I have been a Vincent man since my first thrilling ride on a pal’s Shadow in 1950 along remote country roads not far from Norfolk, Virginia, then my home town. The experience inspired me to get one for myself, a goal I achieved in 1951 when, while helping a local Indian dealer prepare for a big hot-rod show, I stumbled across a beautiful red touring Rapide still in its crate. My attachment grew still greater after I was able to visit Stevenage, England, and tour the Vincent works in 1953. A G.I. on leave, I traveled from my base in Germany, and as luck would have it, my visit coincided with that year’s annual Vincent Owners Club Rally.
That trip—and a subsequent visit—remain high points of my life. I toured the factory, met many luminaries, including Mr. Vincent, and saw many fabulous machines, among them the works racing mount “Gunga Din.” That vision would later lead me to develop my own Rapide, which I campaigned successfully at the dragstrip for many years.
And now, 100 years after Phillip Vincent’s birth, his gifts shine even brighter. But to fully appreciate that legacy, one needs to acknowledge the remarkable design team he put in place. Among those men and women, Phil Irving stands most prominent. Together, the “two Phils” made a supreme team. They complimented each other perfectly. Vincent brought uniqueness and daring. Witness, for example, his innovative swinging rear frame section—now termed the monoshock. It is found almost universally today among performance-oriented motorcycles.
Irving, on the other hand, drew from an almost unequalled knowledge of past design practice. As R.C. Cross notes in his introduction to Irving’s classic Motorcycle Engineering, here was a man who combined “first-class technical engineering with sound common sense.” Cross goes on: “Not only is Phil Irving capable of saying what he means firmly and believing with all his heart in what he says, but he can also write with equal lucidity and conviction.” No wonder then that Irving’s books remain essential texts for any aspiring engineer.
Perhaps the best way to understand why the Vincent motorcycle possesses its uncanny character is to consider how its creators came to view what they had done. As Roy Harper records, late in life, Vincent confessed that he regarded his motorcycles “with affection, but thinks they are old fashioned” because even then he was caught up in a new dream, the so-called series E. When Irving—with whom I had a long standing friendship—broke off writing his autobiography because he found himself too close to death to continue, he dashed off one final note to his publisher: “It is not easy to decide which of my designs has been the most satisfying, but on reflection I would have to say the Black Shadow. It was the most satisfying because of the breath of its achievements.”
For me, the contrast captured in these two comments couldn’t be more clear. In one we see Vincent, ever the idealist, while in the other we see Irving, ever the realist; but what a gifted realist he was.
Together, this team, along with the many dedicated men and women who punched-in at the works, gave the world a motorcycle that remains a benchmark for the sport. The Vincent will endure because it combines performance with beauty in a way that will never be achieved again. This is so because, like that other English classic, Shakespeare, the Vincent is now for all time while also reflecting firmly its own time.
About the author:As a young man, “Big Sid” Biberman raced a methanol-fueled Vincent dragster, collecting more than 40 trophies. He has worked on motorcycles—usually British and often Vincents—for over 50 years, and his customers’ machines have won many awards in competition and in shows. Big Sid also enjoys writing and has published widely. With Matthew Biberman, his son, he wrote Vincents with Big Sid. A new book titled Big Sid’s Vincati, by Matthew, is forthcoming from Hudson Street Press in June 2009. It details their joint effort to build theVincati, a special comprised of a 1000cc Vincent motor mated to a Ducati GT750 chassis.