Works of art from Vincent van Go

2012-02-10 12:57

Irish poet/playwright Oscar Wilde was quite a witty bloke, so I’m told. He was once asked what he would do if he were walking across London’s Trafalgar Square and noticed that that the National Portrait Gallery was on fire.

Assuming he was in a position to dash into the burning building and choose just one picture to carry to safety which one would it be? His instant retort: “The one nearest the door, of course!”


Given similar wishful thinking, and in motorcycle terms, if I were able to save just one British brand from total oblivion my answer would unhesitatingly be Vincent, a Stevenage-based outfit north of London in the county of Hertfordshire.

Phil Vincent founded the company in 1928 by taking over an established brand called HRD, adding his surname a little later to produce surely the world’s very first superbike in 1938. With the help of another Phil, a gifted Australian engineer surnamed Irving, the V-twin Rapide was born.

Vincent was quite a talented rider; he tied for first place in the 1914 Isle of Man Senior TT and won the 1921 Senior race on a 350cc AJS so he knew what constituted a good bike - and he was about to produce one, a bike quite different from anybody else’s with a mighty 993cc V-twin and other clever feats of sound engineering and design.

150MPH ON SALT FLATS: The round thing above the headlight is the Vincent's speedometer; it proved a handy windshield for a Bonneville record-breaker riding flat on the tank in a swimming costume.

Quite early on Vincent knew that his high-class, hand-built bikes wouldn’t pay all the bills but he had real business acumen - a sense of survival, if you will - so his assembly line also produced smaller machines, usually JAP-powered (no, that’s not an abbreviation for Japanese machine but rather a famous London engine manufacturer who supplied built-up engines to the trade).

Motorcycle production halted in Stevenage in 1939 due to one Adolf Hitler and the company focused on war work. Irving’s lust for a lighter and faster Rapide didn’t fade, though, and it was built after the war, in 1948, and Vincent really showed the motorcycle world that of which it was capable thanks to unique cantilevered front and rear suspensions, advanced frame technology, interchangeable wheels and Brampton girder-style forks, among other things.

I lived about 16km from the factory and I well remember seeing their test riders blasting up and down the A1 (the main road, then, between London and Scotland) in search of the perfect bike that had come to be known as the world’s fastest standard production bike - a title not to be taken lightly.

John Surtees (the only World champion on two wheels and four) was an engineer with the Stevenage concern and probably sowed the seed with Irving for production of the successful F1 Repco Brabham race engine that did so well in the early 1970’s

CHROMED CLASSIC: The 993cc V-twin engine used in Vincent motorcycles.

The Vincent B Series Rapide became the Black Shadow and then the Lightning but times were proving tough for British motorcycle companies. Vincent developed “half Rapides” called Comets and enclosed Lightnings known as Black Princes… too little, too late. The gates were closed and the company went to the wall in 1955.

I’ve absolutely no doubt that the company should have been saved by somebody. Its engineering was Class A stuff; the bikes were expensive to produce but sold in small numbers.

They broke speed records right around the world: Rollie Free, a zany American showman and racer, achieved 150mph (240 km/h) on the Bonneville salt flats in 1948 on a prototype Lightning while dressed only in swimming trunks and lying prone on the bike with his face tucked below the saucer-sized, 150mph Smith’s speedometer.

Men were definitely men in those days!

  • Vernon - 2012-02-13 09:22

    I ride a modern bike ,but would give anything to own a vincent,not only does it have such a fantastic history,but it is a work of art and love ,i would park it in my lounge .(wife would love that ).

      Mike - 2012-02-18 09:17

      You got R 800000.00 spare ? 0823340034

  • Hamrammr - 2012-02-13 11:21

    The stuff of legends! There is probably more old-wifes' tales about the black prince than any other bike on earth.

  • pietopper - 2012-02-13 23:35

    The Vincent also has a wonderfully evocative ballad dedicated to it, the story of Red Molly and James. Did she betray him to get the bike? We will never know. See Richard Thompson perform his composition here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lCH5JgWCZY Great guitar work, as well!

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