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Colliers & Sons, better know as Matchless Motorcycles, was founded in 1899 by London boy Henry Herbert Collier. Based at Plumstead, south east London, the company was far removed from the West Midlands epicentre of the British motorcycle industry, where companies such as Ariel in Selly Oak, Triumph in Coventry, BSA in Birmingham, and AJS in Wolverhampton vied for dominance.
Or, at least, survival.
Not that there was anything inherently wrong with a London based motorcycle firm (there were certainly dozens of foundries, and thousands of pattern makers, tool makers, and other skilled tradesmen in the south east whose skills could be called upon), but neither was London ideal.
The industrial heartland of the nation, with its huge supporting infrastructure, was the natural location to set up a bicycle or motorcycle business. Nevertheless, London was where Matchless was founded, and that was where it stayed until the end.
Henry Herbert Collier, who had been a bicycle manufacturer during the 1890s, made his first motorcycle in 1899. Powered by a French built proprietary engine, this pioneering machine led in 1902 to the firm’s first production bike; a single-speed 2-3/4 hp De Dion model featuring a spray carburettor, trembler coil ignition, total-loss battery and pedal power to get the wheels rolling. The engine was mounted beneath the front downtube. Drive to the rear wheel was by belt.
Collier’s sons—Charlie and Harry (and later Bert)—were to take important roles in the Matchless story, not merely in developing and producing original and cutting edge designs, but in racing the product whenever the opportunity arose.
In 1904, with the burgeoning bike industry still deciding the fundamental architecture of motorcycling, the Colliers were experimenting with an unsuccessful tri-car design that, despite numerous innovations, was dropped in 1905.
Undeterred, the fledgling company persevered with a V-twin motorcycle that it launched that same year; a machine powered by a newly available JAP (J A Prestwich) engine—JAP being another London firm. This revolutionary Matchless design, with leading link forks and pivoted rear suspension, was far more successful and gave the first the impetus to develop a motorcycle (or, more accurately, a motor cycle) entirely of their own design.
In 1907, Charlie Collier rode a single cylinder, 432cc, OHV, JAP-powered Matchless to controversial victory in the inaugural TT—a 158.5 mile win that was disputed by other riders who cited Charlie’s “unfair” use of pedal power and cried foul. The victory, however, was upheld, with Charlie’s average speed being recorded as 38.3mph.
Unimpressive sounding by modern standards, it has to be remembered that these early races were noted for stringent petrol limitations (to test fuel efficiency), and hindered by frequent punctures and mechanical breakdowns (due to pioneering tyre rubber and developing materials technologies) with the circuit itself often being little more than rutted cart tracks frequently congested with livestock and various other obstacles requiring careful negotiation
Charlie’s brother Harry, meanwhile, clipped the fastest lap at 41.18mph riding another Matchless thereby setting the pace for a string of company successes that included wins in the 1909 and 1910 TT.
The Colliers were equally respected at the Brooklands circuit in Weybridge, Surrey (opened in 1907) where the brothers campaigned their machines with dash and daring winning numerous races and trouncing supposedly superior opposition.
From relatively humble beginnings, Matchless was soon a force to be reckoned with, and by 1912, the company was making its own engines alongside imported power units from Swiss firm Motosacoche (MAG).
By 1916, Matchless also had a sidevalve flat twin (in Douglas fore-and-aft style) on its books—an untidy design with rear springing and intended primarily for sidecar use—but vertical singles and V-twins were the bedrock of the company's success.
During the First World War, Matchless never officially supplied bikes to the military. That honour had been award to firms such as Triumph, Douglas, P&M, and BSA. But Matchless did build a V-twin “war model” based upon its earlier MAG-powered SB model of 1912 (renamed the Victory model post hostilities).
In 1923, a single cylinder bike (the 348cc, Blackburne engined L2) joined the range (which included the V-twin Model H; noted for its integral sidecar chassis). The following year, Matchless launched a 591cc single of its own design—which was the following season eclipsed by a 347cc OHC single.
During this period, Matchless was steadily chalking up victory after victory in national and international competitions, and fielded 3 machines for the 1926 TT—none of which were purpose built racers (Matchless always campaigned only specially prepared factory sports models).
That same year, Henry Herbert Collier died leaving his sons to manage the family owned business, which became a limited liability company in 1928.
In 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash, the lean-looking, soft-tuned, Matchless Model X appeared; another V-twin for which the company was renowned. It was aimed at both the sidecar and solo market and was well received.
Its 990cc sidevalve featured a “square” engine with a bore of 85.5mm and an 85.5mm stroke—which was unusual at a time when practically all other British engines were long stroke. The cylinders were set at 50 degrees. The carburettor was by Brown & Barlow. The gearbox, built by Sturmey Archer, had three speeds and a hand change. Brakes were 8-inch drums front and rear. The wheelbase was 57-inches.
Overall, it was a good looking and well-built machine and helped carry the firm through the depression—which saw rival AJS go to the wall (largely through rapid over expansion into various unsustainable markets including the manufacture of trucks, cars, furniture and radio sets).
