Road Test: Norton ES2 and Matchless G3

Matchless G3 Mercury and Norton ES2

Matchless and Norton are two of the great names of the British motorcycle industry. Indeed, it was a Matchless and a Norton which won the two classes (single and twin-cylinder) of the first TT race in 1907. Through the teens and 1920s both firms were on sound footings, with Norton dominant in road racing – which continued into the 1930s – while Matchless were in a secure enough financial position to acquire the well-known AJS of Wolverhampton concern when AJS owners, the Stevens family, struck financial difficulty in 1931.

In the 1930s, both Matchless and Norton excelled while others floundered and fell – Matchless built some innovative machines like the V-four Silver Hawk and V-twin Silver Arrow – plus the innovative racing AJS-badged V-four – while Matchless V-twin engines were deemed good enough by the perfectionist George Brough for his top-drawer machinery. Norton, meanwhile, continued to dominate road racing, racking up TT win after TT win, success after success.

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Military contracts
Come WWII and both were granted military contracts and then each concern was at the forefront of the post-WWII motorcycle sales boom – ‘export or die’ screamed debt-ridden Great Britain and it was products from Matchless and Norton that were among the most demanded, securing much-needed ‘dollar’. Matchless (though often using the AJS moniker) became a leading light in road racing, clinching the first ever 500cc world championship in 1949 (thanks to Les Graham on the twin-cylinder Porcupine) while Norton’s Geoff Duke and others maintained a level of performance that ensured the Birmingham boys’ reputation as among the best motorcycle builders in the world was justified by racing success.

Both companies launched twin-cylinder parallel twin models to add to the well-respected singles – both seemed to be in for the long haul. So, where did it all go wrong? Though motorcycle sales reached on all-time peak in 1959, the next few seasons saw a sharp decline. Ageing machinery and equipment in the factories didn’t help – and neither did elderly models in the ranges. Because the factories hadn’t invested when the good times were rolling, come the pesky intervention of the affordable car (Mini) and the high-tech Japanese motorcycles – the coffers were bare. So, it was a catch-22 situation – no money to invest in new models because the old models weren’t selling, but the old models weren’t selling because they were outdated and needed significant redesign and development to sell – but the cash wasn’t there to do it.

Eventually, just as BSA and Triumph had done, Matchless/AJS (which already had swallowed up James and Francis-Barnett) enveloped the ailing Norton concern. But there was still no money for ranges of new models – there was just a bigger pile of bits in the parts bin to raid…

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Granted, some memorable models were created – the Matchless/Norton P11 series of ‘desert sleds’ must be among the most handsome British machines ever built – but there was, ultimately, no disguising what they were. And that was outdated, outmoded and on the way out. Especially with the CB450 Honda and H1 Kawasaki and the like waiting in the wings…

Matchless G3 MercurySo, into this tumultuous and basically depressing arena the machines we now see before us emerged, not so much blazing a trail, as stumbling, blinking and bewildered – and bewildering really. Thing is though, that taken as what they are (honest, hardworking ‘old fashioned’ singles) they’re great – but however many jazzy tank badges or snazzy detail lines were added, their wheels remained in the 1940s and 50s, not the 60s, and snazzy sportsters they ain’t. Today, though that’s less of a concern as taken for what they are – simple, from a different era – they make great machines for England’s leafy lanes.

So what are they? Well, engine and frame came from the Matchless/AJS side of the line, while forks and wheels were Norton. Announced in late 1964, the appearance of the ‘new’ machines was celebrated by few and ignored by many. The ever-diminishing band of ‘Norton singles men’ weren’t happy that their beloved 79 x 100mm engine dimensions had been abandoned, while the AJS and Matchless fans likewise felt aggrieved that their marque had been ‘polluted’ with Norton forks and wheels’ It was, to turn around a well-known phase, a ‘lose-lose’ situation… Of course the models were short-lived – by 1966 the short production run was over, though many lingered unsold in dealers showrooms. Today, they fall between two stalls – but they do have their enthusiasts, among them Nigel Megson, from near Doncaster. “It was actually an article in The Classic MotorCycle that inspired me,” he says, handing me a copy of the January 1994 edition, which featured a test on a G3 Mercury. “I have an interest in oddballs,” he explains, “and I’m an impulse buyer, which is how I’ve ended up with these two…”

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Fifty-year-old semi-retired Nigel has had a variety of motorcycles over the years and the two AMC singles share garage space with a BSA twin, while there are a number of trail and trials machines in Nigel’s back shed too. He explains: “I only returned to trials when the twin-shock events started happening. I rode in trials in the late-70s but stopped when all the ‘trick’ stuff – both machines and riding – came in.” Nigel’s road riding, though, is done on classics – with this pair covering most of his road miles.

