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 A far reaching historical reference, but rolling with the theme of the unlikely, when Soichiro Honda visited the isle of Man in the early fifties he wanted to scope out the best machinery on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
Bill Biber and Shaun “IT” in a van crammed with gear for a fortnight and four race bikes, Nick Thomson and Graeme Peters also crammed into a van with gear for a fortnight and four bikes, and Phil Price with two photographers travelling in accommodation on wheels all departed Tuesday to make the trek south to the Burt for the 10th Anniversary Challenge.
Having work restrictions meant I could only leave Friday night to fly down to “The Burt” along with several others flying in for the weekend; Cloud Craig-Smith, Chris Swallow, Janet Wilson and Shaun Chamberlain (Gepeto).
The hill climb on Thursday by all accounts went well for ‘Team Velo’. Phil Price having a wee moment on his second run, but came off unscathed. Unfortunately there was an accident on the hill mid-afternoon, so the event was cancelled after the boys’ second run. Phil managed a respectable 61 second ascent first time up which was enough to get 3rd place in the pre 63 category.
Friday was a test/play day at Teretonga and I believe the weather was just fine. All riders and bikes performed splendidly. If you can remember the weather we had in Wellington that weekend, we were experiencing some 144 km p/hour winds and around 12 flights were cancelled—mine being one of them! Bugger!
Flying into Invercargill on a fresh Saturday morning, I could see sunshine, but just as we landed it started to rain. A quick taxi trip to the track taking around 10 minutes and it was fair bucketing down with strong winds. Proper grotty. One could see tents flapping, gazebos flying and general chaos. Team Velo on the other hand were cool, calm and collected!
The first race of the day was the girder fork event, which saw all of team velo out on the track together. The aim was to get good placings, to be proud of what was a once in a lifetime viewing experience, seeing the KTTs and the Big Velo out on the track at the same time. I think what came next exceeded expectations; 1st, 2nd and 3rd going to Team Velo with riders Cloud Craig-Smith, Chris Swallow and Bill Biber. A repeat performance was seen for race two. Alas there wasn’t to be a third round, the weather was the reason for that! We were all cold, wet and shivering. A small amount of fettling to be done for the bikes in preparation of the street circuit the next day, and we were off to the warmth of the Bluff pub for a brew!
Sunday was a refreshing sight; sun, bit of light cloud and a gentle breeze. Riders briefing was over two hours late, and we were beginning to wonder if there was going to be ANY racing on that day. But the call came, we went, we listened, and we listened, and we listened… (Remember Errol McCabe and his riders briefings? Need I say more?). Finally the boys were called up for their two sighting laps, which launched straight into four laps for qualifying, resulting in front row of the grid for Cloud, Chris and Bill… again. I had a friend ask me if I get excited. I sure do, but the feeling blurs between excitement and nervousness. But, the boys pulled it off yet again, 1st, 2nd and 3rd not once, but twice. Great result!
Thanks must go to “Squadron Leader” and general “Boss of Operations” Phil Price—for without him none of this would’ve been possible. Nick Thomson, for without his mechanical skills for not 1, 2 or even three bikes, but five, none of this would’ve been possible. The riders; Chris, Cloud and Bill, for without THEM (yep you guessed it), none of this would’ve been possible. They all put on such a great performance on some very special, very rare and beautifully prepared machines.
Team Velo rocks!
Words: Iona Gibbs
Photos: © John Cosgrove / FairfaxNZ, Iona Gibbs, Shaun Waugh
Desktop publishing: Shaun Waugh MagentaDot Brands
Initial enthusiasm for a five pronged cam attack on the South Island were reduced by a small chunk when guest Cam had unavoidable wrist surgery in the diary that weekend. So it was with these four overhead cams that Team Velo departed for battle at the Burt Munro Challenge 2015: KTT MKVIII No. 1041 ex Arthur Wheeler, KTT MKVIII No. 1079 ex Leo Andrews, 1934 MT5001 ex Bill White The Big Velo, KTT MKIV. Cocking talented and somewhat battle scarred legs over such splendid machinery was Squadron Leader Price, Brigadier Biber, returning to active service, Captain Craig-Smith and Squaddie Swallow. Tank Commander Thomson of the Royal Engineers had our backs and over the top we went, showing no fear in front of the Southern enemy and not selecting top gear until seeing the whites of their eyes. Etc. Right, enough of that. First battleground was the Bluff Hill Climb—a minute or so of steep road littered with bumps, cambers, springs (wet ones not bouncy ones usually) and enough consistent tar seal in the central sections to encourage a bit of enthusiasm on cold tyres. Brigadier Biber treated the strong Southland crowd to the delights of an open megaphone as he trumpeted The Big Velo up the hill in fine style, followed by Sqd. Leader Price entertaining the punters by showing them how to deal with a seized motor while travelling with rapidity. Tank Commander Thomson was looking all too relaxed and was thus relieved to have some fettle on his hands; a seized rocker arm on MKVIII No1079 was subsequently discovered and re-assembly was a matter of course thereafter, the Royal Engineers maintaining impeccable high standards despite unfamiliar working conditions at the front line. The new RV was Teretonga race track, zero eight hundred hours, Friday. With the enemy in good spirits, battle was delayed until the Saturday and the day was spent exploring the trench system then tweaking and polishing weaponry. The Squadron was buoyed to full strength later that evening when Captain Craig-Smith and Squaddie Swallow arrived late to the OP after the Hun had delayed their travel. Battle day dawns with typically bright Southland weather and troop welfare concerns sees a flurry of SPF50 distributed around the barracks of Camp Velo. Unpredictable drizzle and high winds wash this off just in time to put on tin hats and crank up the weapons of war for the first push. The front row of the grid is smattered with cammy Velos but it’s the local defence network of Wing Commander Wilson who enters the fray with typical zeal and vigour adhering to the mantra ‘Rudge it, do not trudge it’. No one had envisaged such a forthright attack from the off and rapid chase was given by the Velo boys feeling out the damp underfoot conditions as best they could. Wing Commander Wilson runs out of ammunition