January 2016

Who built the first L.E. – engined Valiant? It wasn’t the Veloce factory

“Am I correct in assuming that not many LE engined Valiants were made?” Roy Moulton’s question in a letter asking for service publications – Roy’s a new member – made me think. The answer is that Veloce didn’t make any examples of what we have nowadays come to call the LE / Val. But while this detail might be common knowledge to us old hands, new recruits can be excused for thinking that slotting the docile, water-cooled engine into the sporting Valiant’s cycle parts was an idea dreamed up at Hall Green.

It would seem that the first of these hybrids was built around 1965 by a chap called Bill Woods, the owner of BMG Motorcycles in Ilford, east London. Bill’s firm had been supplying L.E.s to the Conservators of Epping Forest, a nearby wooded area managed by the City of London. Epping Forest ran a small fleet of L.E.s which were painted distinctively in Post Office red. They were used for patrol work and occasionally needed to be ridden off-road. Woods was asked if he could supply a motorcycle better suited to this sort of trail application. In response Bill built a LE / Valiant hybrid which he named the Valetta. The completed machine was evaluated by the Epping Forest riders, but no further examples were built; indeed BMG continued to supply L.E. models until the last one – in its distinctive red colour scheme – was ordered in November 1969.

I am grateful to Colin Goodwyn, the Velocette Owners Club archivist, for providing this photograph of the Valetta, taken at Bill Woods’ home in south London. The gold painted Valiant frame is rather attractive, topped off by a bespoke glassfibre tank finished in Epping Forest red. The position of the oil filter chamber has been moved from the right-hand cylinder head to a less vulnerable site on top of the crankcase – which of course is where the Vogue’s filter was placed. A L.E. silencer box has been fitted – turned upside down and connected to a set of special, tucked in exhaust pipes. The unmodified silencer tail pipe can be seen pointing upwards towards the left hand side of the machine.

With production in mind, Woods contacted Reynolds Tubes – who had made the all-welded Valiant frame for Veloce – but the Tyseley, Birmingham, firm were not able supply a new batch. He then approached A E Oliver, onetime chief frame maker at the Brough Superior works in Nottingham, but again without success. We know that Woods had a production batch of the Valetta in mind because he commissioned further examples of the petrol tank. However, whether because of these setbacks with supply, or a rejection by Epping Forest, the Woods’ creation remained a unique machine.

Some years ago the Valetta re-appeared, owned by John Chilcott, a member from Devon. John rode his prized machine in a press-on style, such that he was able to convince the journalist Jeff Clew that the engine had been breathed on – which wasn’t the case. After John’s ownership it passed through a number of hands until appearing for sale on e-Bay.

The first private owner to build a similar machine seems to have been Ken Law, a Surrey club member who subsequently moved to the Isle of Man. His smart example – which first took to the road in the early 1970s – drew admiring comments. Our past secretary, Andy Lawrie was next. His machine was created out of necessity while an unreliable Valiant power unit was sorted out. Since then quite a few L.E. engined Valiants have been put together. My Register of Members’ Machines lists around 25.

The work to create a LE / Val is not difficult, although arranging the exhaust system requires careful thought. Some builders have fitted Valiant silencers, which means that the original stand arrangement can be left unaltered. The alternative, of slotting a L.E. silencer into its usual place under the gearbox, means there is often not enough space for the original stand – although Bill Woods managed this with the Valetta.

The trickiest job is manoeuvring the L.E. radiator into the gap between the top of the crankcase and the petrol tank. It’s quite a squeeze. Many have substituted the original Valiant tank with one that sits higher on the top frame tube, such as from a BSA Bantam. The late Mike Clarke’s Vixen model, which is now part of my collection, uses a modified front engine mounting bracket, lowering the power unit just enough to mount the radiator below an original fuel tank, although everything is so close that the coolant filler and its cap have had to be cut down.

So what’s the attraction of this metisse package? The mixture of a quieter engine allied to a chassis offering better ground clearance must be one reason. Nowadays I suspect that new converts to our machines find the look of a more conventional motorcycle a sound basis for choosing an already built LE / Val – and at half the price of an original air-cooled version. Replacing the Valiant’s engine has also bolstered the view that the ohv power unit is fragile. We know that’s not true, but have to accept that a water cooled engine is a lot easier and cheaper to find.

Mike Clarke installed his very special bored and stroked L.E. engine in a Valiant frame so he could remove the power plant easily for further tuning work. Riding this exciting machine is a great experience because it has sufficient power to make use of the better ground clearance. Standard LE / Val’s don’t have enough urge to pull smartly out of corners. They have to be hauled upright, rather than using the power of acceleration to force the steering straight ahead. Most of these increasingly numerous specials seem to be ridden sedately, which causes me to wonder: perhaps their owners would do better astride a L.E.

Our dear friend Desne Dodkin has died. Desne – and husband Geoff – ran their successful Velocette business on London’s South Circular Road at East Sheen for many years. While Geoff Dodkin’s association with Hall Green motorcycles is well known – particularly his successes in production racing – Desne’s early working life was at the Veloce factory. She joined the firm in the early 1950s, rising to general office manager. She stayed until liquidation in February 1971. My first memory of Desne was calling at the East Sheen shop, to be met with the clatter of her typewriter. “Is that Dennis Frost?” she would call out from behind the glass petition of her office. “I bet he’s come on a L.E. No wonder I didn’t hear him arrive.” The Club’s archive contains a host of her typewritten endeavours – everything from board meeting minutes to internal memorandums.

image004 I last saw Desne a year ago, when I took my KTT racer to show her and Geoff at their home in Worcestershire. I also brought along a file of Veloce paperwork, which Desne spent an afternoon leafing through. “Crikey, she exclaimed. I never thought all this stuff would have survived.” I’m so glad that I took this photograph of the Dodkins: a devoted couple.

Dennis Frost.