Many of the import bikes we’ve looked at recently have gone for a look inspired by the British cafe racer era.
AJS goes one better.
This company’s roots go back to Wolverhampton in 1909, where they were once a part of the Norton Villiers group. And the brothers that founded the company did so to race in the Isle of Mann TT.
Through these associations, AJS is directly linked to some of the most iconic motorcycle designs in British history.
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Where Are AJS Made?
This very English pedigree is evident in the looks of the AJS range. And at a glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was produced in the UK. But, like the other import bikes we’ve been looking at, these are manufactured in China.
Like we’re often at pains to get across – made in China is no longer the death sentence it once was for motorcycles.
Are AJS Bikes Reliable?
The short answer is yes. But we’ll break that down further. The current line-up of AJS bikes has been on the market since about 2012 (with changes like linked brakes and fuel injection being introduced with the Euro 5 regulations). If you go back to forum posts from this time, you’ll find a small list of complaints.
Mostly, they are minor but annoying issues – electric starter not working in the rain, switchgear failing after less than a year, and other issues stemming from quality control. But these complaints get fewer and fewer as we check more recent reviews.
Other publications have pointed out the extraordinary pace of improvement in Chinese motorcycle manufacture. And it really is incredible. In a few short years, they’ve almost changed the narrative – almost.
The level of finish and quality control on display in AJS current line-up might not be up to the big three. But it’s decent, and parts are easy to find. More and more resellers are carrying AJS in the UK and Ireland as confidence in their reliability improves.
The AJS Line Up
The JSM 50 is essentially a geared moped. And because it falls into this classification, it can be ridden by 16-year-olds or anyone on a full driving license (if you passed your test before 01/02/2001).
What’s fun and unusual here is the 2-stroke engine. 2-strokes are capable of some lively performance – even at lower displacements. Older machines of this type required the rider to premix oil and fuel. Thankfully, the auto-lubrication system takes care of that here so you can focus on riding. A warning light for low oil levels is also included.
Six gears and a hand clutch will help the rider develop skills for when they progress to larger, geared motorcycles. All in all, this is a fun option for 16-year-olds or older people looking for a runaround.
AJS Cadwell 125cc
The Cadwell is a cafe racer through and through. There’s some of the company’s DNA in the Norton-inspired tank shape, the bump seat, and the clip-on handlebars. At a glance, this doesn’t look much different from what the AJS brand was known for fifty years ago.
However, underneath the admittedly beautiful aesthetic, this is a bog-standard 125cc commuter. And that’s OK.
It looks great, its 4-stroke engine runs smoothly, and it feels fun to ride. Sure, it’s underpowered, even for a 125. But when you weigh so little and look this good, why go too fast?
This is a great option for 17-year-olds looking for their first bike – great fuel economy, killer looks, and reliable switchgear and components.
The brakes are decent too. It uses discs, front and rear. The back one is a standard issue but does the job. However, the front brake uses a four-pot calliper and does an excellent job of stopping.
The star of the show is undoubtedly the styling and detail. This goes well above the usual level of import bikes. Pin lines, chrome, gators, paint, and components have all been chosen carefully to deliver a very specific look. And it does this spectacularly.
Tempest Roadster 125 cc
The Tempest Roadster is another lightweight commuter with a classic cafe-inspired look. Like the Cadwell, under the aesthetics, this is just a solid little commuter 125. But those aesthetics work.
The seating position here is relaxed and comfortable – perfect for urban commutes or weekend trips to the country. And while the performance isn’t spectacular, the handling makes filtering and zipping down lanes a lot of fun.
The Tempest Roadster is a sound first bike for a few reasons. Not least of which is how easy they are to manoeuvre, park, and lift off the centre stand. These things can intimidate newcomers, particularly those who aren’t very physically strong. This is a lightweight, non-intimidating experience.
A luggage rack compatible with most boxes is available as an affordable extra. The range of optional extras includes racing style side panels, clip-on handlebars and a club man-style seat.