as he lifts his head above the parapet in readiness for turn two, then the Rudge weaponry is down and no longer a concern in this fray. Squaddie Swallow (ex-Arthur Wheeler MK VIII No. 1041) leads Captain Craig-Smith (MK VIII HotteRodde) and together they proceed to break cover and eke a small distance on Brigadier Biber (The Big Velo MT5001) the damp conditions playing havoc with his shrapnel wound. A rogue Indian nudges Squadron Leader Price (1932 MKIV KTT) out of formation flying and the battle ends in this order with no further injuries sustained. Civilians report of a ‘bloody good show what, what’ and sustaining rations are taken onboard by the main protagonists during the interim period between bombing raids. The Velo weapons of war are all still in fine fettle, minor alterations are attended to by Tank Commander Thomson of the Royal Engineers, his experience in the fray detailing such matters in an unhurried methodical manner bringing re-assurance to all prior to the next push. With the enemy Rudge not sighted on the horizon Team Velo leave the trench in a confident air for the second onslaught, their makeshift bottle lights glowing dimly at the rear as per blackout regulations dictate. With a dry battleground now present there is a major offensive from the off, led superbly by Captain Craig-Smith of the Muriwai Panzer Corps, his friendly fire across the bows inspiring the Velo troops to give rapid chase. Squaddie Swallow pulls up to the charging Captain but despite his best efforts at sharp shooting from the front, he is overtaken with little time remaining and trails Captain Craig-Smith to the line, Brigadier Biber follows and Sqd. Leader Price comes in next. Back at the barracks the young Squaddie is overheard conversing with the Royal Engineers advising the sending of the following message back to HQ by morse code: 6 bullet magazine box more effective than 4 bullet. Recommend for all future reconnaissance or undercover missions. Out. The advance front marches north to the new Invercargil Street Circuit; the conquering Velo team are in positive spirits but under no illusion they are still in unfamiliar territory with some cornered locals ready to fight, finding their way to the battle and intent on making their mark on the gold striped invaders. Wing Commander Wilson of Team Rudge is spirited in advance of the day despite an all-night onslaught on his gearbox. Brigadier Biber is in steely focus from the sunrise, Squadron Leader Price conveys a calm reassurance about the barracks but the eagle eyed observers can discern an ever so slight query of expectation in this normally reserved countenance. Tank Commander Thomson of the Ngaio Ngineering Corps stirs his morning brew with his preferred imperial allen key, his mind whirring constantly attending to the insides of the creations he has assembled and is about to watch disappear into battle. Captain Craig-Smith and Squaddie Swallow head out on advanced reconnaissance gathering and walk the new track slowly and methodically taking note of blind spots, surface conditions, raised masonry and the like. Some concerns are muttered under breath in dark corners but cowardice is not wanted to be shown in the face of the enemy at risk of a court-martial; so after using the Signal Corps to contact the clerk of course regarding the line of sniper sight through the back straight chicane, any matters of burden are discarded and battle lines get mentally formed. Squaddie Swallow, still fresh from overseas service at the Isle of Man, takes to the new battleground with relative comfort and puts the Wheeler bike on pole, narrowly ahead of Captain Craig-Smith, Brigadier Biber and Sqd. Leader Price. The rogue Indian is going well piloted by Field Marshal Munro and he is joined today by Flying Officer Friskin who is seen pushing not flying at the end of qualifying; the Indian Engineering Corps deciding to return this bike to the barracks for the day. Gearings are deemed appropriate for the new terrain and Tank Commander Thomson assures Squaddie Swallow his mount will take a bit of clutch slip if required during the heat of battle. Tyre pressures are measured and tweaked, fuel is added and then each soldier retreats into his mental battlefield of solitude ready for the command to arms. Captain Craig-Smith again heads into the fray with impressive zeal, inspiring a focused chase to commence behind. Squaddie Swallow can hear the megaphone of Brigadier Biber as he follows the smooth navigation of Craig-Smith between the bails, kerbs and catch fences. With a lap to go Swallow squeezes past on the brakes and makes a dash for the line, Craig-Smith comes in second with Brigadier Biber a fine third. The rogue Indian is being ridden better and better by Field Marshal Munro and he is within a sniff of the Velocette enemy, Squadron Leader Price following home for fifth. The final push is signalled for and all artillery is wheeled out once more. The eyes of the boys from the Velo barracks suggest no holds will be barred and friendly fire is a thing of previous wars. ‘Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way.’ With preference given to the latter. Captain Craig-Smith makes his customary rapid escape from being imprisoned on a lonely start line, and Brigadier Biber gives experienced chase into turn one, followed by Squaddie Swallow and the rest of the escapees. Biber appears to come loose on some shrapnel and he slows across the tops slightly allowing Swallow to move alongside, his gaze fixed firmly on the disappearing Craig-Smith. Within a lap he is on his rear wheel and they are both holding nothing back going from kerbside to bails back to catch fence, this the final battle of the weekend war. Swallow makes a move past and Craig-Smith fights straight back, the contest is too close to call, the conscientious objectors are now drawn into the elegance of battle, their hearts stirred by the advancing Velo boys leaving nothing behind, it’s all out there and they’re surviving this moment on instinct and wit. At the close of the battle Squaddie Swallow leads across the stripe by a bikes length from Captain Craig-Smith, Brigadier Biber a close third, Field Marshal Munro from the Indian Army is fourth with Squadron Leader Price close behind. ‘One more dance along the razor’s edge finished. Almost dead yesterday, maybe dead tomorrow, but alive, gloriously alive, today.’ The conquering Team Velocette retreat from the battlefield content with having given their all and then some. The girder fork territory rightfully claimed with the crest of the golden black tanks.
Words: By RonDine
Photos: Iona Gibbs, Shaun Waugh
Desktop publishing: Shaun Waugh MagentaDot Brands
Velocette minutia aficionado Phil Price tells the back-story on the Velocette MKVIII KTT 1041.
