Looking for a classic lightweight? You’re not alone. RC regular Geoff Stovold has tried a 1960s two-stroke, then a four-stroke unit single. Finally he’s discovered the perfect commuter classic: Velocette’s ‘motorcycle for everyman’…
I always enjoy the articles in RealClassic about lightweight bikes like the Triumph Blazer SS seen in RC202. It brought back memories of my own quest to find a cheap but interesting tiddler as a general local winter hack. I have put much of my savings into old motorcycles. They provide fun, something to do and probably don’t lose any more money than savings in the bank. Some are quite pretty and they have more power than I need. So the idea of a low cost tiddler that I can use in all weathers without worrying is an attractive concept.
I have some fond memories of a Francis-Barnett from my youth, so my first foray was a mid-1960s James Captain. What a horrid bike this was. It was not a terrible starter but nor was it good one. Sometimes when hot it could be decidedly recalcitrant. It did not have a prop stand. Even though it was a light little thing it was an absolute pig to get on its centre stand. Consequently I was forever leaning it against shop windows, often to the shop owner’s displeasure. Finally, it only had three gears. I find it rather odd that modern bikes with about 100bhp have at least six gears when they could probably manage with one, yet this little 8bhp James which could have done with at least four only had three. There are a lot of hills where I live and the lack of gears made them painful.
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The James did not last long but the search continued. The next hopeful was a BSA Starfire, closely related to the Triumph Blazer. Mine was an earlier model but had the same engine with its 10:1 compression. Once started, this was quite an entertaining little bike. It was snorty and rorty and made short work of all the hills that the James had struggled with. It had a prop stand which was a definite improvement.
The truth is I was a bit afraid of it. It had a rather cheap and flimsy kickstart. Although it was only a 250, that compression ratio made if a very fierce little beastie. There was a technique. Lunge at it with all your might then get your leg way out of the way quick in case it kicked back. Sometimes my leg would slip off the flimsy kickstart, gouging deep crevices in the inside of my calf. I also discovered that it had a slightly leaky head gasket. Easy to fix, but would it then be even fiercer? If it had been equipped with a valve lifter, I may well have kept the little beast. Definitely a young man’s bike.
Finally: nirvana! I had long been interested in the engineering of Velocette’s ugly duckling, the LE. Good ones can be had for under £2000. I found an interesting one that had been exported to France when new. It still had its amber-coloured headlamp and its speedometer calibrated in kilometres. The previous owner had bought it at auction and re-imported it. He had a great sales technique when I went to view.
‘It is in the shed, haven’t used it for ages. Should be OK though.’
He opened up this dark and dingy shed and inside was this little LE, covered in a fine coat of dust. He turned the key and gave the kickstart a lazy prod and it came to life and ticked over like a metronome. Talk about impressed.
‘I’ll have it!’ I cried, and didn’t even try to knock him down.
I absolutely love the LE. We had a few teething issues but these are now all sorted and it is very reliable. It is comfortable. It handles beautifully. The centrestand is a design miracle. It always starts with the first, easy, lazy kick. The brakes are good. With a screen fitted it is possible to ride it in the rain and not really get wet or cold. The top box takes all my shopping. It is beautifully light. There is no vibration and no chains to adjust or lubricate. It doesn’t leak oil.
But no motorcycle is perfect. Aesthetically the LE has looks that only its mother could love. Lastly it is low powered. It will spin along at about 50mph on a level road but the gearbox needs to be used on hills. Mine has a later four-speed box which helps. But if you want a great little shopper for all weathers, get an LE.