1955 Series D Vincent Rapide

Barn-find Vincent: The strange story of Jim Tenhoff’s 1955 Series D Vincent Rapide
By Greg Williams
November/December 2011

1955 Series D Vincent Rapide.
Photo by Rick Shunk
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1955 Series D Vincent Rapide
Claimed power:
45hp @ 5,300rpm
Top speed: 110mph
Engine: 998cc OHV air-cooled 50-degree V-twin
Weight (dry): 445lb (207kg)
Fuel Capacity: 4gal (15ltr)
Price then: $1,100 (approx.) – original U.S. (1955) list $1,495 (est.)
Price now: $15,000 - $50,000

The story of this particular 1955 Series D Vincent Rapide begins with the birth of James W. Tenhoff in Mountain Lake, Minn., in 1925. His father was a blind piano tuner, who Jim’s mother drove around the Midwest to tuning appointments in their Packard automobile.

Tenhoff suffered from Kallmann’s Syndrome, a condition that wasn’t even described until 1944. A genetic disorder, it leaves its victims short in stature and underdeveloped. While his peers grew normally, Jim stayed the same. By the time he was 18, he wasn’t much more than 3 feet 11 inches tall. When he spoke, it was in a high-pitched, feminine tone.

In 1943 Jim left home, traveling west to work in the Boeing aircraft factory in Seattle, Wash., where he helped assemble B-17 bombers. In an odd twist of fate, it was his small size that got him hired, as the Boeing factory needed small people who could work in tight places, like inside wings and other restricted spaces. People of Jim’s height were well suited to the task.

“I would think he was proud,” says Sid Chantland, a vintage motorcycle collector who, together with his father, Bob, came to befriend Jim in his later years. Jim, it turns out, was quite the motorcycle fan.

The Vincent pursuit 
In 1947, as he was preparing to leave Boeing for his return home to Mountain Lake, Jim bought a brand new BSA C11 — a 250cc OHV single-cylinder machine — and proceeded to ride it from Seattle to Mountain Lake.

During the nearly 1,600-mile journey, Jim shunned motels. Instead, he’d stop in a town and talk to the local police, and ask if the constabulary could put him up in one of their jail cells. According to Bob Chantland, Jim felt more secure using this unorthodox method of accommodation. Jim returned to his family home in Mountain Lake and continued to ride the BSA C11, but some nine years later he decided he wanted something bigger.

In 1956 he made a trip to England, touring the country and visiting various motorcycle retailers, specifically looking to purchase a fully enclosed Series D Vincent. On November 19, 1956, the manager of Conway Motors in Shepherds Bush (London) wrote Jim:

Dear Mr. Tenhoff, We note you have returned home after your extensive tour and assume, without a motorcycle. 

We are sorry to say all the Vincent Black Prince and Black Knight models have been sold. We can, however, offer at the time of writing a new Rapide at £234.16.0. The crating freight and insurance would cost approximately £50 to £60. 

Assuring you of our closest attention to your requirements. Yours faithfully, p.p. CONWAY MOTORS [signed S. Broomfield] Manager. 

Undaunted, Jim dashed off a letter to Vincent Engineers (Stevenage) Ltd. Although Vincent had quit making motorcycles in December 1955, the company was still in business and developing products. Jim inquired directly at the factory, wanting to know if there were any enclosed Series D Vincents available for sale. In a letter dated January 7, 1957, J. Bland, Vincent spares and service manager replied:

We thank you for your letter of the 2nd January with reference to obtaining a new “Black Prince” machine. 

We regret that to our knowledge, Messrs. Conway Motors are the only firm who had new enclosed machines in stock. We would mention that the enclosure can be fitted to the open Series “D” machines, but this works out in the neighbourhood of £95 in England. 

We feel that it would not be a satisfactory proposition for you to purchase your “Black Prince” in units such as the motor, cycle components, etc. and assemble them yourself. 

Regretting our inability to be of more assistance to you, we remain, Yours faithfully, for VINCENT MOTORS (STEVENAGE) LIMITED [signed JR Bland] J. BLAND SPARES & SERVICE MANAGER. 

Jim decided his next best option was the open Series D Vincent Rapide offered to him by Conway Motors. He sent them a check for $1,100 U.S., for which Conway sent a note of receipt on January 16, 1957. In a short letter, Conway Motors manager Broomfield told Jim his firm would “look into the seat question to see if we can do anything in this request.” Exactly what the request was is unknown, but it can be assumed Jim had asked if the saddle could somehow be altered to suit his height.

Perhaps not completely satisfied with his purchase of the Series D, Jim evidently dashed off another letter to Vincent, for in a reply dated January 29, 1957, Vincent sales manager J. Bland wrote:

We thank you for your letter and note that you have purchased an open Series “D” Rapide. 

To convert the engine to the same specification as a Series “D” Black Shadow or Black Prince the only modifications required are the polishing of the con rods, rockers, cam followers and valves. It would also be necessary to open out the inlet ports and carburettor stubs to 1 1/8” bore and to fit the type 389 Monobloc carburettors, part number P85/6. 

Assuring you of our best attention at all times, we are, Yours faithfully, for VINCENT MOTORS (STEVENAGE) LIMITED [signed JR Bland] J. BLAND SPARES & SERVICE MANAGER. 

