The Flying “M” on the IOM: The Matchless Name and the Tourist Trophy Races
James J. Ward
Four wins altogether, the last coming more than seven decades after the first three, and in the historic class at that. Not much of a record of success at the TT, compared with Norton’s 43 victories, Triumph’s 15, BSA’s 13, and Velocette’s 11, not to mention the wins run up by the Italian and Japanese manufacturers. Even AJS, since 1931 the sister marque to Matchless, scored twice as many firsts over the years, if in the Junior rather than the Senior class. Yet the name “Matchless” registers in the history of the Tourist Trophy races far out of proportion to its handful of track victories. If you’re a partisan of the TT, you can say that winning the first-ever race put Matchless on the map. If you’re a Matchless loyalist, you can say that without the efforts of the Collier brothers, Harry and Charlie, there might never have been a TT, and that the excitement generated by their three wins in four years helped spread the popularity of the IOM races in far-away London. As Ken Hallworth writes in The Classic Motorcycle, reprising period articles in the motoring press, it was the Colliers, “whose family business produces the well-known Matchless models in Plumstead, London SE”—along with the Triumph Cycle Company—that made the Tourist Trophy happen (“Only a Lack of Enemies” 10). Either way, the history of Matchless and the history of the TT share a common basis.
Here’s the history, drawn from Mick Walker’s recent chronicle of the Matchless brand and from the cluster of volumes published to mark the TT centennial. The first motorcycle to carry the Matchless name appeared in 1902, with a 2 ¾ hp engine, based on a French de Dion design, fitted into a pedal bicycle frame. Over the next few years, Harry Collier and his younger brother Charlie raced motorcycles made in their father Henry’s shop in Plumstead, south London, at events up and down England. They also raced on the Continent, and it was on a train ride back from the 1906 International Cup Races in Austria that the Collier brothers entertained the idea of establishing a two-wheeled race on the Isle of Man with their travel companions, the Marquis de Mouzilly St. Mars and Freddie Straight, chairman of the Auto Cycle Club, the motorcycle equivalent to the British Automobile Club. Already at this early point in motorcycle sport, international politics were involved. By racing closer to home, the Colliers hoped to overcome what they saw as unfair advantages European manufacturers enjoyed on the Continent. The result of these stratagems was the first Tourist Trophy race, held on May 28, 1907.
Strong promotional efforts by the organizers produced an entry of twenty-five machines, eighteen of them powered by single-cylinder engines, the rest twins. Intended to be a test of reliability and economy, with fuel allotments judiciously monitored, the TT put a premium on intelligent riding rather than on speed and daring. In Mac McDiarmid’s colorful description:
Charlie Collier, riding a Matchless with a 432cc single-cylinder JAP motor making 3 ½ horsepower, finished the race in four hours and eight minutes, apparently without incident. His average speed was 38.3 mph. Rem Fowler, on the first of the twins, a 684cc 5-horsepower Peugeot-engined Norton, took thirteen minutes longer to finish his race, having been put off by ten stops because of falls or need for repairs. Fowler had the consolation of setting the fastest lap, at 42.9 mph. In the TT centennial issue of The Classic Motorcycle, Ken Hallworth cites an interview Charlie Collier gave in 1924 to describe how the Matchless rider, already a seasoned competitor, used his pedals whenever possible and ran every downhill gradient with the throttle closed to extract maximum fuel economy (“A Matchless Win” 83). While not a strategy that would last long, this approach enabled Charlie Collier to claim the St. Mars trophy for winning the inaugural TT.
Figure 1: Charlie Collier, frequent competitor in the first TTs—laminated panel from a display by art students at the College of the Isle of Man at the Villa Marina, for the TT Centennial. Photo by the Author. (Click to enlarge.)
