With Velocette in its death throes, a small batch of bespoke 500s escaped before it was too late…
Hall Green, Birmingham in 1969 was not a happy place to be. The spectre of the ill-fated Viceroy scooter hung over the place, and the now well-documented end was nigh. Ironically, people still wanted Velocettes. Not the new fangled scooters, but traditional big bangers. But all the money had gone into Viceroy tooling and set-ups costs, so a dedicated market went begging.
Shortly before the shutters came down for the final time, New South Wales Velocette agent Norm Burling of Burling & Simmons concluded a deal to build a special “Aussie-only” batch of 500s. In Australia, the Thruxton price had topped the magic grand, selling for $1095, or around the price of a sparkling new, electric start four-cylinder Honda CB750. Norm Burling wanted a price point a little lower, and his suggestion was to create the Sportsman.
Built in five batches, a total of 40 Sportsman Velocettes were shipped to Norm’s shop on Parramatta Road, Auburn in 1969 and early 1970. They ranged from engine number 6623C to 6742C, but four others – the last four in the series – found homes outside Australia. 6744C went to USA, 6745C and 6746C stayed in Britain, while 6747C sailed for Sweden. The ‘C’ denoted the use of coil ignition rather than magneto, however a small number actually arrived fitted with a magneto.
Rather than being an up-spec MSS, the Sportsman was essentially a down-spec Thruxton. It shared the Thruxton’s 2LS front brake, two-way damped front forks, twin speedo and tacho instrumentation, petrol tank with a cutaway to clear the carburettor, (complete with Monza-style fuel cap) and rubber-mounted oil tank positioned slightly downwards and to the rear (to clear the Thruxton’s GP carburettor). Some Sportsman oil tanks also had the heat shield from the Thruxton fitted. In fact, very minor differences could be found in much of the Sportsman production. By that stage, Velocette was using up whatever components remained in stock.
A conventional dual seat replaced the humpy Thruxton item, but the Sportsman could be specified with either rear set footrest/gearchange and clip-on handlebars, or normal forward pegs and touring style handlebars. The majority came with standard footrest and handlebars.
In the power department, the unique Thruxton ‘squish’head and GP carburettor gave way to a standard Venom Clubman head with the compression lowered from 9:1 to 8.75:1. Clubman cams were fitted, along with standard ratios in place of the Thruxton’s close-ratio 4-speed gearbox. A 32 mm Amal Concentric carburettor was standard equipment, and Velocette claimed a power output of 37 bhp at 6,200 rpm, 4 hp down on the Thruxton. The stylish swept back exhaust system was retained, although this tended to tickle the rider’s toes when used with forward footrests. Another minor irritation was that the ignition key, which protruded from the battery box on the left side, conveniently fouled the inside of the rider’s knee.
In a market slathering over new Japanese hyperbikes, BSA and Triumph triples and the like, the old fashioned Sportsman still found plenty of buyers. Forty in fact. Now, over forty years later, the local Velocette historians can account for nearly three quarters of that number, most of which are still in regular use. The very last one sold was bought by Peter Lord who drove from Melbourne to pick it up and still owns it.
Norm Burling was dead keen to import more, and had orders with the factory for as many as they could supply, but it was not to be. The Sportsman, along with Velocette itself, died in the early, bleak northern winter weeks of 1971. With no room for sentiment, the Velocette factory at York Road, Hall Green was demolished within months and redeveloped by Lucas Aerospace. The manufacturing rights were acquired by Aerco Jigs and Tools, which already held the rights to Scott and Royal Enfield.
A rider’s machine
I have owned my Sportsman (engine number VM 6659C) since 1971. It was only 18 months old when it came into my possession, but it had obviously been a painful existence. A sizeable prang had destroyed the original petrol tank and rear mudguard, and these had been replaced by other Velo, but not Sportsman, items. Fortunately both components were available from Velo specialist Geoff Dodkin in London, and I bought back these and lots of other parts during my fairly frequent trips to the Old Dart in the 1970s. It also had rear set footrests, gear linkage and rear brake lever, which I soon removed in favour of standard items.
Call me one-eyed, but I challenge any production single of any kind to perform as splendidly (no other word quite sums it up) as the Sportsman, nor give such endless pleasure on the run. The handling is nothing less than impeccable, and I used to delight in rounding up my mates on big Japanese and British multi-cylinder bikes during our spirited escapades on the roads a few decades ago. The Velo would simply run rings around any of them through the twisty bits, and was not that far behind on the straights either.
