The Road Goes on Forever: Exploring the Texas Hill Country

Riding a 1975 Norton Commando 850 and a 1948 Vincent Rapide through the Texas Hill Country with friends.

Texas

1975 Norton Commando and 1948 Vincent Rapide in the Texas Hill Country.

Photo by Richard Backus

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According to the numbers, Texas is second only to California in population. Yet rolling through the fabled Texas Hill Country, that statistic seems improbable. The road in front of me is empty and serene, a winding ribbon of blacktop running through vast expanses of scrub land punctuated by huge ranches. If there are people here, they’re not showing themselves.

The numbers start to make sense, however, when you consider that Texas is almost 40 percent larger than California, second only to Alaska in terms of total area. And with the lion’s share of the population in the state’s eastern half, the western half, with the Hill Country running roughly across its midsection, has miles of empty roads. They’re perfect for the vintage Norton and Vincent that Mark Scott and I are piloting from his home in Austin to the 2016 North Texas Norton Owners Association and Lone Star Vincent Owners Club joint rally in Leakey, in the heart of the Hill Country.

This whole trip is something of a pinch me, an “is-this-really-happening?” experience set into motion when I made a date with famed Vincent collector and restorer Herb Harris in Austin to photograph his latest project, the Woodward Avenue Vincent. Good pal Mark had long tempted me with a Hill Country ride, and the window of opportunity to meet with Herb happened to match up perfectly with the Norton and Vincent rallies in Leakey. Talk about planetary alignment.

Westward ho!

Arriving at Mark’s home the day before our ride, he wheels out our bikes for the weekend, a 1948 Vincent HRD Rapide and a matching black 1975 Norton Commando 850 MK3 electric start. He picked up the Norton in 2009 and added the Vincent in 2011. Both are riders, wearing the scuffs of regular use proudly. The Vincent has been upgraded to Black Shadow specs, with Amal Concentric carburetors added to help civilize fueling, while the Norton is mostly stock, save for an upgraded starter along with 750 pipes and K&N air filters.

Mark opens the petcocks on both bikes and the Norton starts on the button, settling into a healthy burble, while the Vincent pops to life with just a few swings of the kickstarter. After a quick loop of Mark’s self-described “Isle of Mark,” a curvaceous 18-mile route on the edge of Lake Travis, we park the bikes and settle in for the night. This is going to be fun.

Thursday morning can’t come quick enough, and by 7 a.m. we’re loaded up and heading out, Mark on the Vincent while I ride the Norton. Mark’s good friend and regular partner in motorcycle madness David Zuck is performing sag wagon duties, a 1974 Kawasaki Z1 and Mark’s seriously upgraded 1927 Scott Flying Squirrel lashed to the trailer behind his truck. Happy to drive out, he’ll ride with us on the Z1 once we reach Leakey.

Breaking free of Austin traffic, Mark routes us onto the local back roads, eventually heading west on Hamilton Pool Road, then south on US 281 to Johnson City, the hometown of president Lyndon Baines Johnson. Traffic is light, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Commando, my bike of choice for some 15 years and easily one of the greatest motorcycles ever made. Mark’s Commando is everything I remember from a good Norton, with great road manners and a powerful, torquey twin. It’s smooth, too, thanks to Norton’s then-revolutionary Isolastic mounting system, which gave Norton’s old twin an extended lease on life.

Reminiscences

Powering down the back roads, it strikes me that our two bikes, though separated by almost 30 years, share similarities. In their respective eras, they were the ultimate expression of England’s motorcycle manufacturing prowess. The Series B Rapide was a revelation in 1946, a long-range sport-touring bike designed and built long before the term was even coined. In many ways the Commando continued that tradition, right to the bitter end of England’s once dominant industry.