Feature image: ‘Local’ man Bill Biber in resplendent purple and silver LEDA leathers, touting his sponsor ‘Royston Vasey’. This shot is from the second Burt Munro challenge where he left the girder fork class in no doubt that a Velocette is faster. Factory records from 1949 show KTT 1041 going to English dealer, privateer, and factory rider Arthur Wheeler (5 August 1916–16 June 2001). I never met Arthur although he had been to New Zealand at least once. No doubt was known to the factory and Goodman family and had a lifelong interest in racing Velos and Moto Guzzis. Anyhow, the provenance of 1041 seems to be that Wheeler Motors of Epsom, Surrey took delivery April 1949. Arthur sold the bike in June 1953 and this seems to stack up as he rides a 350 Velocette in some of the European Grand prix events 1949–1952. 1950 is a good season where his best results appear to be 12th at the Isle of Man, 16th in the Netherlands, and 10th at the Ulster respectively. Ivan Rhodes recalled that 1041 was one of the few KTT’s that could pull a ____ tooth sprocket on the island. He bought the bike back from its single second owner one Adrian Deverell of Surrey in 1962 and kept it until 1998. Where he swapped it for another of his passions a works Guzzi. Certainly when the bike appeared in Australia many years later it sported a rather special 9000 rpm Smiths chronometric rev counter, sadly this was no longer united with the rest of the machine when I bought it in Melbourne in 2002. Seeing this machine in Australia was quite a surprise and here I will let Bruce Pederick of South Australia pick up the story as there are good connections…
I started racing in Adelaide in 1945 age 17 Associated with Les Diener (workmate) Laurie Boulter, Bill Watson, Ray Trevana, and all the S A riders of note. In summer 1948/49 Fergus Anderson came to Oz with a works 500 V twin Moto Guzzi , which was the lap record holder in the IOM by Omobono Tenni the year before. Plus the first 7R AJS in Oz and a works 250 cc Moto Guzzi Albatros, which was virtually identical with the machine Stanley Woods won the lightweight TT in 1936. This machine was in the historic lap on IOM in 1997 where I went with the great and late Arthur Wheeler…
…Fergus was soundly beaten in all his Australian races at Woodside S A Ballarat and Rowville by Les Diener, Syd Willis, Harry Hinton and others. I was at Woodside and Ballarat but not Rowville. I think Fergus said re Rowville “it was the fastest scramble he had ever ridden in. Fergus left the “Albatros” here. It was ridden by South Australians Les Diener, Bill Watson, Bob Reed, and Laurie Fox. In fact Laurie Fox was leading the lightweight at Longford referred to on another site when he lost concentration and slid off at the bridge. It subsequently took a lot of polishing to get the skid marks off the outside flywheel. Following that there was a blow up and the bits laid in the corner of his shed whence I bought them as a basket case in about 1970.
By 1988 with engineering help from the late Les Diener the Guzzi appeared again in mint condition. In 1991 Arthur Wheeler, who rode Guzzis most of his international career, was guest at Mallala Historics. Les Diener phoned me to see if I would bring the Guzzi for Arthur to demonstrate—which I did. Arthur wanted to buy it then and there, however I resisted and had a lot of fun parading it at Mallala, Phillip Island, Winton and Broadford over the years. I became firm friends with Arthur and finally agreed to swop the Guzzi for his 1948 MKVIII Velocette which he bought in 1949.
So Joyleen and I went off to the UK with Guzzi in a box and likewise bought the Velo back. We had great time based at Wheeler’s in Worthing.
Sad that Arthur left us aged 84 having developed an infection from a scun shoulder, a simple fall while out walking, after 60 years racing. We are still close friends with Ruby Wheeler.
I had a great time on the KTT, Pre war Aust Junior champ, Eastern Creek 2000, 2nd same at Mallala 2002, 2nd NSW champs 2002, 3 2nds Phillip Island Feb 2001. plus various other seconds and thirds at Winton and “old farts meeting at Mt Gambier” (KTT qualified as pre war as identical to 1939 model in appearance.)
At Mallala 2002 at age 74 I decided not to stretch my luck any more The KTT had an ultra high bottom gear, always hard to get off the line, not built for a clutch start, often my lap times were equal to or better than those in front of me, except the first lap-Bruped.” — Bruce Pederick
Now remembering that back in Australia in the off season of 1948/9 Fergus Anderson had been seen off in no uncertain way by a small brace of locally developed pushrod MOVs amongst these was your Les Diener. The fact that the MOVs racing in Australia and Godzone New Zealand, by our very own Joyce and McCleary Brothers of Christchurch, were at the sharp end of the game in the lightweight class, seems to have been lost on the factory. But not on the ever capable Les Diener who, although he never realized a dream to race his own bike at the IOM, must have been watching these results—including the new factory DOHC 250—with interest. Could it have been about this time the idea for the double cam top was brewing in his mind? It is of interest to note here that in 1951 Arthur Wheeler rode one of the new factory DOHC 250 machines which were essentially a MKVIII crankcase and head with the new double knocker top knot Bertie Goodman developed. These were interesting machines and were something of a cheap compromise toward where Norton and AJS were going with duplex frames and telescopic forks. They essentially took a standard frame, cut the cast steering head and top tube out, lowered the head position and used two top rails for support like the McCandless, with a third much needed brace running all the way through the inside of the whopping aluminium tank back to the seat post. 68 x 68mm bore and stroke the same as the pushrod production MOV, and reputedly a special magnesium shelled 5 speed gearbox to keep the little engine on song. Arthur got 5th in the IOM lightweight TT and 3rd in the Ulster that year.
Back to Melbourne, where reputable “Vincent, Velocette, and Other Exotica” dealer and keen collector Franco Trento’s Eurobrit showroom, stood two shiny MVIII KTT’s for sale. I quickly realised what I was dealing with and made arrangements for the Wheeler Bike to come my way, having by the way first checked that friends Nick Thomson and Bill Biber would respectively engineer, tune and ride the thing. At this stage I did not know the back story and was pinching myself that this machine was even in this part of the world. That is all relative history now as KTT1041 arrived in New Zealand early in 2003 just in time to be part of the national register’s celebration of 100 years of Velocette. Bill rode the machine to immaculate and impressive wins in the NZCMRR national championships first in the vintage class and then factory racing, doing everyone proud and opening quite a few eyes along the way. To see how well the real thing could go, beating many and bigger bikes. It was something new to us having battled away for years with modified pushrod bikes, the KTT just effortlessly and reliably coped with the rigours, albeit of short circuit racing. I guess a decade and a half of development at the Isle of Man does that to keen men with a good design and some considerable ability.
Both Swallow’s Bill and Chris have ridden the bike continuing its winning ways, and even more lately myself. All of which encouraged the purchase and preparation of another MKVIII, one with perhaps a little less provenance that we could develop and race harder, enter KTT1079. So more to come then…
Archival images: Phil Price and Nick Thomson collections
Desktop publishing, Photography: Shaun Waugh MagentaDot Brands
THE LEGEND CONTINUES
Words: Chris Swallow | Photos: see credits in footer
EVERY NOW AND THEN you see a project that takes on a life of it’s own. The story of Eldee is part of NZ’s racing folklore. The twist is that a dedicated bunch of enthusiasts, including our classic man, Chris Swallow, have serious plans afoot—but they might need a wee bit of help…
NOT SO EAGLE eyed observers visiting the Honda museum in Motegi, Japan will notice soon after paying their yen there is a racing motorcycle devoid of the familiar winged Honda vector. The emblem is distinctly Italian and proudly informs that you are ogling over a ‘FB MÒNDIAL’: made 1957, Milan by the Counts Bosselli (‘FB’ being Fratelli Boselli or Bosseli Brothers) and their firm Mondial. It is a gear driven double overhead cam (DOHC) 125cc Single Cylinder Grand Prix motorcycle, brought by one Soichiro Honda, direct from Count Boselli shortly after it won the 1957 World Title. 1957 was the year the Italians (with the exception of MV Agusta) all pulled out of Grand Prix racing due to the cost of it all; prior to this they had been leading exponents of high revs, high performance and high reliability; characteristics clearly endearing to Mr. Honda and his fledgling motor company.
