Vincent Motorcycle History
Legendary stories surround Vincent motorcycles like flies on a cow patty. Perhaps the most famous was Rollie Free who set an American motorcycle land speed record of 150.3 mph (242 kmh) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948 – while wearing a bathing suit and shower cap.
Recently Bar Hodgson, producer the Toronto International Motorcycle Supershow, acquired another Vincent motorcycle with an amazing story. Hodgson contacted me to offer me the first Canadian glimpse of the legendary Vincent nicknamed, "Gunga Din."
It started in 1947 when Vincent built a few motorcycles to go racing, and one Series B Rapide was designated as the official factory test unit – where all experimental high-performance components were bolted on and tested.
In post World War II Britain, many materials, including steel tubing, were in short supply so the Phil Irving, Vincent’s Chief Designer, dispensed with the frame altogether and just hung everything off the engine.
Vincent test rider George Brown first raced the new machine at the ’47 Isle of Man TT races and ran out of gas while in the lead, setting fastest lap of 86.25 mph (138.8 km/h) around the 37 mile (60 km) course.
Motor Cycling magazine road tester, Charlie Markham rode the experimental Vincent and realized that the Vincent’s performance far outshadowed his own talent and nicknamed the motorcycle "Gunga Din," after the waterbearer in Rudyard Kipling’s poem. As in, "You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din."
Believing that racing improves the breed, Brown entered the bike in various events, winning a number of hillclimbs, sprints and short circuit races.
The catchphrase of the other disheartened competitors was, "Gunga Din? Going to win."
Gunga Din was used as a testbed, developing the trick parts used on the Black Lightning racing motorcycle. With Brown aboard, Gunga Din kept racking up the wins and in 1952, the bike set a number of endurance records including six hours averaging 100.53 mph (161.7 km/h) and the following year, it set an Irish land speed record of 143 mph (230 km/h) on public roads!
By 1955, Vincent was out of money and motorcycle production stopped. The company was bought by Harper Engines, which sold off the assets and gave the Vincent Owners Club access to anything that was left. Rooting through the plant, they found a treasure trove of boxes full of production records – serial numbers, files, parts drawings, etc.
And languishing underneath a pile of sacks in a factory outbuilding they discovered a motorcycle: Gunga Din.
Harper’s tried to sell the bike in the 1960s with no takers, until an American, who figured he could make some money by selling off the parts, bought it for the princely sum of $550. Another U.S. Vincent fanatic acquired most of the bits as they became available in the 1970s. Many parts are stamped "EX," for experimental and careful research verified that they genuinely were the DNA of Gunga Din.
Sadly, this chap didn’t have the resources to complete the restoration and sold everything to Vincent collector, Keith Hazelton, who then tracked down everything else that was missing. Gunga Din remained in pieces until being sold to Paul Pflugfleder of Concord, Mass four years ago.
As recently as April, 2009, the motorcycle was still boxes of parts, but Pflugfleder commissioned a high-end car restoration firm to reassemble Gunga Din and they actually finished it in time for the Pebble Beach Concourse in August of that year. Gunga Din finished second to George Barber’s AJS porcupine – the Holy Grail of vintage motorcycles.
Hodgson says, "It was offered to a handful of serious Vincent collectors and I’m proud that Gunga Din is now in Canada. It’s interesting that many pictures were taken of the motorcycle both when it raced and after it was found. The restorers used those photos as a benchmark."
Now with flawless paint and polished metal gleaming in the sun, Gunga Din is likely in a much better state than it was originally. As a nice touch, the restorers left the dent in the special Montlhery fuel tank that was on the bike when discovered. This fuel tank is larger with a markedly different profile than the standard Vincent unit and allowed the racing bikes to stay on the track longer during a 24-hour race on the French Montlhery track.
Gunga Din is no trailer queen. – it runs. The Pebble Beach Concours requires that vehicles entered must not only be in running condition, they must be started and ridden to the judging table. Hodgson fired it up in June of this year at the Vincent Owners Club rally in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
It looks odd to see nylok nuts on the steering head but they’re on the original photos, which prove Vincent was using this technology in the late 1940s.
The bike has the rare Vincent racing magneto, prototype Girdraulic front forks, 32mm Amal TT carburetors, original 50-year old Dunlop tires, straight exhaust pipes with 2-inch headers and many one-off components. Everything has been lightened and drilled, with magnesium being used on various components including the brake drums. Bar even has the original seat, which couldn’t be fully restored so a duplicate was made.
Documenting a race bike that was parted out through three owners over 40 years is difficult. Some vintage bike snobs scoff if the motorcycle doesn’t have the original English air in the tires (sorry – "tyres") but Vincent experts agree that Gunga Din, as it stands today, is a logical conclusion of how it would be developed.
Hodgson agrees. "When do you stop developing a racebike? Even today, factory race shops are always trying new components and different parts."
So what’s next for Gunga Din, now that it has a new home here in the Great White North?
Hodgson is writing a book that will tell the complete story of this motorcycle and rest assured, Gunga Din will have a prominent display at the January bike show.
"Tho’ I’ve belted you an’ flayed you, by the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.