I first wrote about Montlhéry as a motorcycle magazine journalist in 1992. It was the 40th anniversary of the Vincent H.R.D. works’ 24-Hour record attempt in May 1952 with a couple of Black Shadows at the banked autodrome some eighteen miles south of Paris. Twenty-seven years later, on a Friday afternoon in June 2019, I was blatting down the old Route Nationale 20 from Paris with Philip Vincent-Day behind me, on our way to the Café Racer Festival at the old autodrome where his grandfather had taken the works record team on that hot weekend in 1952.

Philip Vincent-Day, grandson of  HRD-Vincent founder Philip Vincent, with a Vincent Black Prince on sale at the Cafe Racer Festival.  Don’t criticize the handling! [Prosper Keating]
Phil needed to be there in his capacity as Associate Producer of the documentary film-in-progress Speed Is Expensive, produced and directed by David Lancaster. The film crew intended to record the Café Racer Festival’s tribute to the late Vincent and Egli-Vincent specialist Patrick Godet. Dozens of Egli-Vincent and Vincent riders would gather and do a Lap of Honour in Godet’s memory, with Fritz Egli himself leading the pack on his sidecar outfit. I wish I could tell you that Phil and I were on a Vincent but neither of us has a Vincent on the road at the moment. We were on an ex-French Gendarmerie BMW R80 G/S from 1981, which is almost as old today as the two original Montlhéry Black Shadows were when I wrote about the 1952 record attempt. Phil has an Egli-Comet project in hand and plans to get his father’s old Series C Rapide back from its current owner in the United States. I am bringing a 1936 TT Comet back to life. I suppose we ought to have taken my Norton-Triumph Special, consisting of a 1937 Norton fitted with a 1939 Triumph twin motor, but she hasn’t a pillion seat. As for the 1936 Velocette KSS in my Paris garage, one look from Phil at the tiny bum pad on the rear mudguard was enough. We were going there in German style.

Prosper Keating on a very special pre-war racing Triumph with a McCandless rear suspension conversion. [Prosper Keating]
We were pushing the speed a bit that Friday because Lancaster wanted to profit from the general public’s absence to film a couple of Vincent 1000s on the Montlhéry banking as a visual reference to the May 1952 record attempt. These mood shots would complement original footage shot by Philip Vincent himself, which the Vincent-Day family have lent for the Speed Is Expensive documentary. Anyway, I haven’t received any speeding tickets yet. The two Vincent Black Shadows used at Montlhéry in 1952 still exist but the Speed Is Expensive team would be employing stand-ins: Patrick Godet’s very fast Black Lightning replica and a rare 1948 Series B Black Shadow from the first production batch, which was the first of the new model to be imported into France by the firm’s Paris agent Clément Garreau. Today, the B Shadow is owned by the ineffably elegant Dominique Malcor. Her nickname is Le Reine Mathilde and she looks as if she just rolled out of Garreau’s Paris emporium on the rue Robert-Lindet in the city’s 15th arrondissement: sensitively and accurately restored, lovingly maintained and ridden not hidden. The lines of the Godet Lightning replica, which is street-legal, vaguely evoke those of the two Shadows prepared as production racer by the works for the 1952 record attempt.

The Godet Black Lightning done in the spec of the Montlhéry record-breakers – quite a cafe racer! [Prosper Keating]
Phil’s grandfather was inspired to bring his Black Shadows to Montlhéry by the performance there the previous year of Clément Garreau’s son-in-law Gustave Lefèvre on a Black Lightning. Lefèvre was one of the riders chosen for the May 1952 record bid. Almost forty years later, fellow works team rider Vic Willoughby, a prewar Brooklands Gold Star winner and thus familiar with banked circuits, told me: “I tucked my elbows in and got my chin down. Took a look at the speedo on the straight: showed a hundred and thirty. Around the banking. Everything was nice so I just resigned myself to a monotonous ride. The thing that worried me about Montlhéry was the lack of crash barriers, especially on the banking. Nothing to stop you flying off the top and landing in the treetops! Anyway, I’m going round and round, everything going nicely, getting the thumbs up––that was about the only signal from the pits––when, all of a sudden, on the banking at just over a hundred and twenty, the bike locked as solid as could be and I just got the clutch out, weaving all over the place! Jesus, my heart was in my mouth as I pulled in!”

Fritz Egli and Phil Vincent-Day share a laugh at the Vincent tent. [Prosper Keating]
As predicted by works racers like George Brown and others, the standard uncaged roller big end had failed around six hours. It was one of the hottest weekends on record and the temperatures in the concrete bowl were brutal, which was no good for the engine oil. Being a man of honour, Philip Vincent had rejected all advice to fit caged roller big ends, insisting that the Shadows remain as close to production specification as possible. The team carried on with the second Shadow, which lasted just over ten hours. The firm failed to capture the 24-Hour record but took a number of other records. However, it was a disappointment. As Willoughby said: “Vincents would have had a wonderful bit of publicity if Vincent hadn’t insisted on his standard engine! After the first engine seized up, they decided to just break the records comfortably, keeping the speed down to just over a hundred mph. They beat all the records until the second big end seized up at ten and a quarter hours, as predicted.” 