Les Diener was a racer and a brilliant engineer.
LD’S ELDEE IS BORN
In 1958 Soichiro Honda visited the Isle of Man TT for the first time, then returned in 1959 with five riders and his first bikes: 125cc gear driven DOHC twins. They won the team prize, with a best result of 6th, came back in 1960 for a best result of 4th, then scored a double victory in 1961 before proceeding to re-write the history books as to which manufacturer should win the most motorcycle races (and seeing off the antiquated British bike industry in the process….). But back in 1953, way before 1957 and Mr. Honda stripping his DOHC Mondial into it’s constituent components, a talented thirty two year old Velocette enthused South Australian had long been aware that a series of gears driving two camshafts was the way to go: and he had just finished his first example of such. His name was Les Diener, and he gave his initials LD to his creation: the Eldee.
Les Diener became hooked on bikes at the age of 13 when he and lifelong friend Keith Hamilton would pool their pocket money to ride (and fall off) an old single geared, belt drive Levis two-stroke. A year later Les then came by an old V-twin, side valve JAP engine which was the basis for his first bitsa and offered ample opportunity for the honing and development of his clear engineering talent. The next step forward was a 350cc OHV New Imperial Jap, then a trade in for a 1936 Douglas, followed by the acquisition of a quite special overhead camshaft (OHC) 500cc CS1 Walter Moore Norton at the age of 17. The Walter Moore had to make way when a 350cc OHC KCR Velocette brought out from England by Rex Tilbrook came up for grabs; a lifelong passion for the marque was born.
Les began racing with the Atujara MCC in 1938, predominantly in scrambles and beach racing and showed a certain speed and deftness from the off. The KCR Velocette was sold in 1939 and replaced by a 1934 model 250cc MOV Velocette which became his main interest for the next fifteen or so years as a racer and his lifetime interest as a tuner. Despite many wins and South Australian championships, Les realised he could extract no more power from the MOV’s pushrod configuration and so gave some serious thought at the end of the 1952 racing season to convert his beloved MOV into a double overhead camshaft racer: thus Eldee 1 was born in 1953.
Inspired no doubt by the Italians, fellow Australian Sid Willis grafted a DOHC factory Velocette head onto his 250cc Velocette racer and proved very difficult to beat in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, taking his bike to a fine fifth in the 1953 250cc Lightweight IOM TT. Following in these footsteps, Les and fellow competitor at the time Ted Carey both got busy on their own conversions, in Les’ words, “working and racing together on separate projects,” (incidentally Ted provided the piston and head for Eldee 1 to Les). Eldee 1 matured into ‘the bike to beat’ and was a testament to Les’ ingenuity and engineering capacity, clocking up a multitude of wins and placings and famously seeing off the works 250cc Moto Guzzi of Fergus Anderson when he came out for a visit to the Woodside race circuit.
WIND-TUNNEL TEST BY ASSOCIATION
At Mildura, in 1956, Eldee 1 was resplendent in a full dustbin fairing. Although Moto Guzzi knew not at the time, Bill Lomas was ‘persuaded’ to loan the works Guzzi to Melbourne boys Bob Edmunds and Charlie Rice who plastered around the wind tunnel tested fabrication before making a fibreglass copy from the ensuing plug. In this guise, Les clocked a very admirable 116mph (186.6kph) at 9,000rpm down the mile and a half long straight. He also records how ‘streamlining was all very new to me,’ and how ‘when I put on the biggest front sprocket I could find [a 21T up from his usual 19T, overall gear ratio of 5.1:1] I didn’t realise at all how fast I was going,’ until he left his braking far too late at the end of the straight and ‘up the escape road I went!’
A clean break from racing was taken after a major crash in 1957 at Port Wakefield when a gearbox seized while lying second in the 500cc race on a 350cc Manx Norton. Disillusioned, Les loaned the Eldee to Ken Rumble who raced with some success until 1961 before it was sold to fulfil ventures in other tales.
It only took twenty-six years for the racing bug to bore back into Les’ psyche and he picked up where he left off with the Atujara MCC in 1983 on an ex-Tom Medlow 1939 Velocette MOV rigid racer, winning most races he entered in the post war class. However, it was 1987 and an invite to be guest rider at the New Zealand Classic Racing Register’s festival meeting that links most to this story and the subsequent construction of a replica: Eldee 2.
Les admits to having ‘oft thought of building a replica of his beloved Eldee racer,’ and it seems the stars aligned to foster requisite motivation as was required for such a project at Pukekohe, Auckland, 1987. Velocette enthusiast Peter Butterworth had acquired a Ted Carey head (as used on Eldee 1) from Australian Dennis Quinlan. Having no immediate use for it, Peter passed it on to David Rogers, who showed it to Les at the Festival who immediately recognised it as identical to the head in use on Eldee 1. Les, still perhaps a tad unsure about committing to the project, didn’t acquire the head there and then, leading David to ring Peter that night to enquire whether the proposed new destiny was a good direction. The next morning when Les left his digs, there the head was, sat on the doorstep ready for hand luggage back to South Australia, and so the Eldee 2 project was born.
