Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Back in July 2000, my good friend John Jennings of Perth, Australia, rode one day of the week-long Velocette Owner's Club of North America Summer Rally on my 1933 MkIV KTT Velo. In its current incarnation, 'The Mule' was built up for historic racing by Eddie Arnold in the late 1970s. Eddie found the machine at Mack's Motorcycles in Massachusetts, where it had been imported as an engine only from the factory in 1933. Presumably a donor KSS chassis housed the engine (or Mack's also purchased a factory-spare frame; it bears no numbers).
As European-style road-racing was almost nonexistent in the US at that time, it must have seen competition on the dirt ovals popular on the East Coast in the 30s. My friend Rick Haner is convinced his father raced this very machine 'in the day', and had a photograph he believed showed KTT470 in competition. Sadly, his house burned a couple of years ago, so the search for documentation continues...

By John Jennings

“Who me? Are you serious? All day tomorrow? I sure would!” This was roughly the response Paul d’Orleans heard when he offered me a ride on the most impressive and desirable Velo in attendance at the 2000 Summer Ride. So the deal was done – Paul and Alison would ride Paul’s Viper, which had been my faithful mount thus far, and I would ride Paul’s delectable 1933 KTT. Because of its heroic passage along the treacherous dirt of Mule Town Road the previous day of the rally, the KTT has become widely known as the "Little Mule". The Mule and I have shared many happy miles in North America, including one dramatic day in 2005 when the friendly officers of the Lake Tahoe CHP decided that it should be impounded for 'registration irregularities' - but that's another story [It certainly is...]. What follows is my impressions after the first big day on the Mule.

It was a hot Thursday evening in Etna, in the mountain wilds of NorCal – the most northern part of our route. Friday we were returning to rally HQ, Redway some 250 miles to the south. Between Etna and Redway stood some of the most challenging roads of the week, including the infamous Forks of Salmon road, where legend has it that reclusive locals in beaten up pick-ups have been known to force unwanted tourists off the road and over the edge of the roadside abyss, never to be seen again. ‘Am I doing the right thing?’, came a small voice in my head.

Friday dawned to a crisp blue sky over the Etna City Park. KTT sat poised to go, on a convenient stump; a surrogate centrestand. After packing the gear onto the Viper and a final check of its vital parts, it was time to hand this mount over to Paul for the day. Paul gave some basic instructions and advice. Fuel taps. Tickler. Lots of oil blowing from the exposed valve gear onto the rear tyre. Upside down gearshift pattern (fortunately the same as the reverse gear lever equipped Viper). No rear view mirror. No kickstarter. No silencer. No horn. No lights. A front brake that works best once there’s some heat in the linings. How to bump start. ‘Am I doing the right thing?’, the small voice asked again.

Time to go. I looked at the long gravel access road and did a rough head count of the assembled onlookers. Discretion versus valour. ‘Righto Paul, show me how it’s done, mate!’ Paul is a special sort of Velo rider. I knew that he’d bumped and thumped KTT along the impossible, impassable Mule Town Road the previous day. I knew that he’d bump started KTT in loose sand when there was no-one else around in 98 degree heat. I knew this bit of gravel access road would be a piece of cake for him. And so it was. I pulled on the gloves, walked down to where he sat side saddle, blipping the throttle and threw my leg over the low slung sprung saddle. I rode down to the main road and did a couple of familiarisation laps while waiting for P & A on the Viper. I stopped the engine and did a trial bump start. Second gear, wind back off compression, clutch in, then run and bump. KTT fires but before I can get the clutch in stalls with a couple of kangaroo hops – my fault, not hers. Second attempt I grab the clutch, just in time. Before day’s end I have my own version of the bump start routine that suits me better. First gear, wind back off compression, clutch in, run and bump and clutch in. Then catch the engine on the throttle. The lower gear spins the engine faster and almost guarantees that it will fire immediately, so you don’t have to wait for things to light up, then respond with the clutch. Not recommended for sand or gravel bump starts, however.

