Auction Gem: Works, World Championship-Winning 1948 VElocette KTT Racing Motorcycles

No racing motorcycle has made a greater contribution to Velocette's world-wide reputation than the sensational double-overhead-camshaft 'works' KTT offered here, which the great Freddie Frith used to trounce all opposition and win the very first 350cc World Championship in 1949.

Freddie Frith won five Grands Prix of the 1949 350cc World Championship on this machine, including the Isle of Man TT, although on one occasion (the Ulster Grand Prix) he used a single-overhead-camshaft engine in the same chassis. He also won the Dutch TT and the Belgian and Swiss GPs, and did not need to compete in the sixth and last race of the season (the Italian Grand Prix at Monza) having already won the Championship with maximum points.

Winning the 350cc class of the FIM’s inaugural World Championship was the pinnacle of Freddie Frith’s career and he subsequently retired (he was by then 40 years old). He was honoured with an OBE by King George VI at the end of the year for ‘services to British motorcycle racing’ and ‘British prestige’ in general.

The works Velocettes of the late 1940s were based on the latest version of the company’s immensely successful over-the-counter KTT racer: the MkVIII. With its deep petrol tank, massively finned overhead-camshaft engine and purposeful appearance, the MkVIII KTT is unquestionably one of the most beautiful racing motorcycles ever made. The talking point of Velocette’s new racer on its introduction in 1939 was its swinging-arm rear suspension, an innovation first seen on the works bikes in 1936. By now tried and tested, the Velocette rear suspension comprised a pivoting fork made from tapered tubing and complemented by a pair of Dowty Oleomatic air-sprung struts. The rest of the cycle parts remained much as those of the rigid-framed MkVII.

The production Mk VIII’s original engine, while basically the same as its MkVII predecessor’s, incorporated a number of improvements intended to enhance power and reliability. The big-end bearing assembly had already been strengthened (after some failures on the earlier model) and despite the springer’s increase in weight over the rigid machine, its superior performance and excellent handling made the MkVIII KTT a formidable competitor. Indeed, the production version differed little from the factory bikes that had dominated the 1938 Isle of Man Junior TT, Stanley Woods leading home team-mate Ted Mellors to break Norton’s seven-year stranglehold on the event. Woods repeated his win the following year.

Despite its pre-war design origins, the Nigel Spring-entered MkVIII KTT had proved good enough to provide Freddie Frith and Velocette with the 1948 Junior TT; however, in order to win the 350cc World Championship in 1949, a complete redesign of the valve gear was considered necessary. Velocette had first experimented with a double-overhead-camshaft (DOHC) cylinder head on the KTT-based factory bikes back in 1936 (courtesy of chief designer Charles Udall). The post-war revisit of the DOHC concept however, was instigated by Bertie Goodman, only son of company boss, Percy.

The principal advantage of the DOHC motor was its lighter and better-controlled valve gear, which enabled it to rev safely at 8,000rpm, as against the 7,200rpm maximum of the single-cam ‘rocker’ engines (though the latter were preferred at some circuits on account of their greater low-down torque). At 74mm x 81mm, the bore and stroke were the same as the standard KTT, but the DOHC ‘double knocker’ (an original term coined by team manager Harold Willis in the mid-1930s) differed considerably in its detail design. Special machined-all-over forged pistons were used while, in anticipation of higher revs, the exhaust valve was sodium-filled to dissipate heat. The post-war DOHC engines were also fitted with larger-than-standard Oldham couplings while at the same time (and for the same reason) the valve gear’s vertical drive-shaft was waisted. As usual, there was the additional oil scavenge pump in the lower end of the timing cover, a normal practice on works machines, in an effort to minimise oil drag on the spinning crankshaft. For the first time since before the war there was extensive use of Elektron magnesium alloy and also, as with most of the Velocette TT and Grand Prix machines, larger capacity fuel tanks.

As well as being original thinkers, Velocette were masters of both chassis and engine development. After what can only be described as a very short ‘teething’ period, the engines were immediately producing significantly more power than the ‘single-knockers’ but with the – almost luxurious – added benefit of a turbine-smooth power delivery. On the circuit they were extremely quick, and Bertie’s attention to detail clearly helped achieve this (as a good example, individual camshafts were carefully balanced with special counter-weights so as to avoid vibration within the gear trains). As with all the factory racers, a very large cylinder barrel was employed to improve cooling. In addition, to assist when climbing Snaefell Mountain at the Isle of Man TT, a batch of special gearboxes was produced, in Elektron magnesium alloy, employing modified internal ratios as used on the pre-war works machines.

According to works mechanic Frank Panes’ notes, ‘1046’ was one of two experimental 350cc DOHC engines produced from scratch for the 1949 season. Bertie himself later stated that in total, six 350cc DOHC engines had been produced by the factory after the war (some having been converted from the earlier single-knocker works motors).

