Working with nothing more than a hammer, a Crescent wrench, a screwdriver and a pair of Channellock pliers, a 15-year old Larry Luce assembled his first motorcycle. Those simple tools and the skills he learned led to a lifetime of repairing, riding and touring long distances on vintage machines – including most recently covering 2,400 miles on his 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2 on the first Cross Country Chase. An off-shoot of the Motorcycle Cannonball cross-America adventure, this inaugural event included motorcycles built between 1930 and 1948, with riders traveling north to south from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Key West, Florida.  Those skills helped him become the first rider to successfully cross the USA on a Cannonball event riding a sophisticated overhead-camshaft machine.

Larry Luce riding his 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2 off the line from Aune Osborne Park in Sault Sainte Marie, the site of the official start of the Cross Country Chase motorcycle endurance run from Sault Ste. Marie Michigan to Key West Florida. Thursday, September 5, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
Long before he took part in the Cross Country Chase (Sep 6-15, 2019), however, Larry’s first machine was a one-year old 1968 BSA B25 that a friend had taken to a repair shop; it was making an odd noise in the lower end. When the shop called Larry’s pal about the BSA, they told him it was $40 to take it apart and another $300 to fix it and put it back together. Not interested in spending the $300, he paid the $40 bill and sold the bike to Larry. Larry’s $100 investment got him the rolling chassis, plus three boxes of parts – one with the bulk of the single-cylinder engine, the other with the transmission shafts and gears and the last filled with primary components.

Larry Luce on the 2019 Velocette Owner’s Club Summer Rally in Weed, California, July 2019. [Paul d’Orleans]
“I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Orange County,” Larry says. “Orange County was pretty rural at that time and there was a big field near where we lived where lots of people rode motorcycles. I wasn’t allowed to have a motorcycle, and my brother and I never even asked – we just both knew it wasn’t going to happen.”

But that didn’t prevent a mechanically inclined Larry from taking apart and fixing all of his friends’ motorcycles, go-karts and minibikes. By the time he was 15 and bought the BSA, the family dynamics were different, and his parents thought him responsible enough for a bike. Plus, there was doubt he’d ever get the B25 functional. Larry promptly diagnosed the source of the lower end noise; the oil pump drive gear was chipped. Finding a replacement gear, he says, is what introduced him to the world of British motorcycles and the people who dealt with them. “English motorcycle businesses tended to be enthusiast operated,” Larry explains, and adds, “I dealt a lot with Jim Hunter – and he was a curmudgeon, he’d just give you shit, saying things like, ‘What the hell are you doing here? What are you looking for and what’s the part number? You wouldn’t be here if you knew what you were doing.’”

The grit and the glory: in its completed but unpainted state, Larry Luce’s 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2 had extra super patina. Velocette’s overhead-camshaft Model K 350cc single motor was designed in 1924, and gained an aluminum cylinder head in 1935, making for the Mk2 KSS.  The design was copied by Arthur Carroll for the second-generation Norton CS1/International line starting in 1930.  Larry’s KSS is the first overhead-camshaft motorcycle to make every mile on a Cannonball event. [Pete Young]
While looking for parts for the B25 he came across a BSA Gold Star flat track motorcycle in the now-legendary LeBard & Underwood BSA dealership. Fascinated by the single-cylinder Gold Star, Larry carried on with his B25 project and soon had it back together and running, He kept it a few months, but sold it to fund the purchase of a dilapidated 1960 500cc Gold Star California Clubmans from curmudgeonly Jim Hunter. The Gold Star adventure led him down another path, and a meeting with mechanic and Gold Star guru Dick Brown, who was responsible for performing a great deal of tuning on BSA racer Al Gunter’s machine. “Dick is also generally credited with developing the cylinder head which was used as a prototype for the design of the head used on the Venom Thruxton,” Larry says, and of his interaction with Dick, he adds, “While I was working on my Gold Star, he told me at a BSA club meeting that he could help. And, although he told me the Gold Star was a good bike, a real motorcycle was what I needed.”

