Tony Wright

Tony Wright was married to Anastasia, who was a voluntary teacher of Music, and a Parish and District Councillor. Anastasia died on 17th August 2003 after a long struggle against cancer.
Son Jo graduated from Oxford in Classics then gained an MBA and is currently working in Cardiff for the Welsh Government.  Daughter Nancy studied Drama and now works at the BBC. Son Malcolm graduated in engineering at Cardiff University after spending a year training to be an engineer with an aerospace engineering company where he worked in their offices in York Road, Hall Green.......it was indeed the old Velocette factory, refurbished. One of life's coincidences. He is now an engineer at Rolls Royce.  I have a "standard" Venom, a MAC, and a Valiant. The Venom is pictured while racing in a Velocette Owners Club Race meeting at Cadwell Park. I bought the 1957 Venom when I passed my motor-cycle licence test in 1962. It had been crashed, but it was all I could afford. I have used it ever since, on road and track, and it is still ready to go anywhere, anytime. My MAC and 1959 Valiant Twin 192cc where pictured in the Millennium Calendar.
  •  Venom

    Venom

  •  Nancy

    Nancy

  •  1953 MAC

    1953 MAC

  •  1959 Valiant Twin 192cc

    1959 Valiant Twin 192cc

As Old As The Velocette Owners Club - Venom 353BTB
I bought my first Velocette in 1962, when I was 17 and it was five. At my age no time was wasted in keeping records. Apart from the sales receipt and a green log-book, I have no other written records of 1957 Venom 353BTB, engine number VM1309. I never even thought to take a photo of its unusual paintwork, which to me was "beige", but I later discovered was actually "dove-grey" according to Velocette. But I do have many memories from my time with 353BTB, and here are some of them.

First let me summarise my previous motor-cycling experience. At 14, I had brought my first bike home in pieces in a wheelbarrow. It had cost me £4. Surprisingly, this 250 Red Panther (pictured below) ran when I eventually worked out how to assemble it; and more surprisingly still I wasn't caught as I rode it round our suburb of Leeds without licence, insurance or hat. The carb did catch fire regularly, so I guess I wasn't that good a constructor; but I was hooked and a C11G replaced it courtesy of my "school savings scheme" bankbook as I headed for my 16th birthday. By the time my parents discovered what I had done, it was too late to make the vendor take it back and as soon as I was 16 I was off to the Dales or Oliver's Mount. I lived with my Gran, and happily set off for my parents home 200 miles away for Christmas. It was freezing, and I had no proper clothing - just a black plastic jacket and brown oilskin trousers. When I arrived, I had what would now be called "hypothermia", and my dad had to lift me into a warm bath and bring me back to life. A couple of years later he had to put me in a cold bath after I rode to Bournemouth and back on a scorching summer's day without a shirt - I wanted to get a deep tan in a day, but just got whatever is the opposite of hypothermia, and deep burning. I'm told I was lucky to survive both foolishnesses without major damage.
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Still at school, I worked out what bike I would get as soon as I passed my test. I was a bit of an academic, and didn't know any real motorcyclists, so for me the obvious way was to read every manufacturer's workshop manual. I got each manual out of the library in turn, and then I compared the design features. These to me were second only to the top-speed and handling. The blue 'un and the green 'un told me which bikes could do a ton and handle well, which reduced the field substantially in 1962, but only the manual could tell me about the engineering design. So, it had to be a Vincent, or, if only because of those high, helical timing gears, a Velocette Venom. There was no chance of finding an affordable Vincent, but as soon as I passed my test I traded the C11G and all my money for the only Velocette Venom in the county on offer for £70. It was beige, but I could change that as soon as I could afford some spray cans. It had been "tuned" - the previous owner had hacksawed off the tail of the Fishtail, implying that the ton would be even more rapidly achieved. At five years old, it was certainly well worn and appeared to have been gently crashed. But it ran, and on the way home it thrust forward and squealed to a stop between each set of traffic lights in a way that was another world from a C11G. I was delighted.

The crash damage was a little more serious than I thought….. I used it for my daily journey to school for a few days, but the oil-pool underneath was unacceptable, even by '60s standards. Then the headmaster "withdrew my privilege" of riding to school, just because I was one of those caught picking up the rich-boy's bubble-car and turning it so that its only door, which was, of course, across its front, was firmly against a brick-wall. Which therefore gave the rich-boy something of a Catch-22 situation to resolve.