Twenty-four years later, that head arrived back to New Zealand but this time full of life as a component part of Les’ fantastic replica of his original machine. I am proud to say that I am intimately familiar with Eldee 2, having being trusted as jockey on such a remarkable racing motorcycle by owner Phil Price. With Nick Thomson on the spanners and in the workshop, I feel we’ve done a bloody good job of holding true to Les’ objective of getting to that chequered flag first. But more of that later…
Original patterns for the cam box and timing cover castings were in the hands of Adelaide enthusiast Peter Westerman who proffered them for use for the replica, or Eldee 2, at the start of 1987. The timing side crankcase is standard MOV with obvious modifications to accept the train of gears, which were originally modified BSA items but now completely re-made and hot from the Thomson workshop, all running on needle rollers. The drive side crankcase is a cast item recreated by Adelaide foundry Castech in CP601 aluminium alloy. Perhaps not as elegant as certain Italian items, though the webbed ribs on the outside do offer strength to accompany the heat treatment. Security of camshaft to gear is via a pin vernier, an item we have had fail, resulting in a bent exhaust valve (soon to be turned into my wedding ring…) and sheared the key locating the gear on to the camshaft. Nick has re-engineered the camshaft to accommodate an oversize key in addition to an increased diameter pin into the final gear and initial runs show good. Valves are Superalloy now, replacing the Eso Speedway components Les fitted, the exhaust being 1” 7/16 and the inlet 1” ½. Les’ notebook detailing the early tests of Eldee 2 show a plague of oil from the coil valve springs (on the advice of Bill Lomas, valve spring seat pressure was set at 90lbs resulting in 160lbs pressure at full lift, showing horsepower increase and no loss of valve control) a problem which we suffered from too. Nick has been successful in curing this problem by making eccentrically turned caps to accommodate and enclose the valve gear, springs and exposed pushers, in addition to fitting an oil feed to drain pressure from the now capped area.
The conrod is a hefty titanium number that wouldn’t look out of place in a 350; it
is ‘I’ beamed and trimmed substantially and connects on the southern end to a big-end needle roller pressed between high tensile steel flywheels balanced to a factor of 80%. We feel gains could be made upping the balance factor, finding a significant ‘roughening’ and increase of vibration at around 8,200rpm. The engine will rev to 9,000, but is discernibly smoother below 8,200 and seems to labour more obviously after this point. The little-end connects to a piston recovered from some Les ‘made back in 1956’ and when he set up the engine for initial testing it was on petrol with a compression ratio of 8:1. It is now on
methanol with a compression ratio in the region of 10:1. With a large dome and fairly long skirt, the piston shows extensive working inside to remove excess material, clearly the work of a dedicated tuner. The piston resonates in the same ‘square’ bore dimensions as Eldee 1, 68 x 68.25mm, the barrel being the favoured Alfin type, modified in this instance from a later 350cc MAC Velocette component.
Hubs and brakes were cast to 1938 Mk VIII KTT Velocette specification after Les had a chance encounter with a retired pattern maker who offered to assist with the project ‘for a challenge’; the resulting aluminium items are laced to 18-inch Akront alloy rims shod in sticky Avon rubber. The twin leading shoe front brake is lined with high grade centrifugally cast iron and works very well indeed, the pads being green in colour and probably not worth inhaling near. The entire rear hub is made from the same material and it too works very effectively: soft and progressive and none too harsh. Such castings would perhaps have been better in magnesium as they are bulky affairs with great wall thickness and the choice of aluminium weighs heavy for a 250cc: the overall weight of the bike is around
The chassis is sprung sufficiently on the rear by heavy Koni items and up front are Norton forks, with beautifully crafted lightweight alloy yolks and taper roller bearing head races. The original fork springs have been discarded in favour of heavier weights, as Les must have been somewhat lighter than me and we have also added adjustable dampers supplied by Lansdowne Engineering in the UK, giving us effective control of both compression and rebound damping. The front-end has always felt vague to me, with a tendency to patter exiting corners, despite many efforts to cure this. We made a fork brace which helped, but I think the weight of the lumpy front hub plus a not quite sorted spring rate is accentuating
a bounce, but we’ll get there. The frame is a modified Norton International model, sporting Les’ own rear section, nickel-bronze welded to the front cradle and resulting in a lowered seating position, a factor that may also contribute to the unsettled front end with my heftier bulk aboard. At the back it sports a standard cased Velocette gearbox, hiding six speeds to keep the little gem on the bugle. A low level exhaust pipe stays clear of the track and protests by cracking when secured at the original three mounting points, so we leave it mounted at the head and before the megaphone taper and it seems happy enough.
Sparks are provided by a Les Diener wound magneto that now accepts an electronic triggering device from a Mitsubishi car and such sparks set fire to a mix brought in through a faithful Amal 1” 5/32 carburettor, with a number 5 slide and jets to suit circuits. Needle is a Dave Kenah component with additional adjustment slots for height positioning. The fairing is a double bubble Morini item shrouding an aesthetically pleasing package, contributed to by the light blue 12litre tank made by UK company Lyta, held down along the middle by Les’ own tank strap and decals proclaiming ‘Eldee Velocette’ in a familiar insignia.
All in all, it took a retired Les Diener a little under two years of beavering away in his small workshop to create Eldee 2. Taking to the track again aboard this faithful replica must have been some thrill for Les who, at 69 years young, showed he could still do it, racing to forty exceptionally well earned trophies inscribed with either 1st, 2nd or 3rd. At the age of 73 Les suffered a heart attack whileout riding on his Italian Gilera road bike, never getting the chance to gather up some more silverware but leaving one hell of a legacy.
As I mentioned, it has been a proud privilege to add to the history of this bike and the lineage of the Eldee marque. We started racing Eldee 2 in 2012 and have won two NZCMRR 250cc modified titles since then, only missing out on the third title as in the last round I felt it wasn’t a bad idea ‘to have a go at the 350s’, so rode out of class to some second positions behind Nev Bull’s rapid short-stroke Manx Norton. Eldee 2 has started the 2014 racing season in winning form already and it is to the future and Eldee 3 that this story ends.
Eldee 2 was in no doubt a more modern yet faithful replica of Eldee 1. With improved materials and greater knowledge of methods and concepts, Les improved on what was already very good. Eldee 2 was made over twenty years ago, and in that time ‘modern classic racing’ schools of thought have advanced in leaps. The prospect of developing the tried, trusted, proven and tuneable gear driven, DOHC engine format was something that our small team began to relish with more vigour as the results from the race track, in both performance and reliability, mounted up. Thought was given to really giving matters a proper test and there’s few places one can go to do that. One is the Isle of Man TT circuit. And to go over there for the 2014 Classic TT we decided a new motor was in order, with the tried and trusted Eldee 2 due for a refresh to serve as a backup. And we also decided a man of experience would be welcome in the saddle. So we gave my Dad a ring, who is still to this day the fastest man around the TT circuit on a 250cc single cylinder (98mph average), 350cc single cylinder (102.23 mph average) and 500cc single cylinder (108.03mph average) machine.