A typical scene at the end of the Velocette Owner’s Club summer rally, a lineup of the machines that did the 1000-mile week. The VOCNA is the only old motorcycle club that includes such a rally in its calendar (since 1983), a testament to the reliability of Velocettes, and the enthusiasm of their owners. Larry Luce’s 1938 KSS Mk2 stands in front of the St. George Hotel, which is haunted! [Pete Young]
A real motorcycle, according to Dick, was an iron-engine, rigid frame Velocette MAC. Larry began accumulating Velocette MAC parts, eventually pulling together enough of a pile to put together a 1951 model. Through the Velocette and Dick Brown, Larry met another enthusiast who would influence his life, and that was Mike Jongblood. “Mike was quite a good mechanic, and he worked in a machine shop,” Larry says of his now close friend. “Mike became my go-to guy and he helped me get that MAC to be my first functioning Velocette, and he introduced me to the Velocette Owners Club of North America.”

Keen Velocette owners in the U.S. and Canada formally organized the Velocette Owners Club of North America (or VOCNA for short) in the early 1970s. Quite simply, these Velo-fellows wanted to share their mutual interest in the English marque that got its start in 1905 when German-born Johannes Gutgemann (who became John Taylor before formally changing his name to John Goodman) and partner William Gue built their first motorcycle, the Veloce. By 1913, Velocette was simply the model name of a two-stroke, 206cc machine and Veloce was proud of early engineering features such as the ‘footstarter’. Later, Velocette developed the first positive-stop foot shift gear change.

The star of our show, the cross-country 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2 that made every mile of the 2368-mile rally. [Pete Young]
Two-strokes were the company’s bread and butter until 1925, when a new overhead-cam four-stroke machine was introduced, with the Velocette trade name finally being registered in 1926. That same year, the firm moved to its Hall Green, Birmingham factory. The 348cc KSS was the Super Sports version of the new-for-1925 OHC K model (K signifying an overhead-camshaft model, which included the K, KSS, racing KTT, etc). Larry found his 1938 KSS Mk.2 through his friend Mike when the owner originally asked for Mike’s help sorting the machine out before ultimately deciding he’d rather sell it. “The KSS was clapped out and on its last legs,” Larry says, and adds, “but I was really attracted to 1930s-era motorcycles. They’re the cleanest and neatest looking bikes, even if they’re not all that practical.”

By now Larry was working as a civil engineer with the City of Los Angeles, and he had a small fleet of motorcycles. The KSS was taken apart and stashed into boxes, while Larry began looking for replacement parts. Long story short, though, “The KSS wasn’t my main focus, and it sat around in pieces for probably 20 years. The best part of the bike was — to the best of my knowledge — it’s the original frame, engine and transmission. But the worst part of it was, there wasn’t one part on it that wasn’t seriously worn out. For example, the crank was junk. The head was junk. “The gas and oil tank were good, but the fenders and stays were all bodged up and kind of a mess. I’d maybe work on something and make a little progress, until I decided that for the 2013 VOCNA rally in Volcano, California, I was going to get it together and use it there.”

The lineup at the 2013 Velocette Summer Rally in Volcano California. [Pete Young]
Annually since 1983, VOCNA has hosted a summer rally. These events are not the park-the-bike-on-the-grass and polish variety – held in locations such as Mission, British Columbia, Hot Springs, Montana, and Crawford, Colorado as well as spots in California, Oregon and Washington – each really consists of five days of riding roughly 1,000 miles in total. Freeways are a complete anathema to the group. Instead, the rallies most often occur on scenic and pastoral routes with some dirt and gravel included, but always with plenty of twists and turns. [Full disclosure – your editor has been President of the VOCNA 8 times, and organized as many summer rallies]

Larry has attended most of these rallies. Not only does he complete the 1,000 miles of the event, he also has often ridden to remote rally locations. So, by his reckoning, he’s covered more than 100,000 miles aboard old Velocettes. For the Volcano rally in 2013, Larry had help from Mike and many other VOCNA members to finally get all the parts together for his KSS. Mike helped with the engine build, while Richard Denaple built and balanced the crankshaft. With zero miles on the odometer of the completed KSS, he trucked it to the start of the Volcano rally. “I’m not long on cosmetics,” Larry laughs. “I usually get a bike running and sorted, but don’t spend a lot of time fussing with the aesthetics. The KSS was in bare metal and some primer when it got to Volcano.”

