PROTOTYPE L.E. — WHAT HAPPENED TO FON 898?

Once registered for the road, Veloce’s test programme for their prototype L.E. model began in earnest. All the firm’s directors took their turn in the saddle, offering feedback to the ‘motorcycle for everyman’ project’s masterminds, works director Eugene Goodman and designer Charles Udall. A photograph exists of Maureen Goodman — Bertie’s wife — at the controls of FON 898 and I feel sure that the firm’s redoubtable chief buyer Ethel Denley must have also taken the new model for a spin.

Service manager Bob Burgess once recalled how pleased he was to be asked for his comments. He rode the machine home, returning it to Hall Green the following day and was impressed with its silence and smoothness. Writing in OTL in the mid-Sixties — Bob was also latterly a Club member — he recalled the experience was in sharp contrast to his regular wartime mount, a 350 MAF — the militarised version of Veloce’s popular 350cc ohv MAC model.

It was Bob, who suggested the new machine’s final drive cover should be altered, so it could not be refitted incorrectly. I described in Looking Back No 15 that the prototype’s circular casing was modelled on the pre-WWII racing Roarer’s bevel drive layout. This sophisticated 500cc supercharged twin was a machine that race chief Harold Willis had initiated, but for which Udall had done almost all the detail design work. While a race mechanic would almost instinctively know how a unique competition machine went together, a novice rider could be excused for misunderstanding how one critical component of an ‘everyman’ motorcycle was fitted if its correct orientation was not wholly clear. Of course, we know that the later squared off lower bevel drive cover and casing showed that Bob’s advice was acted upon. 

Having spent years listening to customers’ experiences, their service manager’s feedback was just what Veloce needed. Ethel Denley put forward her comments too. It is well known that she recommended the polychromatic — metallic — silver grey colour scheme for production models. This was a bold suggestion, particularly for a firm which had produced nothing but black finished motorcycles for years. She argued that female riders would be put off by such an intimidating expanse of dark bodywork. Charles Udall once confirmed to me that the colour change was indeed Ethel’s suggestion — and he approved.

A myth has grown up over the years — for which, unfortunately, I am partly responsible — that FON 898 was soon discarded in largely ‘as built’ condition once its initial period of testing was complete. I now realise that the prototype was progressively modified as production parts became available — such that by the autumn of 1948 it appeared substantially similar to the five pre-production machines assembled at that stage. The first picture in this Looking Back is from Peter Goodman’s photograph album. Although far from clear, the machine his father Eugene is riding is without doubt finished in silver grey. The location is the Goodman’s family home in Solihull and the machine is, of course, FON 898.

The second picture is from Veloce’s first L.E. sales brochure. This fold-out publication will be familiar to many members and shows one of the pre-production models — road registered HON 898 — on its front cover. Inside are a number of views, depicting how Veloce anticipated their new motorcycle would be used — by the schoolteacher, the district nurse, the shopper etc. Prominent among these is a picture of FON 898 — in outline almost indistinguishable from the other machines shown.

So what happened to FON 898? The Factory sales records note that it was sold to journalist Bernal Osborne. Motor Cycling magazine’s Midlands editor was a good friend of Veloce — he tested many of their post-WWII models. No date is recorded when the deal was struck, but my hunch is it was a long time after FON 898 appeared in that early sales brochure. Bernal died some years ago, but his colleague Cyril Quantrill recalls that Bernal bought the machine for his wife to use. Cyril also remembered that sometime in 1947, another Motor Cycling journalist, Charles Markham had the prototype on test. He was sworn to secrecy, of course. In a more genteel age than our own, journalist Markham agreed not to write about Veloce’s new machine until the L.E was launched to the Press in late 1948.

A long time later — in June 1973 — FON 898 reappeared. Its then owner, a Mr Prentice of Solihull, offered it for sale through an advertisement in Motor Cycle News. Bristol Club member Paul Martyn tried to buy it. He wrote to the seller and was told that the engine had just been started, “after nearly two years standing outside.” Paul was keen to do a deal and, believing FON 898 to be in its original condition, asked Prentice if twin headlamps were still fitted.  Of course, the written reply came that there was no sign of them. This is confirmed by the photograph Prentice provided, and which is reproduced here.

Despite his enthusiasm, Paul was beaten to the deal by — of all people — George and Ethel Denley. Veloce’s long retired directors — who at the time still lived in Hall Green, just streets away from the factory site — were looking for an L.E. they could present to Birmingham’s Museum of Science and Industry. They had previously passed the company’s surviving 1913 two-stroke Velocette to the Museum, at the time located at Newhall Street in the city centre. The little two- stroke was the motorcycle which had set Veloce Limited on the road to sales success. It was the company’s third motorcycle design and the first — because of its diminutive proportions — to be marketed as a Velocette.

The Denleys told various friends and contacts of their plans, and asked them to look out for suitable machines. Motorcycle author Jeff Clew was one, and he also spotted the Motor Cycle News advert. Jeff alerted George and Ethel and they in turn sent their friend Dennis Webb, also a onetime Veloce employee, to buy FON 898. Dennis restored the machine for the Denleys and it was presented to the Museum in 1975. The final photograph, taken by the Birmingham Post a couple of years later, shows George and Ethel at the museum — having been invited to see their donations on display. FON 898 takes centre stage while the 1913 two-stroke Velocette — a two speed version — is in the foreground.

Some years ago I took a close look at FON 898 and concluded that it had been further developed by the Factory well beyond its late 1948 149cc pre-production specification. Its power unit is now a 192cc all pain bearing affair, generally to early 1955 season specification. The engine number is, intriguingly 200/1001, although all the main castings look like production, not prototype components. My view is that FON 898 probably remained a Factory development machine, at least until the last of the really significant engine modifications — the change from ball and roller to plain bearings — was incorporated into production models during the latter part of 1953.

The Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry has now closed — replaced by the impressive Millennium funded and thoroughly modern Discovery Centre at nearby Chamberlain Square. Most of the motorcycles once displayed at Newhall Street, including FON 898 are now in store, with little early prospect they will again be put on show.  That’s a pity, because few visitors to the old museum — and incidentally also the staff — realised that FON 898 is a very special L.E. indeed.

It is remarkable that Veloce’s prototype L.E has survived. We must see what can be done about getting it back on display.

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Sad and neglected FON898 resurfaced in 1973. After two years out of use, owner Prentice put it up for sale. It was bought for restoration by George and Ethel Denley.

 

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FON898 on publicity duty. Along with the five pre-production models, it featured in early sales publicity for Veloce's new 'everyman' model.

 

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Proof that FON 898 was progressively altered from its 'as built', black finished, twin headlamp form. Eugene Goodman rides the prototype L.E. at his Solihull family home. By now the prototype is looking much more like a production model.

 

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This photograph taken by the 'Birmingham Post' shows George and Ethel at the museum - having been invited to see their donations on display.

Dennis Frost

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