With most of Velocette Ltd’s limited financial resources committed to developing the forthcoming LE model, the post-war racing effort was bankrolled by Castrol and supported by several dealers together with private entrants Nigel Spring and Dick Wilkins. Factory records show that the KTTs, which were to be ridden by Freddie Frith and Ken Bills, were invoiced to Nigel Spring on 20th May 1948 and delivered via the Premier Motor Company of Birmingham. Frith’s machine was numbered ‘SF114’ (frame) and ‘KTT 954′ (engine), while Bills’ was numbered ‘SF129’ and ‘KTT 956’ respectively. Interviewed by Motor Cycling in February 1948, Spring remarked that he had expected a couple of standard MkVIII KTTs, but was delighted to hear that Veloce had decided to build a limited number of special models, with ‘hotted-up’ engines. As works supported riders, Frith and Bills enjoyed the advantages of these special engines that had been modified by the factory. In the same Motor Cycling article, Bertie Goodman confirmed that four of these special KTTs had been made: two for the Spring équipe, and one each for Bob Foster and David Whitworth.

R M N Spring was proprietor of a preserves manufacturer (‘Spring’s Delights’) based in Brigg, Lincolnshire where it operated a large fruit processing plant. He was also a pre-war Brooklands competitor, race winner, world record holder, tuner, and sponsor, so knew a thing or two about racing motorcycles. Another Lincolnshire man, and one of the few riders to win Isle of Man TT’s both before and after the war, Freddie Frith first came to prominence in 1930 when he rode a Velocette to 3rd place in the inaugural Manx Grand Prix’s Junior race. In 1935 he won the Junior Manx GP on a Norton, a ride that earned him a place in Bracebridge Street’s works team for ’36. Freddie Frith was an instant success at the higher level, winning the 1936 Junior TT and the Senior TT in 1937, during which he became the first man to lap the Mountain Course at over 90mph.

Having spent the war years as an Army motorcycle instructor, he was tempted back into the saddle in 1947 at the age of 38 but did not compete in that year’s TT following a spill in practice on a Senior Moto-Guzzi. He joined the Spring stable for 1948, and the rest, as they say, is history. A quiet, modest man, referred to consistently by all as a ‘real gentlemen’ Freddie Frith retired at the end of the 1949 season and opened a motorcycle dealership in Grimsby, which traded successfully for many years. He died in 1988 aged 78 and is still remembered fondly in Lincolnshire as one of the county’s greatest sporting heroes.

At the end of the 1949 season, the special DOHC engines that had been on loan to Spring were returned to the factory, while the rest of the Frith Velocette, being Spring’s personal property, was retained by him. (Apparently, at some point, possibly after being sold to a private owner, it was fitted with a standard KSS engine and used on the road).

Velocette’s exceedingly fast DOHC 350s raced on into 1950, Bob Foster winning the World Championship for the second year in succession for Hall Green, and these advanced engines were so good that they continued to be reused in more up-to-date cycle parts as development progressed. Fitted into lightweight ‘low-boy’ frames in 1951, they were once again raced by Foster (now in his final year) as well as up-and-coming new team members Cecil Sandford and Bill Lomas, whose machine ended up being fitted with the ex-Frith engine, ‘L.IOM 68560.1046’.
1951 would turn out to be the swansong of the full Velocette race team (in 1952 Veloce Ltd were only to enter a single rider – Les Graham – in international events) and the race shop was closed down soon afterwards.

Unsurprisingly, but as is so often the case with obsolescent racing machines, the works Velocettes were dismantled and the major components dispersed, their historic identities being lost in the short term. The special magnesium DOHC engines, which still retained the promise of a useful life, were all sold to private owners, and ‘L.IOM 68560.1046’ eventually found itself recycled into the Reynolds-framed Velocette originally built for Geoff Duke. This came about because the Duke Reynolds Velocette had been acquired as a rolling chassis by the Australian Hinton Brothers, minus its original single-knocker engine. As the Hinton’s also by now owned the ex-Lomas low-boy works Velocette, they wasted no time in transferring the ultra-quick ex-Frith motor, ‘L.IOM 68560.1046’, into the Duke machine.

Having gone down separate paths for so many years, frame and engine have now been reunited, and the ex-Frith 350cc motor, having changed hands a multitude of times in the intervening years, has been rebuilt by the world’s leading authority on the Velocette marque. Since the rebuild’s completion, this beautiful historic Velocette has been ridden on the Isle of Man TT Parade Lap, at the Assen Classic TT, and at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Presented in sound order, this turbine-smooth, docile yet exceptionally fast motorcycle is ready to parade or even race. Accompanying documentation consists of period photographs, copies of factory records, Velocette Owners Club works record extract, engine specification details, and various magazine articles.

Exceptional motorcycles with important race history seldom come to market, let alone ultra-rare factory racers such as that offered here, so this multiple Grand Prix-winning works DOHC KTT, originally ridden to such success by one of the sport’s most iconic World Champions, represents a unique opportunity, of enormous significance for collectors, to own a genuine World Championship-winning Velocette.

Report by

Tags from the story
, ,