The ex-Les Graham, Swiss Grand Prix-winning
1948 Velocette 348cc KTT MkVIII Racing Motorcycle
Frame no. SF 121
Engine no. KTT 973
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 Velocettes 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 predecessors, incorporated a number of improvements intended to enhance power and reliability, and despite the springers 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 Grahams 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 Fearnlys, 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 seasons 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 Bernes 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 Grahams 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 owners 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 Thompsons ownership.
Velocette MkVIII KTTs with important race history rarely come to market, so this Grand Prix-winning example, ridden by one of the sports most respected Word Champions, represents an opportunity of enormous significance for collectors.
- Since going to press, Bonhams has received further information about the ex-Les Graham Velocette from Nigel W Dearden, son of the late Reg Dearden.
This machine was owned by Reg Dearden during the whole time that it was ridden by Les Graham and indeed was built by Reg specifically for Les to use in the 1951 season as Less contract with MV was only for a 500cc ride. The bike proved to be extremely quick following modifications designed and made by Reg, to such an extent that Bertie Goodman (of Velocette ) asked if he could take the engine for bench testing. This they did but not before Reg had replaced the special cylinder head with a standard one! Bertie could not understand why it was so quick, as it only produced a couple more brake horsepower than their factory models. Needless to say the secret was in the valve train!
The bike remained in Regs hands until he sold it to Eric Biddle circa 1968 (four years before Regs death) on the understanding that Eric was to restore it and if it was ever offered for sale Reg would repurchase it. Sadly this did not happen as Reg died in January 1972. As far as Nigel Dearden is aware, the only other person to ride it after Les Grahams death was another of Regs many riders, George Costain.
As pictured in the catalogue, the bike is somewhat different from how it was when purchased by Eric Biddle. Notably, the front mudguard had two light alloy valances riveted onto each side to stop spray, and the seat was a one-piece affair, made by Les himself, with a rough hide top to stop him sliding about on it in the rain. Les went on to win many more 350cc races in the 1951 season and the prize money the little Velo netted Les himself was in excess of £5,000.
Bonhams is grateful for Nigel Deardens kind assistance, and in particular for pointing out that although ridden by Les Graham, the Velocette was in fact owned and prepared by Reg Dearden.