Paul & Alison appear on the laden Viper and we turn east and almost immediately start a long climb. For KTT, with more power than Viper and far less unladen weight, this is no problem. But for Viper the added burden of all my camping gear plus pillion (albeit a lightweight one today) means each ascent becomes a second and third gear challenge. But Paul pushes hard and we enjoy a pleasant 15 minutes or so of climbing before the hairpins appear and the grade steepens. Paul waves me by and for the first time I feel the exhilaration of riding a Velo with a power to weight ratio that makes uphill as much fun as downhill. This KTT pulls strongly from low revs, and after each up change the bars literally tug on your arms as the clutch bites and the revs rise quickly to the next change point or braking point, whichever arrives first. After another 20 minutes or so we crest a saddle at 5500 feet. The view is spectacular in every direction. I stop at a viewing bay, dismount and reflect on the oily black and gold machine leaning against the stone wall. So far Paul’s advice is right - the oily rear tyre grips, but I wouldn’t like to try it on damp or wet bitumen. The riding position is more relaxed than racy, with flattish bars and mid mounted footpegs (definitely not rearset). The rear brake feels spongy (cable operated) but bites progressively. The front brake – well haven’t had much call for it yet, as engine braking has done most of the work so far. The clutch is a beauty, freeing cleanly for the bump start routine and not a sign of slip under power. Paul credits me with this, as it had started to drag during the previous day’s horror stretch and I spent 10 minutes with the adjusting peg on Thursday evening, and reset the cable. No cover on the gearbox sprocket so it was even easier than normal. Steering is precise, with the MkVIII style front end (forks and brake) giving clear signals as to what the front tyre is up to, and doing a ‘good for the era’ job of absorbing bumps. And the sprung saddle looks after minor bumps OK but after landing a little far back and copping the rear edge of the seat in the coccyx on one occasion, I decide to ride on the pegs for any substantial bumps I see in future.

The frenzied sound of a little engine working hard signals the arrival of the Viper. P & A soak up the view, then Paul decides a nearby rock cairn would be a great setting for a victory shot of KTT [above]. So we manoeuvre it gingerly out onto the cairn, engage first gear so it won’t roll away and prop the left footpeg on a substantial rock. Alison shoots photos from every angle, then we safely retrieve KTT and it’s off again, for my first taste of downhill KTT’ing. I must say that selecting the crest of a mountain for the first public demonstration of my prowess at the bump start routine was a masterstroke! However KTT fires up in the first 10 feet of the decline, leaving 4990 feet in reserve.

Paul obviously believes I‘ll get the plot home in one piece so I don’t feel the need for us to travel in convoy all day. I’m definitely a “travel at your own pace” sort of person, and generally detest the regimented riding which some Clubs force upon their riders. After a few gentle corners I begin to get the feel of the bike again and the pace quickens. But the first hairpin I encounter calls for an extraordinary amount of pressure on the front brake (and as much as I dare on the rear) to get down to a speed where I’m comfortable to tip it into the turn. Comfortable or not, there comes a point in every turn where tip it in you must, as the options are few. Lesson learnt – this ain’t no Tickle twin leader and I must adjust braking points to suit. Down through Sawyers Bar and on to Forks of Salmon I see few other Velos. The pace of the KTT on all the uphill riding means by this time Viper must be far behind. I come up behind a Velo pottering along at about 40 mph. I slip past and continue on at an enjoyable 7 or 8-tenths sort of pace. The road is bumpy and a little narrow but many of the corners have a clear view around. I look behind at one stage and see that the potterer has tagged on and we enjoy this ride for the next half hour or so. He drops back a little and then a little further down this winding road I hear another sound, at my left ear in the middle of a sweeping left-hander. Paul has cruised up on the inside. He waves, gives the thumbs up, shouts something (which is later translated to ‘it sounds great – I’ve been following you for 10 minutes’). Must look over my shoulder more often in future. I spend the remainder of the ride puzzling as to how the laden Viper could close what surely must have been a 10 to 15 minute advantage given the numerous climbs along the road this morning. Was there a shortcut I didn’t see? Or does he just ride downhill without touching brakes at all? [Yes.]

We stop at Soames Bar and the potterer turned tagger reveals himself as Frank Brennan, who admits to getting a real buzz out of following the KTT, simply to hear the note that she makes on the over run. This road must have given him a near overdose. I realise that the front brake has worked fine in the last hour or so, a combination of heat in the linings and my adjusting to its capabilities.

(photo above c.Nick Cedar, used with permission)
The remainder of the day passes with just a few incidents – major wildfire blocking the road, a broken clutch cable (replaced in 20 minutes when a spare was offered by a real Good Samaritan – thanks Victor), a much too close up view of a minor landslide, a fantastic lunch in the cool of a restored Victorian era Hotel in Ferndale (thanks again Victor for your good company), a severe lack of fuel (thanks Bill for getting me out of trouble) and a rough ride through the redwoods near day’s end. Back at Redway that evening, I leaned KTT against a tree near Paul’s room, closed the fuel taps, stood back, took a deep breath and smiled. I’d just heard a small voice say ‘You did the right thing!’

Thanks Paul for the opportunity of a lifetime. Thanks CHP for leaving us alone for the whole day, despite KTT’s doubtful legality on those public roads. And thanks KTT - you deserved the 'Machine of the Rally' award bestowed upon you on Saturday evening."
John Jennings