Ve­lo­cette LE

For a com­pany so steeped in high per­for­mance sin­gles, the con­cept of the lit­tle twin cylin­der LE seems at odds with the Ve­lo­cette ethos.

Old Bike Australasia - - CONTENTS - Story Brian Fowler and Jim Scaysbrook Pho­tog­ra­phy Colleen Can­ning and OBA Archives

Silent in­no­va­tion

Yet Eu­gene and Percy Good­man, sons of the founder of Ve­loce, John Good­man, staunchly be­lieved that sport­ing sin­gles alone could not sus­tain the com­pany in­def­i­nitely, nor could the util­i­tar­ian GTP two stroke. Dur­ing WW2, Ve­lo­cette pro­duc­tion was re­stricted to the wartime MAF model, so there was some time to think ahead to the days when nor­mal ser­vice would be re­sumed.

Eu­gene Good­man had sketched early concepts of what would be­come the LE (which he re­ferred to as the Mo­tor­cy­cle for Ev­ery­man) dur­ing the ‘thir­ties, and Phil Irving fre­quently added his thoughts be­fore he de­parted for Vin­cent-HRD, but it was Charles Udall who con­verted the grow­ing pa­per file into proper work­ing draw­ings to en­able pro­duc­tion es­ti­mates to be un­der­taken. As early as the Bri­tish win­ter of 1944-45, a hand-built pro­to­type of the LE (“Lit­tle En­gine”) was nip­ping around the Ve­lo­cette works at Hall Green, Birm­ing­ham, and in al­most ev­ery re­spect, it bore no re­sem­blance to any pre­vi­ous model. The stated aim was to at­tract new cus­tomers – rather than ex­ist­ing or tra­di­tional mo­tor­cy­clists – to the mar­ket, and to achieve this, much of the ortho­dox think­ing had to be aban­doned.

In its orig­i­nal form, this un­usual-look­ing cre­ation strayed from con­ven­tion in or­der to sat­isfy the aims of the project, which in no par­tic­u­lar or­der in­cluded; weather pro­tec­tion, clean run­ning, ease of start­ing, quiet­ness, long ser­vice in­ter­vals, ease of main­te­nance (par­tic­u­larly for the non-tech­ni­cally minded), lug­gage ca­pac­ity, econ­omy of op­er­a­tion, easy clean­ing and long over­all life.

The heart of the mater was the frame, or rather, chas­sis; a sin­gle unit com­prised of pressed 22-gauge steel sec­tions welded to­gether, con­tain­ing com­part­ments for the petrol tank, bat­tery (ac­ces­si­ble by un­bolt­ing the sad­dle springs and tilt­ing the seat for­ward) and tool box, and into which the unit com­pris­ing the en­gine, trans­mis­sion, fi­nal drive and rear sus­pen­sion was slot­ted. The 1.25 gal­lon (5.6 litre) fuel tank bolted in­side the main press­ing. To achieve the aim of weather pro­tec­tion, built-in leg shields and floor­boards kept wa­ter and road muck away from cloth­ing, with vo­lu­mi­nous front and rear mud­guards – the lat­ter built as part of the chas­sis. Ve­lo­cette had in 1939 pur­chased a Lake Erie hy­draulic press, ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing large press­ings, which in ad­di­tion to pump­ing out the chas­sis and mud­guard com­po­nents for the LE, was used for con­tract work by other man­u­fac­tur­ers. Com­fort dic­tated the use of rear sus­pen­sion, and Ve­lo­cette were al­ready well-versed in this with the highly suc­cess­ful MK VIII rac­ing model with its swing­ing arm rear end. The top mount­ings for the sus­pen­sion units moved in a chan­nel so that they could be ad­justed ac­cord­ing to loads such as a pil­lion pas­sen­ger – a sys­tem patented by Ve­loce in 1939 and sub­se­quently used on all post-war swing­ing arm mod­els. Af­ter con­sid­er­ing a pro­pri­etary Webb front fork, Ve­lo­cette made their own to a com­pletely new de­sign.

The en­gine it­self, of 149cc with a bore and stroke of 44mm x 49mm, side-valve twin cylin­der hor­i­zon­tally op­posed, was wa­ter-cooled, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a ra­di­a­tor and as­so­ci­ated hoses, which were largely hid­den from view. The wa­ter jack­et­ing around the cylin­ders and heads en­hanced the ex­cep­tional quiet­ness, and be­cause of the liq­uid cool­ing, large leg shields and a vo­lu­mi­nous front mud­guard (which

would nor­mally have re­stricted cool­ing air) could be used in the quest for weather pro­tec­tion. The use of side valves kept the en­gine width down to just 14 inches (35.5cm). A spe­cial seven-jet car­bu­ret­tor was de­signed by Udall and man­u­fac­tured by Amal, but it took 12 months of painstak­ing de­vel­op­ment be­fore a sat­is­fac­tory Puro­la­tor-type fuel fil­ter could be de­vel­oped which could trap im­pu­ri­ties be­fore they reached (and clogged) the tiny jets. Mounted above the crank­case, the car­bu­ret­tor sat on a long in­let tract con­nect­ing the two cylin­ders, with air supplied via a fil­ter sit­u­ated in the cen­tre of the ra­di­a­tor. A three­speed gear­box with a two-plate dry clutch, built in-unit with the en­gine, con­nected to a shaft drive with a bevel drive set into the left side leg of the swing­ing arm rear fork, with fully sealed internal lu­bri­ca­tion. Gear chang­ing was done by hand, with a car-style gate hous­ing at­tached to the right side of the chas­sis. Both en­gine start­ing and gear change were hand op­er­ated – ap­par­ently to avoid scuff­ing the rider’s footwear – and the en­gine could be started in gear by pulling in the clutch lever. Elec­tric start­ing was con­sid­ered but dis­carded on the ba­sis that it would re­quire too large a bat­tery and dy­namo­tor.

Within the front of the crank­case sat a fully in­te­grated ig­ni­tion with a sin­gle HT coil and dis­trib­u­tor, and DC gen­er­a­tor (plus a per­ma­nent mag­net to per­mit the en­gine to be started even with a flat bat­tery) – all es­pe­cially made by BTH, while the car­bu­ret­tor in­cor­po­rated a cold-start mech­a­nism to avoid the need for ‘tick­ling’ with the sub­se­quent messy drip­ping of petrol. The en­tire en­gine and trans­mis­sion, along with the quick­ly­de­tach­able rear wheel and shock ab­sorbers could be re­moved as a sin­gle unit. Each en­gine assem­bly was built on a sin­gle floor track by teams of four fit­ters, then run for nine min­utes at the end.

Ini­tial pro­jec­tions were for a pro­duc­tion of 300 com­plete LEs per week (with 80% ex­ported), and to achieve this for­mi­da­ble tar­get, the rest of the Ve­lo­cette range was trimmed to just the 350cc MAC – a prof­itable and good sell­ing model. In re­al­ity, the LE pro­duc­tion was wildly op­ti­mistic and gen­er­ally reached less than half the tar­get. Prior to com­mence­ment of pro­duc­tion in 1948, ex­haus­tive test­ing was car­ried out in or­der to en­sure that the ma­chine would be com­pletely de-bugged by the time it reached its new own­ers. In the days of se­verely ra­tioned ‘Pool’ petrol, just ob­tain­ing suf­fi­cient fuel sup­plies was a tricky sit­u­a­tion, which se­verely af­fected the test­ing sched­ule. For the 1948 model year, UK price for the ba­sic model LE was £126, com­pared to just £76 for a BSA Ban­tam. The Aus­tralian price, in­clud­ing 8.5% sales tax, was an­nounced at £188. The of­fi­cial un­veil­ing for the LE took place at the Earls Court Show on Novem­ber 18th, 1948, and de­spite scarce fi­nan­cial re­sources, Ve­loce took out full page colour ads in both ma­jor weekly mag­a­zines to her­ald the new ar­rival.

Alas, de­spite the con­sid­er­able road-test­ing, short­com­ings and de­fects came to light soon af­ter de­liv­er­ies be­gan in Oc­to­ber 1948. The most se­ri­ous of these were me­chan­i­cal fail­ures that were traced to con­den­sa­tion within the en­gine unit lead­ing to con­tam­i­na­tion of the lu­bri­cant. This was par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent when the LE was used for short runs, which was, af­ter all, one of the pri­mary pur­poses. As quickly as pos­si­ble, a se­ries of fixes was im­ple­mented, and be­cause ball and roller bear­ings were par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to mois­ture fail­ing, Eu­gene Good­man dic­tated that these were to be re­placed with plain bear­ings (and an oil-pres­sure gauge) as a mat­ter of ur­gency. This went part of the way to solv­ing the prob­lem, but by late 1953, the crankshaft with its main bear­ings and big ends was con­verted to pres­sure-feed.

Com­plaints arose as well about the over­all lack of per­for­mance, and with 245lb (111kg) to push around, the lit­tle 150 had its work cut out.

By Novem­ber 1950, a new LE (mar­keted as the LE 200 or LE Mk II) with the en­gine in­creased to 192cc (achieved by in­creas­ing the bore to 50mm) was ready. The new model, al­though visually iden­ti­cal to the orig­i­nal, in­cor­po­rated a more ro­bust crankshaft, more ef­fi­cient cam de­sign, much-in­creased oil pump ca­pac­ity, an ex­tra plate in the clutch, and im­prove­ments to the fi­nal drive of the trans­mis­sion. De­spite the in­creased ca­pac­ity, petrol con­sump­tion was also im­proved, to around 120 miles per gal­lon. Prob­lems also oc­curred with the BTH ig­ni­tion/power sys­tem, and even­tu­ally this was re­placed with a new 42 watt AC gen­er­a­tor-ig­ni­tion unit made by Miller, who had supplied Ve­loce with light­ing equip­ment for many years. Weight in­creased slightly to 250lb (113.3 kg).

In 1955 a new die-cast alu­minium-al­loy swing­ing arm assem­bly re­placed the tubu­lar steel item, which had shown a ten­dency to crack af­ter long pe­ri­ods of use. In the same year, an at­trac­tive range of two-colour dé­cors was of­fered, mak­ing a wel­come change to the rather drab grey used on the orig­i­nal mod­els. A plush two-level dual seat (with a 71mm seat height for the rider) also re­placed the sprung sad­dle and pil­lion pad, and 18 inch wheels with 3.25 inch sec­tion tyres re­placed the ear­lier 19 inch­ers. As well as the ex­ist­ing Leather­cloth pan­niers, new “Stream­lined” two-piece steel pan­niers were of­fered as ex­tras.

An­nounced in late 1957 the MK III LE fea­tured full­width alu­minium al­loy hubs in place of the pressed steel 5-inch units, a larger head­lamp which was faired into the han­dle­bars which were them­selves re­vised with a wider, more com­fort­able sweep, an ig­ni­tion/light­ing switch car­ried in the head­light along with an am­me­ter and speedome­ter. The most sig­nif­i­cant change was prob­a­bly the new four-speed gear­box, along with the change to a kick starter and foot-change gear lever, both on the right hand side. An Amal 363 Monobloc car­bu­ret­tor be­came stan­dard fit­ment, and the heav­ier crankshaft from the new air-cooled Valiant model was adopted, giv­ing even smoother run­ning. 12 volt electrics were also of­fered as an ex­tra and stan­dard on the mod­els supplied to the UK Po­lice Force.

At one stage, more than fifty po­lice forces through­out UK re­lied on the LE, some hav­ing more than 100 in the fleet. In fact, the versatile LE, with its abil­ity to run at low speeds, was very in­stru­men­tal in dras­ti­cally re­duc­ing the old walk­ing po­lice beats, free­ing up man­power and speed­ing up the whole exercise at the same time. It was found that one po­lice rider could do the work of three men on foot. The LE was even more use­ful for po­lice work when fit­ted with a two-way ra­dio, and for this pur­pose Miller pro­duced a larger gen­er­a­tor to keep the bat­tery fully charged when the ra­dio was in con­tin­u­ous use. At its peak, po­lice or­ders ac­counted for nearly half the to­tal LE pro­duc­tion. The UK postal ser­vice was also supplied with a num­ber of LEs, painted red.

In po­lice guise, the LE gained the nick-name of Noddy Bike, which was ap­par­ently coined be­cause met­ro­pol­i­tan po­lice of­fi­cers were re­quired to salute their su­pe­ri­ors. How­ever in or­der to ob­vi­ate the need to take one’s hand from the han­dle­bars, of­fi­cers were al­lowed a po­lite nod in­stead.

In 1963 Ve­loce in­tro­duced the Vogue, a restyled LE with fi­bre­glass body­work made by Michen­hall Broth­ers, who also supplied the fi­bre­glass com­po­nents to the Rick­man broth­ers for their Metisse road and rac­ing mo­tor­cy­cles. Twin head­lights were used on the Vogue, along with di­rec­tional in­di­ca­tors. The Vogue how­ever was a com­plete flop, with just 381 built over a four-year pe­riod. On the fi­nal it­er­a­tion of the LE, Lu­cas electrics re­placed the Miller sys­tem, giv­ing far bet­ter light­ing.

But the end was nigh for Ve­lo­cette, and the fa­mous com­pany fi­nally closed its doors on 3rd Fe­bru­ary, 1971, with the last bikes to leave the fac­tory be­ing a batch of LEs. In hind­sight, the LE was a brave ven­ture that never re­ally paid off. It is be­lieved that the pro­jected prof­its af­ter amor­ti­sa­tion of set up costs were never re­alised, and the dis­counted fleet sales to po­lice and oth­ers barely cov­ered costs. Nev­er­the­less it was a stand­out model in mo­tor­cy­cling his­tory, with many in­no­va­tive fea­tures that found their way into other makes over time. In re­al­ity, Ve­lo­cette, which re­mained a small fam­ily-op­er­ated busi­ness through­out its ex­is­tence, never had the re­sources to ser­vice their con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment in the LE. As the model at­ro­phied, even the old 500cc sin­gles were rein­tro­duced, iron­i­cally sus­tain­ing the com­pany for a few more years. To­day, the LE looks as quirky as ever and is quite col­lectible, the silent lit­tle side-valver that re­mains an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of orig­i­nal think­ing.

An owner’s opin­ion

We have fea­tured two of Bryan Fowler’s mo­tor­cy­cles pre­vi­ously in OBA, and here’s the third in the set. Bryan’s LE is a 1956 Se­ries II (192cc), and he de­scribes its his­tory and high­lights.

This LE was orig­i­nally sold by Pride and Clarke of Lon­don, to a com­mer­cial pi­lot who car­ried the ma­chine with him on flights as per­sonal trans­port. It was reg­is­tered in Singapore, trav­elled ex­ten­sively (ok, so mostly as stowage!) and sev­eral re­pairs to leg shields etc, are in­dica­tive of aero­plane style main­te­nance. Upon his re­tire­ment, the orig­i­nal owner and his son be­gan restor­ing the LE but his un­timely death led to it be­ing put up for sale. I pur­chased it in 2004 from Eng­land, had it shipped to my home in the U.S. and set about restor­ing it.

Be­ing both an ar­dent his­tory buff as well as mo­tor­cy­cle en­thu­si­ast, there are three Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cles which, to my mind, typ­ify im­me­di­ate post war rad­i­cal think­ing, the junc­tion of: a slate wiped clean, new engineerin­g prac­tices/knowl­edge and a scarcity of per­sonal trans­port. The three are: Sun­beam S7, Ariel Leader and the LE. Hav­ing al­ready re­stored a Sun­beam S7, the LE was my next pur­chase. While some read­ers may be shak­ing their heads, it has been my ex­pe­ri­ence that more of­ten than not, those who shake their heads at these mo­tor­cy­cles have rarely owned, rid­den and/or main­tained one.

From a main­te­nance per­spec­tive the LE is user friendly, once of course you un­der­stand its idio­syn­cra­sies (and shelve your own), not the least of which is its tor­sion box frame. How­ever, in a mat­ter of min­utes, the frame com­plete with front end/wheel etc, can be re­moved pro­vid­ing un­fet­tered ac­cess to the ra­di­a­tor, en­gine, gear­box, rear wheel, and so on, as they form a stand-alone unit. In terms of

“But the end was nigh for Ve­lo­cette, and the fa­mous com­pany fi­nally closed its doors on 3rd Fe­bru­ary, 1971, with the last bikes to leave the fac­tory be­ing a batch of LEs.”

Fac­tory photo of the new Mk II LE for 1950.

Heart of the mat­ter; the LE en­gine unit.

RIGHT First advertisem­ent for the LE In Novem­ber 1948. ABOVE Aus­tralian LE ad from 1951.

The LE Chas­sis.

Po­lice LE Mk III gets a brisk squirt around the cir­cuit at the 2013 Good­wood Re­vival.

The Valiant; the air-cooled LE.

Now en­joy­ing cer­e­mo­nial du­ties in re­tire­ment, a Po­lice spec LE at the 2013 Good­wood Re­vival in Eng­land.

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