The Little Mule
Paul d'Orleans and his 1933 Velocette KTT Mark 4.
1933 Velocette KTT Mark 4
Claimed power: 35hp @ 5,800rpm
Top speed: 105mph
Engine: 348cc OHC, air-cooled single
Weight (dry): 125kg (275lb)
Fuel capacity: 2.5 Imperial gallons (11.37ltr, 3gal U.S)
"When you are riding a bike with a rigid frame, you have to be constantly vigilant about road conditions. You never ride straight, rather, in a drunken line avoiding potholes and cracks. I’ve crashed this bike twice. The first time, I was going through an off-camber turn with potholes and gravel. I was also going kind of fast." — Paul d’Orleans, explaining a dent in his 1933 Velocette KTT Mark 4.
A contractor by trade, Paul d’Orleans is by avocation a 1930s English clubman racer. Dressed in period garb, he rides his prewar British iron faster than many folks ride their modern motorcycles. He can often be found on twisty roads in the countryside outside his West Coast home, riding one of his three favorites: a 1926 flat tank Norton, a late Twenties Sunbeam and this 1933 Velocette KTT Mark 4, nicknamed "The Little Mule" because of its prowess off road.
The road less chosen
Paul started out on his chosen road quite young. His father was interested in old cars, and he remembers him saying, repeatedly, "They made them so much better in the old days." His two older brothers rode, and as a child Paul couldn’t wait to get his own bike. "I started riding the day I turned 15-1/2, the day it was legal for me to ride a motorcycle," Paul says. "I’ve been on a motorcycle ever since. My first bike was a Honda Express — it saw me through college."
Combining his father’s and brothers’ interests, Paul almost immediately became interested in classic motorcycles, first with café racers. After a short stint with a single-cylinder BMW, he located a Norton Atlas. "I loved the power and handling, but I blew up the engine twice in the space of a year," Paul says. Shortly afterward, he located his first Velocette.
"I found it sitting in the back of Munroe Motors, the British motorcycle dealership in San Francisco," Paul says. "Jim Munroe had bought a Velocette Venom from some guy from Louisiana, and it was a real swamp bike — crashed, not running and covered with mud. I got it going the same day and rode it back to Munroe’s. Jim was mad that he had let it go so cheap, and stayed mad for about five minutes."
One of the last Velocettes made was the sporty 500cc Thruxton. After Paul bought a green Thruxton, he noticed a change in his interests: "The deeper I got into old motorcycles, the more I became curious about even older motorcycles. I thought that prewar racing bikes would suit my riding style, and I was right."
The premier race for English fans of the Twenties and Thirties was the Isle of Man TT — a long distance run around an island in the Irish Sea between Scotland, Ireland and England — and most top-end production racers were built with an eye toward that race. "Anything successful in a 360-mile race has to be built to hold together," Paul explains. "I started seeking out and buying old racing bikes from the Twenties and Thirties. My theory was correct — old racing bikes do hold together, and can be ridden very hard and very quickly."
A second family thread came from Paul’s grandmother, who was an editor of Vogue magazine. "I became obsessed with old books on motorcycling, especially the photographs," he explains. "In the 1920s, you wore a tie when you raced a motorcycle. I loved that — it seemed so genteel. Competition was so civilized. You had a guy wearing a sweater and tie doing 120mph. As I got interested in older motorcycles, I also became interested in period clothing, and I researched the clothing the racing men of the time wore."
Enter the 1933 Velocette KTT Mark 4
People who are interested in old British motorcycles tend to know each other, and about eight years ago, a friend of Paul’s discovered that a Velocette collector’s estate was being sold off. "I bought everything he had except two bikes. I wanted this KTT Mark IV, and I had to buy almost the entire collection in order to get it," Paul says.
The Velocette KTT Mark 4 had been sitting for 15 years. "I wanted to run it, but first I had to do a little remedial work," Paul explains. Surprisingly, the Velocette needed no major work. "A month later, I ran a 1,000-mile Velocette rally on it," he says.
Paul pieced together the history of the bike, and found it had been ridden on public roads (with clip-on lights) by an early owner, before finding its way to five-time Isle of Man TT winner Eddie Arnold, who set it up for racing with a Mark 8 front end from the 1940s (complete with excellent Velocette brakes), a 19-inch rear tire (there were no 20-inch racing tires available) and an aggressive cam.
At this writing, Paul has put about 12,000 miles on the KTT, and with no major breakdowns. He claims that maintenance is only marginally more involved than on a newer bike: "The bike is fairly bulletproof. The only grease fittings are on the forks. I run Castrol straight 50-weight oil. The engine has an open cam box, and a fully pressurized oil system. Oil pours out of it — it basically changes itself. I’ve changed the oil twice in not quite eight years." From 1936 on, Velocette enclosed the cam box.
As the valve tappets are exposed, it’s extremely easy to check the clearances. The primary and final drive chains are all exposed, but so much oil leaks onto them that greasing them is seldom an issue, although they do have to be changed on a regular basis. "Chains wear out when they are exposed. I also have to change the slide on the TT carburetor — it wears out due to road grit. Luckily, it’s not that hard to get chains and slides," Paul says.
Paul also claims it’s easy to start the bike (assuming level ground and no audience): "Tickle the carburetor and pull the bike backwards until it comes up against compression, which pulls gas into the cylinder. Shove it three or four steps, drop the clutch and away she goes! Jump on and keep going."
And he says riding the 1933 Velocette KTT Mark 4 is no chore, either: "Velo clutches are known to be light, and this bike shifts beautifully. And you can think the bike through a corner. The merest impulse and you are there, where you want to be. No drum is as good as a disc, but the Velo’s magnesium racing brakes are excellent."
Paul continues, "Girders have more limited travel — about a two-inch movement — and they are stiffer than telescopics. There’s no dive, no change in frame geometry (when you brake). The KTT is so light you can change your line in corners. I raced a Yamaha R1 on the road to Lake Berryessa (Calif.). If the road had been smoother, I would have lost him. As it was, I had to watch the road surface. Another time, I raced a 500cc Morini. We accelerated on the straight. His bike topped out at 103 and I kept going. It’s basically airborne when you are going that fast, and I like flying. I’m an aviator at heart." MC