So I took the opportunity to find the oil-leak, which turned out to be from the oil-pump base plate, which was visibly cracked. That is, cracked completely across from side-to-side such that the return gears could be tickled with a thin feeler gauge. (The adjacent gearbox housing had a matching crack, presumably from the same impact.) Clearly even araldite would not stop the leak this time, and I learnt that the Velocette standard of engineering meant that there was rather more to removing an oil pump than undoing a few screws à la BSA. I left the engine in the frame, but otherwise stripped it ready for surgery and wheeled the bike from my Gran's to the local Morris garage and asked for the loan of a heating device. Only an oxy-acetylene torch was available, so that is what we used. With a warm oil-pump in my glove I walked back to Gran's, took it to bits, replaced the cracked base plate with a new one (off the shelf from the Leeds Velocette agent….) and carefully reassembled the pump. I knew I had to do this carefully, since the book said even Velocette used a jig for the job. Not me though - just young fingers and eyesight. I think I got back to the garage before the crankcase was cold, so with a few more blasts from the welding torch on the thin alloy the pump was back in.

(Twenty years later, when Ralph Seymour started to tune this engine for my short-circuit racing, Ralph discovered it had a cracked timing-side crankcase half. The crack ran through the main bearing housing and the lower half of the timing chest. Ralph had never seen such a timing side crack before, just plenty of drive-siders, and we thought it must be coincidence that we had stripped the engine just after the crack had happened, for surely no engine could have run for so long under power with such a crack….. It was only later I put the three cracks together, and became certain that they were all part of the pre-'62 crash damage. And as for whether an engine can run for long with such damage…..)

I now had a working, reliable Velocette Venom. But it was brown, and brown is not a "ton-up" colour. Nor is sky-blue, but that's what I chose, and I used Halfords spray cans to respray every pressed steel part in pale-blue, and "brushing Belco" black for every other part. Plus black and white chequered tape round the Woodhead unit legs. It must have taken every penny I had, probably including my dinner-money, and all my spare time for a month - but at that stage, pre-beer and pre-girls, what else was time for? I do have a photo of the result with my grandad on board, and it looks quite good, except that I obviously hadn't sprayed the seat, so it was still the original Velocette beige.

(Below the Venom that is in the same dove-grey / brown and what I did to 353BTB)
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1956 Venom Number 1 499cc

Photography by Richard Adams
Photographed at Blists Hill Open Air Museum, Ironbridge, England Copyright Richard Adams, 1999

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353BTB

No doubt I was saving up for a black seat-cover, but the photo shows my higher priority had clearly been first to fit a "Butler" Dolphin fairing in deepest marine blue…..

I can remember agonising over the choice between an "Avon" and a "Butler". I wanted an Avon, but the Butler was cheaper and I couldn't wait to save up more, for this was the go-faster item that would take me through the ton at last. Previously 95 mph was the best recorded, on the newly opened Wetherby by-pass which was our first local dual carriage-way. I was fooling myself because, at about 6 ft but only 10 stone I was far less of a barn-door than the fairing. But I was to be even more sorely disappointed. Firstly, the noise. The Butler reflected all the noise from what by now was a very worn engine and focussed it on my head. Bearable only if it took me through the ton. Unfortunately top speed was now only 80 mph.

Above three-quarters throttle, the engine lost power. After endless and pointless changes to jetting, I dismantled and checked everything that I had touched in the re-build, then everything I hadn't, testing each time on the by-pass. Nothing made any difference. Finally, I realised that I had also replaced the silencer that had had its end sawn off. Not by a Fishtail, which was too expensive and too old-fashioned. But by the cheapest available item that would fit - a remaindered pattern copy of the '53 MAC barrel silencer from the dealer in such items based in Hunslet whose name escapes me now, but will be well known to any Leeds motorcyclist of the 60's. I switched back to the previous, mutilated Fishtail and instantly restored was…. 95mph.

The mileage built up, the engine and transmission and wheel bearings all got looser, but the ton was seen only when a following wind or hill permitted. I think I tried for the ton on every journey, no matter how brief. So the speeding fines also accumulated. I remember that the first was from one of the white Sunbeam Tiger sports cars newly introduced by the Leeds traffic cops for just such a purpose.

The noise from the Butler meant it was discarded as soon as its cost faded from my mind. I had already fitted drop handle-bars (behind a full-screen - why? - for steering lock I guess), so fully tucking-in plus a hill produced an indicated 100 mph - just. This was before the blanket 70 mph limit, of course, which arrived in the mid-60's. (I remember being so infuriated by this imposition that on the accursed day it arrived I deliberately rode from my Gran's home in East Leeds to Gateshead in just under an hour; an average of rather better than 70.)

