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Today in Motorcycle History

The "Killer III"

Bryan Lambert kindly sent me this most interesting story that originated from an article in the The Classic Motorcycle January 1988 and one that many, we are sure, will find most intriguing. The original article was written by Celia Walton, once VMCC grasstrack sidecar champion along with Barbara Coombes and a long time member of the VMCC who used to race sidecar grasstrack with her husband Simon - they are both now retired from racing but still play a large part in running the section.

In 1934, Jack Brantom was looking for a bike to use for grass and dirt track events. He searched for a while and then bought an ohv AJS engined machine offered as a 1924 dirt tracker, although it was on the road at the time.

It had a 1925 AJS frame, converted for grass track (the AJS factory never produced any specific grass machines) indeed, the whole bike had been altered for the sport. The original tank would have had a built-in oil tank, hand pump and gear lever, but the person who converted the Ajay had got rid of this in favour of the more usual tiny fuel tank. Therefore, these components were missing, and a saddle tube mounted oil tank had been made and a mechanical Best & Lloyd oil pump fitted (the builder's personal choice against the AJS Pilgrim pump presumably). The rocker plates were about the only place left to put the gear lever. The magneto was not the usual make either, being an ML. There was a three-inch bore flexible exhaust pipe with a genuine AJS aluminium silencer. The engine was tilted forwards - no one knows why, but it seemed to work all right so it was left in that position.

(Left) Mike Coombes looks apprehensive before venturing out on the AJS "Killer".
Jack had owned two previous grass and dirt track machines, both named "Killer". Before the war they were ridden on private tracks near his home (with no transport available he simply pushed them along the road to the track). An old lady in the village used to lean over her gate whenever she saw this weird machine being pushed past. In her cracked voice she'd cry "Ah, you'll get killed, you'll get killed"" Which, as you might have guessed by now is where the name derives. You see, the first "Killer", a Rex Acme road racer, was stripped for overhaul and needed painting. Jack found some beautiful royal blue enamel - "my favourite colour" - so tank, frame, wheels and just about everything else ended up royal blue. The two plated parts were polished and all the half plated parts derusted and covered with aluminium paint. A close friend, a signwriter, was most impressed and suggested Jack put a name on it. This wasn't as simple as it sounds, as Malcolm Campbell had already pinched "BlueBird". Then up came the standing joke. Giving his best impression of the old lady, Jack croaked "Ah, you'll get killed, you'll get killed!" "That's it!" said the signwriter, "Why not Killer?", and so it was.

The next machine was an OK, and he put Killer II on that, so the ohv AJS was naturally, Killer III. Jack himself made one or two alterations to the bike. The magneto chaincase was removed to reduce weight and in 1937 he tried fuel injection, just the same as a carb without a float chamber. His "unusual method of cornering" (his words) meant that all his bikes had flat pipes and bent footrests, so the only answer for the track was to take them off and use the pillion footrests. The AJS was used with mixed success. At one point a new piston became essential, but the Second World War was just beginning and new pistons were not available for love, money or anything else. Jack had a sidevalve engine, and in desperation used the cylinder and piston from this, bought some methylated spirit from the chemists (with petrol on coupons during the war there wasn't a lot of that about either) and rode it half a mile up the road. The imbalance that the cast iron piston caused was unbelievable. Back to the drawing board. About that time there was a strong appeal for aluminium to build Spitfires, and Jack found himself in the army. He reckoned that the more Spitfires, the sooner the war would be over and the sooner he'd be ex-army, so the engine, gearbox and aluminium silencer went to the good cause. What remained of the Killer retired to the back of the shed.

