L.E. VELOCETTE PROTOTYPE

During WWII, Veloce were contracted to produce aircraft components. As a top class engineering firm they turned out a host of precision parts, often for the massive aircraft assembly plant at nearby Castle Bromwich. Some motorcycles were produced — in particular a militarised version of the 350cc MAC model — but output was miniscule compared with rival Birmingham firms such as BSA and Norton.

The creation of a new motorcycle with mass-market appeal was director Eugene Goodman’s dream. Despite the demands of wartime, opportunities were found to make his great idea a reality.

After Charles Udall was struck down with appendicitis in 1942, his recuperation at home in Solihull became a period of opportunity for Veloce Limited. Eugene Goodman visited his chief designer, suggesting he take a look at fellow designer Phil Irving’s original sketches of what was to become the company’s motorcycle for everyman. Charles’ drawing board quickly followed — Eugene had it sent round from the factory.

In his turn Irving had been injured by an incendiary bomb, which fell on the Velocette factory two years earlier in November 1940. During his convalescence at home in Claverton, Worcestershire, Eugene asked Irving to make a start on a new mass production motorcycle. It had to be quiet, free from vibration, easy to start — the list of criteria is well known. Once he had returned to work, Irving’s ideas got no further than a series of sketches. Veloce’s wartime commitments made sure that no new motorcycle design work could be undertaken during what were the darkest days of WWII. One of Irving’s sketches survives in the Club archive. It shows an opposed water-cooled twin with the cylinders arranged at 150 degrees. Irving thought that canting the cylinders slightly upwards from the horizontal would give the new motorcycle more ground clearance.

When Charles Udall examined Irving’s sketches, he disagreed with the layout. The 150-degree twin would have given uneven firing intervals and created problems with the design of a suitable ignition system — as well as having imperfect balance. Eugene had asked for a silent and smooth machine, which was why Charles went for a horizontally opposed twin. Within a month he had created a detailed drawing. Eugene approved of the design and told Charles that, once the war ended, he would set up the Hall Green factory to make the new machine. Charles then set to work on detailed drawings, which took a further two months.

In slack times between war production, Charles supervised the assembly of a hand built prototype. Gearbox assembly foreman Sis Low did much of the work, and the new machine looked very much like Udall’s original design. By 1943 the engine was nearly complete, as the photographs below show.

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A side view  with the oil sump and starter lever yet to be fitted. Eugene has drawn in the line of the frame, including the aperture through which the hand controlled gear lever emerges. The rough sand cast cylinder heads bear their part number — LE14, while the frame cross member is exactly as the production component.

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This view  of the engine from above shows that the prototype differed in only minor details from production power units. Eugene’s hand written comments, which point out the ‘dry’ section of the gearbox casting read, “this is only space, nothing goes in, it is made like this to get a clean outline.” The boss on top of the crankcase is for the engine breather — latterly moved to the right hand side.

Eugene sent copies to his son Peter, who was serving with the RAF in North Africa. To help Peter understand how the finished motorcycle was going to look, Eugene has drawn on the frame outline. He also added important information, such that the engine measured only 9 1/8in across the cylinders.

By early 1944 the prototype L.E. was complete. The photograph below, taken from Velocette Works Director Peter Goodman’s photograph album, shows the almost finished machine inside the Hall Green factory.

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The main frame is yet to be painted, although the front mudguard has already received a coat of black enamel. The frame was largely hand beaten, with the rear mudguard and front section being produced as separate assemblies. Charles Udall recalls that the two parts were held together with six 2BA bolts! Production frames were placed in a jig and welded. A row of spot weld marks shows how the lower frame strengtheners are secured. The patented design of adjustable rear springing can be seen. But this section of the rear mudguard around the adjusting slots bulges outwards. The layout is similar to the Model 0, where Veloce first tried out this type of stressed sheet steel frame. The design of pivoted rear fork is exactly as the production component and is similar to the one Charles Udall laid out for the pre-WWII supercharged twin, the Roarer.

Twin headlamps are fitted, and the right hand component can be seen fixed to the front of the legshield. Charles Udall chose this layout to give a good spread of light ahead of the machine. He also knew the disadvantages of wiring running to a headlamp mounted on brackets ahead of the front fork — its movement with each turn of the handlebar can cause wires to chafe and fret. The ’static’ wiring on the prototype L.E. — achieved because the headlamps were rigidly mounted — was infinitely preferable. But the two low slung headlamps — car components were used and were difficult to source in wartime Britain — failed to give enough illumination when the machine negotiated a bend. The beams tended to light up the roadside rather than the carriageway.

A tiny cover where the gear lever passes through the frame was later enlarged, and the lever’s spherical operating knob is replicated on the hand start lever. The more manageable long indented rubber grip came later. Single level footboards and the link between starting lever and stand can also be seen. Both upper and lower water pipes are steel tubes, with short sections of rubber hose at each end. A rear number plate and lamp have yet to be fitted, although the front plate, with its distinctive integral licence disc holder, is already in place.

It wasn’t long before the prototype L.E. — complete and fully painted — was ready to start its road trials. The photograph below is from Charles Udall’s collection and was taken in early 1944. Just a couple of weeks after the earlier photograph.

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The earlier view showed the freshly assembled machine inside the Factory with its frame still in bare metal. This time, the black enamelled motorcycle with its designer aboard is parked on the path alongside the Hall Green factory’s engine test house. This was a self-contained brick building at the back of the site adjacent to the Birmingham – Stratford-upon-Avon railway line.

Dressed in his familiar full-length leather coat, in which he was often seen at race meetings pre-war, Udall looks impassive about his latest creation. Was this just another project from Velocette’s chief designer, or something extremely special? Undoubtedly it was the latter. In 1944, and with an end to the European conflict now in sight, few other UK motorcycle factories had created anything as remotely innovative to impress their post-WWII customers.

The L.E.s largely hand beaten frame has now received a coat of gloss black enamel. Also a rear number plate bracket and light have been added since the last picture. The unpainted front fork sliders add a touch of sparkle. Of course they were plated, not enamelled, for a reason. The sliders were soft soldered assemblies — a baked on paint finish would risk melting the solder. This practice of dull chrome plating continued on production machines. But by then, the familiar polychromatic silver-grey colour scheme meant that the finish of a part plated front fork did not stand out so prominently.

Long bladed control levers are clamped to the handlebar along with a conventional twist grip. These were probably Amal components — easily sourced from Veloce’s preferred carburettor and control cable supplier. Production machines used the familiar Hall Green produced 10 SWG folded aluminium levers with brazed on pivots.

The adjustable rear springing is on its softest setting. The long eyebolt nuts are as far forward as possible, adjacent to the base of the saddle springs — which are barrel shaped and with their lower ends bolted to the side of the frame. The saddle appears to be much wider than the version used in production and was probably from a single cylinder Velocette. Udall’s foot is resting on a single level footboard — soon to be altered in the light of experience from carrying a pillion passenger.

All that remained was to register the new machine for the road.

Dennis Frost

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