Now it was time for me to leave school, and if the Venom had thought that life so far had been tough, it had seen nothing yet.

For the summer of 1963, aged 17, I worked in the City of London, but slept west of Reading. The train weekly season ticket would have cost almost exactly the same as my wages, not including the luncheon vouchers. So I would have worked all week for a free lunch a day. Instead, I commuted, using the A4 while watching the building of the short stub of M4 from Chiswick to Maidenhead. Naturally, this became a "lap", whose time was to be reduced daily. Which lead to my first major breakdown. You've guessed it, the fibre timing wheel lost all its teeth. I replaced it with a "go-faster" manual conversion set from Geoff Dodkin in Queens Road. To drill the extra screw holes in the mag body for the new contact breaker housing, I used a Black & Decker and plug tap in situ… And fitted a steel gear-wheel. It didn't go any faster, but neither did it strip as I commuted through that summer, and the next two, and in-between from Reading to my university in Newcastle for three years.

The M4's first section arrived, and the Darlington by-pass. Every spare penny went into the bike. I now wanted rear-sets, a TT carb, and Clubman's piston. The rear-sets came first. Then in 1964 Eddie Dow had a special offer of TT carb's as fitted to Gold Stars, so one of those went on. The engine was very loose by now, particularly the piston, and shortly afterwards when I was almost exactly half way between Reading and Newcastle I was cruising with my head down and the engine singing on nearly full revs when there was a classic bang. But I wasn't covered in oil and couldn't see into the engine so at first I couldn't work out what had happened. After I drifted to a halt the engine was still running, though with even more rattle and smoke than before. I set off steadily and gradually increased speed until I was cruising back above 80.

When I got to my digs in Whitley Bay I stripped the top-end in the landlady's back yard and found the cause of the bang. The whole of the skirt of the piston had broken off, dropped down and disintegrated; with an appropriate noise. Every cloud etc, I now had to buy a piston so it might as well be a Clubman's. On the concrete floor of the yard I stripped the bottom end and removed every fragment of alloy. Or so I thought. I had even removed the crankcase filter plug and cleaned that.

With the new piston (although probably in the same, worn, gouged bore….) I expected it to be stiff, but it took a real heavy boot to get it to turn over for the first few rotations. It then started readily, but no oil came out of the timing cover union. I re-primed the feed pipe, still no oil movement. When I removed the timing cover I discovered that a tiny piece of alloy had been carried up into the oil pump at some stage - probably while I was cleaning the crankcase filter. This jammed the return gears, which converted the oil pump spindle drive pinion into a cutting tool that turned all the threads off the brass driving worm….. I cleaned out the brass debris, obtained a new worm, borrowed a torch, stripped and reassembled the oil pump in my fingers and put it all together again. And resumed commuting to college, home and work for two more years.

In the summer of 1964 I starting going to the Ace Café and realised that sky-blue wasn't cutting it, so I hand and spray-can painted it black. And fitted a black seat cover and even a black tank cover. A mean machine indeed.
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With the carb tuned and the new piston loosened up, by hiding myself behind the steering damper knob I could now hold an indicated 100+ at 6,300 on a 19 tooth sprocket. I did this for mile after mile, in all weathers. Once left a Bonneville behind after a dozen miles of the M4 because with his 'bars he couldn't "get down to it" for long enough.

I spent one summer "tuning". This consisted of shaping and polishing the ports, including cutting off some of the protruding valve guides so as to let more gas flow past, and removing compression plates. After such a major "tune" I went out to check the new top speed. (I used to do this on the narrow but reasonably straight B road between Pangbourne and Theale. Maximum velocity was usually achieved going though the crossroads after Tidmarsh.) It felt faster, but nothing would get the needle past 88 mph. Suddenly it did, the needle flicked from 88 to 102 mph, but it now had a 90 degree bend for its last quarter of an inch. One of the little black screws holding the dial down had unscrewed itself and the needle tip was initially up against it.

It was also while commuting from Reading to the City that I had my only other full breakdown in 45 years of Velocette'ing. After the fast A4 section from Maidenhead I had to trundle through Reading. The clutch cable seemed to be stretching, such that the clutch would barely disengage. If the traffic hadn't been heavy I'd have made it home, but when eventually I was forced to stop I couldn't get into neutral with the engine running so it stalled and that was that.

It was the sleeve gear ball-race retaining ring unscrewing itself. Thus the clutch assembly both tilts and moves away from the gearbox, and away from the release mechanism. That's why you really mustn't be too squeamish when tightening then staking the alloy into the slots of the ring. A new sleeve gear bearing and oil shims etc were needed, but first I removed the gear clusters to check if they had suffered. They had indeed, but not so much from the incident, nor from the many miles we'd travelled, but from corrosion. Most of the gear wheels had the black stains, pits and gouges of corrosion damage. While this can be just a symptom of old age and a hard life, mine was from a simpler sort of corrosion. Rain and petrol had used the slotted clutch cable stop as a route into the gearbox.

I recalled draining the gearbox in my schooldays and thinking it was strange that half a pint of water came out first. (I had had the same amount of water come out of the oil tank when I changed its oil, and thought that was peculiar too, since that meant each time I started the engine it was initially lubricated by water. That, I think, was condensation from a two mile journey to school throughout winter.) Ever since, all my Velo's have had a rubber shroud around the clutch cable and tower. The problem was that I needed to get to Ayr two days later to compete in a rifle-shooting competition. So I took the Friday off work, borrowed dad's car, and went to Hall Green to buy the parts. On Friday evening my dad held a torch while I put the gear clusters back in following the instructions in the Red Book for the first time. There was no time for a road test, so I set off the next morning from Reading for Scotland. What does give me a shiver is that I just slung my rifle across my back. The danger wasn't that it was loaded - the bullets were in my pocket - but I think a tumble might have been painful. I got to Ayr late the same day and lodged in someone's tent

In the winter of 1966 I started work in the West End of London and rode the Northern Line for a while. 353BTB sat in the road outside my rented flat in Camberwell for month after month, under a tarpaulin. Just occasionally I would go for a spin, but work and a new wife left little time. In the early spring of 1969 I was invited to a close friend's wedding in Newcastle; 11am on a Saturday. I was working late on the Friday, so I wrapped my suit in plastic and stuck it on the pillion then set off at dawn around 5:45 on a fine but frosty morning. The first traffic lights in Camberwell were red, but with no traffic around I reckoned I wasn't going to get to the church on time if I stopped for such things. The engine was singing (also clattering) and I just tucked myself in (if only to try to keep warm) and held it at full-throttle for most of the near 300 miles. I used the A1, and on the A1(M) past Darlington the needle just hovered gently between 104 and 106 for mile after mile. The engine felt so happy that there seemed no reason not to do so, and I know exactly why a Venom or Viper can be expected to average over 100mph for 24 hours. I think I arrived at 9:50am, changed into my suit in a public toilet and walked to the church as if I had just come from the hotel with the other guests, but earlier.

Soon it became obvious that the valves and (mutilated) guides needed replacing. I took the head in to Geoff Dodkin and he said that the head was just about recoverable. I think he might also have made a comment about what some idiot had been doing to it. While he was working on the head I looked more closely at the barrel. A bit rough, so I took it off and found a very tired piston inside. I took the barrel to Geoff and asked for a rebore. Then I had a closer look around the bottom end. Every moving surface was very loose, to put it politely. So I took the rest of the engine to Geoff and asked him to make me a new one. He said if I'd brought it all to him in the first place he'd never have started, but since he'd now done the head he'd better continue. I left before he asked who had done the countersinks in the head for the new-fangled o-rings (me, with a hand drill and a wood countersink) or fitted the oversize stud in the corner of the crankcase mouth (me, in situ, with a hand drill followed by hand taps, which is why it was ever so slightly tilted).

Once back on the road I resumed my abuse. With a good job I could now afford to replace cosmetic items such as the rusty exhaust pipe. I no longer thought the seat cover and tank bag looked cool, but I still couldn't afford proper Velocette replacements. First, I bought a fibre-glass dual seat with valanced front sides and a hump at the back, like the new Thruxton, but longer so it fitted with the original shorter 3½ gallon tank. I don't think Velocette ever made one to fit that tank. Very nice, and room in the hump for a spare tube, etc. Then, although I couldn't afford a new steel tank, I could afford a "Brealey-Smith" fibre-glass racing tank. Unfortunately it was intended to replace the longer 4¼ gallon tank, so I had to cut and re-shape the front of the new seat…….. I do wish I'd taken a proper photograph of the bike in this era; but the tank and seat are still in the roof-space along with the other redundant parts, at least until I get the hang of e-bay. See below for the only photo I can find of this configuration.
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In 1971 we went to the TT for the first time. That is, 353BTB, me, and my late wife Anastasia. We did need at least one suitcase, so there was nothing for it but Anastasia would have to go by train to Liverpool. I took her to Euston with the suitcase balanced on her knees between us, and most of me on the tank. I waved her goodbye and she boarded the train with the other enthusiasts. She found she was sitting next to a leading MCN journalist, who told her more than she ever wanted to know about the TT, MCN, and how lovely she was. I set off up the A5 etc and they were all duly impressed that I was waiting for her by the barrier in Liverpool. We had a lovely holiday, and after that she wanted her own bike. We went back to the TT every year until the year we couldn't because our first son was born on Senior Race day in June 1976, to many sarcastic comments about my planning ability.

