Dangerous business, flying down to Austin to ride a Vincent. Last time I made this trip was 14 years ago, and I ended up buying the 1952 Vincent Black Shadow featured in a story I cleverly entitled “To Ride a Vincent.” Came home, sold everything I owned that anyone would want to buy and purchased the bike from collector/restorer Herb Harris. The Shadow is gone now—I parted with it about 10 years ago when I realized I could sell it and pay off our house—but I’m still friends with Herb.
And when he invited us back to Austin this time, I figured I’d be in a little less peril, as the two rare Vincents featured here are way out of my price range. Actually, all Vincents are way out of my price range now, unless we sell our house and move into an abandoned cardboard box. Next to the railroad tracks. Time, collectability and inflation have marched on. While I, apparently, have not.
Herb Harris is an Austin lawyer who retired a couple of years ago to open a new business (Harris Vincent Gallery, Inc.), one that would allow him to concentrate on his favorite things in life, which are tracking down Vincents and/or restoring them.
He and his wife Karen have a nice home in the Texas Hill Country on the west side of Austin, with a guest house attached. Upstairs is a comfortable apartment, with a refrigerator full of Guinness, and the downstairs looks exactly like a traditional English pub, with a dark wood bar and a shining row of great British bikes lined up on the varnished (and surprisingly oil-free) floor. Vincents, vintage Triumphs, BSA Gold Star, AJS 7R, etc.
When you pour a cup of coffee and walk downstairs into the pub in the morning, you automatically find yourself repeating that famous line from “Field of Dreams:” “Is this Heaven?”
“No,” you tell yourself, “this is Texas. And what we have here is a very fine collection of motorcycles.”
Though many of the world’s great Vincents—including the Rollie Free “bathing suit bike” of Bonneville record fame—have passed through his hands, Herb says he’s not really a collector. He enjoys having the bikes for a few years and working on them, but feels no need to hang on to them in the long run. As is the case with so many of us, it’s the hunt that matters. He’s really more history detective than collector.
And, without Herb, it might have taken Sherlock Holmes himself to track down the big Series B Vincent engine that’s nestled in the heart of the first bike we’re looking at today. It’s the very first Series B engine, introduced just after WWII. Long since separated from its original chassis and passed around for various factory experimental projects, it was discovered by Herb in an English eBay ad, and he’s now returned it to a proper chassis—one it might have had when it was introduced to the English press in 1946—with an overlay of appropriate patina.
To explain where this all fits in the Big Scheme, perhaps we should do a quick little review of Vincent History.
Philip Vincent came from a wealthy English family and went to good schools. While at Harrow and Cambridge, he was an avid motorcyclist with a trouble-prone BSA, so he did what serious scholars (such as you and I) have always done with their study hall time, which is sketch motorcycle frames. He wanted to start his own motorcycle company, but his wise old father convinced him to buy a defunct but prestigious brand—H.R.D. This company was named for Howard R. Davies, a famous motorcycle racer who’d started building his own high-quality bikes (out of frustration with other brands), but had gone broke by 1927.
Yes, here we have a prime example of the “Frustration with Other Brands” school of motorcycle design, which appears to have propelled British ingenuity through much of the 20th century.
Anyway, Phil Vincent started building his own Vincent-HRD Singles with purchased engines (J.A.P., Villiers, Rudge, etc.) and his own stoutly triangulated frame designs. Frustration with some of these engines (J.A.P., mostly) drove him and his famous partner in crime, Australian engineer Phil Irving, to design their own big Singles, the Meteor and the hotter Comet.
These engines had a number of clever features, including high cams and rocker-arm fingers operating on collars at the center of the valve stems, which shortened the pushrods to lighten the valvetrain and reduce overall engine height. Valves were carried in two guides, with a gap between them for the rocker arm. In 1936, the Two Phils quite logically joined a pair of these cylinders at the hip and introduced the Series A Rapide, a fire-breathing 1000cc V-Twin, to an astonished motorcycle world.
This fearsome object would easily top 100 mph, and it was soon dubbed “The Snarling Beast” by one of its test riders. Unfortunately, the press also dubbed it “The Plumber’s Nightmare” because of all the arachnid-like external oil lines; critics further noted the clutch slipped because it was overwhelmed with all that torque and power.
At this point, after 78 were sold, WWII drew a merciful curtain upon the Rapide’s shortcomings and Vincent went into war production, building things that exploded on purpose: artillery shells and land mines. During those dark years, Vincent and Irving plotted an improved post-war Rapide.
And here’s where Herb’s engine comes in. It’s the very first works prototype engine, 1X, long believed to have been scrapped. And it almost was.
That first B-Series Rapide was much ridden and photographed by the press, who approved of its cleaned-up engine, whose external oil lines had been replaced by raised “veins” cast into the case covers. In place of the weak old proprietary clutch was a clever two-stage unit with lightly sprung discs operating a set of brake-shoe-like grabbers in a drum. The traditional diamond frame had also been eliminated by using … no frame. The Brampton fork was simply attached to a sturdy oil tank bolted to the top of the cylinder heads, and the unique A-frame swingarm pivoted off the engine cases, with spring boxes almost hidden beneath the seat. What you had, essentially, was that schoolboy’s dream: a big hairy engine with two wheels attached.