(Right)* Jack Brampton gives Mike Coombes a hand to start the "Killer"

With the war over, the bike languished under a sheet until Jack fell over it while searching for something else. He looked at it and thought it seemed a shame, somehow, to leave it there, and his son Dave was enthusiastically riding in VMCC grass track events with a variety of vintage and post vintage machines. So he started to look for the bits to get it going once more. Bill Davies gave Jack a cylinder head for the bike, and by pure chance it had Jack's "mark" on it. So much for the war effort ! But did the rest survive? If anyone finds an AJS engine with a sawn mag chaincase........... Jack was talking to the late Ormond Gurr one day and the subject of spares came up. Ormond suggested joining the VMCC, which he did and went to dozens of autojumbles. Even so, more of the motor was manufactured than bought, so it's lucky that both father and son are engineers. The flywheels are from a sidevalve, but considerably lightened. The smaller pushrods and cases are all home-made, though old bits were sometimes used for patterns - occasionally slightly improved for weight and so on.

Ken Cobbing was able to supply beaded-edge tyres, as used pre-war, to fit the home built wheels - rear with AJS hub, front of an unknown make. The chain case came from a 500cc JAP, cylinder head, twist grip, rocker return springs, taps and the magnet off the magneto are about all that is original. The flexible exhaust pipe was rebuilt to pattern. It was finished about 1973. It doesn't comply with modern rules and regulations, when first built there weren't any rules or regulations to comply with. The choice had to be made - rebuild as original, or go along with modern rules - and Jack chose the former. The original used pump petrol and straight grade oil, the present model started out swimming in Castrol R but Jack subsequently found that the vegetable oil becomes horribly gummy when left idle for months at a time and this was changed to straight monograde of the mineral variety. Fuel? He quite automatically mixed two parts of two-star with one-part paraffin and added an eggcup of oil.

At the machine's first try-out, a VMCC hill climb, the rider was asked to wear helmet, leathers and so on. The machine was not passed by the scrutineer as it failed to meet present rules such as no ball ended levers, snap-shut throttle or silencer. Latter impossible to fit anyway. He couldn't get the bike going properly, even though he was given the opportunity for a demonstration run after the event. It had carburation problems and the engine tightened up at the slightest provocation.

(Above and Below)* The "Killer in all its glory.... including beaded tyres !!
It was a bad day. A while later on Jack took the bike to a local field and ran it all he could. He made three new jets, but "the blighter still played up". Finally he took it out to Quainton mid-week when it was deserted. He found a hard spot at the top of the hill to bump it on and it fired first time but there were still obvious carburation problems. Then, some months later, along came this woman who was intrigued by the thought of a special made over 50 years ago lying idle in a shed for all that time and then restored by the original owner. It seemed a shame she thought, to let it vanish again, forgotten without even getting going properly. So she cornered Jack and started asking him questions about the bike's history and development - you've just read the story. It seemed to me that the best way of finishing such a tale would be a test ride. I am no solo rider, goodness knows, especially on grass, but I did want to see what it felt like. So we took it to a field where a VMCC hill climb was to be held. We didn't even try to enter the event, Jack had fitted ball-end levers and a quicker closing throttle, but it still had no mudguards or silencer and there were a number of uncovered chains.

Perhaps fired by the desire of getting someone else to ride his machine Jack had done a great deal of work on it. He had sorted out the carburation for one thing, and it started pretty easily (leaving the owner on his hands and knees on the grass at one point, as it started more abruptly than expected). I brought it back for various adjustments to be made, then rode off up the field desperately looking for the footrests. I found them, in time to discover I needed to turn around and then came the search for the brake! The beaded edged tyres were a bit unnerving on slippery grass, and I couldn't get the hang of the hand gear change at all, but there was no question acceleration was pretty good. I asked Jack if someone more competent on a solo could have a ride, and he agreed. So I fetched Mike Coombes, who successfully rides all sorts and ages of vintage Grass track and speedway machines. His first comments were that he didn't like the gear lever, or the position of the footrests, or a number of little things. But he agreed it went very well indeed, and handled nicely - he felt that with a weekend's work altering the various details (all riders have their preferences for position of handlebars etc) it would be a very competitive vintage grass track machine indeed. So the "Killer" is alive again. I wonder how many such specials, built long ago, are lying in sheds perhaps occasionally robbed of spares by their owners either for use or sale? So many machines were altered and improved in their past by riders for their own use, they have a special place in the history of motorcycle sport. I'm glad I'm one.

The Classic Motorcycle, January 1988.

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