Matchless’s victory did not go uncontested by its competitors. Norton protested Charlie Collier’s pedal assist and, in its post-TT advertising, made much of Rem Fowler’s bad luck, which had deprived the colorful driver of a win his fast lap suggested might have been his. Triumph, for whom Jack Marshall had traded the lead with Charlie Collier before finishing second in the single-cylinder race, claimed that it had made the fastest time when stops for repairs were deducted. Echoes of this early TT controversy can still be heard. In its TT centennial issue, Classic Bike features a story on Rem Fowler’s restored twin-cylinder Norton, now in the National Motorcycle Museum, calling it possibly “the most historically important of all motorcycles” (“Riding the 1907 TT Winner” 4). But a visit to the Isle of Man Museum’s special TT exhibition, “Staying the Course,” reveals the silver whiskey flask Rem Fowler was awarded for his second-place finish, confirming that the first-ever TT victory belongs to Matchless.
In 1908, thirty-seven machines were entered, most of them twins. Pedal gears were prohibited, and fuel consumption limits were slightly stiffened. Jack Marshall won the race on a Triumph, with Charlie Collier placing second on his Matchless, both of these single-cylinder machines. In 1909, with the fuel requirement scrapped, Harry Collier finally got his win, on a 738cc JAP twin-cylinder machine, finishing with an average speed of 49.0 mph and setting a new lap record of 52.3 mph. His winning time, three hours and thirteen minutes, showed how quickly speeds at the TT could advance. A year later, Charlie Collier again took the overall win, setting an average speed of 50.6 mph. Harry Collier finished second, and a third Matchless rider, Bert Colver, took tenth place, out of more than eighty machines that had been entered. In 1911, in the first race to go over the Mountain, Charlie Collier came in second, only to be disqualified for refueling outside the permitted area. The Matchless rider’s exclusion allowed the American Indian team to sweep first, second, and third, the famous “Red Indian Massacre” that at once entered TT lore. British honor, of a sort, was upheld by Harry Collier’s fourth-place finish. In 1912, Harry Collier finished third, with Charlie following him into fourth. The Colliers raced again in 1913 and 1914, but could not bring their bikes home. In his TT centennial history, David Wright sums up the Colliers’ achievement: “It was the successful Collier brothers who showed that all-round riding skills, speed allied to reliability, plus experience, organisation, and racecraft made a combination that was hard to beat. Other riders had led races, but it was the Colliers who, by successfully pacing themselves to several well-deserved victories, were the star performers in those early Island races” (25).
Matchless’s TT successes contributed to the firm’s prosperity, reflected in a widening range of single- and twin-cylinder motorcycles and the move to larger manufacturing facilities, with a showroom, on Plumstead Road. Matchless also claimed title to the twenty-four-hour record for maximum speed thanks to Harry Collier’s 1909 performance with an 862cc JAP twin-cylinder machine, putting the figure at 32.3 mph over a distance of 775 miles. Charlie Collier, running in a series of match races against Indian in 1911 at the Brooklands track, set a new top speed record of 91.2 mph, although Indian was to re-take the record in 1914. In his history of Matchless, Mick Walker notes that the Collier brothers were as adept at engineering and managing the works as they were at racing motorcycles: “Unlike the situation of the British motorcycle industry years later in the 1950s and 1960s, being a director meant that you were very much a practical man who was deeply involved in the everyday running of the company you represented. . . . In the pioneering days at the beginning of the twentieth century you actually toiled at the coalface!” (9-10).
After World War I, Matchless was a force to be reckoned with in international trials competition, riders of Plumstead-made bikes bringing home loads of gold medals. Other than sending three race-prepared 350cc singles in 1926, there were no more factory teams at the TT, even as rival manufacturers such as AJS, Sunbeam, Douglas, Norton, and Rudge achieved victories. In 1931, Harry, Charlie, and youngest brother Bert Collier bought the AJS works in Wolverhampton, the Stevens company finally succumbing to long-standing financial woes. From then on, AJS carried the racing flag for the combined firms, which reorganized as Associated Motor Cycles (AMC) following the acquisition of Sunbeam in 1937. Although AJS ran technically advanced racers in the Senior class (the liquid-cooled, supercharged “Vee-Four” in 1939 and the twin-cylinder “Porcupine” from 1947 to 1954), its only TT win in the postwar era came in the Junior with a 3-cam, 3-valve version of the 350cc single-cylinder 7R. Introduced in 1948 and instantly popular as the “Boy’s Racer,” a “triple-knocker” version of the 7R took first and second in 1954. While further TT wins were to prove elusive, the standard 7R went on to dominate the Junior event in the Manx GP, where it won repeatedly in the 1960s.
