Vintagent – wither the term? It was in currency in the 1930s in British automotive publications, and as noted in the following article there were already clubs formed to promote the reputations of automobiles of certain eras as ‘vintage’ – defined in Webster’s dictionary as “adj: of old, recognized, and enduring interest, importance, or quality.”  The term begs the question, what machinery qualifies?  In the motorcycle world, Vintagents were late to the scene, as noted in the article reproduced below, which is the first mention of the term Vintagent as applied to motorcyclists: all credit to staff writer Dennis May.

The original article in The Motor Cycle, illustrated with 8 machines, six of which your editor has owned…being a Vintagent himself apparently. [The Motor Cycle]

From the Dec. 16 1943 edition of The Motor Cycle – By Dennis May

In the car world they have a thing called the vintage cult.  Its members, an ardent and disdainful body of men, style themselves Vintagents.  A Vintagent is a citizen who turns misty-eyed and maudlin in the presence of a 30-98 Vauxhall, reaches instinctively for a bell, book, and P.100 Lucas [car headlamp – ed.] at the sight of a sibilating soft-sprung roadster, and hangs admiringly upon Mr Forrest Lycett’s Bentleygyrics in the dear-sir columns of The Autocar, a collection of despatches which, if piled one on top of another, would make a smashing bonfire.

The 1923 Vauxhall 30-98, 900lbs lighter than a Bentley with similar power, a car worth of cult status. [Supercars.net]
Where is the motor cycling vintage cult, if any? What were the vintage years of our industry? How, in your own mind, would you define a vintage motor cycle? Upon which particular models would you confer the title ‘vintage’?

If we take ‘cult’ to mean an articulate and vocal body of opinion, then, obviously, no such thing exists as the motor cycling vintage cult.  What, on the other hand, does exist is a substantial school of thought which, perhaps perversely and irrationally, insists on preferring, say, the 1931 Whatsit to its 1939 antetype. In the eyes of that school, then, 1931 will be a vintage year in the annals of the Whatsit factory.  A cold-blooded comparative analysis may show that the 1939 model was faster, better braked, more comfortable and better protected than the 1931, but your Vintagent hasn’t cold blood and he doesn’t analyse – he is a creature of instincts and capricous zests.  Perhaps if he did start analysing he would find that it was the relative discomfort and poor protection of the earlier model, together, perhaps, with a certain clean-cut classicism of line, that endeared it to him. Vintagents are odd in some ways.  You mustn’t coddle them and expect any thanks for it.

From the VMCC website: “On 28th April 1946, a band of 38 enthusiasts assembled at the Lounge Cafe, Hog’s Back, Guildford, Surrey, with the object of forming a Motor Cycle Club for owners of machines manufactured prior to December 1930.” [VMCC]
Though the motor cycling Vintage cult undoubtedly exists, it is an underground movement – unsung, unpropagated, inarticulate. Its members, unlike the too-vocal car Vintagents, do not form themselves into clubs and pin badges on themselves and declaim a clamant gospel in the public prints. [It would only take 3 years for that to happen…ed.]

The 1912 B.A.T.-J.A.P….an ideal? [The Motor Cycle]
Now for the question No. 2 – what were the vintage years? Perhaps the only reasonable answer would be that the vintage years were what any individual rider chooses to think, and good luck to him if he ups and proclaims the 1911 B.A.T.-J.A.P. a shining vintage example.  But no, I’m not having that.  Ordinary common sense, sone shred of which even a confirmed Vintagent like myself must retain, cries aloud that a 1911 B.A.T.-J.A.P. viewed in the light of modern motor cycle performance could in no sense be deemed a desirable property.  Of course it is important to have tasted the best that the immediate pre-war designs had to offer if one’s avowals of vintagism are to carry conviction.  The owner of a 1932 Model 18 Norton who boasts of it as the superior of a 1939 OHC, then admits to having never ridden anything later than ’35, can legitimately be pooh-poohed.  For my part, I would rate the decade from 1925 to 1935 as the vintage epoch of motor cycling history.  That was the period, in other words, which produced the greatest number of machines that, give the choice, I would own in preference to the pick of 1939’s.

The original Rudge racing replica, the 1929 Ulster, based closely on Graham Walker’s factory racer, the first machine to average 80mph in a Grand Prix race. [Paul d’Orleans]
When it comes to defining a vintage motorcycle the temptation is strong to forestall the execration of the Editor’s correspondents by writing the matter off as one of purely personal opinion; and after mentally trying over a few tags suitable to such occasions (de gustibus, etc, or perhaps quot homines, etc), and rejecting them all as badly shop-worn, one is right back where one started.  Perhaps the issue might be narrowed by asserting that vintage machinery burgeons exclusively in the thoroughbred class, which is practically the same as saying the race-bred class. I don’t ever remember The Motor Cycle applying that epithet ‘thorough bred’ to any mount of non-racing pedigree, good though many of these undoubtedly are and were.  It would not, of course, be true to say that all, or even most, race-developed products qualify for the exclusive vintage class, whether or not produced during the decade specified.

