Words: Trials Guru – Rob Farnham (Oz) – Mick Andrews
Photos: Rob Farnham – Rob Edwards – Mick Andrews
What is 644BLB?
It was the registration number allocated in January 1961 to a 350 Matchless, which was used exclusively as an AJS and owned by the Associated Motor Cycles Ltd competition Department at Plumstead, South East London.
The motorcycle was to be used by factory supported riders and we know that AJS factory rider, Cliff Clayton used it in the 1961 Scottish Six Days Trial. Clayton was a member of the Barham MCC, and lived at Gillingham in Kent.
644BLB however, was to become better known in the trials world as Mick Andrews’ factory AJS, as he competed on it from 1962-1964 when factory supported. It was a machine that took Andrews on two consecutive occasions to the runner-up position in the Scottish Six Days Trial (winners Arthur Lampkin – BSA C15 – 1963 & Sammy Miller – Ariel – 1964).
Don Morley, the well-known photo journalist spent a great deal of time researching the works trials AMC machines when he was preparing his book, Classic British Trials Bikes which was published by Osprey. Don had photographed many, if not all, the factory models over the years.
Morley told Trials Guru when discussing some articles, that some AMC trials machines were registered as one marque but actually used as the badge engineered stablemate. 644BLB was one such machine, an AJS in use, but registered as a Matchless. The same method was employed for the machine registered 164BLL, issued to Gordon McLaughlan. There has never been a definitive reason for this other than perhaps the AJS 16C was a slightly more expensive model than the corresponding Matchless variant G3C and as the factories had to pay the then ‘Purchase Tax’ on a registered machine, perhaps they saw this as a way of saving some money?
Don told Trials Guru that: “I should really have paid more attention to the finer details of the works bikes when I had the chance back in the days when they were used week in, week out by the factory supported riders. I have questioned many of the stars of yesteryear about the finer points of the machines they rode some time later, to find that most hardly touched the machines as they usually were repaired, modified and serviced by the relevant competition departments. No disrespect intended, but I take most of the so-called modifications by riders with a pinch of salt.”
Where is 644BLB?
Our article begins with a message sent through social media to Rob Edwards, the former factory Cotton, Montesa and, at one time, AJS teamster. Rob had ridden a factory supported but privately bought AJS in the 1964 and 1965 SSDT, it was registered ‘970PL’ and had bought it from Comerfords in 1963.
The enquiry came to Rob Edwards facebook page in December 2016 from Rob Farnham from Queensland, Australia (who we will refer to as ‘Oz’, his shortened internet name, for the rest of the story) who had seen Rob’s story on Trials Guru and a reference to his promotional trip with his employers, Montesa Motorcycles ‘down under’ in 1975. A photo was within Rob’s story sitting on a 350 AJS which Noel Shipp of Wollongong owned at the time and was reputedly Mick Andrews’ AJS factory machine.
Noel had shipped 644BLB out from the UK in 1970. I have a note of who he purchased it from, but he was actually after another trials machine, a Triumph I think, but took the AJS as his second choice.
Obvious changes have been made between 1964 and 1970, mainly the bottom frame rails and footrest hangers.”
“I have done very little to it as I have too many projects but was only spurred into motion following a request from John Cuff, a member of the bike club I’m a member of, the Historical Motorcycle Club of Queensland as he needed some bikes for club magazine articles for 2017. He had seen my Matchless G80CS but knew nothing of the 350 AJS, 644BLB. His main interest is trials and competition machines so he was very excited when he saw it.
Most of my previous research had drawn a blank so was quite excited myself on Rob Edwards response to my post on his facebook page.”
Oz had been doing a lot of digging in an attempt to catalogue the machine’s history, but over the years details of ownership had been lost and of course never rely on people’s memories.
Oz had heard that after Mick Andrews had handed the AJS back to Plumstead, Gordon Blakeway had ridden it. This was false as Blakeway had been issued with 187BLF, the ex-Gordon Jackson machine when Andrews was still riding 644BLB for the factory and was subsequently riding the 250 James (306AKV) for AMCs in 1965.
