You’re sitting at a really good bike bar, with every kind of two-wheeler outside—cruisers, classics, choppers, racers. Some lucky bugger turns up on a Vincent Black Lightning, the chatter stops, everybody clambers out for a look. What a thing! A great big sexy lump of engine, with appendages bolted on to make it go. Awesome.
Then some smartass takes a really hard look, and while he clearly digs the machine, he mumbles about the ugly seat, the fork stiction, the lousy stands, the crappy brakes. He thinks he can make all that stuff better; you think he’s crazy and will definitely get his ass kicked in this crowd. Who the hell does he think he is?
“He” is Ian Barry, and he answers modestly, “Very naïve…”
The third motorcycle to emerge from his Falcon Motorcycles warehouse in L.A., the Black, grapples with the Vincent legend not as an exercise in stylistic extravagance or retro cool but as unfinished business. As promised, he has “deconstructed [Vincent designer] Phil Irving’s life’s work, honored it somehow, and made it my own. I tread very lightly at the beginning but started looking at all these parts thinking, they didn’t have this material or that bearing back then.”
And thus, he set about making a 1952 Vincent Black Shadow, a top-10 best-ever bike, into a better motorcycle.
You may look at these photographs and think, “cool bike” or “gorgeous” bike” or any number of other things, but even at a thousand words per picture, so to speak, they don’t begin to describe the nearly unfathomable depth of what’s going on with the Black. What’s missing is the orgy of gearhead details, the thoroughness of thought, and the beast in sound and motion. Every part except the engine was fabricated by Falcon, barring a single frame lug necessary to retain its Vincent registration. In some hands, that’s a short story, but with a Falcon, it would take a novel to explain how everything is different, how each part of the machine down to the lever pivots and throttle action has been rethought, refined and reborn.
Take the front suspension. It looks like Vincent Girdraulics, until you note the forged 7075 aluminum alloy blades are totally redone with a Falcon design and gorgeously hand-shaped; all pivots run needle bearings to cure the drag inherent with the bushed spindles used on the originals, while bespoke modern gas shocks by Works Performance, built to Falcon spec, replace the springs and eliminate the Vincent “damper boxes” up top. Shrink your attention to the castellated axle nut: captive in a recess, locked by a cotter pin passing through the fork leg—simple, and unique. The fork spindle nuts are locked with a curious circlip variation—that Barry invented—and on discovering this, you note that every chassis nut is thus circlipped, cotter-pinned or safety-wired.
The handlebar setup is a typically Falcon extravagance: Drag-bend half-bars have tapered ends to fit in their risers. The risers also fit the tapered ends of the fork crown, with four possible positions located (like the handlebars) by grooves carved on the “male” stub. A tapered pin slides through the center of the risers, fits into both sets of grooves and, when tightened, cinches all three tapers (on bars, fork crown and pin) until the assembly is rock-solid. The detachable pin-turning levers cap the pin tops and are held by a circlip, looking like dragonfly wings. How many hours were spent dreaming this up, then making it work, and then making it beautiful? You won’t find this setup on any other motorcycle on planet Earth. The kicker? In all likelihood, Falcon won’t ever use it again.
Grasp that thought and you might object that such an expenditure on prototyping, with no inclination toward reproduction, subverts capitalism itself. Or is so deep into the territory of Art, a different set of rules applies. This is a place where functional engineering, and motorcycling itself, rarely travels.
But wait, there’s more: The 8-inch front brake hub mimics Black Lightning ribbed drums but is actually made of a single chunk of aluminum, with four-leading-shoe backplates held fast against the fork legs. With wide brake shoes, these anchors have a prayer of hauling the Black down from its potential 140-mph top speed, something the originals couldn’t do more than once before glowing red.
Philip Vincent’s 1928-patent triangulated rear end has been modernized with a pair of Falcon-spec Works gas shocks. The swingarm’s top lug is a carved stainless lattice connecting the shocks, the saddle, the rear fender and the lower swingarm tube. Four jobs, one open shape, hard to describe, nearly impossible to machine, looking much like a model diatom skeleton, but shiny.
That, friends, is the mother of all lugs. Barry has a thing for lugs, having once said, “What if I made a whole motorcycle with the attention Edward Turner paid to a single lug of a Triumph?” But neither Turner, nor Irving, nor any designer intent on production, paid anything like Barry’s attention to such formerly humble components.
Continuing the theme of “no part left behind,” the Black’s saddle is unique, using a carved stainless-steel perimeter frame, its dozens of springs radiating from a central…widget, guiding the springs to form a concave arc, all of which is graced by a snap-on padded leather cover—or two, as the “touring” seat can be swapped for a “sprint” version in seconds, the seat moved to the rear of its three easily adjustable positions.
While you’re at it, lock the rear suspension with the pair of handwheels provided. This “dragster” configuration is completed by swapping the hand-formed pannier-style aluminum “touring” fuel tanks for a single-sided “sprint” tank: Pop the marine fuel line connection, push-click the spring-loaded fuel-tank retaining pins to release the big tanks, then press the smaller tank onto the same sprung, O-ring-damped pins, reconnect the fuel lines, all of which takes less time than reading this sentence. Adjust the handlebars as noted above, then the foot controls: The footrests are hinged and rotate on one-way ratchets. Both rear brake and shifter pedals are spring-held on their shafts; pull them out, rotate to suit, fine-tune the rods, and voilá, ready to race. No tools.
Barry has taken Irving at his word and made by-hand functionality an essential feature of the Black. Tanks, bars, footrests, saddle can all be changed up in seconds, just in case some wag decides he needs to drag race right now. It will likely never happen, but if it did, the Black is ready. And for everyday adjustments, say for chain or cable tension, brake adjustment, removing wheels, etc., it’s all easy-peasy, just like the Stevenage original, only better, and utterly gorgeous.
As Barry matures as a designer/engineer/artisan, his Falcons veer out of the custom world into some new category of motorcycling. “Ten years ago, I was the guy at custom shows looking underneath the bikes, learning how to solve various problems, then I’d look for parts at the swap meet and leave,” he says. An apt metaphor for his journey as a builder, through custom to some other place, which as yet has no name.
Call it Falconland. As airy-fairy as that sounds, Barry’s latest dreambike is not of this world or its rational financial decisions, expectations of a 20 percent return on investment and sensible business plans. The Black took an absurd amount of time to become real: a full year of seven gifted artisans’ lives. That 100-foot wave of time invested in the Black will crash somewhere, either in the financial ruin of Falcon or straight through the glass doors of a major museum.
Someone (who prefers to remain nameless) has already paid for this motorcycle with wheelbarrow loads of cash, but he doesn’t own this machine. Do you own a Vermeer or a Picasso? Nope, you share space with it until you die, then somebody else gets a turn.
The Black is like that. It so clearly exists outside the realm of “ownable commodity,” its preciousness is almost an identity. Kind of spooky, kind of magic, let’s just call it a Unicorn motorcycle. You might see it, you might capture it, but you’ll never own it, and if you kill it, the world will cry black tears.