The recent “World’s Coolest Bikes” profile of sculptor Jeff Decker and his Vincent “Black Lightning” proved controversial with CW readers, some of whom objected to the desecration of a Vincent motorcycle, while others were predictably pissed off by Decker’s attitude toward that hallowed name. Like the man, Decker’s tweaked Vincent has a chip on its shoulder, full of bravado and strong statements, and is lighter, leaner and just plain tougher than the original…which was, we must remember, a motorcycle designed for the riding requirements of 1946.
Postwar Vincents aren’t scarce; they were sketched during WWII to cure a host of problems with the original, prewar Vincent-HRD Series A Twin. By the time production ceased at the Stevenage factory in 1955, some 11,134 Singles and Twins were blatting around the roads of England, America and Argentina. As Vincents were indeed the “World’s Fastest Standard Motorcycle” during their production run (and several decades beyond), they were expensive and treasured, with a remarkable survival rate; an increasing number, actually, especially Black Shadows and Lightnings, which, like Topsy, “just growed.” But the increasingly numerous replicas are another story. Suffice to say, Vincents were, and are, expensive, but they were not, and are not, rare. Maybe rare in your garage.
Decker is happy to point out that plenty of pansy-ass non-riders have purchased Vincents for all the wrong reasons. But Vincent owners generally defy the accusation of being simply collector-investors. They notoriously rack up thousands of miles on their “Beasts,” happily upgrading 50-plus-year-old machines for hard use. High-output alternators, non-lousy brakes, shocks that work, altered seats and riding positions, pumped-up motors and even electric starters are all common Vin mods. Nobody gives a damn about these modified bikes in the Owner’s Club, because they’re being used. Yet, as Decker also points out, there are dorks who will circle your Vincent, finding everything “wrong” with it, whenever you park the thing. And almost invariably, such people don’t actually own a Vincent, or if they do own one, they don’t ride it, or if they do ride it, they wobble like there’s black ice in the middle of July. These people are harmless phantoms who scatter at a crank of throttle. They can be annoying, though.
To address Jeff Decker’s bike directly, let’s state for the record that it has nothing to do with an actual Vincent Black Lightning, which, as he notes, is a super-rare racing model. Essentially, Decker did a cosmetic job on his pedigreed assemblage of mismatched and salvaged Vincent parts, not a radical custom: no raked fork or altered frame (such as it is), no chopped-off gearbox. Hell, he didn’t even stick the mighty engine lump in a Norton or Egli frame. He did some tricky stuff with the hand and foot controls, slimmed up the tank, stuck on a cute seat and a tiny headlamp, drilled stuff, lagged his pipes—all skillfully done, as you’d expect of a sculptor, but hardly outrageous. He’s taken what he likes from the Vincent—the stripped-down skeleton of the thing—and added tasty bits to make it roadworthy, reflect his artistic skills and add personality. His personality.
After Decker floats away to whatever Mormon heaven he’s due, it wouldn’t take much to revert his bike to yet another perfectly restored Vincent Twin, but his reputation and artistic skills mean that will never happen; his Black Lightning is already established in the Pantheon of tweaked Stevenage-built bikes. From Big Sid’s “Rattler” to Marty Dickerson’s dustbin-faired salt racers, from Falcon’s “Black” to Matt Hotch’s raked “Vinchop,” the big Vincent Twin has always been an irresistible lure to modifiers, whether for aesthetics or outright speed; to writers, like Hunter S. Thompson; and to musicians like Richard Thompson, who continue to sing the Vincent’s praises decades after the company went bust. Truth is, of course, it’s just an old motorcycle, can be a pain in the ass like any other old bike, and will be blown off the road by a modern 250.
All agree the handiwork of Phil Vincent and Phil Irving is a milestone, on everyone’s Top 10 list and worthy of preservation. But is every Vincent to be treated as History? This is not a rhetorical question; there is legislation afoot in FIVA (a European Federation of Historic Vehicles), called the “Charter of Turin,” pressing UNESCO to declare old cars and motorcycles as subject to the same rules of conservation as important artworks. In other words, if FIVA wonk Thomas Kohler has his way, it may actually become illegal to road-register your customized car or motorcycle; they aren’t yours anymore, they’re “cultural treasures” that belong to History. Which suddenly makes the whole Decker debate look trivial. Can we all agree that, regardless of how we feel about chopped Vincents, the Eurocrats wanting to legislate our motorcycles deserve a united, single-digit salute?