Sunday, 11 October 2009

Vintage Thing No.50 - Velocette Vogue

There was a good variety of machinery in the motorcycle ring at the Great Dorset Steam Fair this year and among some very interesting bikes was this Velocette Vogue. I'd never seen one before and afterwards had the chance to look it over outside the marquee as the owner made some adjustments to it.

I really have to hand it to the Goodman family, the people behind what is probably the Velocette singles. If I had to choose just one bike as an example of the archetypal British single it would be the Velocette Thruxton but there is a subtle irony here because this archetypal British motorbike has a name that sounds French and owed its existence to the the Goodman family who were comparatively recent German immigrants and had changed their name from Gutgemann.

Which only goes to show that national stereotypes are dangerous things.

The Goodmans they'd done a good job on their 350 abd 500cc singles but also realised that times they were a-changing. So they had a go at a completely new interpretation of the two wheeled vehicle and even got Phil Irving involved. Mr Irving, or Sir to anyone with a feel for motorcycle rolling sculpture, was the man who contributed so much to the Vincent. But you knew that already.

In fact Velocette had another three goes at a radical new two wheeler that was neither motorcycle nor scooter and after a sort of a near hit (a near hit being closer than a near miss) they resolutely drifted wider of the mark.

The lightweight flat twin Velos always intrigued me but not to extent of aspiring to own one. As a lanky git, anything physically smaller than a 250 is too small for me but I have a soft spot for lightweight 250s. As the old footpeg scratchers would say, “People who ride bigger bikes only ride bigger bikes because they can’t ride smaller bikes properly.” A good small un is at least as much fun as a good large un and, provided I can fit on it (which unfortunately rules Kawasaki KR1s), I adhere to this philosophy.

But enough of my physical limitations.

I like the look of the Velocette Valiant, which was a 200cc overhead valve variant, but feel this ought to be a 250 instead of only 200cc so the Valiant is a nearly bike. I don’t like the look of the Velocette LE "noddy bikes" but, in their defence, they were one of the first motorcycles to impinge upon my febrile infant consciousness because it was an LE that the "big, friendly policeman" PC McGarry number 452 used to ride in the children’s TV programme Camberwick Green. Velocette LEs had absolutely no sporting pretensions but were a brave attempt at building a motorcycle for the "everyman". Velocette nearly succeeded in this aim, probably getting as close to this motorcycling Holy Grail as anyone. And although the engine only had a side valves, it was a water cooled four stroke flat twin when most 200cc alternatives were air cooled two strokes. Such sophistication came at a price, however, and during the fifties the market was becoming increasingly style conscious.

And then there was the 250cc two-stroke flat twin Viceroy, which can now be understood as the great grandpa of today's super scooters but back then it was just an expensive oddity.

The Vogue, meanwhile, was a sexed up LE, a modernised attempt at the mythical motorcycle for the masses with added post war pizzazz, a wholesome piece of product design that would be welcome outside every home unlike the rorty black and gold 500s from the same stables. A brand new large diameter spine frame perpetuated the Velocette tradition of good roadholding and steering while the LE drivetrain, which facilitated mass production with its unit construction and shaft drive, was adopted wholesale. Whereas the LE was almost consciously not styled, the Vogue went deliberately in the other direction. With twin headlamps, integral leg shields and well-valanced mudguards, it was of another age entirely.

Are those not fins I see before me? Or behind me, rather?

It was conspicuously trendy even down to the name. I am reliably informed that a fashion magazine was named after it. How many motorcycles can make that claim? Of course, the opposite happened with Harley-Davidson, which was named after an aftershave and range of men's toiletries.

In many ways the Vogue was not unlike the earlier Ariel Leader. Both attempted to move the motorcycle image away from oily-fingered ton up boys but that wouldn't happen until Pops Honda came along with really high volume production and the ingenious "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" campaign.

Looking back, it would appear that, on its introduction in 1963, the Vogue offered nothing more than the two-stroke Leader, which had been announced in 1958. The Vogue looked good but the 50mm x 49mm 192cc engine was not the overhead unit of the Valiant but the sidevalve effort of the LE and produced only 8 bhp. In a bike weighing 270lb that really was not enough. The engineering and finish were good but the glassfibre bodywork and the new frame were to blame for the rotten power-to-weight ratio and 55mph was about top whack. The Valiant put out 12 bhp @ 7000 rpm and weighed 260 lb. With the Valiant, 70 mph was a distinct possibility.

In the five years of production until 1968, when it was dropped, only 400 Vogues were produced. Whereas the LE had a small but clearly defined market niche appealing to mature open minded enthisiasts, the Vogue was too flashy for them and not sporty enough for anyone else. It was also comparatively expensive.

If only they'd had the ohv engine. If only that had been reliably developed into a 250. If only it had the Viceroy’s 250 flat twin stroker. If only Ariel hadn’t answered the same unasked question with the Ariel Leader a few years earlier. If only Velocette had the production resources to embrace pressed steel instead of labour intensive glassfibre bodywork.

This Vogue is a very rare machine. I've never seen another and in my amazement initially got it mixed up with the Viceroy, another attempt by Velocette at a non-motorcycle two-wheeler. This was a kind of super scooter, a full 250 with a flat twin 55mm x 54mm two stroke engine with - now get this - reed valves that reputedly put out 14 bhp when warmed over for hovercraft racing. The owner soon put me right, though. The Vogue had the LEs side valve four stroke twin.

