Bringing Yesterday Back to Life

‘Herbie’ on the day it arrived - when Nigel Westacott was a proud 14-year-old. All too soon, however, it was stripped down for grass-track racing and trials (inset)

‘Herbie’ on the day it arrived – when Nigel Westacott was a proud 14-year-old. All too soon, however, it was stripped down for grass-track racing and trials (inset)

I don’t know how far she pushed my arm up behind my back -1 couldn’t see! Daughter Judy, who took over as family motorcyclist when I retired from sidecar trials in the late 1970s, had this habit of pinning me in odd corners. “Don’t you think you ought to have another bike, while you can still enjoy riding it?”

‘Yes, perhaps,” I would answer, “When I can afford it.”

The pressure increased. “If you got another bike, what would be your choice?”

“Well it would have to be from the time when I first started – late 1940s or early 1950s.” There was to be no relief. “What make would you choose if you were to have one?”

“I would fancy a Matchless, as that was the first bike I rode round the farm.”

My thoughts were about ‘Herbie’, a motorcycle so named by my family because it had been given to me, a mere 14-year-old, by Angus Herbert. He was my boyhood hero, a popular road racer, grass track and trials rider, who owned the motorcycle shop in Sevenoaks. I had already acquired ex-WD despatch rider’s helmet, breeches and batde-dress blouse so I was quite ready for the 1929 350cc Matchless when my brother collected it in the farm van.

Within days ‘Herbie’ had been stripped for action, the surplus parts consigned to the scrap heap, and it became in my eyes my grass-track and trials bike to be raced round the farm. What more could any boy want? Mind you, I learned an early lesson: not to cut too much off the back mudguard. My reward had been a constant bombardment on the back of my neck when there was any mud underwheel!

If only I had kept it in original condition and still owned it now. If only – but that’s life!

“Also,” I reminisced to Judy, “my brother’s 1949 500cc Matchless G80 was the first bike I took on the road.” My early rides were entirely un-insured, as my brother found out later from a horrified National Farmers’ Union insurance rep!

From the gleam in Judy’s eyes I suspected the battle was lost. “I’ve got a 1956 Matchless G3LS in my garage – just needs finishing – not really much to do! You can have it on permanent loan if you get it back on the road!”

So there it was. I hired a van to collect it from Westerham. I was a bit daunted when I first saw it – then I noticed she had written the number DAD 1 on the rear number plate – it was soon loaded for the return to Midhurst.

I hadn’t ridden or worked on a bike for 20 years, and I was aghast at what I had taken on. It seemed as though quite a few bits were missing and there was a lot of work to do. The bike had no paperwork or even a registration number, its history lost in the midst of time, but they were problems to solve only when it was closer to being back on the road.

My first action was to join the AJS & Matchless Owners’ Club. Their spares scheme was to be a great help, and it introduced me to a fellow Matchless owner, Graeme, from just over the Hampshire border. He and an acquaintance, Ernie, from the Goodwood Supporters’ Association, started me off with advice and much practical help, and with the confidence they inspired away I went.

Most of the small missing parts came from the Owners’ Club spares scheme, but I did splash out on a new seat (the one that came with it was so wrong I think I would have done myself an injury when I hit the first pothole!). I also bought a new silencer (the one on the bike was a poor fit – being from a later twin machine – and was very, very noisy).

The summer months flew by with me, apart from the odd frustration, having a lot of fun. The clip full of the invoices, which hangs above me now as I write, grew thicker, but I have never been tempted to total them up!

A somewhat older and grey-bearded Nigel Westacott stands proudly with his 1956 Matchess after getting it back on the road. Photo: Morton Hickson

A somewhat older and grey-bearded Nigel Westacott stands proudly with his 1956 Matchess after getting it back on the road. Photo: Morton Hickson

At last Graeme came over one evening and, having kicked the tyres, pronounced it fit to pass its MoT – the first hurdle I had to climb over. We chose our MoT Test Station carefully – none of these shops full of superbikes for us – and found one with a tester who understood classic bikes. Another local friend, Tony, a one- time fellow British Sporting Sidecar Association member who still occasionally rides in sidecar trials, took the Matchless on his trailer.

It passed, but they told me the rear tyre had hairline cracks and would need replacing soon. Armed with my new MoT Certificate Tony drove me home with a beaming smile on my face.

Next came the question of registration. The Matchless Owners’ Club has its own classic bike dating service using the old Plumstead, London factory records – now mainly on computer, as the books are almost worn out. I sent off the frame and engine numbers and the reply was all I could have hoped for. The engine was in that frame when it left the factory on January 12 1956. It had been road-tested by a Mr Allen and despatched to Cowie’s, a dealer in the North-East of England. I had a wild thought that if Cowie’s still existed their records might show the original registration number. However, it was not
to be – what had been Cowie’s was now under a different name and sold commercial vehicles.

I telephoned the Vehicle Registration Office at Portsmouth, my nearest, and a very helpful lady told me just what I needed to do. They required a completed form V55/5 with as much detail as possible, the MOT Certificate and the Dating Certificate from the Matchless Owners’ Club.

Within a couple of days she telephoned back offering me an appointment that week to take the bike to their office for inspection, bringing a valid insurance cover note and a “bill of sale” (a letter from Judy to say she had given the bike to me!) to prove it was mine.

It was also necessary to take £25 as a ‘once-only’ fee for the registration. The helpful lady remarked: ‘You big boys are always in such a hurry to start playing with your toys!”

With the Matchless securely lashed in Ernie’s van we arrived in good time for our 10.30am appointment. At 10.50am a young man called James climbed into Ernie’s van with a torch, verified the frame and engine numbers and agreed it looked like what a 1956 Matchless G3LS should.

We waited in the office, and at last I was called and given a Tax disc for my ‘Matchless Historic, Tax NIL’ and my new age-related number SSJ 958 (Scottish I am told – the available numbers are issued by Swansea – there is no choice).

I had laid on for a local signwriter to meet me when we got back, to see to the back number plate, now devoid of DAD 1, and as soon as the paint was dry I had my first five miles on the clock. Mind you, new Belstaff jacket, Cromwell helmet, gloves and goggles cost nearly as much as the bike had (where on earth had all my old gear gone?) It was a super feeling, but I have still a lot to re-learn!

Already I’ve had to fit pillion footrests and Rosemary, my wife, has acquired a new helmet!

As I write this in mid-winter it’s too cold and wet for my ageing bones to tolerate riding, so it’s ‘Roll on Spring!’

Nigel Westacott