It was likely that after Andrews moved on, 644BLB would have been moved on also as the factory was in financial decline and several machines were sold off to dealers, the most noteable being Comerfords in Thames Ditton, Surrey and it was most likely that 644BLB would have found its way to this dealer given their connections with the factory.
Oz clarifies how he undertood matters initially: “I was actually led to believe that Rob Edwards had made his debut in the Scottish Six Days on 644BLB in 1965. This was caused by the caption in ‘British Trials Motorcycles’ by Bruce Main-Smith on pages 12 and 13 which read: ‘Rob Edwards (opposite bottom) made his Scottish debut on Andrews’ ex-works 350 AJS, with unofficial factory support’. The photo does show Rob Edwards, but I now know through Trials Guru’s Rob Edwards Story and AJS & Matchless Trials articles that this was actually Rob’s own private but factory supported AJS (970PL). The photo in Main-Smith’s book was taken from a rear view and the machine had lost it’s rear registration number plate, making identification difficult. On top of this, Noel Shipp had told me Rob Edwards had been a privateer rider post 1964, which is one of the reasons I contacted Rob Edwards via his Facebook page.”
In reality, Rob Edwards had taken over the berth left in the AJS official team for the 1965 Scottish Six Days, riding his own AJS, suitably modified as Andrews’ mount 644BLB was not available, this occurred due to Andrews moving to ride the James. So why did the AJS competition manager not allocate 644BLB to Rob Edwards? That may remain a mystery, was it by then sold off or did they not have time to prepare it for the arduous SSDT?
Oz is keen to find out who purchased and rode 644BLB from around 1964 until it was exported to Australia in the 1970s. He still has the road fund licence tax disc from 1970 with the index ‘644BLB’ and ‘350 Matchless’. This would be the last time the machine was road registered in the UK.
Research indicated that as the machine had left the UK shores, the registration mark had become void due to the mid 1970s ‘amnesty’ that was afforded owners to have their vehicles applied to the DVLA computer at Swansea.
For many years it was thought that the ex-Gordon Jackson AJS (187BLF) had been exported to Australia, even Jackson himself believed it to be so, but it was actually the Clayton/Andrews machine 644BLB that had gone ‘down under’.
The AJS & Matchless Owners Club were contacted in January 2000, but their archivist, Mrs Pat Hughes confirmed that the later competition model records were missing, they had all the road going machine despatch details from 1946 onwards. So another blank was drawn, but the important thing is that the machine still exists half way around the world from where it was built and used. The only confirmation was that the motor number stamped on the crankcases was that of a 1961 model G3C Matchless.
The Mick Andrews connection:
Mick Andrews has been asked many times what he did for a living and simply answers that he commenced a motor mechanic apprenticeship with Kennings when he left school in his home town of Buxton in Derbyshire, but quickly earned a place in the AJS factory trials team riding their works prepared 350cc 16C model, registered as 644BLB at seventeen years of age in late 1961. His name had been put forward to AMC’s Hugh Viney by Ralph Venables. Viney had sent a letter to Andrews, which was the way it was done back then, offering him an AJS.
Mick Andrews told Trials Guru: “I had a Matchless which my Dad Tom bought for me and I had some good rides on that. I came home from work one day and my Dad said that I had better have a look in the garage and there stood a gleaming AJS sent up by Hugh Viney for me to ride. It was 644BLB with a blue tank and gold lining, it looked beautiful”.
Andrews first appearance on the factory AJS was at the national St. Davids Trial in Wales when he partnered Gordon Jackson and Gordon McLaughlan. That was in 1962, also Andrews’ first time in the Scottish Six Days Trial. In 1963, Mick was second in the SSDT to Arthur Lampkin. Andrews went on to not only win many national trials on 644BLB, but it also established him as a force to be reckoned with in the sport. His last SSDT on 644BLB was the 1964 event, again finishing runner up to Ariel’s Sammy Miller, riding in the factory team comprising of Gordon Blakeway (187BLF) and Gordon McLaughlan (164BLL) with the fuel tanks refinished in ivory white with simplified lining and gold monogram, the penultimate time an AJS team would compete in the annual classic. In 1965, the final AJS team comprised of Gordon McLaughlan (164BLL); Gordon Blakeway (187BLF) and new recruit, Rob Edwards (970PL) who took the best 350cc cup.