In 1951, AMC entered competition versions of its new 500cc twin, the Matchless G9 and the AJS 20, in the Senior Clubman’s class in the TT. Four of the six G9s that the factory sent over finished the race, one of them taking seventh place. The real surprise came a few months later, when the Plumstead race shop provided a one-off 500cc racer for the Senior event in the Manx Grand Prix. The new Matchless racer, soon christened the G45 (for claimed horsepower), used a modified G9 engine fitted into a 7R frame. Although technically outside the GP’s regulations, which restricted the race to privateers, the Matchless twin was brought to the line by Robin Sherry, who was also equipped with a 7R for the Junior event and had almost won on a 7R the previous year. This time, Sherry took the 7R to victory and, in the Senior event, showed the big Matchless to be competitive, keeping it in third place until a rocker pillar broke on the third lap. For the 1952 TT, the Matchless twin was back, ridden by Ernie Ring, an Australian racer. Ring crashed on the fifth lap, putting paid to Matchless’s hopes for an against-the-odds victory. But the same machine returned for that year’s Manx GP. In the Senior event, Derek Farrant led from start to finish and inscribed new records for both fastest lap and highest average speed. The Matchless twin had won on the IOM. The next target was the TT.
AMC’s thinking in going with the new racer was a source of puzzlement at the time and still causes some head-scratching. “The twin-cylinder Matchless G45 was a slightly bizarre departure for AMC,” James Robinson writes in The Classic Motorcycle,
The over-the-counter version of the G45 was on the AMC stand at the November 1952 Earls Court show, priced at just over £375, the same as a race-ready 7R. The G45 continued to share a frame and other running gear with the Boy’s Racer. A Burman close-ratio gearbox was fitted, as on the 7R. The 500cc engine retained the road version’s bottom end casings, but benefited from strengthened internals. The top end was much modified, with high-compression pistons, case-hardened camshafts, larger valves and quicker valve timing, and wider clearances for improved oil flow. In contrast to the road engine, the G45 had an aluminum-alloy head with over-sized finning. Further heat dissipation was provided by running the fins over the exhaust rocker covers, producing the most obvious external difference from the standard engine. While the prototype G45 had relied on a single Amal TT carburettor, the market version used twin TTs, later to be replaced with twin GPs. Exhaust was expended through matching large-diameter megaphones, although not quite as cavernous as the ones used on the early 7Rs, into which dogs and small children were reported to sometimes disappear. Later, after evidence of severe “megaphonitis,” reverse-cone pipes were fitted, again similarly to the 7R.
Finished in black and silver, the G45 was an undeniably handsome machine, matching the much-admired appearance (black and gold) that was part of the 7R’s crowd appeal. When Classic Bike ran a story on the G45 as part of its “Legends” series a few years ago, the magazine’s reporter wrote, “If looks could win races, then surely the Matchless G45 would have a string of victories to its credit, for seldom had there been a machine that combined functional appearance with such good looks” (Jackson 44). The G45’s massively-finned engine recalled that of Velocette’s revered KTT Mk VIII, which had won the 350cc world championship in 1949 and 1950, while use of the 7R frame eliminated the too-heavy look that some aesthetically-minded critics had thought they detected in the road-going versions of the AMC twin.
Figure 2: A 1954 Matchless G45, restored by Bill Martin and Associates in New Zealand and looking close to factory specifications. Photo by Bill Martin. (Click to enlarge.)
