1937 was a good time to be alive for any privileged young man. The Great Depression was over in Britain. Europe was booming and there was no sign of war clouds on the horizon. Only the Spanish Civil War soiled what was otherwise a time of peace and plenty.
Of course, this horn of cornucopia was predicated on being wealthy – as it has been since the dawn of time. The 1930's poor were astonishingly poor and they were never going to be customers for any form of motorized transport let alone the expensive, sophisticated products produced by the Veloce company in Birmingham.
Veloce (their bikes confusingly were always called Velocettes) made state-of-the-art motorcycles for middle-class riders with money and sporting ambitions. If you were a newly qualified, skilled engineer or training to be an RAF pilot or perhaps a young lawyer, then you were a potential Velocette owner.
Based in Hall Green, in the epicenter of the British motorcycle industry, Veloce had always been a leader in technical innovation. In 1928, the company launched the first positive stop gearbox. This groundbreaking design allowed a rider to change gear by foot, instead of the hand change used by every other manufacturer in the world. As early as 1930, the company had produced an innovative 250cc 2-stroke with automatic lubrication, instead of pre-mixing gas and oil.
The Goodman family, who owned Velocette, were nominally involved in business but their main interest lay in racing and their success record was incredible. In 1929, the first eight places in the 350cc Manx Grand Prix were taken by Velocette machines and there were eight 350cc TT wins between 1926 and 1949.
The Velocette KSS's single overhead cam engine was
state-of-the-art for 1937.
At the heart of the company’s prestige range was the 348cc KSS – the Honda Fireblade of its day. The engine was a direct lift from the KTT race bikes with the 74 x 81mm overhead cam motor producing around 25 horsepower. Today, this is scooter power but remember that the KSS weighed in at around 300 pounds wet and so a genuine 80 mph was available to sporting Velocette riders. Given the state of pre-war roads, 80 mph was quick!
The KSS had an alloy cylinder head – incredibly advanced for its day – and extremely narrow crankcases with a very stiff crankshaft, therefore producing minimal vibration.
Percy Goodman, son of the company’s founder Johannes Gutgeman, was largely responsible for the KSS. Johannes immigrated to England to avoid military service in the German army – and a smart decision that was, given that the then Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was rather fond of wars.
A second smart move on Mr. Gutgeman’s part was to change his name to Goodman – German names not being very popular in England during the 1914 “War to End All Wars.” Building bicycles and motorcycles in peaceful England was a much better bet.
Johannes’ son was a truly clever engineer and had the support of his all-English colleague Harold Willis – one of the most talented development engineers of his era. Together these two specified the very best materials and manufactured to the highest standards, making the KSS the number one sporting production engine of its time. A byproduct of their obsession with detail and quality was that every KSS produced by Veloce lost money for the company.
Meanwhile, 10 miles from Veloce in Meriden, Triumph were about to launch a simple, pushrod Twin made to a much lower standard than the KSS – but hugely profitable. There had to be a lesson somewhere in there for Veloce – but they couldn’t see it.
Behind the neat engine is the gearbox and clutch – and this is a veritable minefield of joy and sorrow. First, despite looking as if Fred Flintstone had created it in his cave, the KSS gearbox is remarkably good. I don’t mean remarkably good for a vintage bike but quite simply outstanding. Changes, up and down, are feather light and completely accurate. There isn’t a 2014 bike with a better gearshift – and all this from a design first conceived in 1928.
Then there is the clutch – renowned, or reviled, depending whether it is working perfectly, well, badly, or not at all! When set up to perfection, it is one finger light and an utter joy. The problem is that the vast majority of Velo clutches are not in perfect condition and are, therefore, truly a product of Satan’s very own design department.
The clutch on our test bike hovered between the two extremes. Owner Mark Newsome cautioned me against keeping the clutch withdrawn at traffic intersections because to do so would cause instant overheating, and then drag, which would make it all but useless.
The procedure is to arrive at an intersection and coax the KSS out of gear and into neutral, without using the clutch. If you learned this trick in childhood, as I did, then it’s not the problem you might think. On the contrary, the Velo ‘box is so good that finding neutral without using the clutch is easy – if not quite effortless.
