Marty Dickerson on his Rapide in 1953 at the Bonneville Salt Flats

In 1948, an eighteen year old walked into ‘Mickey’ Martin’s Burbank Vincent-HRD dealership, putting a cash deposit on the $1120 sale price of a new ‘Series B’ Touring Rapide, starting a payment plan on what was then the most expensive motorcycle in the world.  The inspiration for his trip to Martin’s LA emporium were the boasts of a Vincent-owning Scotsman who spoke of leaving ‘long black streaks’ on the highway while passing cars, in third gear and 70mph no less. Readers of the late 40s motorcycle press were familiar with Vincent-HRD ads touting impossible speeds, right beside ads for x-ray glasses and miracle bodybuilding powders.  Very few Americans had actually seen a Vincent, even less had ridden one to test the claims.

Dickerson being push-started at Bonneville on the Rapide; note the megaphone exhaust and Touring Rapide rear fender

Marty Dickerson, the youth in question, thought the Rapide was ugly, but he “wanted that power, wanted that speed”.  He was not disappointed with his purchase, and quickly came to understand he now owned the fastest motorcycle on the planet, and soon, as young men will do, set about proving that fact to SoCal motorcyclists who believed they had the fastest bikes.  Harley Davidson had been around since the early part of the Century, as had rival Indian, and their American devotees used the collected wisdom of decades of engine-tuning to make some pretty hot bikes by the 1940s, the toughest and fastest of which tended to be ‘strokers’ with huge motors of over 100 cubic inches displacement (1600cc).  Dickerson and his Vincent aroused the curiosity and pride of LA’s fastest street-racers, who formed an increasingly short line to challenge him to a ‘drag’.  No matter the fame of the engine builder or skill of his rival at fast getaways, it was always Marty’s Rapide which first crossed whatever waved-sweater or crossed headlamp finish line was laid, out there on the lonely roads appropriate for such contests.

Marty Dickerson polishing the cylinder head ports of his Vincent Rapide for maxiumum airflow efficiency

There were other ways to test speed, and the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) provided timed evidence to bolster a reputation gained on the streets.  At Muroc Dry Lake that year, Marty squeezed 118mph from his Rapide, while his buddy ‘Tex’ Luce, a Vincent mechanic fated to make his own mark on the racing world, found just a bit more, and recorded 122.04mph on the bone-stock machine, with all lights, mudguards, and mufflers intact and present. Motorcyclists are a stubborn and loyal bunch, and the evidence of a new ‘fastest’ motorcycle didn’t translate into immediate sales.  In truth, Vincent-HRD sales were dismal in California, and by June 1949, ‘Mickey’ Martin had 20 unsold Vincents languishing on his showroom floor.  Knowing of Dickerson’s antics in back-road street racing, and more importantly his success at the game, Martin hatched a plan to send young Marty on a ‘tour’ of the southwest quadrant of the US, to raise awareness of the Vincent-HRD marque in the best way – nudge, wink – he knew how.  Martin offered to cover all travel expenses, and take over the Rapide’s loan payments, and soon Marty Dickerson had the best possible job in the world for a 19 year old, being paid to street race all comers in small towns across America, astride the fastest production motorcycle built.

The Rapide becoming ‘Californicated’, with a bobbed rear fender, trumpet exhaust, cowhorn ‘bars…

For one month in that summer of ’49, Marty Dickerson had the ‘drag racing adventure of a lifetime’, covering 5000 miles through Phoenix, Dallas, Tulsa, Ft.Worth, Tyler, Kansas City, and smaller towns in Colorado and Utah.  He raced the fastest motorcycles And cars the locals could muster, sometimes legendary monsters which had never been bested.  There were close calls, such as when he didn’t have time to change a fouled spark plug before a race, and the Vincent spluttered on one-and-a-half cylinders while his rival rocketed ahead.  Quick thinking and a ‘poor man’s tuneup’ (downshifting from 3rd to 2nd at high revs to blast the plugs clean) cleared the cough and saw Marty take the lead once again. There were other times when ‘sore losers’, with much time and reputation invested in their Harleys or Hotrods, made a hasty exit the prudent choice for young Mr. Dickerson.  It must have been infuriating when some short, big-nosed kid on a strange motorbike (‘Harley R Davidson?’) kept pace with the Knucklehead you’d spent months tuning for speed, until your throttle was hard on the stop while you crouched low over the tank…only to watch ‘that kid’ shift into 4th gear, and leave you eating his dust.

Marty Dickerson at Bonneville, in the company of Triumph twins and a Matchless single. Note the straight-through Black Lightning pipes.

The Vincent had its problems in that hard month of racing, requiring the total replacement of a clutch cable and a few engine shock absorber springs, which weren’t expecting such abuse.  Dickerson’s exploits were legend, and rumors spread like pond ripples from a cherry bomb about ‘a kid’ with a really fast Vincent, kicking butt all over the Southwest.  He came and went through towns so fast nobody remembered it was ‘Marty Dickerson’ riding, he was the Street Racer with No Name, but tales of his exploits reverberate to this day, and form the actual backbone of the Vincent story in America.

The Blue Bike at Bonneville in 1953; the Black Lightning seat and racing Amal GP carbs are visible.
The timing side of Dickerson’s Rapide; note the tachometer drive from the timing chest, the Black Lightning pipes, and the lack of a front brake!
An epic photo; man, machine, and Time.
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