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1963 Velocette Venom Clubman. (Rob Hunt)
1963 Velocette Venom Clubman. (Rob Hunt)

1963 Velocette Venom Clubman

Looking to mellow with his Velo Add to ...

The photo obviously isn't the usual classic bike "beauty shot" but with its track-side background clutter of fuel can, open van and lawn chair, it perfectly evokes the character of both the machine and its owner.

The bike, a 1963 Velocette Venom Clubman, was a "superbike" back in its day that could be ridden on the street and raced in amateur club events on the weekend, although even in its prime it was rather "vintage" in many ways.

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Its owner, Rob Hunt of Brantford, Ont., was in his prime when the "Velo" was new, but although getting a bit vintage himself these days at 67, he and the big, single-cylinder bike can still scratch around at a track day with the best of them.

Velocette is a name all but lost to memory, but the thudding drum-roll exhaust note emitted through its unique "fishtail" muffler still strikes a deep chord with old Brit bike enthusiasts who venerate the make which, among other things, gave the bike world the positive-stop foot-change gear-selection mechanism.

The Velocette name also became legendary on the track - notably the Isle of Man TT circuit - and still holds a 24-hour speed record (2,400 miles at 100.05 mph) set at Montlhéry, France. Velocette was also familiar to the man on the street, as the maker of the "Noddy bike," a small, quiet machine ridden on urban patrol by British Bobbies in the 1950s.

The Velocette saga began with the arrival of German Johannes Gutgemann in England in the late 1800s, who changed his name to John Taylor and got into the booming bicycle business. Taylor's firm created its first motorcycle, the Veloce, in 1905, but it proved unsuccessful. He'd also created a couple of mechanically inclined sons, Percy and Eugene who, in 1908 set up New Veloce Motors and designed a car, which also didn't sell.

Not an easily discouraged family, they tried motorcycles again, creating an advanced design - which frightened off conservative buyers. But after dumbing it down to meet market expectations, it finally succeeded, after a fashion. The breakthrough came in 1913 with a clever little two-stroke named the Velocette, which later became the company name. The Gutgemanns, then Taylors, had also completed another name change, to Goodman.

After the First World War, Velocette began producing well-regarded street bikes and the first of the overhead camshaft models that would bring it racing fame. After the Second World War, it went racing and winning again, but spent a fortune developing an everyman's commuter bike, which only the coppers bought in any numbers. Its big bikes were basically updated pre-war, single-cylinder 350-cc and 500-cc designs, sporting versions of which were called the Viper and Venom and in ultimate form, the Venom Thruxton.

An ill-advised scooter project in the early 1960s was just about the final blow for the company, although it struggled on until 1971.

"I was a one-off," says British-born Hunt, referring to his non-biking family roots.

Along with teenage pals, he became fascinated with motorcycles, acquiring his first, a 1949 BSA, as a 16-year-old apprentice tool maker in 1960 as a ride-to-work mount. It was also his introduction to the coffee bar scene, which attracted ton-up (100-mph) tearaways, later known as Rockers, who would race from London area transport cafe to cafe. "There were groups within groups, the radical types and us poorer types banging around on old bikes," says Hunt.

But at 17, with dad co-signing the loan, he acquired a 500-cc BSA Gold Star Clubman single, the go-fast rival to the Velo. "Close ratio box, clip-ons, the whole head-down, ass-up thing. Scared myself to death a couple of times on that one."

But it was soon being ridden to road racing meets most weekends as he drifted from the cafe scene.

Back in 1963

Iron Man, created by Stan Lee, debuts in Marvel Comics Tales of Suspense.

The first episode of the science-fiction TV series Doctor Who is aired by the BBC, featuring a time travelling doctor who flits about in his Tardis time machine.

Betty Frieden's The Feminine Mystique is published, re-igniting the women's movement.

In an effort to return a little sanity to the nuclear arms race and cut down on some of that nasty radioactive fallout, the U.S. and the Soviet Union sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which allows only underground testing.

Italian industrialist and fast car fancier Ferrucio Lamborghini launches the car company that bears his name to build cars that will rival then-well-established Ferrari.

After a brief interlude with a girlfriend and a 350 Arial, Hunt was soon in the saddle of a Rocket Gold Star, the 650-cc twin-cylinder version. But he was also road racing its polar opposite, a 125-cc BSA Bantam, a tiny two-stroke commuter bike also used by the postal service - tuned to do about 90 mph.

He recalls being first impressed by Velos on a trip to Spain on the Gold Star when a companion, riding two up on one, lost top gear and still managed to keep up the 70-mph pace using just third.

The Rocket Goldie was a casualty of Hunt's move to Canada in 1969 and he wasn't involved in bikes for some years until spotting a 1967 Velocette Venom rusting on a front porch in the late 1970s. It found its way to the Hunt home and underwent a full restoration.

Since then, many old motorcycles, including Velos - among them a Thruxton or two, the super-tuned holy grails of the marque - plus some additional Rocket Goldies have passed through Hunt's workshop - likely 50 or more - where he transforms rusted relics into perfect restorations. He's currently working on a pair of 350-cc Velo MAC models, but is also on the lookout for yet another Rocket Gold Star.

Hunt's remarkable life-long enthusiasm for old motorcycles remains strong, but there is a hint time is catching up with him, or at least his right ankle. After decades of kick-starting large-displacement singles he's "exploring electric starters. They've actually got them for Gold Stars and Velos now."

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Vintage bike rally

Paris, Ont.

June 17-19

The Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group presents its 39th Paris National Rally in the fairgrounds at Paris (near Brantford) on Father's Day weekend.

Those registered can participate in seminars, road runs, a cavalcade of bikes, trials, displays and a flea market. Day visitors get to watch all this, plus wander around and view a wide variety of machines from all eras.

Daily admission is $5 and the site is open from noon to 8 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sunday.

For more information, go to cvmg.ca.

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