Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Bertie Goodman circulating at Montlhery
Exactly 50 years have passed since an immortal band of Velo fellows braved certain discomfort and actual physical peril, riding a humble Velocette Venom with no lights around the Montlhéry race track for 24 hours, lapping consistently at 107mph, to average 100.5mph.  Many had attempted the 'ton for a day', and some succeeded afterwards, but Velocette were the first, and the record still stands for a 500cc machine, set half a century ago, on March 18th/19th, 1961.
Bertie Goodman
The attempt was set in motion by Velocette managing director Bertie Goodman. Veloce Ltd were a small, family-owned company with a peerless reputation for quality machines, and an excellent racing pedigree.  Unlike the Board of nearly every other motorcycle manufacturer, the helmsmen (and women) of Veloce were daily riders of their own machinery, and enthusiastic supporters of racing, to the extent of participating in record runs and even the occasional international-level road race... during his stint as Sales Director, Bertie placed 3rd in the 1947 Ulster GP.  As Managing Director from the 1950s onwards (after the death of his father Percy Goodman) he took special pleasure in speed-testing the company products at the MIRA test-track, which he insisted helped keep his weight down!  Such testing proved excellent for revealing faults, and Velocette production models were renowned for their mechanical reliability and excellent handling.
Journalist Bruce Main-Smith
In 1960, Bertie was approached by Georges Monneret, legendary 6-time French racing champion, who suggested a 'go' at the 24-hour record, at the venerable, but bumpy, Montlhéry race track, just south of Paris.  The French bowl is an engineered course, with a steel grid structure under its high banked curves.  Its concrete paving is stable but unforgiving, with expansion joints (every 25 metres) as wide as a fist in some places, making for a rocking-horse ride at high speeds.  Monneret and his son Pierre, also a racing champion, organized a French team of riders, to be accompanied by Bertie Goodman himself, and British journalist Bruce Main-Smith, who called Montlhéry a "concrete-banked slice of medieval punishment".
At the 'high line' of the banking - steep!
Their shockingly standard 'Venom' 500cc model had been very carefully assembled, but was not highly tuned.  Goodman insisted time-proven production parts meant less likelihood of component failure, so the record-breaker Venom differed from standard only in the addition of a GP racing carburetor, megaphone exhaust, and production prototype fairing, made by Mitchenall.  Much was removed, though!  Front mudguard, battery, lights, speedometer, number plate, headlamp cowl, primary chain cases, etc.  It took 5 months to build up the Venom (the race shop having closed at Veloce 8 years prior), and when completed, Bertie Goodman tested the bike at MIRA for 14 hours at absolutely full throttle, averaging nearly 110mph.  The engine was never internally inspected or disassembled during or after testing; 1400 miles at full bore, before the record attempt had even begun.
The Venom after 2400 miles at 100mph...
The management of the event itself, with sponsorship deals and track arrangements, was the job of Monneret et al; as there were no lights at the track, the 12 hours of night riding were illuminated by 55 Marchal car headlamps connected to batteries!  Rider testing - to determine team members - was carried out the night before the record attempt; if you didn't have the 'bottle' to keep the throttle right at the stop, you were out!  The team thus consisted of the Goodman, Main-Smith, Georges and Pierre Monneret, Pierre Cherrier, Alain Dagan, André Jacquier-Bret, and Robert Leconte.  While Bertie Goodman was a relative 'oldster' at 42, Georges Monneret was 55 at the time... and of course, these two old dogs were among the most consistently fast of the attack. 
Alain Dagan, the fastest of all the riders.
Night riding at 107mph through stroboscopic bands of light and dark proved psychologically demanding in ways the riders could not have expected; hallucinations, hypnosis, and phantom 'fog' beset every rider, and those with steely temperaments (Goodman, Dagan, and the Monnerets) shouldered the heaviest riding burdens.  The bumps were awful, but the Velo steered as they all do, "taut, waggle-free, 100% safe" said BruceMain-Smith, in his epic writeup of the event (read it here).  He was "genuinely frightened...punishment from the bumps is awful...my nose and mouth run, onto the chin pad to which I press my head to keep it behind the screen...it seems an eternity...the noise from the megaphone chases me round the track like a wild beast...after 60 laps I know it would sabotage the attempt if I continued.  I come in..."  He finds motivation to continue, thinking of his Country, then his Readers [hello!], and finally - he was being paid!
Bertie Goodman congratulating Georges Monneret for a job well done
The rough hours of the day passed into evening, and with them the 12-hour record at 104.6mph.  Worth celebrating, but the grim reality of constant pounding and a further 12 hours' riding meant no champagne. The nightmare hours hammered onward, punctuated only by fuel stops and rider changes, at times after only 15 minutes, as younger riders complained of blurred vision and fatigue.  The old dogs (Goodman, Monneret) dutifully fulfilled their every hour stint, while young Dagan, the fastest of them all, was first to leap onto the saddle and revive the average speed when others flagged or surrendered, and by morning's first light, he made the final push, bringing the Velo over the timing line for the last time.  All were exhausted, cold, and ready for sleep!  Yet, for 2400 miles and a road average of 107mph, the Velo never skipped a beat, and gave 37mpg. When the engine was finally opened for FIM inspection, after 3800 miles of 100+mph riding, it was found to be in perfect condition.
The Record Breaker Venom lives at the National Motorcycle Museum in England, if you care to visit and pay your respects.  IN VELO VERITAS!

(Here is the story about the Velocette attempt at 100mph/24hrs with a 350cc machine in 1963)


Anonymous said...

great post!...Thanx.

Doug Em

camerabanger said...

A slice of life in the fast lane!! Great read. Thanks again.

Rhynchocephalian said...

Wonderful, Thank you Paul! Perfect timing for the spring fever. It inspires to get the Velos out sooner this season!

Adrian Manktelow said...

Superb post Paul - an inspirational account of courage and determination.

Anonymous said...

superb read ! Really Great post, Thanks for sharing

Alex Morgan

Motorcycle Prices India said...

Nice post Thanks.

grant said...

or one that looks like it............like steve hislops 1992 tt winning norton
sorry im so cynical its just the fire destroyed so much.

The Vintagent said...

@Grant; have to agree with you there; Ivan did a great job re-creating the machine post-fire, but dammit, it was ORIGINAL before!

grant said...

bitter and twisted gets us ...bitter and twisted i will let it go from now on
its worth a visit for a few quid and if your next in the notts area we'll have a pint

Grandpa Jimbo said...

Bertie Goodman looks like a regular bloke, doesn't he. Jim A. Tucson, AZ