By Dennis Quinlan

The legendary Australian engineer Phil Irving, or “P.E.I.” to fans, is best known for his design work in collaboration with Philip Vincent to create the immortal Vincent V-twins in the 1930s and 40s.  Less well known is his work at the Velocette factory to develop new designs during the tumult of the 1930s.  Irving in fact worked twice at Veloce Ltd in the period 1930-1942, where he assisted in design and alterations to existing models in the Velocette range (the ‘K’ overhead-camshaft and ‘M’ pushrod series machines).  This work was augmented in 1938, when he was given the brief to design a road-going version of Veloce’s new 500cc twin-cylinder supercharged racer, called “The Roarer” by factory development engineer Harold Willis.  The Roarer was developed by Veloce designer Charles Udall, who did his best to ready the new design for the 1939 IOM Senior TT, and while the racer was tested by Stanley Woods at the TT, it did not compete as certain issues [ie, glowing red-hot spark plugs – ed.] had not yet been resolved.

Bill Bennett’s wonderful illustration of the Model O from Classic Bike‘s Oct 1981 issue. [Classic Bike]
P.E.I.’s brief was to design an un-supercharged 500cc twin-cylinder machine with a crankshaft for each cylinder, and the crankshafts rotating in opposite directions (as per the Roarer) to obviate handling issued inherent with an inline crankshaft, and a shaft final drive.  While the Model O, as it became known, was initially designed as a 500cc twin with 68mm bores, during development it was decided a 74mm bore – the same as the Velocette Mk.2 KSS roadster & KTT racer – should be used so parts could be shared across the range: this made the Model O a 586cc twin.  While one prototype was built and tested in the final weeks before WW2, the Model O never went into production, and became a legendary ‘what if’ after journalists praised its qualities.  After Veloce Ltd went into liquidation in Feb. 1971, that lone Model O passed through several hands, and is currently in the stable of UK Velocette guru Ivan Rhodes.

Three legends of the old motorcycle world: long-time motojournalist Bob Currie tests the Model O, while author and curator John Griffiths chats with him at Stanford Hall, circa 1970. Note the Aston Martin DB4 in the background – the very car in which Griffiths was to tragically lose his life not long afterwards. [Dennis Quinlan]
I am one of those journalists lucky enough to score a ride on the Model O, twice in fact, during my many visits to Ivan Rhodes and his impressive collection.  The first was in Sept.2013 when UK Velocette LE Club Historian, Dennis Frost, rode up to Ivan’s place drove up to Ivan’s place during my visit on his Velocette Mk.1 KTT that was Veloce Managing Director Bertie Goodman’s bike[man does not live by LE alone… ed.].  A ride was possibly on the cards. After Ivan brought us to lunch at his local pub, he wheeled out his 1928 Isle of Man TT-winning factory OHC Velocette racer for me to ride, choosing the Model O for himself.  A helmet was rustled up for yours truly, and we all set off for the lanes and byways surrounding Borrowash, Derby. How was the TT-winning KTT I hear you ask? That story is for another day, but in a word, wonderful.

What trios! The Model O with a pair of pur sang racing Velocettes, along with Dennis Quinlan, Dennis Frost, and Ivan Rhodes, in 2013. [Dennis Quinlan]
After we’d ridden about 7 miles Ivan said ‘let’s swap bikes’.  What goes through one’s mind at this sudden unexpected generous offer…a ride on a legendary one off…a thrill for sure! The offer of a ride on the TT winner had already been a bit of a shock.  Then the offer of the Model O was even more of a shock.  I sat on the idling Model O for a moment pondering my good luck, and felt for vibration on the fuel tank, speedo, forks etc, but there appeared to be almost none, as confirmed when I rode off.   Despite the twin crankshafts, there wasn’t much flywheel effect, and I stalled it!  But that was a chance to see how it started, hot, under such conditions…then I thought of a comment by P.E.I. in his autobiography (what a wonderful read…) when he visited the offices of “MotorCycling” in London in 1930: speaking with journalist Dennis May who was perusing some copy he wrote, a road test, that had escaped the Editor’s blue pencil….

The engine would start at “the brush of a carpet slipper”…!

It was not quite so with the Model O, but two or three kicks saw me ride off to catch up with the others. The seat height is a little on the low side when compared to the many Velocettes I’ve owned.  When I took off it was smooth, though the steering seemed a little heavy in comparison to the light and nimble TT winner I’d been on, and if you’ve ever ridden a 1920s Velocette, you’ll understand.  The heavier steering came to prominence on the first left-hander I rushed into, and I thought – crikey don’t fall off!  Acceleration was “adequate”… I wasn’t about to thrash it and the gearbox had a BMW feel as the Model O gearbox similarly runs at engine speed, but with a multi-plate clutch, the gearchange wasn’t clunky. The brakes were good and in no time I’d settled into the ride, ending up too soon back at Ivan’s, where I let the machine idle to muse at my good fortune and pleasure of riding such a special machine.

DQ on the impromptu ride of a lifetime, which happened twice. [Dennis Quinlan]
A mere 18 months later I was back at Ivan’s garage with his son Graham Rhodes in attendance, who was sorting out the Model O for another ride. The “brush of a carpet slipper” was nowhere to be seen as the bike showed its temperament: it was a bastard to start from dead cold.  We had to change a spark plug, and with the cold engine running the you could hear the head gasket was slightly blowing. Graham assured me this would disappear when the engine was hot, and he was right. The ride this time was much shorter, only around the village of Borrowash, but it confirmed most of my thoughts from my first ride.  There is no viewing through “rose coloured” spectacles for DQ.

A period photograph of the Model O from Veloce employee Frank Mussett, who raced a Velo Mk8 KTT in the 1939 Junior Isle of Man TT, and was later a Velocette dealer in his native Australia.  This photo shows better than most the influence of the Model O’s rear end on the post-war Velocette LE. Also, scandalously, no traditional Velocette ‘fishtail’ mufflers! [Dennis Quinlan]
Would the Model O have been a suitable new model for the Velocette factory range? There lies a conundrum, for late last year I came across seemingly overlooked notes of Phil Irving and others at Veloce Ltd regarding the development road tests of the Model O in the period 1939-42.  Hidden away at the VMCC Library, the notes confirmed the Model O suffered many teething problems in the years it was tested, and from my observation of the starting issues and blowing head gasket, more development work was needed.  [Hopefully we’ll share these notes on The Vintagent – ed.]

Summarising: the thrill of riding a one-off prototype is something I’ll remember into my dotage.

Graham Rhodes readying the Model O for DQ’s second ride. [Dennis Quinlan]
[Note: this article appeared in a slightly different form in the excellent print publication Old Bike Australasia, and is kindly reproduced with permission from publisher Jim Scaysbrook]
The very issue of OBA that carries a version of this article and photos. An excellent magazine! [Old Bike Australasia]
Dennis Quinlan is a long-time devotee of Velocette motorcycles and a retired expert on the repair of Smiths motorcycle instruments. His blog The VeloBanjoGent can be found here.

 

Related Posts

The Vintagent Original: Model X

Test riding a 1934 Matchless Model X, an...

The Vintagent Selects: Janus Motorcycles

Motorcycles are like architecture: They...

Dennis Loveday: Brooklands Racer

Dennis Loveday raced at Brooklands in...


Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter