If you like the idea of a Velo MAC but need a little more performance than a 350 provides, then Veloce built your ideal bike in the shape of the MSS 500…
Velocette is often seen as one of the ‘high class’ marques of classic bike, something of a cut above the ubiquitous parallel twin and far more refined than the average single-cylinder slogger. Yet that very reputation can discourage some riders, who feel a touch daunted by the idea of an overhead cam KSS or a 45 horsepower Thruxton. Those bikes don’t come cheap, for a start, and their reputations suggest that they aren’t entirely easy to live with.
The 499cc MSS is a completely different kettle of cod. It’s a pleasant and practical sporting single; the kind of bike your grandad bored you senseless with when you were riding an FS1E and he rambled on and on about Brit singles which fired every other lamp-post while doing 100mph and 100mpg. The later versions of this Velocette 500 have comfortable suspension and a broad spread of torque, making the MSS a relaxed ride over longer distances.
The MSS initially arrived in the mid-1930s as the third in Veloce’s range of OHV high-cam, short pushrod singles. They started with the 250cc MOV which was followed by the 350 MAC. The MSS was a natural progression, using the 96mm stroke from the 350 engine with an 81mm bigger bore to give a 495cc long-stroke motor. This engine was slotted into a heavyweight frame developed from the racing machines, with a rigid rear end and Webb-type girder forks. The result was something of a lumbering beast; elegant to look at and very long legged but not rapid in the acceleration stakes, and often found with a sidecar attached.
From 1948 Velocette turned their attention to building the LE and discontinued the MSS, but a re-worked 500 returned in 1954 with all the mods cons of the time. The light-alloy engine now used square dimensions of 86mm bore and stroke, and featured hairpin valve springs and a bonded-in iron cylinder liner. Its output of just 25bhp sounds modest, but the MSS made the most of Velocette’s excellent sprung frame which Cyril Ayton once described as ‘virtually faultless’. Velocette’s own telescopic front forks provided superb steering with fully-adjustable rear suspension provided by Woodhead-Monroe springs. Many a rider on a 650 parallel twin was startled to find a 500 single keeping pace on A-roads, and on twisting B-roads the MSS would have the measure of Turner’s flexi-frames of the 1950s and early 60s.
So Velo’s MSS was an easy starting, tractable and good natured all-rounder which weighed in a 385lb, capable of cruising at 70mph with shorts bursts of speed up to a little over 80. The MSS looked smart, too, in gleaming black and gold, with its fishtail silencer and slightly stepped dual saddle. Although Velocette were never a mass manufacturer as such, the MSS stayed in production in this guise until 1971 so there is some choice if you’re looking to buy one now.
The 1939 MSS seen above was on the market in April 2020 for £12,500 or thereabouts. It features the original format, long-stroke motor, girder forks and no rear suspension. The seller says it’s in ‘perfect working order’ with many parts replaced by its previous owner – the bike has kept its original engine, frame and registration and comes with lots of documented history.
This 1955 MSS pictured below was advertised for sale in March 2020, asking price £5500. It’s been laid up for two decades; the clutch and top end rebuilt and a Concentric Amal carb fitted. It might start up with a little TLC – or it could need more of an overhaul. Perfect if you’ve got time on your hands…
If you’re thinking of buying any big single then you should always check that you can start it easily, both from cold and once it has warmed up. Any problems with an aging magneto will be compounded by the extra effort required to kick over a big single – the later, shorter stroke MSS can be easier to start than the original variety.
Velocette’s clutch mechanism is rather unusual, and it’s worth making sure that it does not slip or drag… especially if you’re paying £10k or more for a smart example. We often forgive the quirks of an old bike and may overlook a little slip at higher revs, or drag at a standstill, but you probably don’t want to spend your first month of ownership involved in understanding the intricacies of the MSS primary drive…
In the final analysis, an MSS single can cost as much to buy as an iconic Triumph twin. Some riders opt instead for the more conventional sporting singles from Norton – the ES2 is technically less complex and has better spares availability (because so many of its components are shared with other models in Norton’s range). Many owners feel that the Velocette is worth every penny: only you know if the idea of living with this exclusive big single and its unusual engineering actually appeals.
And Frank Westworth rode a fine MSS a few years back, and that feature is available to read via mail order.
Words by Rowena Hoseason
Photos RC RChive
This feature originally appeared on the original RealClassic website more than a decade ago: it’s been updated and extended to appear here in our new formatEnjoy more RealClassic reading in the monthly magazine. Click here to subscribe.