Fourteen G45s were entered in the 1953 TT, but the best the Matchless racer could manage was ninth place. Riders reported good handling and more than adequate top speed, but complained of vibration, oil leaks, and a narrow power band that required constant use of the four-speed Burman box. Later in the year, Derek Ennett gave a solid performance in the Manx GP, finishing third behind two Manx Nortons. But the technicians in the AMC race shop were focusing their efforts on the AJS Porcupine, and the G45 received only modest attention. In 1954, ten G45s competed in the TT, with the best finish a disappointing fifteenth. In that year’s Manx GP, Derek Ennett led the Senior for two laps until his engine failed. G. R. Dunlop, on another G45, finished the race in third place. A year later, the G45 made its highest TT finish, never-say-die Derek Ennett bringing the bike home in sixth place. By 1956, AMC had clearly lost interest in the G45, and the bike was little in evidence in that year’s competition. At the end of the season, AMC announced it was withdrawing from factory racing, although racers would still be manufactured for the private market and technical support provided for their owners. The last G45s were sold in 1957, with a total production run of about eighty machines. Many of these were extensively modified by their owners, and several G45s were re-engineered to compete in sidecar and flat-track racing.
Figure 3: A 1956 G45, one of the last out of the factory. Originally shipped to Rhodesia, this bike is now back in the UK and has been campaigned in the Lansdowne Classic Racing Series by Roger Ashby. Photo by Graham Etheridge. (Click to enlarge.)
Alan Cathcart, writing in an early issue of Classic Bike, reprised the G45’s short competition career under the heading “Born to Lose.” The article quoted a former AMC works mechanic:
While the G45 was shunted off to race in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, in 1958 AMC did what many enthusiasts wished it had done ten years earlier—the company bored out the AJS 7R and put it on the market as the Matchless G50. In part, the delay was the result of the alternative path taken with the G45, which had been intended to add luster to AMC’s parallel-twin roadsters. But corporate politics were involved as well. The 7R still sold well among privateers who wanted to contest the Junior class without bankrupting themselves, and the Norton Manx—AMC had acquired Norton in 1951—was universally acclaimed as the best British single, if expensive to run, in the Senior class. The G45’s inability to run the Mountain Course at the TT at speeds significantly higher than the 7R suggested that the effect of its additional displacement was neutralized by its greater weight and larger frontal area. The G50, AMC’s managers recognized, would enjoy the advantage of the former without the penalty of the latter. Other than the wider barrel and the Matchless livery, the G50 was the 7R’s near twin. Both machines acquired AMC’s new four-speed racing transmission, replacing the venerable Burman box, while the fuel-air mixture was provided by Amal GPs. The gold paint used to fight corrosion on the 7R’s magnesium-alloy engine casings was carried over to the G50, giving the new AMC racer an equally striking appearance.
Figure 4: A Matchless G50, still ready for race action, at the Corfu Classic Grand Prix in 2005. Thisbike is owned by Gianni Perrone and is one of several Matchless racers in his collection. Photo by Yianni Efradidi. (Click to enlarge.)
A prototype G50 appeared at the 1958 TT, piloted by Australian Jack Ahearn. The bike was uncompetitive, finishing twenty-ninth in the Senior class, and was unable to match the lap times set by the G45. Following a year of development work, Derek Powell brought a G50 home to third place, in terrible weather, in the TT Senior, and two more G50s were among the top ten finishers. This promising start, however, was not borne out in subsequent competition. In part it was a matter of inopportune timing, for the G50’s racing career coincided with the glory days of MV Agusta, the latter in the hands of John Surtees, Gary Hocking, and Mike Hailwood. Against the Italian multi-cylinders, even the Norton Manx fell behind (although Mike Hailwood did score a win in the 1961 Senior class), and the G50 usually ran a distant second to its silver-and-black rival. After the 1962 season, AMC ceased production of both the 7R and the G50, although the factory continued to service customers’ machines. The last batch of fifty G50 engines were fitted into the AMC trials frame and shipped to America to be sold as Matchless Golden Eagles. By this time AMC was in serious financial trouble, which all the “badge-engineering” in the world could not reverse and, most likely, only made worse. The end came in 1966, with only the Norton name managing to emerge from the receivership into which AMC collapsed.
