Back in LA / Waiting for the sun to shine / Back in LA / Working on another line
– BB King, ‘Back in LA’
Los Angeles is almost like my second city. I came here first in 1968, when I was only 23 and sweet-talked my way into a job on Cycle World magazine. I rode the then-new 750cc Norton Commando on the Angeles Crest Highway, saw legendary hard-man Gary Nixon win the AMA championship on a 500cc Triumph on the Ascot half-mile dirt track, and Top Fuel drag cars tyre-smoke to 230mph in six seconds.
This time I’m in the custom and apparel shop of Deus Ex Machina on Venice Boulevard to meet James Salter, 40-ish music producer and secretary of the Southern California Vincent Owners’ Club. James is kindly loaning us a Dodge van of early nineties vintage as our LA workhorse and is part of the crew to shoot some key sequences of the forthcoming documentary, SpeedisExpensive. In the past four years, this film has tracked down and interviewed the remaining 16 men and women who built and designed the ground-breaking motorcycles in Stevenage, and secured the last major interview with one-time Vincent apprentice, the late John Surtees. The documentary promises to tell the story of Vincent and his motorcycles as never before. We’re here to meet some key people in the Vincent story from California. Also along with me is:
David Lancaster, SpeedisExpensive director and co-producer: Writer, documentary maker, Vincent owner and Vintagent contributor for some years
Steve Read, director of photography: co-director of the award-winning music bio-pic Gary Numan: Android in La La Land and director of photography on the recent BBC series on the summer of love, and Elvis’s Las Vegas years.
Philip Vincent-Day, Associate Producer: the grandson of designer Philip Vincent himself and custodian of the Vincent family archive.
James and I drive to Los Angeles airport to meet these three incoming Brits and assume that we’ll head to our Airbnb base in Pasadena. But James has other plans. “We’re going to Richard Asprey’s house in Manhattan Beach,” he announces. “He’d like to meet you.” Richard is a Brit who has worked in the insurance business in the USA for several years, and has enormous energy for life and motorcycles. He rode a 1915 500cc Norton for 3900 miles, from Atlantic City to San Diego in 16 days on the 2016 Cannonball Rally – an average of 245 miles a day. And he did this year’s cross-country run, from Portland to Portland, again on a single-pot Norton.
He also owns several Vincents, and tells young Phil why his grandad’s bikes were so exceptional. “It’s the metallurgy,” he says. “The fact that a Vincent engine seals itself when it gets warm, when everyone else was making motorcycles that leaked everywhere. The engineering is beautiful, and the reliability is way superior compared to any other older motorcycle I’ve got. You never feel that you’re going to break it.”
He and Philip, who is making his first visit to the USA, strike up a good rapport. So much so that after Richard pops open the red wine, Philip stays on for the night while the rest of us head for Pasadena.
Sometimes I feel like my only friend / Is the city I live in / The city of Angels – Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Under the Bridge’
We’re driving down a road in Burbank when we see a vintage motorcycle coming towards us. It’s low and has a handlebar like an old-time delivery bicycle, with the grips pointing back towards the rider. What is it, and what is such a hard-to-handle vehicle doing in the LA traffic? “It’s Jay!” someone says. Jay Leno has invited us to see him at the warehouse where he keeps his well-used collection of cars and bikes and films his TV and web-based shows called, appropriately, Jay Leno’s Garage.
When Philip Vincent launched the Series B Rapide in 1946, other English factories were making 500cc parallel twins that jangled and wheezed at 85mph, while the Rapide, even on the feeble 72-octane fuel of the day, would romp by at 110mph. Even by the early 1970s, the tuned Black Shadow version was as quick as any other standard bike on the road [and was the fastest production motorcycle in the world until the Kawasaki Z-1 of 1973 – pd’o].
Jay is amusing on how he bought his first Vincent: “The guy selling it said, ‘I can’t let you ride it by yourself, but I can take you on the back.’ But since he’s trying to sell the bike he’s going as fast as he possibly can. I’m like, should I hold on to this guy? We’re hitting bumps but he says, ‘It’ll do a hundred!’ We’re in LA traffic and I say, ‘Just stop now and I’ll buy it!’ So that’s what I did and I’ve had it all these years.”
What attracted him to the marque? “It was the fact that it was a true 100mph motorcycle,” he says. “100mph doesn’t sound like much now, but back in the day most vehicles would go 80, 90, 91, and then you’re out of road. The Vincent could do it quite easily. The stories you’d read about somebody racing a Harley or an Indian, and then the Vincent guy would just click into fourth gear and pull away… All those sort of tales made it a very exciting vehicle.”