Nick Thomson has been a busy boy. Whenever I visit, the piles of swarf are ever higher. Since Eldee 3 was conceptualised, he has whittled a shoe box sized lump of aluminium into a beautiful cam box. He has made the nine gears to drive the camshafts adorned with his own cams. The conrod has been crafted and is away for heat treatment. The piston is due to be forged shortly. New ‘old’ stock crankcases have been modified to accommodate the gear train. Murray Aitken (instrumental in the development of John Britten’s iconic motorcycle) has designed and is about to cast a new head. The new motor will be housed in the existing Eldee 2 chassis with some subtle alterations to suspension and wheels in the interests of handling, safety and weight saving. A carbon fibre fairing has been designed, wind tested, sculpted to channel air across heat build up areas and is due for production soon. A new larger capacity oil tank has been fitted and an ergonomically designed 19 litre tank is on the cards to allow the rider to get wrapped tight to the bike without having to make a fuel stop in the four lap race.
We’re under no illusions that the Isle of Man can find you out! But every effort is being made to leave no stone unturned in our quest to see the Eldee finish the Classic TT 2014, and to that end I’ll finish with a plug for support. We are a small team of dedicated enthusiasts, not doing anything for profit. Support has come from some areas already but this project could do with more to see it achieve it’s potential. We are seeking sponsors to help in these aims.
THE HEART OF ELDEE
The engine retains the standard MOV bore and stroke of 68mm x 68.5mm and the double overhead cams (camshafts made from 60 ton steel, cams from oil hardened 12% chrome steel) are driven by a series of nine timing gears mixed from Velocette and BSA sources, with the inner timing case being welded to the crankcase. Oil reached the cam faces via a .030 inch jet and drained through the distinctive ‘Y’ pipe to the sump. Valve timing variation of three degrees is catered for by vernier adjustments on the final gear wheels (more on this later….), a two piece crankpin dissects a Symco rod and is hugged by Les’ turned mild steel flywheels. Exhaust valve was sodium filled and the inlet chrome-moly, both running in bronze guides and brought back to seat by 140pound springs. Valve to piston clearance
was minimal at just six thou’, and tappets were set at eight thou’ inlet and fifteen thou’ exhaust with Les practicing and racing without checking matters as he was confident, “that with the double-knocker engine, they were guaranteed to stay put.” The piston (made by Ted Carey) is a slipper type running a “moderate hemisphere up top and a compression ratio of about 10 or 11:1,” (on methanol).
Les had problems initially with the alloy cylinder he made to couple with a cast iron liner. He found he was losing compression under load as the motor got hot. He worked out that the iron liner had no flange to sit on top of the alloy cylinder and due to the cylinder head joint being partly on aluminium and partly on iron, as the variable expansions occurred, compression pressure was being lost down between the two metals until the engine cooled again. He related this back to Veloce Ltd in the UK who promptly sent him a patented Alfin barrel with a bonded-in liner; end of problem.
The chassis was, in Les’ words, ‘the best of two worlds’ being a home-made frame with a front end dimensionally similar to McCandless’ ‘Featherbed’ and the rear end similar to that of the 7R AJS. With a single top tube favoured instead of the Featherbed’s twin rails Les hand-beat a 4 gallon tank into what I consider a lovely, svelte and tapered shape allowing the jockey to get himself ‘tucked right away’. Forks were from a BSA C10 but shortened by four inches to keep the whole head assembly low and then fitted with Les’ own design of damping rods. The gearbox was four-speed with original Velocette ratios as standard, though Les had alternates that could be changed depending on the circuit.
Article reproduced with permission from BRNZ Magazine, April 2014 issue (Gemma and Ken at Bike Rider magazine—many thanks.)
Words: Chris Swallow
Desktop publishing: Shaun Waugh @MagentaDot Brands
Big Velo an ongoing history
Words: Chris Swallow
Photos: Shaun G Waugh
This March 2014 article is reproduced with the permission of Bike Rider New Zealand Magazine
As I had only heard about ‘Big Velo’ in revered and almost mythical tones, when friend and new owner Phil Price of Christchurch telephoned to say he would be honoured if I’d race this piece of New Zealand history at the 2014 Burt Munro Challenge, the honour was most definitely mine.
In 1924 Veloce Ltd produced a single cylinder 350cc bevel driven single OHC engine: elegant, reliable and powerful, the model ‘K’ was the precursor to the highly successful KTT lineage. So impressed by the marque, top rider Alec Bennett offered his services for the 1926 Isle of Man Junior TT on a no-win, no-salary basis. He duly won the seven lap, 264.11 mile race in a shade under four hours at an average speed of 66.7mph: Jimmy Simpson, on the works AJS, was runner-up over ten minutes adrift. Bennett’s salary was not recorded.
Driven by the desire to achieve on the race track, the years up until the war saw concerted and focused development gaining Velocette a worthy reputation and a large share of the growing international motorcycle market; this in addition attracted talented riders such as Freddie Hicks, Les Archer, Wal Handley, Walter Rusk and Harold Willis to the works. Willis, whose career best at the IOM TT was two second places (runner-up to Velocette mounted Alec Bennett in 1928, Bennett’s 5th IOM TT win) eventually took charge of the Veloce Ltd race programme and decided that for the 1934 season the ‘blue riband’ 500cc class was to be contested. It was decided that Percy Goodman’s conception of some ten years earlier to enlarge a 350cc ‘K’ series engine was a worthy notion, and so, in 1934, MT5001 ‘The Big Velo’ was born. MT denotes factory experimental racing, and then Number 1 500cc is the rest.
The 350cc KTT engine was enlarged from a bore and stroke of 74mm x 81mm up to 81mm x 96mm, to give a capacity of 495cc. Running on 50% petrol benzol, the new 500cc motor produced a credible 38 bhp at 6000rpm. Housed in a rigid, heavyweight looped frame, guided by modified ‘strutted’ girder forks up at the front, MT5001 also boasted many ‘works’ parts: the forks, for example, were made by Webbs and were initially destined for sidecars, but the Veloce race department perhaps felt the extra rigidity provided by the triangulated struts may tame the additional power of the 500cc motor; magnesium also featured prominently with cam-box, gearbox and hubs all benefiting from such metallic dieting.
A LEGEND BORN
Debuting at the 1934 Ulster Grand Prix in the capable hands of Ulsterman Walter Rusk, MT5001 won the 200 mile race at an average speed of 88.38mph with a new lap record at 92.13mph. The open country of Northern Ireland plays host to the Ulster Grand Prix which is held on the Dundrod circuit, complete with seven mile long Clady straight. It is always held a week or so before the Isle of Man TT and is thus a good opportunity for the works teams to blow up their motors and highlight any pitfalls in anticipation of the more highly prized TT victory. The fortnight after the Ulster, Rusk had a trouble free ride on the Big Velo, taking the machine to a fine podium in the Senior TT, finishing third behind the talented Norton team mates of Jimmy Guthrie and Jimmy Simpson. Rusk got the Big Velo round the seven laps in 3hrs 36mins 19secs, at an average speed of 73.27mph, demonstrating the reliable nature of the bike; a trait which would stand it in good stead throughout it’s long life.