Quite a few of my mates got the message and bought Sportsman Velos. Advertising writer Michael Robinson, who was a frequent and valued contributor to early OBA issue before his death two years ago, bought one (6682C) from speedway sidecar ace Gary Innes, who at that time was living in Tamworth. My later partner in advertising Neil Shennen bought his Sportsman from the late Milton Nobel in Newcastle, and Peter Addison, nowadays the man who does most of our road tests in OBA, also had one (6656C), which, sad to say, he decided to ‘Thruxtonise’ by adding cylinder head, piston, close-ration gears, alloy rims and hump-back seat to the poor little thing. At least three of these four bikes are still around and active today, although just where Neil’s Sportsman ended up I am not sure.
My Sportsman has covered less than 15,000 miles in its 42 years, but needed an engine rebuild after some low-life dumped a handful of dirt in the oil tank when it was parked at the Sydney Showground Speedway one Saturday night. The only modification I have made is to fit a Mikuni carburettor in place of the original Amal Concentric. This actually came from Michael Robinson’s bike and had been fitted by Gary Innes, who had got the settings exactly right. Michael, being a purist, could not bear the thought of besmirching his British beauty with a Japanese carb, so when he replaced it with a brand new Concentric I grabbed the Mikuni. The result is perfect mixture, first-kick starting, and reliable idling – none of which I managed to coax out of the Amal.
The twin-leading shoe front brake that first appeared on the Thruxton was actually developed for Velocette by John Tickle and was on the prototype Thruxton exhibited at the November 1964 Earls Court Show. This machine was actually built by Reg Orpin and used several components, including the front brake, that were available as extras from the L. Stevens Ltd (London Velo dealers) catalogue. Rod Burris, author of the respected book ‘Velocette Motorcycles: MSS to Thruxton’ (reviewed in OBA 24), says that Bertie Goodman refused to have Tickle’s name embossed on the air scoop of the brake for the production Thruxtons, and had the brake reproduced by T.F. Blumfield, although Tickle brakes were used on some early Thruxtons. The Blumfield brake, fitted to most Thruxtons and all the Sportsman models, used standard Velocette linings and a different, squarer profile air scoop instead of the rounded Tickle version, which tended to crack. When correctly set up, the Sportsman brake works extremely well.
Just whether all Sportsman models were originally fitted with the double-damped front forks that had been developed for the Velocette Scrambler I am not sure, but those on mine were not. The conversion is extremely simple to install and makes quite a difference not just to handling, but stability under braking. I have always found the rear springing to be too hard, although the Armstrong damper units (which are not adjustable for pre-load) seem to work well enough. The Girlings used on the Thruxton would have been a better bet for the Sportsman, but no doubt this was ruled out by cost considerations. The seat is also rather plank-like and the padding hardly generous. However the firmness of the ride probably only highlights just how precisely the Sportsman handles; it really is brilliant through the corners, and the standard riding position with normal handlebars and front mounted footrest is, to me, supremely comfortable.
If there is one single word associated with Velocettes it would have to be ‘clutch’, or perhaps two words, ‘!*!! clutch’, but I’m here to defend this much-maligned component. Geriatric and possibly ill-conceived it may be, but the Velo clutch will work and work well, when correctly set up, and mine always has. The golden rule is to never, ever, sit at the traffic lights with the machine in gear and the clutch engaged. Within a few seconds, you’ll be creeping across the intersection; an unwilling passenger. I always snick the Sportsman into neutral just before stopping, which is an acquired technique and probably not the safest way to stop, but it’s part and parcel of being a Velo-Fellow.
Starting is another knack that only practice and patience can perfect. Get it wrong and you’ll end up with a flooded engine that will refuse to fire until cleared of excess fuel. My routine is to retard the spark via the handlebar lever, bring the engine to compression with the kick starter, return the kick starter to the top of its travel, pull in the valve lifter and take the kick starter to the bottom of its travel, then back to the top, release the valve lifter and kick it in one long arc with the throttle closed. Works every time, especially with the Mikuni.
