Last of the dinosaurs
From the moment Ray Fisher arrived home from Europe in 1965 with his red Matchless Metisse, everybody wanted one of the mouth-watering British scramblers with the immaculately-welded, nickel-plated frames. It wasn’t long before several examples were privately imported, notably for West Australian Ritchie Kings and South Australian Peter Heywood, and several dealers also began to bring in the Metisse kits manufactured by the Rickman brothers in new Milton, UK.
The engine of choice was probably the Matchless G80CS in its final configuration, with the square bore and stroke (86 x 86mm) all-alloy engine incorporating the high-capacity Norton oil pump. A common modification was to weld up the cylinder head and reshape the inlet port to a central configuration, giving not only increased performance but allowing easier mounting of an effective air filter. However the Matchless engine was in short supply, at least in Australia, and quite expensive, so a number of alternative powerplants were pressed into service for locally-constructed Metisses, including the Jawa speedway unit, at least one 500cc Velocette, and most commonly, the alloy 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 twin.
The Triumph variation was not really the poor cousin to the Matchless, as had been demonstrated very effectively in Britain by both Don and Derek Rickman. In fact, the original Mk1 Metisse (French for ‘mongrel’) which was built in February 1959, used a T100 engine in a BSA Gold Star frame, with Norton front forks and a BSA gearbox. That machine swept into history when Don beat the world’s best riders to record the best individual performance at the 1959 Moto Cross des nations at the hallowed Namur circuit in Belgium.
The second, considerably lighter Mk2 Metisse also used a modified BSA frame to house the Triumph engine, with the Matchless variation first appearing as the Mk3 Metisse in 1962. The Mk3 used the Rickman’s own frame design, constructed in Reynolds 531 tubing, and was an instant success. Some idea of the success can be seen from the entry for the 1964 Moto Cross des Nations in Britain, where no fewer than 24 riders were Metisse-mounted.
In Melbourne, Springvale dealer Athol Patterson became the Victorian agent for the Metisse frame kits. For several years Patterson had sponsored local rider Geoff Taylor on 250cc Cottons, and the pair wasted no time in assembling a Metisse with a Triumph T100 engine and BSA gearbox. Taylor adapted to the larger machine with alacrity, and was in top form as the state’s main motocross meeting, the Victorian Grand National at Christmas Hills, near Yarra Glen, rolled around in May 1966. The undulating hillside course perfectly suited the big four strokes, and Taylor made the early running with defending champion Fisher not far behind. But all was not well with Fisher’s mount and towards the end of the gruelling 20 lap race the Matchless began to jump out of gear, eventually causing his retirement. This let John Burrows, riding another Triumph Metisse, into second, with Burrows’ business partner Keith Stacker, on a BSA-framed Matchless, third.
In September, Taylor took the Metisse to the NSW titles at the new circuit at Mt Kembla, near Wollongong, where he defeated local favourite Graeme Bartholomew in the first round of the 500cc Championship. However when trying to make up ground after a bad start in the second leg, Taylor crashed and was unable to continue. The big event for the year was the Australian titles at Christmas Hills in October, and Taylor had high hopes of repeating his Grand National victory. By the time the Unlimited title, the last race of the day in a 21-event program, came round, most riders were worn out and hauling the heavy Metisse through the thick mud proved too great a task for Taylor, who settled for second behind John Mapperson’s 250 Bultaco.
It was almost the last gasp for the big four strokes, with the new, light weight machinery from Bultaco, Montesa, Greeves and Cotton rapidly taking over. Taylor himself abandoned the metisse in favour of a 250 Bultaco for 1967.
Fortunately, Taylor’s green Triumph Metisse has survived virtually intact, save for the substitution of an AMC gearbox for the original BSA unit. Eventually it passed into the hands of Leigh Goodall, who modified it slightly to make it suitable for trail and road use, with the fitment of lights and a Norton Commando front wheel. The original 21-inch Norton wheel and other components were retained, and in August 2007 the famous Metisse was bought by Motorcycling Australia for their growing museum. The bike is presently being converted to the specification in which it became such a dominant force on Australian motocross circuits in the mid-1960s.