Buoyed by such early success, Velocette continued development of their 500cc projects up until the war, seeing Stanley Woods take the new ‘springer’ framed MT5003 to second place in the 1938 TT, just 15 seconds behind winner Harold Daniell on the works Norton. They developed a DOHC version, then a 10 inch square ‘huntly and palmer’ head; but of the small handful of factory racing 500s made, only this one, via the factory, and one brought back by Rod Coleman made their way to New Zealand and it is in this direction the story now heads.
CONQUERING THE COLONY…
The summer of 1934 saw The Big Velo land on New Zealand shores; an intriguing export by Veloce Ltd given the early success and obvious potential of their relatively undeveloped ‘first’ 500cc racer in an era where performance on the lengthy European road races and the highly prized Isle of Man TT correlated strongly with reputations of reliability, performance and prestige, and consequently showroom sales. Why send it to the other side of the world?
It was a decision ultimately made by the Gutgemanns: a family originally of German descent who later became the Goodmans, the founders, owners and operators of Velocette. Conducting business based on the underlying principles of trust, loyalty and the gentleman’s agreement, long term relationships were formed between agents and riders alike and it was to one of these agents that the Big Velo was presented: William White.
The White brothers came to New Zealand in the 1920s having left Stafford in the UK Midlands where they worked in the motor industry, forming friendships with the Velocette team and factory. Bill became a team member, attaining a Gold star for lapping Brooklands at over 100mph on a 350cc Velocette. (I have also received an amazing photo which was kindly sent by Bill White’s nephew, Ian, taken in the Isle of Man showing the 1928 Junior TT winning Velocette ridden by Walter Rusk and it’s team; there on the far right stands one Jack White, brother of Bill). The strong ties and mutual respect between the Whites and Velocette seem very evident and it is clear the high regard Velocette felt for Bill White in presenting him with the Big Velo and trusting him to maintain and race the bike in colonial New Zealand and thus publicise the marque to aid sales.
Jack and Bill set up the motor firm ‘J & W White’ in Newmarket, Auckland, which it remained until 1936 when Jack left to go farming and the firm became ‘W. White’, or simply ‘Whites’. Throughout his business career Bill made a point of visiting the Velocette factory at least once every two years and the firm maintained a continual correspondence with the Velocette factory, which was good as there was a lot to tell them!
Simply put, MT5001, ‘The Big Velo’ is New Zealand’s most successful racing motorcycle, winning no less than eight national titles, five national beach championships and eight NZ TTs. The bike set a world and NZ track record in 1938 with a lap of the Hennings Speedway track, Mangere at 86mph. Every NZ race except one that the Big Velo started prior to WWII it greeted the chequered flag first (the exception was the 1938 Waiheke TT; Len Perry thought he was leading until, with five laps to go, to his horror he got the correct second place pit board. Despite breaking the lap record on each of those five remaining laps it still wasn’t enough for the victor’s laurels). Oh and it did some winning at the 2014 Burt Munro, but more of that soon.
Bill White himself won the first NZ national title on the Big Velo, the 1935 beach championship. Then two NZ TT victories on Waiheke in 1936 (C. Goldberg) and 1937 (A. Mattson) preceded the legendary Len Perry era, which began in 1938 and took a pause in 1950, racking up eight national titles and five New Zealand TTs. Such reliability came from behind the scenes in White’s workshop where the skilful Len Coulthard was giving the Big Velo thorough and meticulous preparation, much akin to what a works machine would receive. Each year for the TT, Len, assisted by John Jones, would strip and rebuild the bike, including wheels, fork spindles, bushes, the motor, gearbox and clutch. Special attention to the magneto was apparently given.
In 1950 John Jones was sent to England for a year, on Bill White’s request, taking the Big Velo engine with him. I quote from an article he wrote on his experience as it makes for much more interesting reading than I could paraphrase.
“I was let loose in the workshop [at Velocette], working under Berty Goodman, with Frank Panes, Hedley Cox and Freddie Owens. I then proceeded to rebuild engine MT5001. The engine was stripped, cleaned, and to my surprise a selection of new unfinished conrods were dug up. These were all tested, until we came up with one with Vickers/Rockwell reading 6.33. Then hours of shaping and polishing produced a conrod which was acceptable. New crankpin assembly and piston assembly were also produced, and after weighing up the bits and doing our maths each flywheel was balanced to 25oz 3 drams, giving a balance factor of 70 per cent. The flywheels were assembled and tried, the cylinder was relined and the motor assembled. With all new parts, existing inner timing case was disposed of, and one fitted Incorporating extra scavenging pump to cope with overhead gear oil, i.e. oil return from bottom bevel housing to sump was blocked off, and the new pump intercepted this flow, and delivered direct back to oil tank. Consequently, there was less oil in sump at any time.
The motor was trundled up to the Test House and bolted on to one of the Heenan Froud Test Benches. It was fired up and run for half an hour with a few pounds load on the shaft, then after a quick external check, fired up again and run for two hours. The cylinder was then removed, the piston checked for bedding in, and eased if needed, assembled and run for another period. A total running of six hours, and another piston check. Then Berty Goodman announced that it was ready for bashing.”
It was John Herd that ‘bashed’ it to victory at the 1951 Wanganui GP. Then Forrest Cardon went on a winning streak until 1954 and the Titirangi Road Race where he unfortunately came off second best against his phonetic namesake when he wrote off the front girders on a young Rimu tree. The bike was fitted with Triumph tele forks before being retired at the end of the 1954 season. Eleven years later John Herd persuaded that the Big Velo should roar once more and proceeded to win the 1965 NZ Beach Championship before (the evergreen and still racing today) Peter Butterworth did the same in 1966. Many beach wins by Keith Williams preceded a second retirement until John Jones gave MT5001 a thorough restoration in the 1970s.
Trevor Discombe, and then the rightful Len Perry raced it again, until in the 1980s, following the death of Bill White, the Big Velo was bought by Ivan Rhodes, world authority on historic racing Velocettes and friend of the Goodman family. Ivan returned many of the original and correct parts to the bike, before decreeing quite honourably that, ‘morally, the bike belongs in NZ.’ Which I guess is how I found myself astride it, listening to the wonderful crack of an open megaphone, staring up the Bluff Hill.
