Velocette’s LE – for Little Engine – doesn’t perhaps spring immediately to mind as a long-distance mount, but that didn’t deter this 1956 tourist.
Image: MORTONS ARCHIVE
Writing in the September 6, 1956 issue of The Motor Cycle, Harold Briercliffe detailed how he’d covered 1400 miles in nine days, on a 192cc side-valve flat twin Velocette, riding from his home in North Hertfordshire to the “wild, lonely, fantastic grandeur of the far-off Highlands of Wester Ross.” An asterisk by Briercliffe’s name explained: “Mr Briercliffe is the editor of our associated journal, The Motor Cycle, and Cycle Trader.”
Rather than motorcycling, Rochdale-born Briercliffe (1910-1994) is best remembered for a series of cycling touring books he wrote (for Temple Press, publisher of The Motor Cycle) covering cycleways in the British isles – he wrote six in total, with numbers one (Northern England) and two (Wales) in 1947, three (Scottish Highlands) and four (South West England) in 1948, 1949’s number five on the Midlands and, in 1950, the sixth, on southern England. In 2010, Clare Balding presented a television series called Britain by Bike retracing some of Briercliffe’s routes – and using his old Dawes Super Galaxy – and such was the popularity, that one, five and six were republished.
So for Briercliffe, a man clearly used to generating the power bodily himself to get up hills, the sub-200cc Velo would’ve seemed like cheating; to time-served motorcyclists it may seem a small machine, but, compared to pedalling, it would’ve been a life of luxury! Introduced in late 1948 in 149cc form, the little machine was advanced in some ways – it’s construction, shaft drive, water-cooled – but then outdated in others, specifically the side-valve configuration and three-speed gearbox, and just plain quirky in others – see the pull-start and hand-change.
Its engine enlarged to 192cc in 1951 (giving the Mark II), then came 1958’s Mark III with four-speed footchange gearbox and kick-start. Popular with the police, the LE remained in production until 1971; in fact, the last Velocette ever made was an LE.
Briercliffe detailed his plans at the start of his article: setting the scene, he explained how ‘for 25 years I have known the little settlement of Ratagan, in the Macrae country of Kintail, Wester Ross, nearly 600 miles from London… Since the end of the war I have visited Ratagan five times… finding myself in Glasgow in late June with a little time to spare, I decided to spend three days touring from Ratagan. On the first I intended to journey to Elgol, in Skye, most accessible of all ‘platforms’ from which the Coolins can be viewed; on the second to jaunt over to Applecross from Tornapress by the Pass of the Cattle, one of the highest road-passes in Britain: and on the third to ride over to Glen Elchaig, where I hoped to cache the LE and seek afoot the Falls of Glomach, highest waterfall (370 feet) in Britain.”
Briercliffe was to stay at ‘the modern, Swedish board-house of a young forester, Jimmy Allison, and his wife.’ It’s Mrs Allison to the left and that building in the background of the photograph reproduced here. There’s no further details apart from that the other pair are ‘two young Bantam owners from London’ while that’s Briercliffe’s trusty LE in the centre.
The Allisons were native Glaswegians who had lived in Canada for three years prior to Ratagan and their house ‘was decorated and finished in Canadian fashion.’ Jimmy was a motorcyclist too, owning a 250cc BSA, it being ‘essential in a way undreamt of by town dwellers,’ with no bus or rail services and the nearest large shopping centre over 50 miles away.’
From his Ratagan base, Briercliffe was able to successfully complete all his stated aims, the day three endeavour to find the Falls of Glomach sounding particularly arduous – the LE was engaged in four miles of green laning, before he set off on foot and ended up ‘wading calf-deep, stepping on submerged boulders.’ Then it started to pour with rain too – but he survived it all and (after four hours of exploring), “It was a relief to start the LE with one pull on the handle.” He ‘glided’ back to supper and bed, exhausted. Two days later, he journeyed home, a good trip completed. And easier than pedalling.