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Lot 381: 1948 Velocette 348cc KTT MkVIII Racing Motorcycle

Collectors' Motorcycles, Bonhams (16 October 2005)

With its deep petrol tank, massively finned overhead-cam engine and purposeful appearance, the MkVIII KTT is unquestionably one of the most beautiful racing motorcycles ever made. The talking point of Velocette’s new racer on its introduction in 1939 was swinging-arm rear suspension, an innovation first seen on the works bikes in 1936. By now tried and tested, the Velocette rear suspension comprised a pivoting fork made from tapered tubing and complemented by a pair of Dowty Oleomatic air-sprung struts. The rest of the cycle parts remained much as those of the rigid-framed MkVII. The engine, while basically the same as its predecessor’s, incorporated a number of improvements intended to enhance power and reliability, and despite the springer’s increase in weight over the rigid model, its superior performance and excellent handling made the MkVIII KTT a formidable competitor. Despite its pre-war origins, the MkVIII KTT proved good enough to provide Freddie Frith and Velocette with the 350cc World Championship in 1949, a year in which he won every Championship round, though in most cases courtesy of a special works twin-cam engine. Just 49 MkVIIIs were constructed prior to WW2 and a further 189 up to the end of production in 1950. Today the MkVIII KTT is one of the most sought after of all British racing motorcycles.

Previously believed lost, the 1948 example offered here is Les Graham’s Swiss Grand Prix-winning machine, which has resurfaced after decades away from public gaze. Factory records show that this machine - engine number ‘973’, frame number ‘SF 121’ - was sold new on 21st May 1948 to Fearnly’s, a dealership in Manchester. Despite passing through a number of hands, it has remained in the North West of England for its entire life.

Born in Wallasey, Cheshire in 1911, Les Graham began his racing career in the late 1920s, but it was not until the late 1930s that a succession of good results on a home-prepared OK-Supreme got him noticed, leading to a job with the company. During WW2 Les Graham flew Lancaster bombers and was awarded the DFC. De-mobbed in 1946, he was approached by fellow racer and ex-RAF man, Wing Commander J M ‘Jock’ West who offered him a job at Associated Motor Cycles that included riding the new AJS ‘Porcupine’ and ‘7R’. After a difficult 1948 season bedevilled by unreliability and handling problems, Les won the first ever 500cc World Championship in 1949 aboard the improved Porcupine. He continued with AJS for 1950, finishing third in both the 350cc and 500cc World Championships, and at the season’s end was offered a contract by MV Agusta. The Italian team was not contesting the 350cc class at that time, so for ’51 Les used what was still, despite its age, one of the most competitive Junior-class mounts, the Velocette KTT. Riding the Velo, Les achieved good results at Mettet and Floreffe and finished 2nd at the Spanish Grand Prix, before triumphing over treacherously wet conditions to win the Swiss Grand Prix at Berne’s Bremgarten Forest circuit.

A further two Grand Prix wins in 1952 saw Les finish 2nd in the 500cc World Championship that year while he continued to race the KTT in the Junior class. In 1953, Les finally broke his Isle of Man TT ‘duck’, winning the Lightweight 125cc race for MV. Sadly, he was killed during the Senior event later in the week.

After Les Graham’s death, his MkVIII KTT passed into the hands of famous, Manchester-based tuner/entrant Reg Dearden, whose rider George Costain, interviewed in Classic Motorcycling Legends (Issue 2), recalled riding it in the Southern 100. When Reg Dearden died, the bulk of his race shop stock, including the ex-Les Graham KTT, was purchased by Lancashire-based Eric Biddle, famous collector of racing motorcycles, from whom the late John Logan Thompson purchased it on 9th March 1985. Its late owner’s personal logbook records work carried out after acquisition, including re-bushing and repainting the forks, and fitting new head races, front/rear mudguards and exhaust system. As far as is known, the machine has not been used while in John Logan Thompson’s ownership.

Velocette MkVIII KTTs with important race history rarely come to market, so this Grand Prix-winning example, ridden by one of the sport’s most respected Word Champions, represents an opportunity of enormous significance for collectors.

Lot Details
Auction Collectors' Motorcycles
Bonhams, Classic & Motorcycle Mechanics Show, Stafford
TypeMotorcycle
Lot Number381
Estimate£16000-£20000
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price£34000
Hammer Price (inc premium)£38900
Year1948
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