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A biker’s dream: the Vincent motorcycle’s Stevenage history

PUBLISHED: 13:34 29 December 2015 | UPDATED: 13:36 29 December 2015

Vincent series B Rapide outside the factory c1950. Courtesy of Stevenage Museum

Vincent series B Rapide outside the factory c1950. Courtesy of Stevenage Museum

Stevenage Museum

A revered name in motorcycling, the last Vincent rolled out of the Stevenage factory 60 years ago this month. Geoff Meade looks at how two men created the world’s first superbike and how it continues to cause pulses to race today

The iconic Gunga Din model produced by Stevenage firm VincentThe iconic Gunga Din model produced by Stevenage firm Vincent

Sixty years ago saw the end of the line for what was arguably Hertfordshire’s greatest contribution to motoring history. On December 18, 1955 – despite being the world’s first superbike – the last Vincent motorcycle rolled off the company’s production line in Stevenage. The firm that had built the fastest road bike ever had gone bust.

Yet today, surviving examples are so sought-after that prices have accelerated faster than a TT winner. Old Rockers go misty-eyed at the mere names of models like the Rapide, Comet and the near-mythical Black Lightning.

In fact, some fans still ride in pilgrimage to the former factory, now part of the Thomas Alleyne Academy in the High Street in what is now Stevenage Old Town. The Holy Grail for collectors is the world-beating racer the Vincent Black Lightning, of which only 30 or so were made. In 2008, one fetched a record £221,500 at auction. Values have risen still higher since, with a pre-war Vincent Rapide that cost £138 new due under the hammer recently with a £250,000 guide price.

The tool room of the Vincent factory c1934. On the far right is PE Irving, designer, works manager and later chief engineer. Courtesy of Stevenage MuseumThe tool room of the Vincent factory c1934. On the far right is PE Irving, designer, works manager and later chief engineer. Courtesy of Stevenage Museum

Sweet dream Vincent

In their heyday, these swift machines were a biker’s dream. In those more austere times, they were seen as poetry in motion; blending engineering innovation and expensive exclusivity with downright sexiness. And the allure continues.

No wonder in his 1979 Blockheads song Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3), Ian Dury listed ‘Cheddar cheese and pickle, the Vincent motor sickle. Slap and tickle’.

The bulbous, muscular 500 or 1,000cc engines with their sweeping exhaust pipes have become instantly recognisable classics. The distinctive V-twin engine is what draws the eye. Its revolutionary design came about in 1948 as the result of a pairing as significant to motorcycle heritage as Lennon and McCartney is to music, the combination of two Philips, Harrow-educated Philip Vincent, and Australian designer and racer Phil Irving. In 1928, to launch the firm, the young Vincent was bankrolled by his parents who had made a fortune farming beef in Argentina. It was a business connection that was to be exploited later. After the First World War, British firms could obtain licences to purchase scarce raw materials only if they exported three-quarters of their output. So Vincent sold motorbikes to the Buenos Aires traffic police.

Motorcycles loaded on to an articulated Austin lorry outside the drawing office at the High Street site. The lorry was used for transporting bikes between the Fishers Green and High Street factories. Exhausts were fitted to the bikes after road testing. c1948. Courtesy of Stevenage MuseumMotorcycles loaded on to an articulated Austin lorry outside the drawing office at the High Street site. The lorry was used for transporting bikes between the Fishers Green and High Street factories. Exhausts were fitted to the bikes after road testing. c1948. Courtesy of Stevenage Museum

The latterly-famous Vincent name is hard to spot on early models. Those bikes have the initials HRD scrolled in ornate gold on black petrol tanks with The Vincent above in a much smaller typeface. This was an early example of so-called badge engineering – attaching a lesser-known marque to a renowned brand title. The struggling Vincent start-up hoped to gain sales by buying the title of Isle of Man TT star Howard Raymond Davies’ failed company, for the then-princely amount of £450.

After the war, the Stevenage firm tried to break into the American market and it is believed the HRD initials were dropped to avoid confusion with the H-D of Harley Davidson.

Despite the quality of the bikes, money troubles threatened the firm constantly. Outside backers were being sought regularly and as a result the founding family never owned more than a third of the whole enterprise. Precarious cash flow however did not blunt Philip Vincent’s taste for expensive status symbols. Even when the company was struggling, he was looking to buy another new Rolls-Royce.

While turning out about 200 machines a year, the workshops also took on jobbing engineering contracts, as well as servicing cars and selling petrol alongside the busy A1 Great North Road. During the Second World War, such versatility allowed the company to suspend vehicle production altogether in favour of making bomb fuses and Mosquito aircraft undercarriages.

Vincent HRD motorbikes outside The Cromwell Hotel in Stevenage High Street c1950. Courtesy of Stevenage MuseumVincent HRD motorbikes outside The Cromwell Hotel in Stevenage High Street c1950. Courtesy of Stevenage Museum

The magnificent B

Peacetime heralded production of the iconic B range, in which the engine became an integral part of the frame. This was an innovation ahead of its time and not adopted widely for another 20 years. The machines were by far the fastest things on the road. A 1948 Black Shadow was capable of more than 125 mph and reached 60mph in six seconds. The then-megastar George Formby owned a Vincent and in the 1950s John Surtees, later Grand Prix and Formula One star, served as an apprentice with the company, becoming one of 200 people employed by the firm.

A 1948 picture of American racer Rollie Free lying prone aboard a Vincent wearing only helmet, sandals and swimming trunks as it sped across Bonneville Salt Flats is one of motorcycling’s most famous photograph.

The Vincent factoryThe Vincent factory

The model names alone evoked images of interplanetary speeds – Meteor, Comet, Rapide and Lightning. But as solid as the machines were on the road and racetrack, the firm continued to wobble. It went into receivership at least three times. The finances simply never added up. Priced at almost £500 in 1952, a mid-range Vincent cost as much as a reasonable-sized house. And the firm could not compete against mass-produced cars. The final and doomed attempt to modernise resulted in the ugly duckling of the D series, whose makeover included a monstrous glass-fibre fairing of dubious quality.

The factory soldiered on under a series of owners until 1974, producing components for Ford Cosworth performance engines.

Vincent legacy

Bob Culver has owned and worked on Vincents for 40 years. With his son, he still supplies components from his workshop in Letchworth. Should you covet one of these inspired works of engineering and design today, Culver reckons an engine alone could be built from parts for about £12,000.

Most of us will never experience the Vincent magic. So what are they like to ride? Surprisingly modern according to Culver: ‘You can cruise at 70 all day, and easily hold your own in today’s traffic. The brakes are good too.

‘Basically, they were hand-built and expensive. Bikes that are made like that tend to be exclusive, like an Aston Martin car. Vincent was quite innovative. He had some unusual ideas; quirky is not the word, but it gave the bikes an identity and made them different. 
What they certainly possess is that indefinable character – soul, if you like.’

A plaque marks the old building that was the Vincent factory at the north end of Bowling Green in Stevenage. Looking at it makes one think of what might have been. And how, given different circumstances and personalities, the name Vincent might still be up there today alongside Lewis Hamilton as one of Stevenage’s world-beating high-speed sons. w

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