On one return steamer trip we shared a lunch table with Geoff Dodkin who mentioned he had a good Commando Fastback in the shop. I bought it, and a year later ordered a new Interstate from Gus Kuhn. The Venom was then cast aside for a succession of "super-bikes"; the Interstate was followed by a new R90S, then a GPZ900R. The R90S spent not just more miles but more time at over 100mph than under. Almost the perfect motor-bike, apart from the gear-change in 1st and 2nd. After a lady driving through a red-light instantly removed not one but both pots from the R90S I fully restored 353BTB and started racing with the Classic and Historic and, of course, Velocette Clubs.

Below at its first Velocette Owners Club Race Meeting.
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I got my National licence on it, and lost count of the number of times I was asked if it was wise to risk such a valuable machine. "That's what it was made for" became my standard answer, but it was weird racing against youngsters on Yamahas in normal meetings and occasionally passing them on a machine that was older than they were. So with help from some skilled friends and a wonderful engine prepared by Nick Payton I set up a pure racing Venom. After a couple of seasons I entered the MGP but didn't qualify for race day so I moved on to a Manx Norton, but that's another story. I added lights etc to the racing Venom and put it back on the road as the Veolcette Vulgar (Pictured below)
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353BTB is still my main road bike, even after its 50 years, and our 45 years together. If I have to go a long way fast then I take the Kawasaki; if it's short, sunny journeys then a concours MAC or Valiant. If it's winter then my unrestored MSS. And if I miss racing I zoom around Warwickshire on the Vulgar. However, the Venom now has discrete indicators and a well set-up t.l.s. front brake to make it just as good as a modern bike for modern traffic. It also has electronic coil ignition and a concentric carb rather than a magneto and TT carb, for reliable starting and tick-over. Last year I gave a lift to a stranded young super-bike rider, who was a little over-whelmed by the punch, responsiveness and "feel", even two-up.

There is just one remaining problem……

In the '80s a real problem of oil loss through the drive side main bearing started. I was racing the bike and Ralph Seymour and I were tuning it (all the skill was Ralph's). After the first major rebuild, including testing the engine on Ralph's test-bed, I ran it in on the road. In 250 miles it emptied the oil-tank into the primary chaincase and thence into the gearbox until the gearbox over-flowed. Ralph and I then tried everything to stop it. Every breathing mod - drains from timing chest to crankcase, even a breather in the primary chaincase (as if it doesn't have enough holes already). Ralph made and fitted robust scrapers under the flywheels to scrape the oil off them and throw it up the return feed.

I have tried blocking-off every breather, including the hole in the drive-side mainshaft, in every combination, with no difference - not even to increase the flow. Nowadays it's got a discrete catch-tank under the gearbox and anything over the required 1/8th pint in the chaincase drains into it, at 1 pint every 150 miles in road use. Ralph had never experienced anything like it, and I feel it may be related to the batch of crankcases mentioned briefly in Bob Burgess' book 'Always in the Picture' as exhibiting this characteristic for no known reason. Ralph and I rebuilt this engine several times, and now so has Nick Payton. Over these rebuilds we've changed almost everything, including oil-pump, drive-side shaft and, last time, - both crankcases. Nothing has increased or decreased the flow. On the occasion of this, its 50th birthday, the engine of 353BTB is in the hands of Bob Higgs, who "has a theory". If Ralph, Nick and Bob can't fix it then nobody can. I will give in, and fit an oil-seal around the drive-side mainshaft. I've always resisted this (though many Velo racers do it) because it's "wrong" - there must be something bad happening inside the crankcases and that should be fixed instead. Watch this space for the result of this rebuild, coming shortly……...