Retrospective—Velocette Valiant 200: 1957-1963
Nice looking motorcycle, this Valiant, powered by a little OHV boxer engine with a cowling (Velocette preferred to call it a “bonnet”) over the top in an effort to give it somewhat sporty looks. It had a full cradle frame with a telescopic fork up front, a swingarm with shock absorbers at the rear, 4-speed gearbox and a curb weight of 270 pounds with 3.5 gallons in the tank—not bad. Engine output was said to be 12 horsepower at 7,000 rpm, with a top speed of around 70 mph. For a 200 (192cc in actuality), that was decent performance.
But it was bloody expensive. In 1957 a Valiant cost about $600 in England, against $430 for Triumph’s 199cc Tiger Cub. However, its derivation makes for one of the more curious footnotes in the history of British motorcycle development.
Following World War II, Veloce Ltd. restarted the production of some 350 OHV singles and a very few OHC KTT singles, but money was a serious problem in the war-ravaged economy, and petrol (gasoline) was rationed and hard to come by. One thing held true: people wanted private transportation…inexpensive, please, and very utilitarian. The idea was that a motorbike could get a bloke to work a lot quicker than waiting for a bus. So the company decided to develop an entirely new machine.
Bingo! In less than two years Velocette had produced a genuinely innovative and interesting motorcycle, the LE (Little Engine), powered by a water-cooled, 149cc side-valve boxer motor claiming six horsepower, with a single carb feeding both cylinders through long induction tubes (Retrospective, January 2005). The transmission had three speeds, a hand-shifter, and shaft final drive pushed it down the road. The frame was a one-piece steel pressing, the easiest and cheapest to make. It was ahead of its time by having a fully sprung suspension, with a telescoping fork and swingarm rear graced with two rudimentary spring units that could be moved back and forth to increase/decrease preload—very Velocette. The tinwork included big fenders, footboards and leg guards to keep the businessman relatively clean and neat on his way to work. And it was practical, both in price and in getting upwards of 100 mpg in urban riding. This made it quite appealing to the bureaucrats, and soon the police and postal service were buying them.
In 1951 the Little Engine became slightly larger, bored out to 192cc. By the end of 1956, Velocette had sold over 26,000 LE models—but sales had begun to flag. The big singles were selling well, especially to the go-fast fellows, and the company thought there was sales potential in the basic LE design…if it could be made to appeal to the sporting rider.
There wasn’t much left of the old LE concept by the time they got through with the Valiant redesign. To qualify as a sporting lightweight the bike needed more power, but to stretch the engine beyond 192cc was a physical impossibility. Instead, Velocette made the side-valve motor into an overhead, with an increase in compression from 7:1 to 8.5:1—and an increase in power from 8 horsepower on the LE to 12 horsepower on the Valiant. The LE’s plain-bearing crankshaft was not considered entirely adequate for the job at hand, and was strengthened, with larger bearings being used. Velocette felt that sporting riders thought of water-cooled engines as being a bit too functional, so they used air-cooling. Two little 5⁄8-inch Amal Monoblocs fed the cylinders, using “stranglers” in the air cleaners as chokes—a strangler was a disc on the face of the air cleaner that could be rotated to limit the amount of air going in.
A fourth gear was added, and shifting went to the right foot, like on a regular bike. A new tubular duplex frame cradled the engine, with a hydraulically damped telescopic fork and a light alloy swingarm with twin Girling shocks, adjustable for preload. Eighteen-inch wheels had five-inch drum brakes. Wheelbase was a short 51 inches, seat height, on a nice dual saddle, a low 29 inches.
The starting drill on a cool day meant turning on the gas, “tickling” both carbs (in days of yore, the rider depressed a little spring-return tickler on the Amal float bowl to make sure there was plenty of gas ready to go into the combustion chambers), and then strangling them. The coil ignition was six volt.
The kickstarter was on the right side, but with its short throw it was less than perfect in operation. As the factory genteelly suggested in the manual, “The lever on the Valiant should be depressed.” Turn the key up on the headlight shell, kick away, and after a couple of strokes it would fire…the rider hoped.
Very effective mufflers kept the engine quiet. Let it warm, unstrangle the carbs, pull in the dry clutch, depress the gearshift lever, and away you went. Nothing startling, but pleasant. Click, click, click, and 60 mph cruising was the norm.
However, size and price kept the sales down, way down. It was always an expensive machine, and a 250 was a much more popular engine size, be it in one of the Britain’s ubiquitous four-stroke singles or a Villiers two-stroke twin.
Only 1,600 Valiants rolled out the doors of Veloce Ltd.’s Hall Green works over seven years of production. While the LE went on to the end, when Velocette closed its doors in 1971.
(This Retrospective article was printed in the March 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)