One of Dick Shepherd’s beautiful Triumph, in this case a unique first-year Bonneville (1959), painted in blue as a design study. [Prosper Keating]
While the Speed Is Expensive team were filming, I wandered off to chat with Triumph collector Dick Shepherd, who had brought several of his Triumph Bonnevilles to Montlhéry as part of Triumph’s celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Bonneville at the 2019 Café Racer Festival. Montlhéry seemed an appropriate venue because Triumph chose the French venue for the 1949 launch of the 650cc Thunderbird. And, of course, the Bonneville was named for the records set on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1956 by Johnny Allen in his Thunderbird-powered Streamliner. Shepherd, who could be said to have made the Triumph museum in Hinckley possible by lending so many of his Coventry and Meriden models to the firm, has also supported the development of the Brooklands circuit into a going concern, which has protected it from property speculators and redevelopers like those who wanted to get their hands on the Montlhéry site before a wider public realised what an important part of the nation’s heritage it is. “I think what they are doing here is very good!” said Shepherd.” It’s a very historic race track, especially for Triumph because they came over here in 1949 with the Thunderbirds. We came back here past year with one of those Thunderbirds and we rode her around the circuit. It’s like Brooklands. It must be kept. The French are putting a lot into this. We’ve been coming here now for three years and we’ve noticed more and more people coming from all around Europe and even further: Australia, New Zealand, the United States. It’s a great show.”

 

Dave Degens of Dresda fame with one of his Honda specials. [Prosper Keating]
For this year’s Café Racer Festival and the Triumph Bonneville anniversary, Shepherd brought several of his early, pre-unit Bonnevilles, including the first production machine, the royal blue and pearl-grey T120 displayed for several years in Triumph MD Edward Turner’s office at Meriden. Get Shepherd talking motorbikes and the inveterate petrolhead comes out to play: “It’s the first one built and it’s the only one this colour! The Americans didn’t like the colour scheme so they went for the tangerine and pearl grey for the production batch and then, mid-season, they went back to this royal blue and pearl grey scheme. Perhaps they should have stuck with the original colour because it’s very nice!” We then drifted off the subject, chatting about what the balance factor of my Vincent H.R.D. TT Comet crank should be, given its shaved flywheels.

Checking over the Series B Black Shadow. [Prosper Keating]
Looking at Shepherd’s Bonnies reminded me of 1994 when I crashed my 1961 Bonnie during a fast demonstration lap at a Coupe Moto Légende rally. My T120R had started life as one of the Redhill Motors racers although I did not know this at the time. It was just a very fast bike with various polished and lightened internals, needle roller layshaft bearings and so on. I was accelerating out of the chicane when a wine-soaked native on a Kawasaki two-stroke triple cut me up, forcing me off the concrete onto the grass, where I lost traction and came off because of the torrential rain that morning. It was a simple matter to beat the bent footrest straight with a rock but the handlebar was a goner. The Parisian parts dealer Corbeau donated a handlebar so I could ride home to London. I have lived in Paris for some years so Montlhéry is not as far away. Just as I used to ride from London to the old Brooklands circuit on cool nights and sit on the banking, communing with the ghosts, I often visit the French autodrome where I imagine the sounds and smells of the past. If I have laced my fuel with Castrol R, an old poseur’s trick, I don’t have to imagine so hard.

[David Lancaster’s iPhone video of a Godet Black Lightning about to hit the track at the Montlhéry Cafe Racer Festival 2019]

There were too many people about that weekend so the ghosts stayed away but when Phil had finished filming, we walked about looking at all sorts of fabulous motorbikes, old and new, including the second-last Vincent Black Prince made by his grandfather’s firm. A rather intense-looking man was photographing the For Sale notice on the Prince and asking aloud if the low mileage was genuine. Knowing the machine, I assured him it was and opined that given the handling characteristics of the Series D models, previous owners were probably scared of it. Replying that he had a Black Prince and that we clearly knew nothing about Vincents, the potential new owner flounced away. Someone once described the Series D Vincents as conforming to the definition of a camel as a horse designed by committee. We felt reasonably qualified to comment: the Series D Vincents had heralded the end of Phil’s grandfather’s dreams and a Black Prince had nearly been the end of me when I test-rode it from London to Western Brittany in 1990.