With AMC in terminal decline, it was left to privateers and specialist manufacturers to show the flying “M” on the IOM. In 1964 Fred Stevens drove a G50 to third place in the TT Senior event, and in 1965 Mike Duff scored another third place on a G50 prepared by Tom Arter. In between the TTs, Selwyn Griffiths took the Senior class at the Manx GP, the G50’s first outright win on the IOM. In 1966, Peter Williams brought a Tom Arter-prepared G50 home to seventh place in the TT and a year later bettered this result with a second place behind Mike Hailwood on a Honda (in Hailwood’s epic duel with Giacomo Agostini). A slow-healing injury took Williams out of the 1968 and 1969 TTs, but he came back in 1970 to take another second (behind Agostini on the MV), a result he repeated in 1971. Williams looked to do it again in 1972, but an engine failure on the last lap put him out of the race. A year later, Williams appeared he would no longer be denied, charging for the TT lead only to lose at the end to Jack Findlay on a Suzuki. In this string of near misses, the G50 showed that it could round the Mountain Course with consistent 100 mph laps. Victory at the TT came at last in 1984, when Dave Roper won the three-lap race for historic machines, run in that year only, with one of the Brooklyn (USA)-based Team Obsolete’s G50s, reportedly banging the wall a couple of times and breaking an arm to do so. Ian Lougher finished second, also on a G50.
Figure 5. 1984 Historic TT Winner Dave Roper shows how it’s done. The bike reportedly has a G50 engine prepared for long-standing Manx GP lap record-holder Bob Heath, mounted in a George Beale frame. Photo by the Author. (Click to enlarge.)
The G50’s scant number of podium finishes when, in a lucky year, it still might run close to the far more advanced MVs and Hondas, slights the machine’s most winning attribute—its toughness. In 1965 and 1966 and again from 1968 through 1970, G50s or G50-powered specials took five of the first ten places in the TT Senior, all years when Hailwood or Agostini led the field. In 1967, the year of the historic Hailwood-Agostini face-off, the Matchless single managed the not inconsiderable feat of taking six of the first ten places—not a headline-grabber, but worthy of note.
Motorcycle historian Mick Walker does not mince words on the reasons for AMC’s failure. It’s Charlie Collier who gets the credit for keeping the factory on an even keel into the postwar period and for keeping the race shop busy. From 1947 to his death in 1954, Charlie Collier served as AMC’s Managing Director. “Once the last vestiges of the Collier family had gone,” Walker writes,
Happily, the history of Matchless at the IOM does not end on that sour note. With the take-off of classic racing in the 1980s, the G50 has consistently been at the head of the pack in the Senior Classic event at the annual Manx Grand Prix. The magic worked in particular by Colin Seeley and by other dedicated constructors like George Beale has made the G50 the machine to beat not only on the IOM, but at classic venues everywhere. As Mick Grant wrote in Classic Bike some years ago, “It wasn’t until 1984 when Dave Roper won the Historic TT on a Team Obsolete machine that the G50 scored its first TT win. Since then, the Senior Classic Manx Grand Prix has become a G50 benefit” (44). A G50, in John Goodall’s hands, had already won the 500 class in the first Classic Manx GP in 1983, and an unscientific survey of Manx GP results over the following years bears Grant out. By the mid-1990s, half or more of the finishers in the Senior Classic were running G50s, most of them out of Colin Seeley’s shop, the others on Rickman or George Beale machines. The percentages have slipped a bit after 2000, but in last year’s running of the Senior Classic, 16 of the 42 finishers rode G50-powered mounts.
Figure 6: The G50 replica that was shown in the TT Centennial Conference at the Villa Marina, thanks to Panagiotis Zarifopoulus and Panagiotis Mariolopoulos, two members of the Athens-based group who bought the Matchless logo at the 2006 Stafford Show Auction. Photo by the Author. (Click to enlarge.)