On the mega
Les Raynor is a long-time Sportsman owner – his immaculate example always a head-turner at rallies. Les was a very handy competitor on an R5 Yamaha in his racing days, but here he recounts a competition outing on his Velocette.
“In 1972 I rode my Velo in the Production Machine race at Bathurst and found I could dice with a few of the slower 250’s. I felt like another ride when they proposed a Historic Machine Race in 1976. By turning the handle bars over to make like clip ons, and the loan of a set of rear set footrests (by the editor) a la Thruxton, it started to look something like a racer.
Older readers may remember Frank Mayes, the Western Suburbs MCC stalwart who was a long time friend. I asked him if he knew anyone who could make me a megaphone. Yes, I can, came the ready reply! He asked me the dimensions I’d like it to be. As long as it’s got a 6 inch opening I’d be happy so I gave him the bike minus muffler and he tailor-made it.
At Bathurst Arthur Blizzard saw it before the race and told me I would not be able to use that for much longer as the noise regulations were soon to be introduced. All I did was put a larger main jet in and it went very well. Between the Quarry Bend and the Cutting it flew up there in 3rd gear where as in 1972, 3rd gear was too high and 2nd gear too low.
After the event Arthur also told me that the noise was rattling the windows in the old control tower but he said it with a smile and indicated he’d enjoyed it. Mike Robinson borrowed the megaphone later and put it on his Velo for a ride at Amaroo Park.
I saw it hanging in the garage rafters recently so got it down and gave it a polish and put it on again for old times’ sake. I fired it up and it sounded great and certainly got all the neighbourhood dogs barking.”
Twenty-four hours at the ton
2011 marks half a century since one of the great achievements in motorcycling. In mid-March, 1961, a specially prepared but surprisingly standard Velocette Venom Clubman (in most respects the forerunner of the later Sportsman) was dispatched to the banked, high-speed oval at Montlhery, on the outskirts of Paris. The machine had been carefully put together in the Velocette factory some months before with standard Venom valve timing, but fed by a 1 3/16” Amal GP carburettor and remote, rubber-mounted float chamber, with a megaphone exhaust. The result was an engine producing around 40 bhp, with a top speed of 115 mph at 6,500 rpm. The gearbox contained close ratios, with the final drive ratio set at 4:1. A standard Avonaire fairing was used, but it had been cut and rejoined to narrow the width, given that only rear-set footrests would be used. The centre stand was retained to assist in the wheel changing that would be required for an attempt to average 100 mph for a full day and night.
Before being sent to France however, the Velo covered over 1500 laps of the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) Proving Ground at Nuneaton, but it required no maintenance prior to its trip across the channel. The facilities at Montlhery were quite primitive, the oval rough and bumpy, and the only lighting provided by 50 Marchal car headlights – the Velo carried no lights. A team of eight riders – six French and two Brits (Bertie Goodman and journalist Bruce Main-Smith) was assembled and the record attempt got under way on schedule at 8.30 am. The rear racing tyre was shot after six hours but was changed in the impressive time of three minutes. When the twelve hour mark was reached, the team had averaged 104.66 mph and the rear tyre was again changed, along with the rear chain. The hours of darkness brought problems. The lights produced a strobing effect, causing some of the riders to feel sick and lose concentration. The bike was bottoming its suspension around the rugged bowl, but they pressed on, with Goodman achieving particularly impressive times.
Then, disaster, when one of the French riders fell off and 30 precious minutes were lost sorting out the damage. Back on the track, the record attempt went back into action, and when the clock reached 8.30 the next morning, they had averaged 100.05 mph – the first and still the only time a 500 cc machine has achieved a full day at over the magic ‘ton’. Sadly, after surviving intact for more than 40 years, the 24-Hour Velo was badly burnt in the disastrous fire that all-but destroyed the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham in 2003. Once again, Velocette stalwart Ivan Rhodes came to the rescue, with assistance from Bob Higgs, painstakingly restoring the wreck using what original parts they could and replicating the rest. Fittingly, the completed machine was demonstrated at Montlhery by Ivan’s son Graham, and is now back in residence at the rebuilt National Motorcycle Museum. Chapters of the Australian Velocette Owners Club are planning low-key celebrations in 2011 to mark the 50 years since that record was achieved.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Jim Scaysbrook, Dennis Quinlan, Les Raynor, Clay Cross