A picturesque stop in Glacier National Park, your editor and the 1925 Brough Superior SS100 he rode across the USA in the 2018 Motorcycle Cannonball. [Paul d’Orleans]
And now for some examples, chosen more or less at random and without regard to chronology: The early International Nortons, circa 1934 and thereabouts. The hottest and least luxuriously equipped S.S.100 Brough Superior of 1926 et seq. yclept Pendine [yclept being olde English for ‘by the name of’ – ed.]. The 350 big port A.J.S. of the latish ‘twenties; the Flying Eight Coventry-Eagle with long-stroke overhead-valve J.A.P. motor – roughly 1928, speaking from memory (an exception this to the race-bred rule); and the pre-saddle-tank 350 Cotton-Blackburne, catalogue version of the mount that won Stanley Woods his first T.T.  The pre-low frame two-port Sunbeam five-hundred, preferably the one with a small taper tank; the 499cc T.T. Replica Rudge with the radial valves and spidery exhaust pipes, which really was a replica of the Senior winners of that era, except, perhaps, in some of the materials used; and the road-equipped edition of the dirt-track Douglas of the early ‘thirties, called the S.W. if I remember rightly (you very seldom saw one on the road)’ this job was sold primarily as a grass-trackster, but the scantily shod, mudguarded and muffled version which I was lucky enough to ride a time or two – thanks to Francis Beart, its owner – was a most exuberant piece of machinery.  And the least bulbous and elaborate of the early O.E. C.s with naked pushrod 350cc Blackburne engine, contemporary of the Cotton recalled above.

Stanley Woods in the 1921 Isle of Man TT aboard his flat-tank Cotton with Blackburne motor. [The Vintagent Archive]
Of Scotts I shall say nothing, beyond confessing that one Scott is very much like any other to me. And if this heresy doesn’t petrify the whole passionate army of Scott fans in their tracks, they are at liberty to take the dangerously esoteric subject off my hands an into the Correspondence pages.

Reverting from the particular to the general, it will probably be asked: ‘What did these relics of the motor cycling Middle Ages have that the moderns haven’t got?’  Frankly, nothing.  Rather, their attraction for us stubborn Vintagents lies in what they didn’t have.  They shared almost to a bike that lean and hungry look…not a surplus pound of what the ads for slimming diets call Ugly Fat.

The ultra-rare 1925 Sunbeam ‘Crocodile’ OHC racer your editor was privileged to ride in the Auerberg Klassik Hillclimb last September. An example of a wholly uncluttered machine, although the rider has gained a bit of Ugly Fat in his middle…years. [Uwe Rattay]
They were simple and uncluttered with gadgets and accessories of the kind that make good sales talk for slick-suited spilers [salesemen – ed.] on the Earls Court stand, but are neither here nor there when you’re battling into a barrage of gale-borne sleet at sixty.  Their unpretentious starkness bore testimony to the designer’s conviction that  motor cycle should be a motor cycle and not a single-track chaise longe.

A rolling chaise longe, for sure! A typical 1970s Harley-Davidson Big Twin tourer, in this case ‘Lee Roy’, an original paint Electra Glide I road tested in 2010. [The Vintagent Archive]
The contempt of the Vintagent – contempt is scarcely too strong a word – for what he considers overblown moderns is analogous to the contempt of the sailing dinghy owner for a puttering cabin cruiser with inbuilt cocktail cabinet and electric gramophone.  Surplus avoirdupois, under which heading he lumps all poundage not directly contributory to performance in the purest sense, appears to him as anachronistic as an air-conditioning plant on a trotting gig [lightweight horse cart – ed.]. An incorrigible puller-to-pieces to see what makes the wheels go round, he deplores with great oaths the tendency to put a sheetmetal box round any or every part of the motor cycle which might remind you that it is a machine.  He remembers with unfeigned nostalgia an era when pushrods were not shamed to be seen pushing in public, rockers rocking and springs springing.

Motorcycle Cannonball II pre-1930 Coast-to-Coast Endurance Run. Stage 10 – Yellowstone, WY to Jackson, WY. USA. September 17, 2012. Paul d’Orleans riding his 1933 Velocette Mk4 KTT – a thoroughbred machine if ever there was one. [Michael Lichter]
To a true dyed-in-the Ethyl Vintagent, the faults of his vintage motor cycle are almost as dear as its virtues.  Indeed, when that little word ‘ideal’ starts peppering the Correspondence pages, signifying a fresh campaign of designer-chasing, I am sometimes pessimistic enough to wonder whether in the course of years our Turners and Heathers and Goodmans may wearily succumb to this constant tyrannous importunity and eradicate the whole gamut of lovable faults that have made the modern motor cycle what it is.

But no, perish the thought!

Surely they couldn’t be so heartless…

Dennis May

 

 

 

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