This all started, like it always does, with a call from the editor: “Hey Thad, it’s Marc. Are you available to ride a bike for us next week?”
“Sure, what bike?”
“A Matchless G50. The bike Cal Rayborn raced as an amateur.”
There was a moment of silence. It took a few seconds for my inner tach needle to move to the right. I always look forward to riding new motorcycles for photo shoots, but it’s different riding old bikes. Especially bikes with “History.” And this one had History in spades.
I called bike owner Rob Iannucci, who filled me in on the background. The more Iannucci told me, the more interested I became. Usually, I’m expected to ride with great care. The magazine editors always want a great shot, but more importantly, they want the bike back in one piece. Especially a one-of-a-kind artifact like this. Crashing is not an option!
Iannucci, on the other hand, had a different idea. All he wanted me to do was to ride the bike hard and fast, just like its maker—and its former rider—intended. Pitch this Matchless sideways and gas it hard—again and again. This was going to be fun!
I rode with great care—after all, I knew I had the spirit of Rayborn watching over me, and I knew he would approve. I’m a bit of a moto-history buff, and I know more than a few things about the late Calvin Rayborn, but that didn’t stop me from doing a bit more research before embarking on this assignment. The more people I talked to, the more reverent I became. To hear just how much he was respected by all of his friends, even now, nearly 40 years after his death, tells me everything I need to know about him as a person. He was the greatest of the great.
So it was with maximum respect that I slipped into his very own race vest, the same one he wore at Cajon Speedway 50 years ago, and kicked his own G50 single to life. With an open megaphone exhaust, this big single has a sound all its own—ooo-baaa! Aaron already wrote about the substandard chassis, and I’m here to confirm that the engine outperforms the chassis three to one. More than anything, it underlined the fact that Cal was able to ride anything fast!
Tires almost as old as I am eventually led to one particularly massive slide and heroic save—I didn’t go down, but the swapping back and forth was so violent that I actually had to straighten the front end by banging the front wheel against the blade of a tractor a few times. I couldn’t help but think that Rayborn might have done that himself once or twice back in the day. That made me smile.
What Rayborn learned on this Matchless was undoubtedly one of the reasons he went on to become the great racer that we remember him as today. One of the many former friends I talked to was the great Dan Gurney, who had given Rayborn space in the legendary All American Racers shop to build a Formula 5000 race car, just before Rayborn died. Cal had proven that he could make any machine go fast, and Gurney really believed that Rayborn had what it took be become America’s next top driver. Then Calvin went to New Zealand, leaving another unanswered question…
Riding his old bike all crossed up, throttle wide open, I pictured Calvin’s patented smile looking down: “All right! That was a good one!”