Memorable Motorcycle: Velocette LE

February 17, 2015
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

One of the great pleasures of writing the Memorable Motorcycle vignettes, and there are many, is seeing how a particular bike is woven into the social fabric of its time. The Velocette LE is a perfect example of how a thoughtful management conceived a really practical, well-considered idea based on a sensible analysis of the market – but then got things completely wrong.

First, the historical context of the LE. In 1948, just three years after the end of the Second World War in Europe, Britain was in a state of immense flux. All the social rules which had bound society together in 1939, before the start of the war, had been obliterated along with hundreds of thousands of working class houses, which had been destroyed in Britain’s industrial heartlands.

Before the war, the idea of mass ownership of motorized transport would have been inconceivable – not least because the ability to ride a motorcycle or drive a car was rare amongst huge swathes of the middle and working classes.

During the six years of conflict, men and woman learned to drive by the tens of thousands, to support the war effort, and these potential customers flooded back into the British market after the war had ended.

Attitudes had changed too. No longer were cars and bikes aspirational dreams, but rather the first nascent hint of entitlement was beginning to appear. Those coming back from the war felt that waiting in line for a train or bus was not the only option. Perhaps, people thought, personal transport was possible.

The mass destruction of working class slum dwellings by German bombing provided the catalyst for the construction of new, modern houses on vast, out-of-town estates. No longer were workers located within sight of their factories. Now, they lived outside the urban areas in houses with bathrooms and flushing toilets – dwellings fit for heroes to live in.

So this is the social context of the Velocette LE. Now to the actual bike. Veloce, who confusingly called its bikes Velocettes, was a privately-owned company controlled by the Goodman family. Before the war, they were serious players in the British motorcycle industry and world leaders in design. For example, Veloce designed the first practical foot change gearbox in 1929 – before that gears had to be changed by hand – and their KSS and KTT racers were world beaters.

As the war came to an end, Veloce’s Chief Designer, Eugene Goodman, assisted by his Senior Development Engineer, Charles Udall, began work on the ground-breaking motorcycle which was to become the LE – an acronym for “Light Engine” – Velocette.

The Velocette LE rear mudguard is copious and effective.
The Velocette LE rear mudguard is copious and effective.

Every part of the motorcycle was aimed at Goodman’s concept of a two-wheeled vehicle for the masses. The bike had to be light, clean and easy to ride, simple to maneuver when static and able to carry luggage. It would be a machine which everyone would want to own – from the office worker to the housewife going shopping – and it was going to produce a financial bonanza for Veloce.

Just how certain the company was of the LE’s future success was shown when they re-organized the Hall Green factory, reducing production of the lucrative sporting single-cylinder machines and, instead, putting in place extra capacity for the huge LE sales which were certain to follow. Their optimism was misplaced.

The LE is very much a wholly integrated concept and for this reason it was an expensive motorcycle for Veloce to produce. Where there was commonality of parts amongst the Singles, everything for the LE was dedicated just to this one motorcycle.

It would have been fascinating to sit in on the discussions between Goodman and Udall but my feeling is that the mistakes they made began with the very location of the Velocette factory right in the center of Birmingham. Their second mistake is that they were not their customers and lacked a personal empathy with them.

A lap of the four major motorcycle manufacturers in Birmingham – Veloce, Ariel, BSA and Norton – was under 16 miles and the suburban areas where their workers lived were only a few miles distant. I am certain that these two core facts influenced the designers. After all, if you need a practical form of transport to get around the intensely urbanized area which was so familiar to Goodman and Udall, why would you want, or need, high performance?

So at the heart of the LE was a water-cooled, 150cc, side-valve, horizontally-opposed Twin producing just six horsepower. This is how Udall explained the reasoning behind the unusual engine design.

The side-valve engine is tiny.
A look at the LE’s tiny Flat Twin, which metered out an anemic six horsepower.

“Since one of the chief aims was the elimination of vibration, a Flat Twin was decided upon. Since the unit had to be as simple as possible, and large mileages with a minimum of attention were an important proviso, side-by-side valves were preferred. An objection to overhead-valves was that even in a small-capacity engine, the width would be considerably increased, making the engine much more vulnerable. The cylinder heads, in fact, would probably have projected beyond the leg shields.”

