The Vincent Black Shadow Engine of Saigon
Enter the dangerous world of 1950s Ho Chi Minh City, and trace the history of a rare Vincent Black Shadow engine.
It’s every motorcyclist’s dream: The classic bike parked and forgotten, waiting to be discovered and turned loose on the road again. In “The Vincent in the Barn,” Tom Cotter has chased down 40 great stories of old bikes and the collectors who unearthed them.
Photo courtesy Motorbooks
Every motorcyclist dreams of hearing the magic phrase: “You know, I know where there’s this old bike that’s been sitting at the back of this garage for years …” With those momentous words, the hunt begins. Too often the machine revealed is a worthless Hondazukimaha pile of hopeless oxidation, but sometimes, it’s a collector’s dream: a genuine classic motorcycle. The Vincent in the Barn (Motorbooks, 2009) by Tom Cotter offers 40 stories of motorcycle-hunting dreams come true. In this excerpt from Chapter 2, “Intriguing Circumstances,” enter an abandoned warehouse in Ho Chi Minh City, and discover the story behind a rare Vincent Black Shadow engine.
The city of Saigon houses many secrets. In the early 1950s, the covert dramas playing out in the majestic city’s narrow streets included Corsican drug traffickers stalking American generals, CIA agents covertly supporting the French military who occupied the city, and Viet Minh revolutionaries plotting the downfall of the French.
In a back alley of this giant metropolis now known as Ho Chi Minh City, a crate was abandoned in a warehouse. The crate contained three Vincent motorcycle engines and a pile of other HRD parts that sat forgotten and periodically flooded by murky waters flowing up from the city’s underbelly.
While the engines filled with rotting vegetation, Saigon became a sweltering cauldron of unrest as the largely Buddhist population took increasing offense to the Catholic government.
By 1963, the fighting took to the streets as a coup d’état showered bullets on the walls of the city’s elegant cathedrals, hotels, and theaters. The president was unceremoniously dragged from the palace to be shot, stabbed, and buried in disgrace. Not long after people danced in the streets to celebrate the nation’s new government, those Vincent engines surfaced in a Saigon paper classified ad.
A sharp-eyed Vietnamese man by the name of Nguyen Van Nhon purchased the crate full of Vincent engines and did his best to sell them. He advertised them for sale in the Vincent Owner’s Club magazine, MPH. He claimed to be courting suitors for the engines from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
In letters Van Nhon sent to an American pilot, he described the engines in his possession. He expressed calculated passion for the Vincents, but he also understood the value of his find. In fact, this self-labeled “enthusiast” was doing his best to trade the Vincents for stereo equipment, cars, or motorcycles.
“I have purchased the three bikes last year because first I know it must be a very good and fast bike, a famous name,” Van Nhon wrote in a letter dated October 4, 1967. “Secondly it is something like ‘vintage’ and could not get now, especially new condition like this is almost impossible to find. It is the ‘prestige of the past’ that any motorcycle enthusiast like me or like any enthusiast would like to have.”
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