14th July 2021

Motorcycling Landmarks: The Velocette 500

We generally associate classic British 500 singles with the period from the 1930s to the 1950s. Imagine then, how weird it was to walk into a showroom in 1971, past the rows of glitzy imports from Honda, Suzuki and others, to find a brand new Velocette 500, complete with its traditional fishtail silencer and black paintwork lined in gold. It looked like something from another era because it genuinely was.

At the time, its peers had been largely consigned to history. The few remaining British singles, from companies such as BSA, had been modernised with compact, unit construction engines and vivid colour schemes. They were often presented in off-road style, to capture the street scrambler fashion. Yet Velocette had soldiered on to the end with engineering and styling that was firmly rooted in the 1950s.

Available as the Venom (with 34bhp) and Thruxton (with 41) the Velos may have looked ancient but they still had a fair turn of speed, averaging over 100mph for 24 hours in 1961, a world record which still stands for a 500 single. They also scored a 1-2 finish in the 1967 Production TT.

Velocette always followed their own path. Owned and operated by different generations of the Goodman family until the end in February 71, they introduced the first positive-stop foot shift in 1929 when hand shifting was normal practice. After WW2, when the market needed cheap transport, they produced the LE (little engine) which was a liquid-cooled 150cc opposed twin with shaft drive. Such a sophisticated specification was never going to be profitable against air-cooled singles with chain drive.

The big singles for which Velocette were most famous were bristling with idiosyncrasies. They retained brazed lug frame construction, like bicycles, long after their competitors moved to welded construction. Their rear suspension units were adjusted by moving their top mounts through an arc on the frame, rather than changing the spring pre-load. Their clutches were mounted inboard of the rear chain, a most unusual arrangement, because the crankcases were designed to be very narrow, in a quest for stiffness and strength.

Most famously, they could be challenging to start because the kickstart only moved the engine through a small part of the full four-stroke cycle. Unlike other singles which moved the piston through several strokes, the Velo used a low geared kickstart lever to reduce the effort required, but get it wrong and you could be kicking all day.

In the case of the Thruxton, the drama continued once it was fired up. Like BSA’s Gold Star, it was fitted with an Amal GP carb for maximum performance. Unfortunately, the GP has no idle system which means constant blipping of the throttle is required to keep the engine running. Maybe that Rocker alongside you at the traffic lights wasn’t just showing off after all but simply trying to avoid stalling!

Arguably it was not their quirky design features which ended the Velocette company, rather a series of poor commercial decisions, such as the loss making Viceroy scooter and fully faired Vogue. Maybe if they had stuck to their big singles, they would have survived even longer? Or had the motorcycle market already moved on? We’ll never know.

Do you remember the Velocette 500? How does it compare to other 500s? Let us know in the comments.

I have been riding Velos since 1964, including a new Venom in 1969. My current ones are a semi clubman Venom and KSS engined Venom. Both are used constantly, the KSS is excellent for popping down the shops and the very narrow lanes of Wales. The Venom is used for longer distances and if I go out with the lads on modern bikes more than capable of holding its own. Velos get under your skin like no other bikes, I have ridden many others including Gold Stars, but Velos are unique in their feel that cannot be explained. My Wife at 74 still rides her two MACs. Starting is usually two kicks and there is nothing wrong with the very light clutch when setup properly by turning the back wheel!

Squeeky, 19/08/2021

Having owned a Venom Cafe Racer with great pride, in the 60s, it was all about getting the best looking cafe racer. Now I own a nice original Viper 500, straight from the factory, not aftermarket modification. Great fun and brought back lots of memories of my youth.

Dirk, 16/07/2021