Larry Luce in the endless cornfields of the Midwest during the 2019 Chase. Stage 4 saw a 315-mile ride from Urbana, IL to Bowling Green, KY USA. Monday, September 9, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
Pete Young, of the blog site Occhiolungo and a fellow Velocette enthusiast said of Larry’s machine, “My favorite bike of the week. Larry Luce’s 1938 KSS. He’s had the bike for decades, and has put it on the road with a full mechanical rebuild. But the big lumps are in bare metal, not paint. By the end of the week, there was a good assortment of soils, oils and crud stuck to the bike. And it looked even better than when it started.”

Eventually, Larry ended up spraying the bare metal with a rattle can paint job, but there are no distinguishing Velocette decals or gold lines anywhere to be seen. This is the bike he’d ultimately ride on the Cross Country Chase, an event he knew nothing about until a chance encounter with Todd Cameron, son of legendary Velocette rider Dee Cameron and grandson of the legendary John Cameron, a founder member of the Boozefighters motorcycle club, one of the first SoCal 1%er clubs made famous by the 1953 film ‘The Wild One.’ “I didn’t really know Todd at all, but Mike (Jongblood) and I were at a vintage motorcycle gathering here in Huntington Beach when Todd showed up on a Velocette GTP (another of Velocette’s two-stroke models). We looked at it and asked him what he was going to do with it. That’s when he said he was going to ride it on the Cross Country Chase.”

It was the first time Larry had heard of the Chase, but he quickly deduced the GTP was not in any shape to run a long distance. He and Mike talked to Todd for some time, humbly informing him of why they thought the 250cc GTP wouldn’t make the adventure. After that, Larry went home and looked up the Cross Country Chase. He learned the event, staged by the same people who host the Motorcycle Cannonball, was open to bikes built between 1930 and 1948. “I’d always been intrigued by the concept of the Cannonball but didn’t have any motorcycles that were built prior to 1929, one of that event’s criteria,” he says [actually, the rules vary on the Cannonball – from strictly 100+ year old bikes to as late at 1936, depending on the event – ed]. “On the Cannonball, you’re allowed a support team to follow you along, but on the Chase you are on your own. You need to carry everything you’ll need and keep up the maintenance and repairs – but you can ask a fellow competitor for help, or any casual volunteers.”

Larry Luce (L) and Todd Cameron on his victorious BSA Sloper riding their antique British bikes in the Cross Country Chase. Stage 7 covered 249 miles from Macon, GA to Tallahassee, FL USA. Thursday, September 12, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
Sign me up, Larry thought. Although he was late for the application process, organizers did accept his entry. Mike offered to freshen up the engine of the ‘38 KSS while Larry got ready to ride in the 2019 VOCNA rally at Mt. Shasta, California. He and his wife, Ela, had a great run in early July aboard their 1963 MSS and upon returning home Larry got in touch again with Todd, thinking they might organize motorcycle transport to the Sault Ste. Marie starting point. After the GTP, Todd had bought from Germany a 1930 BSA Sloper with its forward-canted 500cc OHV engine. It still hadn’t arrived, but the pair made plans to haul their bikes on a borrowed trailer behind a Sprinter RV – Todd runs a business renting the vans.

Larry put the freshened 348cc engine back in the KSS, adjusted chains and tightened all fasteners before adding 150 test miles to the bike. Deeming it ready to go, final modifications included the installation of a modern programmable speedometer and a route sheet holder. Canvas saddlebags bought for $26 from Amazon went over the rear fender, where he stashed oil, an assortment of fasteners, a good assembly of tools, and extra cables and a complete spare magneto. He didn’t need much of what he packed, but Todd utilized some of it.