In 1931, the same year that the famous giant “M” first appeared on Matchless petrol tanks (initially without the accompanying wings), the company bought AJS and moved motorcycle production from Wolverhampton to Plumstead, subsequently creating in 1938 (following the acquisition of Sunbeam) Associated Motor Cycles which was to grow and prosper over the next few decades, only to collapse in the late 1960s.
Meanwhile, AJS founder Albert John Stevens, paid up all the company creditors and, together with brothers Harry, George, Jack and Joe "junior", soon launched a new venture under the name Stevens Brothers (Wolverhampton) Ltd, manufacturers of motorcycles and light delivery vans.
For 1930, however, the Model X was reworked and featured enclosed valves and dry sump lubrication appearing. Soon after, the three speed gearbox became four-speed, and subsequently other marques (including Brough Superior, OEC, Coventry Eagle and OK Supreme) bought the dependable and powerful Matchless V-twin and installed it in their own chassis, thereby making Matchless a significant supplier of proprietary engines.
By 1936, the Model X, now resplendent in the all black and chrome livery typical of Matchless of that era, and featuring a four-speed foot change gearbox, had matured to the point where there wasn’t really anywhere else to go, except to start again at the drawing board with a new flagship. But war, of course, intervened once more, and the last Model X was built in the 1939/1940 season.
Arguably more significant (and damaging) to the fortunes and prestige of Matchless were two far more radical models introduced in 1929 and 1930, respectively.
The first was the 54mm x 86mm, 400cc ( 397cc ) Silver Arrow (designed for the 1930 season). The second was the 50.8mm x 73mm, 600cc (597cc), OHC Silver Hawk (unveiled for the 1931 season).
Both machines were radical and daring, and arrived at a time when other manufacturers were reeling in the slack and looking to consolidate their existing market without risking precious capital reserves on new and untested designs.
The public was stunned by what it was offered—and a little disappointed too by the fact that the Silver Hawk was a year overdue as a result of "teething" problems—which were actually a lot more serious.
The Arrow, on first inspection, looked like an in-line twin (think Sunbeam S7/S8), but was in fact a narrow angle sidevalve “vee”. The angle between the cylinders is often claimed to be 26-degrees, but is actually 18-degrees.
With just 16bhp on tap, the Arrow was never expected to be fastest dart in the quiver and was all out of huff at 60mph flat out, the power being delivered through a 3-speed Sturmey Archer hand change gearbox.
The public weren’t very impressed with the road tests of the day. But by the end of 1929, Matchless flogged seventy or so bikes citing its (genuine) virtues of neatness, quietness, and comfort (thanks largely to its pivoted rear fork). It was also reasonably lightweight at somewhere between 340lbs and 360lbs (variously quoted).
By the end of 1931, over 1400 machines had been sold at around £55 each, but sales tailed off soon after in line with reports of its many vices, which included overheating, a fragile gearbox, soggy brakes in the wet (which were linked, incidentally) and various other problems including a rubber centre stand.
A hasty redesign was initiated. The three-speed box became a four-speed and the tank was restyled. Other minor tweaks took place. But although the engine enjoyed superior cooling and better brakes—and a marginally more effective and reliable gearbox (built by Burman)—the PR damage was done, and the writing was on the wall.
The clever, attractive, and very innovative motorcycle had been rushed into production, perhaps hoping to cream off what little money was still around during those early depression years. Or, then again, perhaps it was simply that Matchless was always a gutsy firm that was prepared to take chances.
Either way, the Arrow—with its one-piece cast iron cylinder head, four-lobe “car type” camshaft and dry sump lubrication (with oil held in a forward mounted tank)—was not one of the firm’s great successes and was taken out of the catalogue by the end of 1933. It’s thought that no more than 2000 units were built, with no more than 70 machines surviving (production numbers are variously quoted at 1200 and 1700 bikes).
The Silver Hawk, belatedly introduced in late 1930 for the ’31 season, was another daring and more sporting model that was also rushed into production—and also failed because
Its radical 18-degree, V4, air-cooled, OHC engine featured a single crank (unlike, say, the rival Ariel Square Four’s twin cranks) with two con-rods on each crank throw for each pair of front and rear cylinders, respectively. The single overhead camshaft was driven by a train of bevel gears from the right side of the engine. Also gear driven was the dynamo and oil pump.
In some respects, you might think of the Hawk as the Yamaha V-Max of its day. Only, at around 80mph top, and with a slow hand-change, it was hardly a true speedster. And, like the sidevalve Arrow, it suffered numerous technical issues that were never entirely resolved; problems that included overheating and heavy oil consumption.
Price at around £75, the Silver Hawk was discontinued in 1935 with sales of no more than 500 bikes.
Pat Gill is one of those guys you just instantly get along with, especially if you’re ready and willing to talk about Matchless motorcycles. Not that that’s all Pat’s got on his mind. He’s one of those matter-of-fact, pragmatic, down to earth guys with a well rounded view of the world; a world that in recent years hasn’t been altogether too kind to him.
His background, incidentally, is in the motor industry. Classic BMWs, to be specific. And he’s got a few other interesting classic vehicles among his collection. But pride of place is his collection of Matchless motorcycles that seem to change with the seasons as he buys, trades, and sell parts and complete motorcycles.