One of the most famous Vincents has been delivered to Jay’s garage, courtesy of its owner Richard Fitzpatrick in Texas. This is Marty Dickerson’s Blue Bike, on which he set a Class C record for lightly modified machines running on pump fuel of 129mph in 1951. In 1953, still on pump gasoline, he raised this to 147.85mph. We’ll meet the Blue Bike again tomorrow.
Waiting by the side of the road / For day to break so we could go / Down into Los Angeles / With dirty hands and worn out knees – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Crawling Back to You’
We’re going out to the desert. A visit to the desert is always a wondrous experience for the British, because we don’t have landscape like this in our damp little island. El Mirage dry lake bed, 2800 feet up in the high Mojave, is Los Angeles’ mini-Bonneville Salt Flats; it’s here that the Blue Bike will be reunited with Marty, who is now 92, for the first time in many years. Our director David has met Marty several times before; even riding with him in France in the early 80s, on Vincents. Marty bought the Blue Bike as a Series B Rapide when he was 22, in 1948, and soon modified it for Bonneville runs. It was 20 years before his 147mph mark was broken, and it took a Yoshimura Kawasaki Z1 to do it.
Around 1950 Marty had the motorcyclist’s dream job – he was paid to go street racing. Vincent dealer Mickey Martin funded Marty to take the Rapide through the south-western states of America to tempt Harley-Davidson and Indian riders to challenge him to drag races on public roads, often at night, to get the Vincent talked about. The suckers had no idea what an engineering advance the Vincent represented in comparison to the archaic American V-twins, and Marty beat ‘em all [read our story on the ‘Blue Bike’ here].
We film Marty talking to Philip Vincent’s grandson, not only about his relationship with Vincent himself – “talking to him was just like to talking to you now,” he says, eerily – but the time he raced against motorcycle-mounted cops, who had heard of ‘that guy with the British bike’ who was beating all-comers. Just before they set off Marty, with his typical wry bluntness, checked with the cops: ‘If I beat you, are you going to give me a ticket?’ They said no. So Marty beat the Indian-mounted police in an illegal drag race. And they all went their separate ways.
There is a beautiful moment when Philip walks across the desert floor to meet the man to whom his grandfather uttered the immortal words, “Son, speed is expensive.” Philip Vincent said it when Marty asked him if he could have go-faster parts for his Rapide. “What he said was so true,” Marty reminisces.
There are a few other Vincents here on this day in the desert. One started as a 1948 Black Shadow, which Greg McBride has built into a road-legal machine based on the ‘Bathing Suit’ Black Lightning of the 150mph record breaker Rollie Free. Greg’s bike has an electric starter, a Manx Norton-style handlebar nacelle, and a seat made by Michael Maestas, in California. The engine was rebuilt by the late Mike Parti – Steve McQueen, Bud Ekins and Jay Leno were among his clients – and features Terry Prince cylinder heads with squish combustion chambers, bigger valves, an 8.5:1 compression ratio, Mk II 32mm Amal carburetors, a twin-plug conversion by Pazon in New Zealand, and a multiplate clutch from Coventry Spares in Massachusetts.
Purists might look down on this bike, but Greg is rightly proud of what he has achieved. “It wasn’t a matching numbers bike, so it was a great candidate for this project,” he says. “It’s a loose interpretation of the Rollie Free bike, but it’s legal to ride on the street. Seeing that picture of Rollie as a kid made me want a Vincent. It’s about that whole mythical crap behind the Vincent. And so much of it was true.”
By the time we’ve finished filming Marty, dusk is falling over the Mojave, and there is little time to film Greg. He still wants to fire the bike up, however, and the sound of that V-twin motor blatting through 2in-diameter pipes reminds us of why they named the Vincent ‘The Snarling Beast’ back in the day. Greg takes off in the gathering gloom, leaving dust trails as he guns the bike through the gears. In the distance he turns round and the noise and the dust come back towards us. He does a few runs at over 80mph, helmetless, and he isn’t using the headlight. “That’s risky,” Marty opines. Yes, it is, but exposure to Vincents seems to bring on extreme behavior.
West LA fade away / West LA fade away / Big red light on the highway, little green light on the freeway – The Grateful Dead, ‘West LA Fadeaway’
Today we have a simple 40-minute drive to Pomona and the NHRA drag racing museum. Another famous Vincent, the Barn Job, is displayed here and its owner John Stein is waiting at the entrance to greet us. John has authored a book, ‘Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History’, that chronicles quarter-mile heroics in the USA. He especially likes the maverick early days of drag racing. “The riders were like gunslingers from the Wild West,” he says. “They all had a certain swagger. They were a cult as interesting as the machines themselves.”
“Drag racing in the early days was like Bonneville, in that there were no books on how to build a bike or a car. They were strangers in a strange land. They were feeling their way through it. They didn’t have dynos or flow benches, and it was all done by intuition. The Barn Job is the drag bike in terms of how it performed,” he asserts. “The bike was the first to go 140, 150 and 160mph. It was the loudest, meanest machine there was.”