Put another way, G50 engines propelled 13 of the top 20 finishers in the 1995 Senior Classic, 15 of the top 20 in 1996, 19 of the top 25 in 1997, 13 of the top 20 in 1998, 11 of the top 20 in 1999, 8 of the top 20 in 2000, and 10 of the top 20 in 2002 (the 2001 Manx GP was canceled due to foot and mouth disease). Matchless claimed first in the Manx Senior Classic from 1995 through 2000. In the latter year, G50 engines powered to the first six places. From 1995 to 1998, Bob Heath made the fastest lap with a Seeley-manufactured G50, his 1997 speed of 106.74 mph seemingly unbeatable. In 2004 Manxman Derek Whalley took the Senior Classic with his G50 and added a win in the Junior Classic on a 7R. Graham Rhodes, well known with his father Ivan for restoring Velocette racers, won the 2005 Senior Classic on a Seeley G50. Last year the race went to Chris Palmer on a Manx. This year, Palmer switched to a Fred Walmsley-prepared G50 but had to settle for a second to Ryan Farquhar, who finally bested Bob Heath’s lap record, on a twin-cylinder Paton. Palmer put on a good show for the spectators in staving off a determined challenge by Steve Linsdell on a second Paton. Consistent with what has become a Manx GP tradition, G50-powered machines took five of the first ten places in the Senior Classic.
Keeping the Matchless name alive on the IOM requires a few more words to the account of Colin Seeley, without whose efforts the G50 would almost certainly have passed into history. Getting his start as a mechanic with an AMC dealer in his native Dartford (where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had a schoolboy friendship) in the 1950s, Seeley soon graduated to set up a shop of his own as vendor for the wide range of Plumstead products. At the same time, he began a competition career first in scrambles, hill climbs, and dirt track events and then as a sidecar racer. In 1961, he finished sixth with a self-built G50 outfit in his first sidecar event at the TT. In 1962 and 1963 he took the G50 combination to a third and another sixth place finish, respectively. Switching to a BMW in 1964, Seeley took second at the TT and finished third in the world sidecar championship, a feat he would duplicate in 1966. On the manufacturing end, a Seeley-modified G50 finished fourth in the Senior event at the IOM TT in 1966, while a similarly engineered 7R took sixth place in the Junior event. 1966 was also the year when the AMC race shop came on the market, the bank-appointed receiver looking to secure maximum return on every saleable asset. In the first volume of his long awaited autobiography, Seeley describes his acquisition of the rights, designs, and mechanicals for the 7R, G50, and Norton Manx:
Associated Motorcycles was in trouble and the receiver had to make cuts and sell off parts of the company. Hence the rumour spread that the 7R, G50, and Norton Manx racing department would be up for grabs. A number of meetings with the official receiver convinced him that Colin Seeley Racing Developments was the right company to continue the manufacture of the famous marques. Opposition from cash-rich parties was intense. Some predicted that we would not last more than a few weeks in our efforts to continue manufacturing. (166)
Within a couple of years, the Manx was off-loaded to John Tickle, while Seeley concentrated his efforts on keeping the 7R and G50 competitive in the fast evolving 350 and 500 classes. The 7R had to switch over to Japanese powerplants, but the G50 soldiered on, progressing through Mark II, III, and IV iterations before finally ceasing production in the early 1970s. In addition, the Seeley company turned out a handful of G50-powered road bikes, branded the Condor, that are much sought after today.
Seeley-made G50s sustained a Matchless presence at the TT through the later 1960s and early 1970s, before the take-off of classic racing a decade later. At the Diamond Jubilee races in 1967, unusually late on the calendar because of a ferrymen’s strike, John Blanchard scored the G50’s first-ever 100-plus mph lap in the Senior event, the race that saw the historic battle between Hailwood and Agostini. In the 1968 Senior TT, Brian Ball rode a Seeley G50 to second place, in what proved to be Agostini’s first overall win on the IOM. In the 1969 Senior TT, Seeley G50s finished third and fourth and added sixth, seventh, and eighth for good measure. Not bad for a firm with limited, if not miniscule, resources—but one that also had the advantage of a crew of engineers and mechanics who had learned their craft at the Plumstead Road factory, probably more than one of them under the benevolent, yet demanding tutelage of “Mr. Charlie” Collier, first-ever TT champion.
Figure 7: Matchless still a presence on the Isle of Man! One of the advertising banners at Bushy’s Beer Tent on the Douglas Promenade during the TT Centennnial. Photo by the Author. (Click to enlarge.)
Figure 8: Upon investigation, none of the wait staff nor any of the clientele could explicate the reference to Matchless on the Bushy’s Banners. Still, one wants to believe that there’s someone involved who has an appreciation for that timeless logo. Photo by the Author. (Click to enlarge.)
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