Did Velocette ever try a Viceroy engine in a Vogue? They ought to have done.

That side valve engine should've been the kiss of death to a power crazed motor head like me. But side valves make sense from a packaging point of view for a flat twin because they make the powerplant less wide.

I like the look of the rear wheel's bevel box poking out from the GRP.

And I like the Vogue's looks. An anonymous industrial designer has consciously sexed up the humble LE and done a good job. Could it have been the first production bike to sport twin headlamps? It must have made quite an impact in its day. The still-born 700cc four stroke four cylinder Leader that Val Page designed for Ariel had twin headlamps and it would be fascinating to know whether Velocette knew of this prototype and were inspired by it but I daresay we’ll never know now. Although it's too consciously trendy to be a timeless design, the Vogue almost swings as much as a scooter. But you wouldn't get a mod on one. And you certainly wouldn't get a rocker on one, either.

The owner of this example said the bodywork was very high quality with a little dashboard and cubby holes for storing things. With a generous screen and full leg protection it’s a comfortable ride.

Despite a recent engine rebuild, he still wasn't happy with the way it was running. It sounded quiet to me.

I'm glad this one has survived and can appreciate its rarity. It shows that the Goodman family knew there was an alternative market out there somewhere but the only way they could approach it was their way and, unfortunately, that wasn't the right way.

One final observation - this bike is an H reg, which must make it one of the last to be registered. In fact, if production ended in 1968, it might have been standing around for a bit prior to sale.

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Sunday, 6 September 2009

A new slant on the term kit car

I saw this display at the Great Dorset Steam Fair yesterday. For those of you who don't already know, this is a vast gathering of Vintage things for steam punks and engine punks alike.

There was a special gathering of Morris Minor LCVs - that's Light Commercial Vehicles. Morris Minors are probably the ultimate light car - a term that was clearly understood between the wars - and the vans and pick up derivatives are probably the ultimate light commercial vehicles. As Vintage Things they're dead certs and it's only a matter of time before I feature them in more depth upon Engine Punk.

But I really like the display.

There's the sprue in the foreground and behind it is the partly built full size kit of a Morris Minor. It's just had its windscreen stuck in and this is being held in place by clothes pegs while the glue sets.

Judging from the rear doors, this one's going to be a van but I imagine the kit allows you to make either version.

There is a subtle point being made here. You can get every panel for the Morris Minor, including those for the commercials. So, there's really no need to scrap a Minor again, just sheer unenvironmental laziness. And having made loads of Airfix kits in my distant youth, I can honestly say that welding full size panels together is much like glueing the 1:32nd scale plastic parts only more satisfying.

I'd like a kit for a Moggie Thou van. This one looks like it's going to be a beauty. And so well detailed.

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Monday, 13 April 2009

Pavane - is this the start of Steam Punk?

I discovered this book in the best way, by chance and through a personal recommendation. If I had not sat next to Peter Jenkin on the train and fallen into conversation with him he would never have told me about the book he was reading.

It was the traction engine on the cover that caught my eye. Although I prefer the internal combustion engine, external combustion varieties - where the fuel is burnt outside the cylinders - still appeal tremendously. Railway locomotives may have a literary presence but road locomotives rarely feature in fiction of any sort, let alone sci-fi or fantasy.

A pavane is a dance of Spanish origin popular around the time of Queen Elizabeth I and this story is divided into measures and a coda. Now, I know nothing about music but I know what I like and I quite like this musical example of a pavane. Not sure how you dance to it, though - probably too courtly and graceful for my usual enthusiastic outbursts of physical musical pleasure.

Keith Roberts' Pavane is really a series of closely linked short stories set in an alternative history where the Spanish Armada successfully landed in Britain following the assassination of Elizabeth I. The whole world subsequently came under a very repressive Roman Catholic rule in which the Pope issued directives on every aspect of life. Continuing the long association between men of the cloth and the steam engine, the Pope banned the internal combustion engine for most of the twentieth century, restricting its use and stunting its development. I'm really intrigued by this idea - but what a terrible world this creates!

Catholicism controls every aspect of like in Pavane. All other technological advances are potential heresies until the pope has passed judgment upon them and the Inquisition is more active than ever.

The scene is then set for a great deal of nastiness and civil unrest. The action takes place over several generations and depicts the slide into revolution of an incredibly repressive religious regime. It's set in the Wessex and probably stands comparison with Thomas Hardy's novels. I also associate Dorset with the Great Dorset Steam Fair so relate to the setting particularly strongly, although foreign readers probably won't pick up on many of the references.

I really enjoyed this book. Classified retrospectively as Alternative History, it pre-dates the genre by several decades - it was first published in 1968. It's also hailed as one of the first examples of steam punk. There's more to it than that and yet the exploration of the steam punk possibilities Keith Roberts conjures up would have intrigued me more than the sadistical excesses of the Inquisition, although this is handled adroitly and the violence is not gratuitous. The ceremony of blessing the instruments of torture so that the truth can be revealed is an idea that struck me particularly.

I would have enjoyed it even more, however, if the story had concentrated more on the steam engines. It strikes me that the old British steam-powered road trains offer vast literary possibilities and have been overlooked for too long.

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