Todd’s unrestored BSA arrived just nine days before the pair’s departure date. In that limited window of opportunity, Todd did his best to familiarize himself with a machine he knew nothing about. Together, they loaded the Velocette and the BSA on the trailer behind Todd’s Sprinter RV, drove to Sault Ste. Marie and started off on the Chase. Now, the Chase is a competitive event testing endurance (of both motorcycle and rider), speed (completing the 250 to 350-mile stages in a timely manner), navigation (following the prescribed route), and general knowledge. Yes, there was a test – and the results counted toward an entrant’s final score.

A portrait of Larry Luce with his 1938 Velocette KSS Mk2. Photographed at the end of the Stage-9 ride from Lakeland, FL to Miami, FL USA. Saturday, September 14, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
“I’m not competitive by nature,” Larry says, “and what attracted me to the Chase was simply the opportunity to ride a vintage motorcycle and see parts of the country I’d not seen before. I wasn’t going to study for any quizzes or really take the schedule too seriously. But Todd had other ideas, he was in it to win it. “I followed Todd’s lead a good portion of the way. But I didn’t study for the quizzes, “Larry says and adds, “There was a quiz every day. You had to be careful not to ride past where the quiz crew was parked along the route. We did not know where they would be.”

On the backroads of eight states covered in 10 days, Larry’s only breakdown was a flat rear tire; an easy fix he completed in the parking lot of the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. Todd’s BSA consumed a quart of oil every 100 miles and could not be ridden faster than 55mph, normal travel speed was less than 45mph. Larry says they did not stop much during each day’s ride. Todd managed with dogged determination, some advice from others (for example, retarding the magneto timing so the 493cc Sloper engine would carry him up hills) and some parts and pieces from Larry to become the unlikely hero of the Chase. He won the Class I award, and earned himself a Legend award, a Jeff Decker custom bronze, special number plates if he decides to partake in another Chase, and $7,500.

Todd Cameron (L) and Larry Luce (R) fill out a pop quiz at a checkpoint on the Cross Country Chase. Friday, September 13, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
Larry completed the ride with no penalties – and he finished in 12th place out of a field of 70 starters – very respectable for someone who did not study for the quizzes. But he says if he’d taken it more seriously, the event wouldn’t have been as much fun. “I just really enjoyed riding those quieter roads filled with pleasant and pastoral scenery, and I got a feel for how the country changes as you move south,” he says, and adds, “You could guess where you were by the roadkill you encountered, from deer in Michigan to alligators in Florida. Thankfully, the Velocette didn’t fail me once.”

Taking pleasure in his journey was certainly due in large part to the careful preparation of the KSS engine by Mike Jongblood, whom everyone whispers has some kind of voodoo magic with Velo motors.  Success in the ride was also testament to Larry’s wrenching skills, learned decades ago and beginning with nothing more than patience and perseverance and four simple hand tools.

Larry adds, “There is something to be said for a level of technology which allows an enthusiastic kid with few tools and eve less knowledge to turn a pile of parts into a functioning motorcycle. A machine which, if it falters, there is a fair chance you can fix it with what’s in your toolbox and what you find on the side of the road,” and of his latest adventure, he concludes, “The Cross Country Chase is an event that allows vintage motorcycle enthusiasts to use their machines in the manner the makers intended. It also proves vintage vehicles can be viable long-distance transportation. In my opinion, there are few better ways to travel.”\[Many thanks to Michael Lichter for allowing use of his amazing Chase photos.  Michael has photographed every Cannonball event since 2010: see all this photos here.]

Success! Larry Luce rides his 1938 Velocette KSS across the finish line of the Cross Country Chase motorcycle endurance run from Sault Ste. Marie, MI to Key West, FL. (for vintage bikes from 1930-1948). The Grand Finish in Key West’s Mallory Square after the 110 mile Stage-10 ride from Miami to Key West, FL and after covering 2,368 miles of the Cross Country Chase. Sunday, September 15, 2019. [Photography ©2019 Michael Lichter]
Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics