‘It’s smashing to ride head-down, arse-up’
A love story that’s endured three decades, bent valves and duff magnetos, MCN's Senior Designer Simon Relph’s still head-over-heels with his Velocette
My passion for Velocettes began back in the 80s when I was watching classic racing at Cadwell Park. The first thing that appealed to me was the exquisite chuff made by the fishtail exhaust: it was like no other bike I had heard. The look was also different, particularly its ‘map of Africa’ timing chest and narrow, lean lines. I knew I had to have one.
I watched on from afar for a few years and did my research on the various models until I had the opportunity to buy a 1953 Velocette Mac, which to a good friend Mike Drew and came in the form of a rolling chassis with the engine completely dismantled. Mike’s house is like a shrine to Velocette – the bikes occupy more rooms than he does – and he offered to rebuild the engine with me so that I could learn about its superb engineering and all its eccentricities. The Mac finally went on the road in 1989 and, thanks to Mike’s expert guidance, I knew every nut, bolt and washer of the Mac.
I used it on a daily basis until a few years later another Velocette came up for sale; this time a Venom. When the bloke selling it lifted off the cover he revealed not only the bike of my dreams but also one with all the right goodies. The bike was a Clubman that had been transformed into a Thruxton, meaning it had Boranni alloy rims, full width hubs, twin leading shoe Blumfield front brake, four-gallon tank, swept-back pipe, Amal 10TT carb, John Tickle clip-ons and headlamp brackets, rearsets and a rev counter. I could not have chosen better myself.
Its original owner, a chap called Roderick, had passed away and it was left to his widow to find the bike a new home. The tyres were flat and the alloy was dull and oxidised but the rest of the bike was superb.
Roderick worked as a locksmith but was an accomplished engineer who over the years re-made many of the original parts in stainless steel. Much of the bike looked standard at first glance but when I looked more closely I realised every nut, bolt and washer had been re-made – even the pushrod tube was in stainless. Instead of just copying the original design, Rod had made the new one so that the pushrod tube could be removed without taking off the cylinder head. It even has modern O-ring oil seals; the attention to detail left me astounded.
When I got the bike home I went over it with a fine tooth-comb, giving it a full once over, changing all the oils, checking the brakes, suspension wheels, and servicing the engine. Then came the moment of truth. Yes, it had a spark, the carb was cleaned and primed with fresh fuel, and it started first kick.
The engine sounded sweet but it wasn’t until I put the bike into first that I discovered it had Thruxton gearing on it. I had to slip the clutch for the first 100 yards before I could fully engage it. This thing was geared for about 120mph – great if that’s what you want – but I had plans to ride the bike on a daily basis, so the front sprocket had to be replaced with one a bit more road-friendly.
With a few miles under the Velo’s belt, it settled down nicely. A few more after that and a couple of problems appeared, too. The Lucas K1F magneto had a known weakness, for which Rod had devised a cunning fix, but having found myself stuck at the side of the road once too often, replacing the Lucas with a far superior BTH mag was an easy, if expensive, decision.
Next up was something less straightforward. Riding home from work one night, I accelerated hard from the lights and managed to miss a gear. This resulted in a loss of compression and an engine that was more interested in stalling than running. Using high revs all the way, I limped the seven miles home.
Upon stripping it down I discovered the exhaust valve was not only bent but was also out of a Ford Transit! It seemed that the odd corner had been cut with this bike.
The replacement valve cost £80, and after I fixed it more little things failed, notably the speedo bracket which snapped. Rod had made that too, and as I preferred his design to the standard Velo bracket, I set about making my own to match which was incredibly satisfying.
Over the last few years the Velo has behaved itself. It even won ‘Best Post War Bike’ in a VMCC event (the prize, a bottle of whiskey, went down a treat). I have made the odd modification along the way, too, including a crankcase breather system out of copper plumbing fittings that allows gases to escape into a chamber. Any oil vapour is collected and re-directed to the drive chain, while the gas blows out of a pipe at the very rear of the bike. Well, that’s the theory anyway.
Even with all these teething problems, I have loved every day of owning my Venom. It’s smashing to ride head-down arse-up, while the tiny bars make it feel like you’re hanging on to the front wheel spindle. I think 500cc singles are just right and I never get bored of looking at this one, even after 18 years. It’s gorgeous!