So, the thinking behind the LE was sound and thorough – in theory at least.

Being water-cooled, the tiny Twin was almost silent and it was also spotlessly clean – at a time when most bikes leaked oil most of the time!

The engine was rubber mounted, and heavily silenced, while the pressed-steel frame was felt lined, so that some riders claimed they could only tell their LE was running by looking at the ignition light. This was a slight exaggeration – but not much of one.

If the noise levels and sophistication of the LE were world leading, Goodman and Udall truly lost sight of reality when it came to the practical use of their new peoples’ motorcycle.

The first mistake, and one which showed Goodman’s lack of empathy with the people who would actually be buying the LE, was that, bizarrely, he insisted on a hand start for the little Twin. He felt that his new breed of customers, who were not motorcyclists, would object to kick starting an engine.

Again, it is easy to see how Goodman was influenced by the standard practices of his time. Velocettes in particular took a lot of skill to start with their manually controlled ignition and carburetors. They were also psychopathically vicious if one got any of the variable parameters even slightly wrong – at which point they kicked back like a mule! Goodman was trying to solve a very real problem in selling the LE widely but 1940s technology had not caught up with his ambitions.

The obvious route would have been an electric starter but these were large, heavy and unreliable items in 1948 and would also have added hugely to the costs of a little bike whose price was fast spiraling out of control. The insuperable problem was that customers neither knew, understood nor liked a hand start and so Veloce immediately placed a major barrier between themselves and the prospective purchaser.

The large handle is for starting the LE.
The shaft drive is neat and tidy.
(Above) The large handle is for starting the LE. (Below) The shaft drive is neat and tidy.

The next difficulty was the hand gear change. As I noted, Velocette invented the modern positive stop gearbox, so the decision to have a hand change might seem incomprehensible. However, it wasn’t. Goodman looked at the tens of thousands of post war, emancipated woman and saw a huge potential market. He reasoned, perfectly soundly, that female customers would not want to be ruining their office dress shoes with a stiff foot change.

Again, Goodman shows both his good intentions and his emotional and intellectual distance from his customers. The problem was that the vast majority of women were not emancipated and they were not going to be customers for the LE for the simple reason that ladies did not ride motorcycles.

Let me give you a flavor of life for young girls as seen from my eyes when I started High School in 1962. One Saturday morning, I met two girls in the industrial town where I lived. We swapped stories of our new “Big Schools” because English kids at the time were separated by gender and ability at 11 years old.

They explained that the week before they had both received two strokes of the strap – a thick, heavy, leather belt – on their bottoms. Their crimes? First, they had been seen by a teacher waiting for a bus to go home. This was some two miles from their school but was still considered to be within the aegis of the establishment. She had observed that one was not wearing her school tie and the other had put her school hat on the back of her head in an unladylike manner. These crimes were both considered to be manifestations of unacceptably brash, vulgar attitudes and were duly punished – and that was that.

Ladies were simply never seen in control of a motorcycle and if they did ride it was with their men recreationally – not wearing skirts and high-heeled shoes commuting to the office.

Yes, it was true that a tiny number of women did ride bikes but they were an incredible rarity and fell into the same category as those females who skippered sail boats or skied. They simply weren’t there in bulk to buy the LE, and when you did come across a woman who was a motorcyclist the last thing she wanted was a quiet, slow and inoffensive six-horsepower machine.

The three-speed gearbox reinforced Goodman and Udall’s narrow view of the LE. You need one gear to get you going; a second to bring 30 mph on to the speedometer and a third to enable comfortable, near silent, cruising at between 30 mph and 40 mph. In short, the LE was vastly quicker and more convenient than a bus or urban train.

Where the bike did excel was in the designer’s determination to make it user friendly. The little 150cc engine was very lightly stressed and the transmission is fine for the purpose. Best of all, the LE has a shaft drive so the bike is spotlessly clean and the absence of a rear chain means that there is nothing to adjust.

Although an LE would go a little faster than 40mph, no one ever did because the brakes were marginal at best!

Fuel consumption was wonderful. Even with a small, 1.5-gallon tank a rider could expect a comfortable 100 miles before refueling and this was a lot of trips to work and from your freshly built social housing into town for provisions.