Mick Andrews: “I did hear many years ago that my old works AJS had been sold to someone in Australia, but I never did see it again. It’s nice to hear that it is still around, OK maybe not exactly as I rode it, but still it’s good that it has survived this long. I was in New Zealand with my wife Jill in 2010 and a bloke came up to me and said, you’re Mick Andrews! I said how do you know me? The chap replied, ‘well I moved out here some years ago, but I did all the work on your AJS, I worked in the comp shop’. I couldn’t believe it, you see Hugh Viney told my Dad and I that we were not allowed to modify or change things on the motorcycle, so my dad sent the AJS back to the factory every Monday morning and they sent it back up to Buxton so I could ride it at the weekend, we never really touched it the whole time I rode for the factory. I never met the guy before, but he made sure the motorcycle was well prepared each week for me to ride.”
Andrews continued: “When I rode for AJS I always rode with the long-stroke motor, never the short-stroke, I didn’t like them. They seemed to suit Gordon Jackson, he liked the sharper power delivery, but it wasn’t my choice. In 1964 we were all offered 250 James to ride, the two Gordons were not happy and handed them back, but I said to the then AMC team manager Eddie Wiffen, that I’ll stick with the James (306AKV) and never looked back.”
The long stroke motor looks to have stayed with 644BLB and having examined the engine number it is that of a 1961 G3C Matchless and is in keeping with known serial numbers. The factory did not usually build special factory bikes from scratch, they normally chose one or two from the production line and used these to register them for road use. They were usually tested and them the dispatch clerks booked them out to the ‘Competition Department’.
So what happened to 644BLB after its time as a works machine expired? It is still a bit of a mystery, apart from the obvious, that it was exported from the UK to Australia. Motorcycles change hands and sometimes many hands at that. Without the old style ‘Registration Book’ or buff log book as they were universally referred, it makes it difficult to trace a machines’ history.
What is known is that this AJS, or Matchless as it was registered with the authorities is concerned, was sold off, through a main dealer is most likely as many ex-factory AMC machines were disposed of in this manner.
At one stage, the registration number re-appeared on a 350 AJS in the annual Pre’65 Scottish trial at Kinlochleven in the hands of Andrew Arden, whose father Maurice was the man behind Big John Products, a one time sponsor of Mick Andrews. However, it wasn’t the original machine, it had been in Australia for 15 years or more and the machine was a replica, the dummy registration number plates used purely as a ‘nod’ to Andrews achievements on his original Plumstead built machine.
It was discovered that Noel Shipp bought 644BLB from a UK sales agent, a Stan ‘Rodwell’ or ‘Phelps’ based in Ilford, Essex, so the motorcycle was shipped over.
From photos taken in 1975 during Rob Edwards and Mick Andrews trip to Australia, one notices that the bottom frame rails had been removed and replaced by a plated assembly which gave a flush area to mount an alloy sump-shield in an attempt to loose some weight. This was not a factory modification as AMC believed in making the factory machines look exactly like the standard production competition models.
Having said that, the late model factory trials machines all sported the lowered rear subframe and short, but kicked up rear mudguard fixing loop. This allowed shorter rear suspension units to be deployed while maintaining the same rear wheel movement.
The tank appears to have been changed over the years. Initially it had an alloy competition tank finished in blue and gold lining.
Trials Guru … 644BLB Post Script!
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© – All text copyright: Rob Farnham & Trials Guru / Moffat Racing, John Moffat – 2017
- World-wide Copyright Rob Farnham, Queensland, Australia (All Rights Reserved) – 2017.
- World-wide Copyright James Holland, Bristol, UK (All Rights Reserved) – 2017.
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