Upon departure, rather than simply feeding in the clutch, as you would with a modern bike, the bike is paddled away from a dead stop and when it is just underway the clutch can be fed in. Treated like this, the clutch was fine for our whole test.
Apparently, modern clutch plates, available from the Velocette Owners’ Club, can cure all Velo clutch problems but for me I would still prefer the mass produced joys of a vintage Triumph. Forget the engineering sophistication – just give me something which works!
The KSS chassis looks as if Fred Flintstone had been drawing on the cave wall again too but, once more, you would be wrong to think so. The frame construction follows that of the great majority of vintage bikes. Mainly straight tubes are joined together via cast iron lugs containing brass which “glues” the tubes in place. The lug and the tube were heated to a red hot temperature and then brazed together with molten brass. It was a cheap, simple and effective way of making frames but did severely limit the designer in terms of making three-dimensional curves.
Not that it got in Goodman’s way too much because the KSS frame was a direct lift from the race bike. If it was good enough to win a TT then even a fast road rider was going to be happy with the design.
The KSS does have front suspension but not telescopic forks. Rather, it uses heavyweight, Webb girder forks with friction damping. These are not as crude as they might at first look and although nowhere near as effective as the telescopic forks, which were about to burst on to the racing scene in 1937, there is something strangely anthropomorphic about seeing the front fork bob up and down over the road surface – Senor Bulto’s two-wheeled horse personified.
There is no rear suspension but the rider is protected from bumps by a sprung saddle which bounces up and down, again in a very horse-like manner.
I still get a huge amount of a pleasure starting a vintage, or classic bike for that matter, with manually adjusted ignition timing and fuel mixture. The drill is burnt into my memory from years of playing with these old bikes when I was still in elementary school.
First, switch on the oil. Like many British bikes, the non-return valve on the KSS doesn’t work perfectly and will allow the crankcases to fill up with oil if left to its own devices overnight. Forget to turn on the oil supply tap and the $15,000 engine will be destroyed in a couple of minutes so it is worth remembering this part of the drill.
Now switch on both petrol taps so that you will use all the available fuel. Set the choke to enrich the fuel mixture. Of course, you will know precisely how much to move the choke lever as much as you understand how to brush your teeth in the morning.
Just a touch of retard on the ignition – again a simple matter of judgment by eye – so that magneto spark is just at the right point and the kick-starter doesn’t wallop you in the ankle when the KSS backfires – which it will.
Next the merest hint of carburetor tickling, to encourage the motor to fire. A quick sniff of the finger often helps to confirm that the surplus gas is just there.
How simple could these little jobs possibly be?
The Velocette KSS with alloy cylinder head was cutting-edge.
Now find top dead center, by feel with your foot, and when the piston is just at TDC, withdraw the valve lifter and coax the piston a fraction over so that when you give the starter pedal a mighty kick the piston whizzes down the barrel, travels up to TDC again, meets the spark, the mixture fires and you can catch the combustion with a gnat’s eyelash of throttle and the motor runs on sweetly. It’s as simple as this.
Or not. Get any of the variables wrong and the motor will not fire. You will be late for work or for that much anticipated date with the pretty girl from the coffee shop or you will kick yourself into a lather because all your mates are laughing at your ineptitude whilst they wait for you to join them.
And then came the Japanese with electric starters, requiring no skill, and the British manufacturers looked on in amazement wondering why riders fell in love with these effortless oriental bikes.
Once the KSS is fired up, it emits a most mellifluous, gentle, booming beat from the “Brooklands Can” silencer. On the beautiful Lake District roads we used for the test, it was all too easy to half close my eyes and drift back to those halcyon days before the Second World War, as the KSS romped up to 50 mph and the road disappeared effortlessly beneath the Velo’s precise handling. For the wealthy and privileged, it must have been a golden time.
If you are also suitably wealthy and privileged – a nice KSS is going to cost you a solid $25,000 – then this would be a wonderful trip back into history.
Our thanks to Mark Newsome for the loan of his lovely KSS.