Conway Motors shipped Jim’s Vincent, a holdover 1955 Series D Vincent Rapide, engine no. 11103, to his home in Mountain Lake, with the motorcycle arriving in the spring of 1957. That engine number is noteworthy — it places Jim’s Vincent as one of the last 31 machines to leave the Stevenage line in 1955 before the factory ceased motorcycle production in December that year.

Time passes 
It appears Jim never followed up on the instructions to convert his Series D Vincent Rapide to Vincent Black Shadow specification, and for whatever reason, he only added some 3,522 miles to the Smiths odometer. But for the miles he did add, before Jim got on his Vincent he would strap 4-inch wooden blocks to the heels of his boots so his feet would touch the ground from the saddle, the front of his feet free to operate the shifter and brake pedals.

Fourteen years later, Jim parked the Vincent, with a 1970 Minnesota plate still wrapped in its plastic wrapper bolted to the plate holder, next to his BSA C11 in his garage. He never rode it again.

Enter Vincent enthusiast Bob Chantland. In the early 1980s, Bob was given a tip about a “small guy” in Mountain Lake who owned a Vincent. On a return trip from an Antique Motorcycle Club of America meet in Le Mars, Iowa, Bob, together with some of his compatriots, stopped in Mountain Lake.

“It didn’t take long to find Jim,” Bob remembers. “I think I asked a couple of people, and they told me where he was. I knocked on the door, and eventually it opened. There was this short person, no hair on his face, and kind of breasty. He had big, soft, doe eyes, and a high pitched voice.”

Bob explained who he was and what he was doing. When Jim heard Bob had an old GMC motor home full of vintage motorcycles, he came out and met the rest of the group. At the time, Bob was vending antique motorcycle and bicycle items at swap meets, and he gave Jim an old Atomic Wing bicycle fender mud flap.

Jim took Bob to the garage, where under a dusty canvas tarp sat both the BSA and the Vincent. As he peeled back the covering, Bob says he could see the Vincent underneath. No other word but “mint” could do justice to the condition of the barely ridden Vincent he uncovered from its slumber, Bob says.

“I think I expressed interest in buying the Vincent at that point, and he said he didn’t want to sell,” Bob recalls. Bob left one of his business cards, which folded out to reveal the image of a Vincent motorcycle. That card, it turned out, would be an important piece of paper.

Changing hands 
Over the years, Bob, either by himself or accompanied by his son, Sid, would stop in and visit Jim. Other times, they exchanged cards and letters. Jim was certainly living on a shoestring budget, and for some 25 years Bob slipped a $20 bill into every Christmas card he sent to Jim.

It was Jim’s habit to borrow money, and at some point a “friend” loaned him a few hundred dollars. When Jim died in 2009, this person put a lien against both motorcycles and the Tenhoff’s old Packard, which Jim had kept. Jim was a bit of a hoarder, and not only did he keep things of monetary value, but also worthless bits of detritus, such as newspapers, odd bits of paper and milk jugs. His house was crammed to the ceiling with his hoardings.

A cousin of Jim’s came to look after the estate, and started hearing from the fellow who laid claim to the motorcycles and the car. Digging through just one of Jim’s paper piles, the cousin turned up Bob’s old business card with the Vincent on it. The phone number on the card was long disconnected, and Bob had moved, but the cousin tracked him down, leaving a message on Bob’s landline, a number Bob doesn’t often check for voice mail. The pair finally connected, and a discussion ensued about the true value of the motorcycles.

“Jim’s cousin was getting all kinds of advice, and it eventually went to court,” Bob says. “I wrote a long letter, describing my whole story, and eventually the lien holder threw in the towel; he just wanted what his money would be worth plus inflation.”

Bob stepped back, and any deal to get the Vincent became Sid’s to make.

Sid has bought many antique motorcycles and cars during his life, but never before had a deal gone up and down like the one he was trying to make for both the Vincent and the C11. Finally, on Feb. 7, 2011, both machines were Sid’s.

The Vincent in the barn 
“It’s a real Vincent in the barn,” Sid says of the Vincent, a reference to Tom Cotter’s book of the same name. “Somebody sprayed it down with oil, and it attracted every bit of dust and grime. It looks real dirty, but underneath all of that it’s in real nice condition.”

Sid and Vincent guru Steve Hamel went through the Amal 376 Monobloc carburetors and also drained the oil; the oil came out looking so fresh they just poured it right back in. Cleaning the gas tank was an easy chore, and soon it was time for Sid to host a “coming out” party. On April 23, 2011, the local Minnesota Vincent club gathered at Sid’s shop, where Steve dressed the points and checked the Vincent for spark — that was all the preparation given to the Series D Vincent Rapide.

Sid gave Steve the honor of kicking the Vincent to life, which it did on the first good heave, in the process perhaps shooting a giant hole in the theory of the necessity of proper engine pickling before long-term storage.

“It was quite bizarre,” Sid says. “After it blew all the crap out of the muffler it just settled down to an idle, and it’s one of the most mechanically quiet Vincents I’ve ever heard.” Sid has no plans to put Jim’s Series D on the road. “After years and years of people restoring this old stuff, what’s original kind of gets lost in the mix. It’s got the original tires on it, and it’s definitely a time capsule. If I got hit by a car I’d feel worse for the bike than I would for myself.”

Instead, Jim’s Vincent will be kept in “as found” condition, a tribute to a man who didn’t let his physical stature get in the way of his desire to ride a Vincent motorcycle. MC 


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