STILL A GOODIE
Prior to the pilgrimage south, the Big Velo visited the workshop of Wellington Velo man Nick Thomson, thus continuing the tradition of fine mechanics and engineers who have worked on the bike. Together with owner Phil Price, Nick stripped the motor and gave matters a thorough and comprehensive check through. Valve timing was checked and re-set and the oil feed to the cams was subtly re-engineered. I made a new front brake cable and number plates, and I decreed the tyres to be satisfactory after a comprehensive ‘thumbnail insertion’ test. The motor was re-assembled by Nick and on first push Wellington was treated to the crack of an open megga. Oil seemed fairly reluctant to stay inside certain areas, so with a large supply of absorbent foam we headed to Manfeild for a shakedown at the NZCMRR’s Spring Classic. We decided to race on the Saturday only, Nick being ‘quite keen to replace the exhaust valve soon,’ and it was a joy, picking up where it left off thirty years ago in winning form. Nick decided to add an ‘O’ ring to the exposed valve pusher in a bid for oil tightness and then with a thorough check and service during the next week we ventured towards Southland.
I am impressed with how right Velocette got the bike all those years ago, the handling especially. Like any classic motorcycle, rewards come when you settle the bike on corner entry and accelerate towards the apex and beyond: slow in, fast out. The 21” front wheel and 19” rear means you don’t have to lean too far to corner and you get a sense of being quite tall on the bike. The bike flows into bends nicely, not dropping in sharply but also not too lazy so you have to boss it around; it does what you ask.
The Bluff Hill’s bumps and surface changes are very ‘pre-war’ so although approaching matters with a modicum of caution, I had a feeling that all would be well and approached matters in a frame of mind to press on a bit. I set the tyre pressures deliberately low at 24:26psi and was subsequently very pleased to discover that although it was a bit lively and bounced around a touch, the rigid and girder combination worked very well, behaving itself completely when you kept it driving. The 4-speed gearbox is faultless so long as you allow it the short time it needs to action. It has quite a high first gear, a moderate jump to second gear, and the remaining changes are quite close ratios. The motor gathers revs gradually, that long 96mm stroke smoothly surging and noticeably stronger from 4,000rpm to my self imposed limit of 5,500rpm (period reports suggest a limit of 6,000rpm), leaving a lovely spread of tractable power that the four cogs were more than capable of keeping the motor in. The brakes, considering they are single leading shoe front and rear with a fairly hefty package to stop, are excellent: progressive, powerful and respond well without fade to that oh so familiar ‘oh hell I’ve overcooked this’ final squeeze.
Best time up the hill was 60.11 seconds, not quite cracking the minute barrier but enough for fourth pre-63 and first girder forked bike, in addition to making that evening’s One News. When asked about the bike and then my Grandad being a Velocette dealer, I felt I shared much historical insight of clear value to the average One News viewer, and subsequently considered the shiny shoes before me to be housing a well researched and informed type. So when he queried my current job in hand, which was securing absorbent foam around the exposed valve springs, I did wonder had I presumed too soon. Reducing the explanation to a simple analogy I made mention of Grandmas, old dears from 1934 and the inevitable leaks that needed some containment. I think he must have understood though, as it was this final ‘sound bite’ that he chose to use for the 6pm broadcast.
Rested at Teretonga, the Big Velo was next out at the Wyndham Street Races, where in previous years it has been South Island man Chris Frisken as the man to beat in the Girder fork class. The large capacity V-twin Indian he races so spiritedly is owned by ‘Pumphouse Paddy’ and it really flies. There was some debated whisperings around the paddock about the origins and eligibility of the Triumph twin leading shoe front brake the Indian sported, so as we took to the grid I was pretty focused on sidestepping paddock politics when the flag dropped. I got a good start and hit the front, pushed on and rode the Big Velo as hard as I could, and it responded brilliantly – just like a well sorted, genuine Grand Prix bike should.
It must have been the open megaphone noise bouncing off the bales because on every bend I could ‘hear’ the Indian right behind me, so kept my head down to the flag; most bemused when an empty track behind was revealed over my shoulder!
The second race went the same way and then Invercargill boy and all round good lad Rhys Wilson had his game face on for the third race and we had a real ding-dong right to the flag, the Big Velo winning by half a wheel against Rhys’ very original and quick 4-valve Rudge. a great end to the week!
Thanks must go to Southland MCC and the Burt Munro Memorial Meeting for putting on such a fantastic week of bike sport (that every racer and bike enthusiast should get themselves to at least the once) and supporting and publicising the commitment to bring this piece of NZ history racing once again.
Big thanks also to Nick Thomson for his hard work and Velocette wizardry. And a final huge thanks to Big Velo owner Phil Price for trusting me with MT5001, and for being in a refreshing minority of enthusiasts who believe race bikes are for racing and adding history to; not simply parading, or at worse, cold and lifeless in a museum or collection.
BIG VELO: SOME OF IT’S MAJOR SUCCESSES
BUILT AS A WORKS MACHINE 1934
First raced 10 May 1934. Finished first in 500cc class ulster Grand Prix. Won at race record speed of 88.38mph, fastest lap 92.13mph. Timed for 7 miles on Clady Straight between antrim and Clady. Presented to William White by Velocette Factory in 1934.
- 1935 – Won NZ Beach Champs – William White
- 1936 – Won NZ TT Waiheke – C. Goldberg
- 1937 – Won NZ TT Waiheke – A. Mattson
- 1938 – 2nd NZ TT Waiheke – L.V. Perry
- 1938 – World and NZ Track Record – L.V. Perry
Hennings Speedway, Mangere, 86mph – L.V. Perry
- 1939 – 1st NZ TT Waiheke – L.V. Perry
1st NZ Open Beach Champs – L.V. Perry
- 1939 – 1st North Island 500cc Beach Champs – L.V. Perry
Time 16 mins. 29 secs – 20 miles
- 1946 – 1st NZ TT Waiheke – L.V. Perry
- 1947 – 1st NZ TT Waiheke – L.V. Perry
- 1948 – 1st NZ TT Waiheke – L.V. Perry
- 1949 – 1st NZ TT Waiheke – L.V. Perry
- 1950 – Rider crashed in lead, record lap – L.V. Perry
- 1951 – Wanganui Grand Prix – J. Herd
BROUGHT OUT OF RETIREMENT
- 1965 – NZ Beach Champs J. Herd
- 1966 – NZ Open Beach Champs P. Butterworth
First published in Bike Rider New Zealand Magazine, March 2014
Words: Chris Swallow
Desktop publishing, photography: Shaun G Waugh, Magentadot Brands