Friday, 8 April 2011

A flattrack Velocette engine by Ernie Pico

I thought the newest post should be about an unusual Velocette engine. The engine started off as a 500cc Velocette MSS scrambler engine which was sent to America. The engine is a special which has been modified by Ernie Pico.
Ernie Pico was a big feature in the Los Angeles motorcycle scene for 50 years. After returning from Europe after WW2 he started a motorcycle shop called Big City Sales. Ernie was very successful for many years and during those years his passion was racing bikes. Mainly Flattrack and Speedway but also Daytona, on the real beach, and the Catalina GP( an island off off LA ). He built the bikes and had all kinds of Throttle Jockeys riding his bikes. Ascot Park, a dirt 1/2 mile oblong was the pinnacle of Motorbike racing in the 60's and Ernie was a contender with his machines and riders. He favoured Norton twins first and then got into Velos. Velos always had a good following in Southern California and he got bitten by the Velo Bug, big time. After many years of experimenting he had the fastest Velo ever. Every one of them had 100s of hours in them, and were an evolution of the prior one.
Ernie's Velos where very completive with the Triumphs , BSAs and Nortons and he got a huge kick out of bothering and sometimes beating the factory Harley Davidsons in the late 60s. Ernie lived not too far from Ascot and would ride his main bike from Home to the track on race night (Friday) to make sure it was running perfect. He had some great Flattrack riders such as, Tex Luce, Don Hawley, Shorty Seabourne, Terry Donaher, Art Barda and Lynn Halloway. The Tracks where they ran were, Ascot dirt 1/2 mile, San Jose one mile dirt track, Sacramento one mile dirt track, Tulary 1/2 mile dirt (perfect circle), Portland Meadows one mile dirt.
Ascot Park in Gardena, a southern suburb of Los Angeles, was the epicentre of dirt track racing in America during this period. It was a one half mile oval of sticky clay that held races every Friday night during a three month period in the summer. There was a national championship that was held at tracks around the country but all the good riders and factory teams ran at Ascot for the prestige and big money. Ernie's Velos where definitely underdogs but held their own and on occasion beat the factory H.D.s ,Triumphs and BSAs.  Velos had very loyal followers here on the west coast but remained a weird contraption to the masses. Ernie had raced other bikes with success but he loved Velos and was bound and determined to compete and win with his underdog.

Terry Donaher on the Ernie Pico Velocette at Ascot Park

The photo above is of a 19 year old  Terry Donaher who at the races where this photo was taken, put the bike in the main and beat the Harley Davidson factory KRs. Ernie delighted in telling the story how the HD manager, O'Brian tried to get the Velo disqualified but to no avail.
The rules at one stage insisted on stock frames and engine combo but in 70 they changed and allowed custom frames (Trackmaster, Sonic ,Champion etc). Ernie swore by the low centre of gravity Velo hard tail frame and always preached about its advantages. At this time the rules changed engine sizes also to 750 OHV which made all the 500 Goldies and the Velo obsolete. Ernie put a Norton Atlas in a Velo frame and with rider Shorty Seabourne had a very competitive machine.
Ernie’s wife Wanda, had a big successful business making racing leathers. The AMA let it be known that they were going to ban Black leathers because of the negative stigma. Wanda immediately started in the coloured leathers business and dominated in that field. 
Well let’s go on to the technical details of this Ernie Pico Velocette engine. Starting with the flywheels, they have been reduced in diameter to allow the fitment of a very short BSA Goldstar connecting rod. The piston used is a special forged item. The crankcases have been built-up around the mouth, in order to allow the barrel skirt to fit into them lower. The barrel, pushrods and engine studs have also been shortened. All the blots and nuts within the engine are aircraft specification - friction grips and very interestingly the bolts that hold the rocker to the head (Velo's weak point) have been increased in diameter to 3/8ths high tensile.
Both main bearings are double row –parallel rollers not the STD tapers rollers. Double speed oil pump worm and beautifully lightened timing gears throughout and purpose machined thrust washers. Both top and bottom rockers have been extensively lightened, polished and then nickel plated to stop cracking.  
Going to the cylinder head, there are double coil springs/alloy retainers, with a 1.75" diameter exhaust port & steeply angled down-draft 1.5" diameter inlet port with a 2" inlet valve - don't forget this is a modified MSS scrambler head not later Thruxton type. The inlet valve used comes from a Lycoming aircraft engine. The engine has a much higher compression ratio and would have run on methanol.

Update. Please follow this link for a set of wonderful photos from the archive of Ernie Pico:
Ernie Pico photos

1 comment:

  1. It has been suggested that Pico's development work was the foundation of the Velocette Thruxton cylinder head. His name is well known in the US Velo club, though not perhaps enough in other countries.
    The notion of a Norton Atlas engine in a Velo frame boggles the mind!
    Also, a technical point; nickel plating of the rockers won't prevent cracking, but it will Reveal cracking.
    Keep up the good work!