Velocettes 1, 2, 3…
Velocettes crossed the finish line 1st, 2nd, 3rd at the Burt Munro Challenge 2015. This would not have been an unusual sight on the racing circuits of England and Europe through the 1920s 30s or even late 40s. However Invercargill in November 2015 at the bottom of the world in New Zealand? An unlikely treat for those with a taste for vintage racing motorcycles. Phil Price picks up the story.
Unlikely is a good word to describe most things about Invercargill, Burt Munro’s efforts, and the challenge now named after him. It is literally the end of the earth or at least the earth’s most southern town right at the bottom of New Zealand, where the weather is anything but settled, often blowing straight off the Antarctic. The locals are a determined lot with a good old-fashioned zest for life. Munro, a curious and slow learning fellow who persisted when most would have given up, finally achieving nearly 200mph on the salt flats of Bonneville in Utah aboard his own highly modified 1926 Indian scout. The event with the formal title and catch phrase ‘The Burt Munro Challenge—one hell of a week’ is only in existence as a consequence of the place, the man, oh and the bikes.
A cool wind but clearing sky greeted our Sunday, race day, on the back streets close to town. Thankfully the sky is not threatening to deliver Southland’s norm of flagrant horizontal squalls, what were the chances? Team Velo lined up a string of Cammy pre-war racers all entered in what could be described as a ‘loose girder fork’ class, five prewar Velocette’s in total, two MKVIIIs, two MKIVs, and the Big Velo. A far reaching historical reference, but rolling with the theme of the unlikely, when Soichiro Honda visited the isle of Man in the early fifties he wanted to scope out the best machinery on offer in the world and to see whether a Honda might be built to compete there. Marketing through racing was not new, he already had demonstrated the right balance of market savvy, engineering nous, ambition, belief in himself, and his already established ‘dream’. Veloce had used this business method to great success and ‘The Old Man’ as a student of the history and evolution of the racing motorcycle would have been only too aware of the deep seated passion and determination that is street racing. World domination may have been in his minds eye but the sponsoring of a Street race in Invercargill some 65 years later? Maybe not but the ‘Honda Invercargill Street Races’ it was. Nervous anticipation and the crowd both grew as the morning progressed. The track new asphalt, in a commercial precinct, wide, long, and enough variety to get a small head of speed without being a boring race from right angle to right angle. Most riders spent the inevitable down time as the show slowly got underway, putting finishing touches on their winner’s acceptance speeches, or indeed speech itself for some, and motard riders practiced the clearly superior and not retarded as some suggest, straight leg out approach to corner exercises. The mood in camp Velo was rather quiet with a bit of nervous polishing, checking of oil and fuels levels. Our in-house film crew of Theo and Jasper taped GoPro miniature cameras here and there on the vintage KTT’s giving rise to a classic but ironically accurate comment from octogenarian Neville Wooderson that he presumed the pictures would be in colour! Ruminating on this we surmised that beyond the odd teaser demonstrating the starting procedure of a Velocette or a tame stroll up the street, the online availability of real imagery capturing these machines in close action may well have left off more than 60 years ago with black and white soft focus shots of Freddie Frith and Bob Foster following one another on the GP circuits of Europe, taps fully on circa 1949-50.
What chance we might capture something this day to relive such a delight not only in colour and sound but with on bike viewpoints to boot? Either way we looked to better our beginning Eldee2 clip of 2012. Following ill fated last minute sponsorship negotiations with Pump house Paddy a siting lap and practice was upon us, a proud moment seeing all our riders splendid in black leathers on black machines, visually set off with that fine minimal gold pinstriped tank, the only concession to decoration on the purposeful racers. Competition in the form of the ever present, friendly, hospitable, and growing Team Rudge, along with a couple of shiny Indians and a few others made up a good looking grid for old girder bikes, what were the chances of that? Some experienced problems of one sort or another in getting their full compliment to the start line, but that’s old bikes and those inflicted with the bug of running them live with this reality constantly. Velos dominated the start grid with no intimidating effect, honest.