Norton ES2Norton ES2 MkII
The Norton was first bought by Nigel in early 1996, it having resided all its life around the Manchester, Cheadle Hulme, Blackpool and Preston areas. It was supplied by Manchester dealer Alan Taylor (Northern Limited) and first registered on 24 October 1967. Indeed, when Nigel checked the engine number against information supplied by author Steve Wilson – and that which appeared in Glass’s Guide – it appears that this was the last ‘MkII’ built before AMC called in the receivers in August/September 1966. Despatched shortly after to Manchester, it sat, unsold and seemingly unwanted, for the next 12 months.

Nigel took the ES2 off the road at the end of 1996 – when he became interested in BSAs – with restoration commencing in 1997 before, for one reason or another, the project was shelved. It was moved into Nigel’s loft where it again sat, in need of attention, until agreement was reached to sell it to Roger Trimby in late 2006. Before selling it, Nigel had completed the paintwork – with Dream Machine doing the tank finish, matching it to another unrestored tank – and sundry other pieces.

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Nigel kept in touch with Roger as the restoration came together and, after Roger had finished the build, he decided to sell, whereupon Nigel bought it back from him. Roger’s main enjoyment came from the restoration while Nigel was keen to ride it. As Nigel says: “Basically, I’ve lost interest in restoring things so, in an around about way, I simply paid Roger to restore it.”

The Norton still runs a six-volt electrical system and is running on tyres that would have been standard fitment in 1966, with Avon Speedmasters front and rear, though now on 19in rims as opposed to the original 18in rims. Nigel explains: “It had 19in rims when I bought it and C Wyldes replaced like for like.” The other few deviations from catalogue spec include that the silencer has been changed at some point and the horn has been repositioned under the seat. Other than that, though, the Norton is pretty much as it should be.

Matchless G3 MercuryMatchless G3 Mercury
Nigel bought the G3 Mercury in February 2006. It is largely unrestored and has had four previous owners, who all resided in the Surrey area. The first owner was obviously happy with his purchase, keeping it for 10 years, while the second owner was likewise equally satisfied with the push-rod 350’s performance – he kept it for 14 years, including several trips to the Isle of Man. Owner number three was in for another 14 year haul, before giving it to his son in 2005. It was the son who sold it to Nigel – when collected, the machine had a 1997 tax disc in situ, so had been off the road for a few years.

Nigel has managed to contact all but the original owner. When bought, it was pretty much as it is today, though various bits and pieces have been repainted and there’s a new, modern profile tyre on the front too. “I don’t want to do too much to it,” he admits. Nigel has fitted a brand new carburettor – at the time of our ride, it was perhaps running a touch rich – while he also has taken off the cylinder head off, ‘just to check inside.’ Says Nigel: “It seems to have quite a high compression, which, along with the scrambles bottom end cams, makes for a machine that likes to motor.” Indeed, it does have a high compression ratio – catalogued as 9:1 compared to the 7.3:1 boasted by the Norton.

Nigel rode the Matchless to the Isle of Man for the VMCC TT rally in 2007, where it covered over 600 trouble-free miles.

Norton ES2 and Matchless G3 MercuryRiding
For two machines that look so similar, it was surprising how different the duo felt. First off it was a turn on the seat of the recently restored Norton. Settling into the saddle, one couldn’t help but be struck by the Featherbed-esque feeling that the wide saddle and flat, Norton-style bars inspired. Although to all intents and purposes this is basically a Matchless/AJS, a Norton man – glancing down at the silver-finished tank, the flat handlebars and from the seating position – would almost be convinced he’s on a Bracebridge Street product. Almost… out on the road the engine feels strong and there’s a fair amount of torque too. There’s nothing worrying or intimidating about the Norton – it’s just a sound example of a ‘traditional’ British single, able to do exactly what it should. It’s not super-fast, super-handling or super-anything really – except in its ability to provide super-fun, which it’s really good at!

Then it was on to the Matchless. Nigel had said that this one was a bit more ‘feisty’ and he was proved right. Also, as the Matchless has been fitted with higher rise handlebars the riding position feels really quite different. Allied to the fact the Matchy is on 18in rims, too, and the whole job felt lower and slightly more ‘flickable’ at lower speeds compared to the Norton. The engine likes to rev much more than the Norton and though the bigger machine has more ‘plonk’ the smaller sibling felt livelier. Whether the Matchless would actually prove quicker is open to debate – but it does feel more frenzied and ‘revs up’ much quicker. Which is somewhat at odds with the riding positions – the Norton feels ‘racier’, the Matchless more ‘tourer’, but the engines are the other way round. Perhaps it’s just another example of the confused identity of these two muddled machines.

Norton ES2 and Matchless G3 MercuryAnd though, granted, they are slightly muddled and as Nigel says ‘oddballs’ they both do – admittedly in different ways – what one wants from a classic machine in this day and age. In all honesty, few of us use our classics to pound up and down motorways or tear around like we’re on a race track – they’re just there to provide a welcome escape from the ‘modern world’ And these two machines, though arguably out of date when they were built, now have their place in the modern world… take to a quiet back road on either and one is reminded what motorcycling is all about – fun and enjoyment, which both deliver in quantity. bike

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