Dave Degens, cafe racer hero. [Prosper Keating]
I remembered the story Ted Davis told me about road-testing the Series D prototype. Ted had ridden the machine up the Great North Road from Stevenage to Scotch Corner and back one quiet Sunday, a round distance of just over 400 miles. Along the way, he had removed the side panels and the windscreen because of the scary handling characteristics in cross winds. He said he had hidden them under hedges along the way, intending to retrieve them later. Back at the works, Ted had spent the night fitting the prototype with an aluminum dustbin racing fairing of unknown provenance. Not only did it enhance the Black Knight’s appearance but a quick blast up the main road confirmed Ted’s expectations of wildly improved aerodynamics and handling. When Mister Vincent came out of his house adjoining the works on Monday morning, Ted proudly showed off his handiwork. “Mister Vincent looked at me and then, without a word, went into one of the workshops, leaving me standing there. He came out a moment later with a lump hammer and calmly and methodically reduced the aluminium fairing to misshapen scrap. He handed the hammer to one of the lads watching and went about his morning rounds. Of course, what you have to remember about Mister Vincent was that, as brilliant as he certainly was, he couldn’t ride a motorbike after his accident.”  Ted’s story was confirmed in 2016 by Isle of Man TT champion Ernest Allen, who worked at the factory and was Ted’s racing partner, clocking up over forty victories on their Black Lightning-Watsonian outfit, a machine very familiar to Young Phil and myself. Phil and I went off and sat in the sun with Fritz Egli. I asked Fritz what he thought of Phil’s Egli-Comet project, given his grandfather’s withering disapproval of the installation of his engines in any rolling chassis other than his own spring-frame design. Fritz smiled. Then he started laughing. Turning to Phil, he asked: “You got a frame from Godet?”. “Yes.”, replied Phil, “I bought a Comet engine and gearbox and sent it to Patrick. His lads are going to finish it for me.” Egli smiled. “Wonderful! That’s wonderful!”

With the gorgeous 1948 Series B Black Shadow. [Prosper Keating]
Not many people know that Fritz Egli built a few Comet-powered specials in the 1960s. An Egli-Comet built by his English partner Roger Slater did very well in the 1970 Barcelona 24-Hour race. “But that bike doesn’t exist now,” said Fritz. “Yes it does!” I assured him, “It’s in London. And it’s a runner.” Fritz grinned even wider. There was also a Barcelona 24-Hour winner at the Café Racer Festival in the shape of Dave Degens, who won the 1965 race at Montjuic on his Manx Norton-framed 650cc Dresda Triton, making a Dresda Triton the machine of choice for many a Ton-Up Boy and Rocker in ‘Sixties Britain. Like Egli, whose specials were not exclusively Vincent-powered, Degens fitted various motors to his Norton Featherbed-framed specials, as the Dresda Honda displayed near Dick Shepherd’s Bonnevilles reminded us. However, Dave Degens’ name will always be associated with Tritons, just as Fritz Egli will forever be associated with Vincents, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Frenchman Patrick Godet, himself a highly talented Clubman racer in his youth, like Egli and Degens. Over the years, the French have been very closely involved with British motorcycling and racing. The French police and armed forces used British machines as well as BMWs. The speed freaks of the Moto Club de Paris before and after World War Two and other groups were keen buyers of cammy Nortons, Triumph Tiger 100s and Vincent 1000s. Some of the fastest British Clubman specials ever raced were assembled in France in the 1940s and 1950s by tuners like Bernard Feuiltaine, who even cast and machined his own Triumph GP-style cylinder heads. One of the only men alive to duel with and win against ex-works rider and World Champion racer John Surtees on Black Lightnings was another Frenchman, the Yamaha racer Hubert Rigal, riding Godet’s Black Lighting replica.

Prosper Keating with his Velocette KSS at Montlhéry in 2018. [Yan Morvan]
Some visitors and exhibitors to the 2019 Café Racer Festival moaned about the high visibility of large scale exhibitors like Harley Davidson, Indian and BMW whose histories, albeit illustrious, don’t have much to do with the traditional café racer scene as many bikers see it. But Triumph was there too, rendering homage to the Bonneville, which was one of the production bikes coveted by Rockers in Britain, France, the United States and lots of other countries. It is too easy for purists to say that the Café Racer Festival should be called the Factory Custom Show or that Café Racer magazine is too full of Hipster types on butchered BMWs. However, anything that promotes motorcycling in today’s increasingly repressive environment and helps to save treasures like Montlhéry from the developers and speculators who would level it all flat to build commuter housing, is a good thing. It ill-behoves us to sneer just because our leathers are more weathered and our bikes more ‘authentic’. Yes, it is irritating when event officials bar anyone whose crash helmet is over two years old from the track because of arbitrary insurance diktats but on the positive side, there is far less risk today of being run off the track by drunks. In any case, nit-picking rules were just as strictly applied back in the day when these old circuits were still approved for professional racing. Today, no insurer would cover serious racing on a circuit like Montlhéry, so public events like the Café Racer Festival are a vital part of preserving this heritage by making it commercially viable. We should support the efforts of the people who work so hard so make these events happen in the face of seriously obstructive bureaucracy and dodgy vested interests.

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