Suffice to say, the company know what market they’re appealing to on this one and have the accessories to match.
‘71 Desert Scrambler 125cc
Made in honour of an AJS employee’s historic victory in a Mojave Desert race, the ‘71 Desert Scrambler is beautiful. And it’s actually just a commuter 125 with a sexy outfit on.
This sounds like a criticism. But we don’t see it that way. This is very much a street scrambler – with an emphasis on the “street”.
It uses the same 4-stroke, single-cylinder engine as the rest of the range. And here, like with the other models, it’s a reliable workhorse that gives a respectable feeling of power thanks to its low weight. Some of that is also thanks to the seating position, which is neutral and easy to steer from.
The touches like thermal wrapped, high line exhaust system, and chopped mudguards are largely just there for show. But it’s a show that works better than fake carbon fibre and useless plastic fairing, so we’ll give it a pass.
The front end of this does deserve a mention for how pretty it is. The bars, the micro, analogue dials, and the blacked-out headlamp give it a distinctive look. This is a seriously unique take in the legal-for-17-year-olds category.
Tempest Scrambler 125cc
Built using the same components as the Cadwell, this model uses a longer swingarm and a larger, 18” front wheel. This gives a more aggressive look and slightly more capabilities in the muddy stuff. The knobby tyres help in that department too.
It has that same Norton-inspired tank, a lightweight frame, and a slim, flat seat. More scrambler-appropriate touches include a headlamp grill and points above the lamp and on the side panels to affix your number in a race.
Not that you’ll be doing any real off-roading here. Commuting in style, for sure. But I’d leave the trails alone.
There’s the same performance from the 4-stroke, single-cylinder engine as with the rest of the range. And that means this is lots of fun to through around in traffic or on backroads.
The linked brakes do a decent job of stopping too. The front brake is the same one used throughout the range and is more than enough to stop such a lightweight bike.
For an ultra-cheap scooter, this doesn’t feel too bad. We know that’s not the greatest compliment in human history. But this is a budget 50cc.
It’s smooth, accelerates up to its 30mph limit quickly, and handles like every other scooter you’ve ever ridden. These are all bonus points. A CBT-legal machine should feel neutral and have very few surprises. This ticks those boxes.
It also stops fairly well. A rear drum and front disc do the job well enough for the bike’s low weight and mellow speeds. The included luggage rack is a nice touch and comes drilled for a top box. The fuel economy is also worth mentioning as the copy claims up to 128mpg – impressive.
This is essentially the same scooter as the Digita, with a sportier, more aggressive look.
It uses the same reliable, economical 4-stroke engine to deliver smooth acceleration up to its 30mph limit. The under-seat storage here is decent. And the included luggage rack is a nice touch.
This is a simple, twist-and-go option that’s Euro 5 compliant and accessible to 16-yea-olds. Some of them will probably like the styling.
The Modena is a pretty shameless copy of classic Italian scooters. And they’ve gone for a look that traditionally would have required many aftermarket purchases and modifications.
A front and rear luggage rack, optional two-tone tyres, and many little touches give this a custom feel. The 125cc engine is simple, smooth, and reliable too. Both it and the brakes feel about right for the amount of power and weight available.
Overall, this is an easy-handling experience that’s got more flair than many other options on the market. The look of these machines mightn’t be for everyone. But it’s a well-executed homage with a solid commuter engine inside – nice.
If the Modena feels a little too traditional for your tastes, the Insetto might be more your speed. With more contemporary lines and flair, this scooter is retro-inspired more than it is retro.
A slightly more whippy engine complements its slightly more aggressive look. It’s nothing spectacular. But with its low weight and responsive handling, this can feel sporty.
It’s a solid commuter and takes some visual cues from more contemporary Italian designs. Unlike the Modena, there’s no luggage rack included. Underseat storage is slightly smaller too. But, this is more of a pared-down, utilitarian thing. And it works great for minimalist commuters.
All images via AJS motorcycles.
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