But once the adoring press finished with it, that prototype bike didn’t get much in-house respect. The lads at the factory used it for bashing about town, and then the British military decided they needed a fast assault boat to attack enemy coastlines and had Vincent build 1X into a hot Lightning race-spec engine for testing. Nothing came of this, but the poor engine got its transmission band-sawed off and a new set of contemporary case numbers (468) tacked on to the existing number 1 (which led to some confusion later). Then, the beast was left to languish under a workbench.
After that, the engine was sold off, installed in a later frame and used in various hillclimbers and racebikes—with a Norton gearbox bolted on. And this is how Herb found it in England, a bitsa Lightning-spec racebike with straight pipes and later Girdraulic fork. He thought it deserved to go back into an early Series B chassis, replicating as closely as possible the bike shown in those 1946 magazine photos. And that’s what we have here. Not the first complete Series B Vincent, which has long since been parted out into the cosmos, but a proper setting for its original engine, now fully rebuilt, of course.
So, on a warm Texas summer morning, we trailered the Rapide farther out into the Hill Country and I took a ride on it, all duded up in 1946 riding gear (although this is two years before I was born, so I have only the photos). Herb, his son, Brian, and mechanic Mike Beck bump-started the bike, as I was suffering from a case of purple BSA Single kickstart knee at the moment, and I headed off down the road.
One ride on a Vincent reminds you why people put up with the expense and vintage eccentricities of these bikes—and why I sold everything to buy one of my own. They feel compact and light, with a low center of gravity, and the engine has a relaxed, almost liquid-smooth V-Twin gait and shuffle that make you want to motor down the road and off into infinity. It has great, easy torque, plenty of power and light, agile steering from the Brampton fork, while the rear suspension really works, soaking up bumps in a way that must have seemed unbelievably civilized in this hardtail era.
And the view over that black tank with gold leaf lettering, while watching the fork work, is one of motorcycling’s great pleasures. It feels and looks as if there’s remarkably little bike beneath you, considering how much visual mass and heart-stopping charm that engine exudes from a side view—and how willingly it accelerates. It’s exactly the right size for a motorcycle, with an ideal (and adjustable) riding position.
Out of respect for the value of this bike—and my own cowardice and recently healed ribs—I didn’t push it too hard in corners, but the general characteristics are intuitively natural turn-in and good stability in fast turns. Brakes? Better than almost anything from the era—and for about 20 years thereafter—but if you’re headed into a blind downhill sweeper at 65 mph, you should probably know where the road goes in advance. Surprises are not entirely welcome.
When we finally put the Rapide away toward evening and were about to head out for some great Texas barbeque (not that I don’t like motorcycles), Herb offered us a bonus ride on another of his finished project bikes, a 1932 HRD Python Sport, a 500cc Single with a four-valve Rudge engine—in hot “Ulster Tune” competition spec. If the Rapide was intended to have historic patina, this one was restored so perfectly you almost hate to stand too close. Like the Les Paul Custom in “Spinal Tap,” perhaps you shouldn’t even look at it.
This bike came at a pivotal point in Vincent history, as Phil Vincent had finally been convinced to abandon his unconventional early frame design, which was heavily triangulated and had an awkward frame tube slashing across the side of the engine. In its place came a more “normal” diamond frame, but still with his excellent rear suspension. At this time, he was also having trouble with J.A.P. (John A. Prestwich) engines and was trying out the more sophisticated Rudge Python unit. This period lasted only briefly, until Rudge quit supplying engines, and Vincent and Irving designed their own.
And the Python is a pretty exquisite engine. It has four valves located radially in a bronze (sometimes iron) head, dual exhaust ports that empty into a pair of gracefully swept-back Highgate “silencers” and an Amal carb with the slide body turned sideways for more tank clearance. (Well, why not? Should work.)
Herb’s started first kick, idled smoothly and had plenty of midrange grunt. Compared with the Rapide, however, the old Single is a little more of a vintage contraption to ride. But only in that the Burman gearbox is a slower-shifting unit and the Blumfield brakes are less effective. Did I call them brakes? More like a butter-injection system. The harder you squeeze, the faster the bike goes, just like my old Triumph 500. Luckily, it handles quite nicely, which helps when you’re sailing through corners a little faster than intended. Overall, a charming, perfectly serviceable bike with great visual balance and mechanical presence.
I didn’t ride this one hard at all, as it’s already sold to a wealthy collector (redundant, perhaps) and on its way out the door. But bikes like this aren’t lovingly restored so we poor deprived moderns have something to ride hard. We have new bikes for that.
We like the old ones not because we need transportation, but because we love history—and the beauty that comes from imagination and fine craftsmanship. Which, luckily for us, were sometimes borne of past frustration with other brands.
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