretted”.

In fact he regretted it so much that five or six years later he went in search of his old bike but drew a blank on its whereabouts. That was until his pal Colin Dommett – then working for W H Collins in Truro - located it in a shed on a farm at Duloe near Liskeard: although as John told me it was in a sorry state.

“Thanks to Colin’s detective work we located the bike but after being through several hands it looked an absolute wreck and the owner knew nothing of its former history. The original tank was missing, the mudguards damaged and the stays were bent but we agreed a price and it was a very happy day to be reunited with the old girl. I’d just started my own landscaping business and allied to bringing up a young family I suppose it took about 2 – 3 years before I restored it to its former glory. I had a lot of help from various friends including David May who did the paintwork and I managed to source the various missing bits and pieces – including the petrol tank - through Russell’s in London. The whole exhaust was rusty so I later had a replica two into one system made up by Armours out of stainless steel”.

In the hands of their star riders like Jackson, Viney and Usher the AJS singles were the leading one day trials machines of their day but the ISDT bikes were based around AMC’s 500cc Model 20: a road bike which when suitably modified had already shown its credentials in several ISDT’s. In 1954 two works bikes - an AJS and Matchless - were ridden to gold by Trophy team members Hugh Viney and Bob Manns but as Gordon told me the following year the British team captain Viney had been sidelined by injury.

“We were on our way to Llandrindod Wells for the selection tests – riding our bikes of course – when near Earls Court a car emerged from a junction and Hugh was knocked off resulting in a badly broke his leg: one which took him a long time to recover from. It ruled him out of the ‘55 ISDT so Bob Ray was promoted to the Trophy squad and I – as first reserve – took Bob’s place in the Vase A team. The bikes themselves were just standard road bikes taken from the production line and prepared in the comp shop for the six days. During much of my time with AJS Hugh was the comp shop manager, Wally Wyatt did the engines and the rest of the crew comprised of Charlie Plummer, Fred Billot, John McClaren and Bob Manns although Bob worked mainly on his own bikes. Typical preparation for the six days would involve stripping and rebuilding the engines, changing or modifying the rear swinging arm - to accommodate a 4” trials tire - and the fitment of QD wheels. Other modifications would include a two into one exhaust system, replacing the heavy pressed out guards with lightweight alloy ones, securing Bowden wire to wheel spacers, the duplication of control cables, an air bottle, a tank top bag for tools and spares and a ‘nail catcher’ on the front wheel. I’ve also got a feeling that they changed the gearbox internals for one with wide ratios; this gave the clutch an easier time in tight sections and gave a decent top speed on the open road. I can’t remember much about the event itself other than it tipped with rain which made some of the hills more like one day trials sections. The forks had hell of a pounding and prior to the broken spindle clamp I’d lost all of my damping”

Compared to one day trials and scrambles the ISDT was - on his own admission - not Gordon’s most favourite event citing ‘too many hold ups and too much emphasis on exact arrival time’.

What happened to the bike immediately after the Czech six days is unclear but Gordon did manage to throw some light on how - prior to John buying it the 1st time – it ended up on a farm in Sussex?


“There were a couple of farms on which Geoff Ward used to test the works scramblers: I recall one belonged to Peter and John Richards. Peter was quite a good trials rider – especially in the Eastern centre mud – and he managed to get a works bike through local AJS agent Harold Taylor. Geoff often carried various bikes around in the factory van so it’s more than likely he suggested to the farmer it was ideal for his needs and sold it to him”.

Following John’s restoration of RLH 351 in mid sixties it saw regular action in both MCC events and the Cornish centre’s End to End trial although in one day events he had progressed to a 250cc Cotton: a bike on which he represented the centre in the inter centre team event in 1965. With his lifetimes involvement in both riding and organising events throughout Cornwall John told me enough tales to fill an article by them selves. Most are told with smile although when he recalled riding the suitable geared Cotton from Truro to Liverpool to watch the TT I’m not sure if it was a grin or a grimace I saw on his face.

In more recent times RLH 351 has been pensioned off from ‘active service’ but it still wears the wonderful patina of age and the many proud scars of former battles. John regularly takes it to shows and rallies and keeps it taxed and MOT’d, so what better place for us to take it for a short ride than Blue Hills mine: the classic Lands End trial section near St Agnes.

With plenty of retard on the manual ignition advance the Ajay was a very willing starter and soon settled into a gentle burble through the siamesed low slung exhaust pipe. Unlike some pukka six days bikes I’ve ridden the engine felt incredibly docile and with its low first gear it was very tractable. This was all fairly deceptive and I understand from Gordon that during the six days – with ignition fully advanced and the ‘wick turned up’ – it was good for close on 90mph on the road. Both front and rear suspension are standard road wear so perhaps it’s not surprising that after five days of constant pounding in the International the front forks cried ‘enough’ but for my gentle ride on the road and the gravel tracks at Blue Hills they soaked up the bumps and irregularities with ease. The brakes are AMC’s full width single leading shoes which work surprisingly well, however to cope with the rigours of the six days I understand they were originally shod with harder Ferodo ‘anti fade’ linings. The handlebars are fairly high and wide but the riding position is pure roadster and with its limited ground clearance it was surprising to see that there was no engine protection plate fitted.

With fog threatening to engulf us at the top of Blue Hills I was unable to test the Ajay’s off road capabilities but on the rough tracks it was sure footed and extremely easy to flick from side to side. But for a stripped thread it could have returned from the ’55 ISDT with gold and glory but there is no disputing it is a superb machine with a fascinating history and one I would personally love to own.

AJS model 20 ISDT spec[edit | edit source]

Part Spec
Engine OHV vertical twin
Capacity 492cc
Ignition 6 volt magneto
Gearbox 4 speed wide ratio
Drive chain
Clutch Multi plate wet
Front brake Single leading shoe
Rear brake Single leading shoe
Front suspension Telescopics
Rear suspension Twin shock swinging arm
Front tire 2.75 x 21” trials
Rear tire 4.00 x 18” trials
Top Speed 90mph (estimated)