The LE’s chassis cost a fortune in tooling, and it was money which Veloce could ill afford. It was made from steel pressings and was eminently practical, providing excellent weather protection. As noted earlier, it was able to be lined with felt and so reduced the noise on the already whisper quiet motor.

Aluminum leg shields and floor boards bolted on to the main chassis gave excellent weather protection and allowed the rider freedom to move around in comfort and cleanliness. After all, you wouldn’t want to scuff your highly polished shoes on footrests! Large mudguards kept the rider dry and clean in even the worst of weather.

As a top-of-the-range bike, the LE had excellent telescopic suspension front and rear and even the angle of the rear shocks could be adjusted. So not only could you hiss along in near silence you could do so in comfort too.

Finally, Veloce did a wonderful job in terms of controlling the weight with the LE turning the scales at a creditable 260 pounds. The fuel was located low down, right along the center line of the bike, to enhance mass centralization just like a current MotoGP bike! This was not a bike thrown together without thought.

The Velocette LE front forks are excellent for 1948 but the brakes are very marginal.
The Velocette LE front forks are excellent for 1948 but the brakes are very marginal.

With a very low center of gravity, and a seat height of only 28 inches, the LE was one of the least intimidating motorcycles ever made.

Good as it was in terms of design, all the technology had a hugely negative impact on the price of LE. The true people’s bike was BSA’s Bantam – a rip-off of the very fine pre-war German DKW. In almost every way the LE was a better bike. It braked better, handled more surely and was infinitely more sophisticated than the Bantam but, and here was the killer punch, the LE was well over 50% more expensive than the BSA.

This difference is worth looking at in some detail. An LE sold for £126 seven shillings and four pence – around $190. The little BSA weighed in at only £76 and four shillings – $115. This was when a newly qualified tradesman – the real target audience for both bikes – was earning around £3 per week – about $4.50. In the real world, it would take the same tradesman an additional four months wages to buy the LE when the Bantam had almost identical performance and was much cheaper to maintain.

Even when the inherent faults with the LE were corrected, and the engine capacity was increased to 192cc, giving a whole extra 2hp, and a kick-start and foot shift became standard the bike was still a commercial disaster. Well, almost.

Growing up, we would-be motorcyclists used to ride our bicycles home from school and sneer at LEs which we could out accelerate at stop lights almost every time. No-one with any interest in real motorcycles would have anything to do with an LE. They were simply a bad joke in our eyes.

Females, if they ever knew of the existence of the LE, treated the little bike like the plague and the lower middle class teachers, bank clerks and Civil Servants who might have been able to buy an LE would have nothing to do with anything which looked like a motorcycle. If their eyes did rise to motorized transport it was the dull as ditch-water Austin A30 or a Ford Anglia – both of which would carry your wife and three kids and at a cost of only £390.

So who would want the LE? A clue comes in the bike’s nom du guerre – the “Noddy Bike”. In the immediate post war years, junior ranks in the British Police had to salute officers over the rank of Inspector. However, even in those wonderful pre-Health and Safety days, it was considered to be dangerous to make a Constable remove his right hand from the throttle to salute a senior so, when he was riding an LE, he was allowed to nod acknowledgement.

For the first time, the LE gave mobility in excess of bicycles to many British Police Officers. Now they could reach emergencies promptly and they could also cover large distances, compared to walking or cycling, and access the new housing estates. Better still, as time progressed they could also be in radio contact with their home bases.

The Police loved the LEs. They were the stealth bombers of their day. Instead of arriving in a cacophony of clanging bells – sirens were still in the future – and flashing-lights LE-equipped Bobbies slipped in silently and swiftly to the scene of crime – and with great effect. In fact, the LE was so popular that 50 British Police forces used the bike all the way up to when Veloce closed the factory doors in 1970.

So what is an LE like to ride? The answer is predictable. It is everything that it says on the box in terms of silence and smoothness and the 200cc version even has a hint of acceleration. The LE handles okay, as well it might with a pressed steel spine monocoque chassis and only 7hp, but the experience is deadly, mind-numbingly dull.

Every time I have ridden one of these clever little bikes I have spent my time thinking about the many better classic motorcycles I could be riding instead of whispering along at 35mph on the LE and that, in my eyes, is a good reason for leaving Veloce’s brilliant, but misconceived, idea to the stalwarts of the LE Velo Club.