Here’s an attempt to “flesh out” Louise Swartzwalder’s excellent column and photo of a vintage British 1956 AJS competition motorcycle proudly owned by Bellville’s Loren and Susan Thompson.
After over two years of painstaking restoration, the couple has made the venerable bike as nearly perfect as mortal hands could make it, earning a six-foot “Best of Show” trophy, beating out several hundred others at a recent bike show/swap meet near Steubenville.
Now, you’ll hear, as Paul Harvey always said, the rest of the 61 year-old story.
As a kid in 1959, I fell in love with this same motorcycle as it leaned in disrepair against the wall of Stan Thompson’s small garage at Ogle and Markey Streets. Half hidden behind and under various things, it was gathering dust, looking lonely and ignored due to expensive engine trouble striking just a few years after Stan bought it new.
The Bellville Methodist Church sternly admonished obedience to the Ten Commandments, but as a thirteen year-old boy I figured I still had a few yet to violate, and this glorious old black AJS in the corner taught me to covet at an early age. To me the bike was an impressive study in steel and aluminum, the latter a bit dull on the fenders, but more polished on its massive, deeply finned single cylinder engine and transmission. The painted frame and gas tank were British black. This colour, as the British would spell it, presented a rich patina from which the stylized gold-leaf script “AJS” and “Made in England” proudly blazed. A complex array of knobs, levers and triggers made the chrome handlebars exquisitely intriguing to an already love-stricken lad.
Stanley’s “A-Jay” was originally built, nearly by hand, in Plumstead, London by Associated Motorcycle Corporation. We can easily imagine a grizzled English shop foreman, in his snap-down tweed cap, gruffly telling his workers in a cockney accent, “The next thousand of these buggers go to the Yanks. Let’s show ‘em how a real motorcycle is built.” Opinions differ in explaining the post-WWII influx of “Limey” bikes, but the upshot is that from 1947 to 1970 British bikes sold to Americans in prodigious numbers, greatly dismaying America’s Harley Davidson and Indian sales reps. But by 1970 the bloom was off the British rose, as Honda’s four-cylinder 750, a faster, smoother, leak-free bike ended forever the long-standing British monopoly.
AJS, named for A. Joseph Stevens, its inventor, rode the tidal wave of British imports to America along with Ariel, Norton, Triumph, Royal Enfield, and the popular BSA (which stood for Birmingham Small Arms, a gun manufacturer before motorcycle builder). In Bellville, BSA owners of these sometimes temperamental “Beezers,” said it really stood for “Bugger Stopped Again.” (Bugger isn’t the exact word we used).
Bought brand new in Orient, Ohio, Stan’s — now Loren’s — AJS hit Bellville in the mid-fifties, was ridden briefly, some would say brutally, until its engine blew. It languished unrepaired until the mid-sixties when it suddenly disappeared. One theory is the old A-Jay was sold to help fund a race car Stanley was building. Whatever the case, it was gone for four decades, out of Bellville’s sight and mind.
When in 2003 Loren saw a Galion auction bill offering a 1956 English AJS motorcycle not running, he hardly suspected his late brother’s old bike may have actually surfaced. However, a careful study of the bike slowly confirmed his belief that it indeed was the prodigal, destined to come home.
Bidding more than he and Susie had planned, Loren hauled the “A-Jay” home in several boxes, where Susan’s first words upon seeing their purchase were, “What a pile of junk.” Her opinion quickly changed, and she happily pitched in on the two-year restoration, helping on those tough jobs requiring, as she said, “Four hands.” Most work fell to Loren, obviously, but other local talent contributed. Brad Ally, local English bike enthusiast, expertly laced the chrome spoke wheels; Wes Dingus, artist in automotive paint work, refinished the gas tank in British black that looks a foot deep; a young Lexington gentleman, Craig Postel, hand-lettered and pinstriped the tank in gold-leaf so beautifully exacting it can’t be told from the 60 year-old original.
Returning to the present: Last week’s impromptu Bellville showing found the Thompsons’ old 500c.c. single cylinder AJS G80CS masterpiece displayed near Mechanics Bank, where it attracted a small group of admirers. Some of us had close, but ancient, ties to the reborn bike.
To call it a “classic” isn’t reckless; most English bikes are. In the same way a classic suit is timeless and appropriate anywhere it’s worn, and classic art or literature is always relevant no matter how old, so the AJS’s perfect proportions, workmanship, and style-with-function, recall Bellville’s golden motorcycle years when Harleys were scorned and British bikes ruled. In younger years, Loren had put this bike through its paces; even diminutive Susie had mastered sliding the big one-cylinder “Thumper” around a local dirt track; Bellville’s own Larry Leedy had raced and beaten some very fast bikes, racing Stan’s AJS from Pickle Bridge to Bellville. Of the final few of us gazing upon the grand old bike, only I had never ridden it. We stood thoughtfully on Main Street, each considering the history of this splendid machine, a half-century ago in Bellville. Suddenly, Loren asked Larry Leedy if he still recalled his once-thrilling rides on the old “A-Jay.”
Larry’s few words indicated beyond doubt his — and perhaps many of our — enduring fondnesses of these classic British motorcycles in Bellville. Without lifting his thoughtful gaze from the bike, he quietly said, “Like it was yesterday.”