The Barn Job’s builder, Clem Johnson, based it on a 1954 Rapide and modified it for the new sport of drag racing. Over the years he boosted the capacity from the standard 61 cubic inches to 96 (1573cc), went to nitromethane fuel, fitted a Magnusson supercharger, fuel injection, an alloy frame that doubled as a fuel tank, and a front down tube that carried the oil. He made his own flywheels, valves, pistons and cams, and lightened the bike to only 260lb.
Jim Leineweber rode the Barn Job to its fastest ever pass, at 8.40s and a terminal of 187mph, shortly before the bike’s last run in 1987. ‘”It’s a jewel, ain’t it,” Jim, now 82, says as he gazes down at the Barn Job. I was interested in Jim’s riding technique on the bike, given that in the pioneering era of drag racing slipper clutches and specialized transmissions were not available. Riders and drivers used the rear tyre as a clutch, smoking the rubber all the way through the quarter in a single-gear pass.
“I only ever rode it in high gear,” Jim confirms. ‘The bike had that Vincent clutch that would slip and burr, and then it would start spinning the tyre a little ways out. A lot of guys popped the clutch and spun, but I would ride the clutch, bring the engine up over 5000rpm and drive it with the power.”
Artist, former Clash bassist and keen motorcyclist Paul Simonon has already been interviewed for the film – he’s producing litho cuts of the bikes – and today we were joined by another rock legend, Daniel Ash, formerly of Bauhaus. A Brit, now living in California, Daniel has a fleet of bikes, and for a brief period owned a Vincent Comet. “I was busy with the band, and moving to the USA – so that meant I had to sell it,” he relays. “Do I regret selling it? Do you need to ask?…”
Welcome to the Hotel California / You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave – The Eagles, ‘Hotel California’
It’s our last day. Tonight we must fly back to England. The Southern California Vincent fraternity have been generous to us beyond all expectations, but they’re not finished with us yet. We’re heading south across LA to visit another Vincent owner, Rob Arnott, who recalls: “I was in my mid-thirties in the 1990s when I bought my first Vincent. It was a Black Shadow, and for a time it was my daily rider. What an innovation the monoshock frame was.”
“I marvel at what the performance would have been by the standards of the era when the Black Shadow was launched – 125mph when a Ferrari would barely break 100mph, and a Harley 74 would only do 85 or 90. The best thing about a Vincent? The way it does everything right. The package – handling, performance, aesthetics – was so far ahead of its time. The worst thing about the Vincent? They went out of business.”
With that we head north to Bill Easter’s home just south of LAX. Bill edits the SoCal Vincent club’s newsletter and has a Black Shadow famed in Vincent circles for having covered some 420,000 miles, owned by him since the late 1950s. Here we meet John Griffiths, a Welshman who emigrated to the USA, and who raced Vincents and worked on the production line in the Stevenage factory. Now in his early nineties, but with a mind as sharp as ever, John tells young Philip: “Your grandfather was a brilliant man with original ideas, and that’s rare.”
Why did the Vincent factory fail in 1955, despite all the rave road test reviews and the speed records? “Your grandfather wasn’t a businessman,” John tells Philip. “There were a number of faults in the business plan. Their hiring methods were wrong, and aspects of the bike were over-engineered. When sales were diminishing, he borrowed more money.”
Now it’s time for the final ten-minute sprint to LAX. It’s been a vivid five days, and we’ve got a stack of material for our documentary: Vincent factory hands, record setters, long-term owners and fans – and a real sense of how important the West Coast is to the Vincent story. For our documentary, Philip and co-producer Gerry Jenkinson have logged, restored and digitized hours of period footage shot by Philip Vincent himself, much of which shows his own travels and love affair with America, and with California in particular during the 1940s and 50s. This archive, and Philip’s interviews with the men and women who worked with the grandfather he never met, will make our documentary a compelling insight into the most charismatic of motorcycles and the man behind them.
The trip has also raised questions. Why didn’t a British motorcycle maker recruit Philip Vincent when his own factory failed? Why did British factories continue making parallel-twins, which vibrated more with every increase in power and capacity, instead of following Vincent’s lead and making V-twins? The collapse of the British motorcycle industry in the 1970s might have been avoided.
As we board the plane I’m thinking of a quote that came from James Salter somewhere on all those freeway miles. James said: “They made ‘em fast in England. Then they came to Southern California and we made ‘em faster.” So right. LA and its Vincent fraternity and history will pull us back.
We’ll carry more updates on shooting of SpeedisExpensive: The Untold Story of the Vincent Motorcycle over the coming months. Check out www.speedisexpensive.com, also it’s on Facebook and on Instagram @speed_is_expensive. The film is due out next year.