We take reliability for granted these days thanks in no small way to the efforts of Mr Honda but we forget too easily the failures he had on the ladder to success. His and the companies attitude being that failure was fuel for future success, an admirable mantra in these days where we reward our young with participation certificates for trying. Failure is no bad thing but as any racer with experience knows in order to win first one must finish, or in some cases start. Racers whose biggest concern is what type of after-market suspension package to try, or whether or not their tyre warmers are on straight are in another world from the early days of team Honda. For example, picture the development engineers making fine jetting adjustments sequentially richer from the inside hotter cylinders to the cooler running outer pots of the 250/6, an activity to leave most contemporary tuners scratching. A winter of preparation largely by Nick Thomson put all our bikes on the start line, and across the finish, as we shall see. No small achievement for machines that require to be entirely blueprinted if ridden hard, but back to the Deep South. Cloud Craig-Smith joined our dream team of Chris Swallow and Bill Biber for the weekend, and was thrown somewhat into the deep end cocking his leg over our new MK8 for the very first time at Teratonga, Saturday morning. This machine had locked the back wheel on me going up the Bluff Hill Llimb changing down for the bend onto the big uphill straight two days prior. That finished upright and out of the gorse, much to my relief and applause from the crowd. But we had found no cause until that Saturday morning with no compression revealing a sticking inlet rocker. That satisfied the mind enough by way of at least finding something to fix, and the rest of the weekend reinforced this notion with the bike performing without fault—phew. I had already learned just what a transformation the Nova 6 speed was, and perhaps this was a bit of a false reality for Cloud’s first KTT experience. A gear for everywhere with even gaps and smooth changes up and down. With four speeds it’s really a matter of thinking hard about what gear to be in where and when exactly to change, any variation to this once established routine never ending well. It seems simple now with retro engineering but back in the fifties or earlier these were just not available, or not developed, or the single cylinder engines had enough torque to make do—really? Soichiro was clearly not convinced with the outcome, for as well as trying more and more cylinders, some of the small capacity racers had upwards of 10 ratios. Even our own Les Diener made notes to the effect of wishing he could have got his hands on a factory five speed for his dohc 250, but in reality living out his racing life with 4 speeds only. Cloud was very quickly on the pace and within a few laps showing just what calibre of rider he is. We learned quite a lot in a short time at Teratonga that morning. We knew the Arthur Wheeler Bike was fast and reliable, I had won the NZCMRR vintage 350 class easily on it as had Bill Biber ten years prior. Chris had recently surprised a good number of much later model 350s on what is a very well sorted and historic machine, in earlier life it had been at the hot end of races across Europe, the TT and Ulster. That said it is still a pre war girder machine with four speeds running on petrol. Bill Biber had most enthusiastically taken up the offer to ride the Bike Velo, a stately rider and machine combo. The history of MT 5001 goes without much saying as does Bill’s career aboard Velos. We knew both were fast although a new combination. The bike is very standard, the way it must be kept for posterity. Over the winter we had remade the wheels with new English black rims and spokes and a new magnesium early works front hub, a spruce on the guards with Bill coming to the party covering the new replica seat based on photos of the day. Only change in the motor was to a Carrillo con rod more as insurance than performance as this bike is the only one of its kind in the world to still be running its original crankcases. A very tidy and correct vintage looking bike indeed.
We’d done the odd comparison of lap times with Chris onboard Big Velo at Hampton Downs versus Arthur Wheeler MKVIII and Bill the same at Manfield where he had previously cleaned up the entire field of 350s convincingly on the MKVIII. Remembering here that the Big Velo is a 500 from 1934 and the MKVIIIs evolved over the following few years, formerly emerging around 1938 and largely unchanged for post war production. The MKVIII had the great leap forward of a swinging arm rear suspension thanks largely to Stanley Woods the Irish rider and star of the thirties who took one of the dog kennel machines (the Big Velo is one of only three ‘works bikes’ in total along with its predecessor now living in NSW with an iron top knot and the unenvied title ‘the monster’ no doubt because of its weight. The Big Velo and 2 others had ‘Y’ alloy castings which on our bike are still showing the great quality they were at the start) for a test in 1934. “Great engine, shame about the handling” was the upshot of Stanley’s feedback to the factory, who to their credit worked with Woods to develop MT5003 into the first rear springer, and he came 2nd on it in the 1936 TT just a whisker behind Harold Davies aboard a Norton, the closest velo ever came to a senior victory.
So on balance a small and interesting range of machine specs and riders at varying stages of career and familiarity, but on track the three were a tight bunch with the youth on MKVIIIs swopping places and paint here and there to take a win a piece, Bill consistent and classy as ever underpinning the 1, 2, 3. I was on the ex Ivan Rhodes MKIV well down on power behind Neville Mickleson looking most familiar on the ex Pete Butterworth’s MKIV. With fingers well and truly crossed that everything would hang together and the knowledge that everyone was in the same boat having never ridden the street circuit before, there we were at the start of the first race of the Sunday nervous and excited. The action that followed had some old codger in the crowd muttering how long it had been since seeing action like this, as only an old codger would know. With lean angles to match any other class due to the need to maintain corner speed. Crossing the start/finish line for the last lap the rear-mounted gopro on Chris’s MKVIII finally gives into vibration and throws itself onto the track, but the action was already well and truly captured.
Some weeks later when the digital black box finally released its secret file the young Swallow sent the following statement to Velo HQ “ I am absolving myself of all responsibility for gopro welfare due to using every inch of road, its my dads fault he brought me up like that”. What could have easily been said but not so easily done had just been done. Velocette 1,2, 3, 5, and 6. With a similar result for the second race of the day.
I suppose it’s true that the first time we achieve something fabulous or hard fought is the most memorable moment even if repeated many times. Few will even have an inkling of what Soichoro would have felt the moment he knew that not only had his bike and team finally lifted the winning title at the 1963 250cc TT race at the Isle of Man, but the first 5 places! Few motorcycling achievements can match this. In any case a quiet sense of ‘chuffed’ settled over team Velo while we gathered machines and personnel for photographic posterity, prior to those black leather one piece suits being replaced by civilian togs once more, put away for the next adventure. The memory of this weekend and most especially the Sunday street race will live for a long while for those involved, and hopefully not lost on those spectating. You know who you are and big thanks if you helped out. An unlikely gathering of pukka racers and proper riders, ridden hard near the end of the earth. Living the day and reliving a little more history for the already famous Velocette. Unlikely, but true.
Words: Phil Price
Archival images: Phil Price and Nick Thomson collections
Burt Munro short film: Theo McDonald
Photography: © Iona Gibbs, Shaun Waugh
Desktop publishing: Shaun Waugh MagentaDot Brands