My love of single cylinder motorcycles was developed at an early age. I remember clearly, although I must only have been about ten years old at the time, going to see the finish of the 1973 Durban to Johannesburg Run for motorcycles made before 1937 at the Johannesburg market. I know that it was 1973 because I can recall the disappointment in our household when the 1974 version was cancelled due to the national fuel rationing as a result of the international oil crisis. This was the first occasion that I got to hear many, mainly British made, single cylinder motorcycles for myself. Prior to this I had to rely on my father’s very accurate sound effects and a little imagination to distinguish between the sound of a long stroke single like a Panther sloper and the short stroke single sound of an Excelsior Manxman. I kid you not, my father could enthusiastically do very good renditions of most engine types; including running through the gears or against compression. His knowledge of American cars, American motorcycles and British motorcycles from the 1930s onwards was encyclopedic and I was an attentitive, although technically untalented pupil. That day in 1973, after seeing all those “thumpers” arrive, was the day I fell in love with the heartbeat of a single cylinder engine.
It saddens me that none of the literally hundreds of single cylinder motorcycle manufacturers survived beyond 1970. Names with wonderful engineering and racing heritage have become completely forgotten. Of all these manufacturers, Velocette is the one that I cherish the most. It would be an insult to this great British motorcycle for me to to try and present its history in one paragraph. Their history starts around 1905 and sadly ended in 1971. Velocette was a family run business which produced quality, hand built motorcycles at far lower volumes than the likes of Triumph and BSA. They loved racing and produced some of the most competitive and best sounding overhead camshaft (OHC) single cylinder motorcycles of their time. Besides continuous racing success, including World Championships, Velocette proved its durability by setting records like their 1961 record for a 500cc motorcycle covering 3900 km in 24 hours at an average speed of 161.01 km/h. This record still stands today. The introduction of the first ever positive stop foot gear change is just one of many innovations and patented designs that this small manufacturer brought to modern motorcycling.
Our featured Velocette cafe racer is a 1956 Velocette MAC and is owned by Dennis, who restored it from very shabby condition about six years ago. The MAC has an overhead valve 350cc engine which provides a top speed of over 120km/h via its four speed gearbox. Initially launched in 1933, the final version of the MAC was produced in 1959. Dennis had pestered a friend for a long time, without success, to sell him this motorcycle in its original run down condition. Only when his friend immigrated to Australia and the MAC could not be squeezed into the container, did he offer the bike to Dennis. The terms of the deal were that if Dennis restored the motorcycle it became his; if Dennis left it unrestored it remained the friend’s property and if Dennis ever sells the MAC they will split the proceeds 50/50. With the amount of time and money Dennis has spent getting the motorcycle to this high standard, it won’t be for sale soon.
Dennis made this Velocette look more sporty without butchering the motorcycle and he has retained the elements which are unique to a Velocette. The rear shocks are Hagon replacements but the adjustment facility of the top shock mount has been retained. These adjustment plates are an easy way of identifying Velocettes. They are used to raise the angle of the shocks when carrying the extra weight of a passenger. The seat pan is Dennis’s design which he had upholstered to form the cafe racer styled bumstop. The MAC’s standard and only colour scheme was black with gold detail. The choice of painting the petrol tank silver, a colour which was only used on much newer models, brings a more modern look to the motorcycle.
Although fishtail silencers were used on many early motorcycle makes, Velocette was the only manufacturer to continue using them right up until their last model went out of production in 1971. The installation of fishtails became a Velocette tradition. Dennis normally runs the MAC with an open megaphone but installs the fishtail silencer for the annual Velocette Owners Club pilgrimage to Fouriesburg. I have heard this motorcycle with the megaphone fitted and it sounds awesome. The primary drive between the engine and transmission has been upgraded from chain to a British made KTT belt drive. The belt drive is an oil and maintenance free upgrade. Universal mudguards were modified and fitted by Dennis. New rims with double thickness stainless steel spokes were fitted to the original MAC hubs. The rearsets were specially imported from England to enhance the racer seating position.
No expense was spared by Dennis when rebuilding this motorcycle. Closer inspection reflects the standard of this restoration. The MAC came standard with only a speedo fitted. Only the 500cc models got the rev counter. Dennis had an original Smiths speedo and rev counter restored to as new condition in Australia before installing them. Dennis was initially criticised by some Velocette owners for not restoring the motorcycle back to original. Opinions have changed and the MAC has previously won the Most Desirable Motorcycle trophy at the annual Fouriesburg gathering. Old school magic.
Any motorcycle manufacturer who dares name their models Viper and Venom is obviously sure of their products performance. Velocette was all about performance. If you hear me say that I am going to buy a Thruxton, it will probably be the Triumph model, only because the original single cylinder Velocette Thruxton is unavailable and unaffordable.