You can usually find him happily tinkering about in his workshop for hours on end, fixing, tweaking, fettling, and working on the occasional complete rebuild.
But he rides his bikes too and puts in a fair amount of mileage both at home and abroad.
“Providing the weather’s not too cold,’ he explains. ‘I had a bad smash a few years ago when some bloke pulled a right turn in front of me and wrecked my ’29 Matchless. He was just staring straight ahead as if he meant to continue that way, but instead drove into me. I don’t remember much about what happened after the impact, but the damage to me was considerable, and now I find that damp and cold weather gets right down to my bones and causes me a lot of discomfort. So I’m limited to warm, dry-weather riding these days until things improve, if they ever do.”
But never mind that. How bad was the bike?
‘It was seriously damaged. Written off, in fact. The front fork, front half of the frame, petrol tank, engine cases, front barrel and magneto were totalled. There’s an on-going legal issue which I’m hoping will be resolved this year.
“After the smash, I bought the bike back from the insurance company, and picked up a new front half of the frame and another engine. But when the bike was rebuilt, I lost heart with it and sold it on—and promptly bought another Model X. Too many bad feelings about it, I suppose.”
How did you get into Matchlesses, anyway?
“It was about 15 years ago, I guess. Maybe a little longer. For some time I’d been thinking about picking up a classic bike to restore, but hadn’t made up my mind what marque I wanted. Certainly something British.
“After a while, a Matchless D80 came my way; a bike I wasn’t at all familiar with. But I went to see it and found it to be a single cylinder, twin-port, OHV, 500cc machine built in the “sloper” style that was popular in the 1920s and early 1930s.
“The bike was stripped and, as far as I could tell, complete. I paid around £800 for it. I didn’t collect it all at once. Instead, like the Johnny Cash song, I picked it up one piece at a time. Finally I had the whole thing back home and started restoring.
“The D80 is a handsome bike. The design is such that there are no great “holes” in the profile, if you know what I mean. It looks full and purposeful.
“It’s also a fast machine. The engine produces around 22bhp @ 5000rpm. When tested by the biking press of the day, it touched 82mph and reached 45mph in just 5 seconds. Of course, the journalists back then were often fairly generous in their assessments. But I’ve certainly seen 72mph on that bike at Brands Hatch—and it seemed like there was perhaps a little more speed to be wrung out of it.
“The bore and stroke are 82.5mm x 93mm. The exact capacity is 498cc. The gearbox is four-speed with a positive stop. Other features include a downdraught inlet port, an extra large double-row roller big end bearing, a Lucas magdyno, and high “sporting” exhausts and silencers..
“The D80, incidentally, used the same frame as the contemporary 250cc Matchless single. The bike, apparently, was intended to slip in under a 1930s road tax weight limit and weighed around 300lbs.
“Today, it would be worth up to £7500 maybe. I rate it highly and can recommend it to anyone who comes across one at a sensible price.
“Anyway, that bike was the start of it. As I was rebuilding, I began collecting parts (as you do), and by the time the rebuild was finished, I realised that I had enough spares to put together another two machines.
“I used the D80 for a while, and then began looking around for something else. Eventually a Model M Matchless came my way. The Model M came out in 1923 and was discontinued in 1926. It’s an OHV machine, which was quite unusual at a time when most bikes were sidevalve. It’s a great bike, however, and one that I enjoyed very much.
A few years on, I added to my collection when I got a couple of Matchless Silver Arrows in a big pile of bits and spent a long time trying to work out which engine and frames went together (Matchless didn’t have matching frame, engine and gearbox numbers). I’ve now got one on the road and two other projects sitting in the loft. One is a very rare four speed of which they made a few hundred. Meanwhile, the one that’s on the road is one of the first 50 made, a 1929 Arrow.
“But the Model X is the one I enjoy most. They’re great bikes to ride being strong and stable and effortless. You just put it into top gear and leave it there. You could go anywhere on one.
Such as Estonia and Latvia, for instance?
“Well that’s right. I took two 1929 Model Xs over there a few years back. A friend of mine rode the other machine. That was a great journey, and I’ll be doing it again soon. At the moment, I’ve got a 1929 Model X, a 1931 Model X and a 1939 Model X. None of them are exactly “correct” bikes because there’s no such thing as a correct Model X, not as far as I’m aware, anyway. They were being constantly changed and updated. That’s what helps make them so interesting.
“Currently I have about 26 Matchless bikes. Some of them are complete, and some are in boxes or in various states of rebuild. They’re all pre-war—except a WW2 G3L 350cc, which was once the property of the Russian army.
“The Silver Arrow is another one that I like to ride. It’s a softly tuned bike with no great performance. It was, if you like, the Honda 50 of its day. You can get it up to maybe 50-55mph, but that’s it. But it’s easy to start, and you don’t need a decompressor. It was built as a commuter, but wasn’t very successful.
“I’m currently looking for a “pioneer” Matchless; something that I can use on the Pioneer Run, which means a pre-1915. If anyone’s got any interesting Matchless stuff out there, perhaps they’d care to pass the word?”