The similarities extend to their specifications. In stock Rapide form the Vincent’s 998cc V-twin was rated at 45 horsepower and the Black Shadow 55 horsepower, while the Commando put out a claimed 60 horsepower from its 828cc parallel twin. The Norton’s higher compression ratio (8.5:1 against 6.45:1 for the Rapide, 7.3:1 for the Shadow) gives it added urge, but the torque values feel almost identical. There’s less than half an inch difference in wheelbase between the two, and with only around 5 pounds separating them they feel surprisingly similar on the move, their light weight augmented by a low center of gravity.

In Johnson City we join US 290 and head west for Fredericksburg, birthplace of World War II Admiral Chester Nimitz and home to the National Museum of the Pacific War. Founded by German immigrants in the mid-1800s, Fredericksburg is a time capsule, its main street a snapshot of life 100-plus years ago.

At SR 16 we head south to Kerrville, crossing the Guadalupe River for the run to Medina. The ridges are getting taller and the valleys deeper as we work our way into the heart of the Hill Country, the occasional ranch visible from the roadway. I notice that every ranch and farm flies the Texas flag, but they don’t all fly the American flag, a reminder that, first and foremost, we’re in Texas.

At Medina we turn southwest onto RR 337, rolling through the rising hills toward Vanderpool where we intersect with RR 187, turning right for the short 3-mile run north to the Lone Star Motorcycle Museum. Established by expat Australian Alan Johncock, the museum houses an impressive collection of mostly post-war British, European and American motorcycles. Alan’s particularly interested in vintage race bikes, having raced a Matchless G50 in AHRMA events with great success before retiring a few years ago. The museum is packed with examples of the world’s greatest machines from Norton, AJS, Douglas, Indian, Soyer, Vincent and more, all tucked away seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

We tour the museum shop with Alan, examining the remains of what he swears is a Brough Superior sitting forlornly on the shop floor, and then saddle up for the last leg of our ride to Leakey. We’re now riding three strong, having met up at the museum with Texas resident and Motorcycle Classics regular contributor Corey Levenson, who’s riding his new Motus. Leaving the museum, we double back a few miles and continue our westerly course on RR 337, the road rising steadily as we climb out of the Sabinal River valley. Hill Country vistas open up all around us, the winding road occasionally dropping into narrow clefts in the surrounding country before vaulting back up into the big Texas sky.

We’re riding a leg of The Twisted Sisters, a trio of roads (RR 335, RR 336 and RR 337) famous for everything you want in a good motorcycle route, with jaw-dropping scenery, more curves than straights, and more surprises than assurances. It is, in short, the proverbial roller coaster, winding up, down and around the Texas Hill Country before delivering us into the Frio River valley and Leakey, where we’ll join up with the Norton and Vincent crowd.

Leakey and beyond

We check into our digs at the Frio Pecan Farm, a collection of rental cabins nestled in a pecan grove in sight of the Frio River a mile east of Leakey. Mark’s good friend Chris Butler is waiting for us when we arrive, his 1967 Royal Enfield 750 Interceptor in tow. Dave catches up with us in the truck and we unload the Z1 and the Scott, then head out to ride the rest of The Twisted Sisters.

In Leakey we turn north onto SR 83, heading straight on RR 336 where SR 83 bends east a few miles later. This next piece of The Twisted Sisters runs 27 miles north, starting off easy and straight before turning into another roller coaster ride as it rips up, down and around ridges and hills. All too soon we hit SR 41, where we turn west for a sedate 14-mile ride to RR 335, the third of The Twisted Sisters.

At RR 335 we had back south. This 33-mile leg is probably the mellowest of the three, but it’s still huge fun and beautifully wild, and I’m amazed how few cars are on the road. Or for that matter motorcycles, especially with an expected horde of Nortons and Vincents descending on the area. At one juncture I jump ahead of the pack to find a suitable spot to stop and take pics of the group as they roll by.

The Norton, which has been running flawlessly, coughs and spits as I start it back up after my quick stop, and it’s clear something’s gone suddenly wrong. Power is off, and it’s all I can do to catch up with the group. At Camp Wood we swing into the local gas stop, pulling the spark plugs to check for any obvious issues. The right spark plug side electrode is touching the center electrode, suggesting something loose inside the cylinder closed it, but what? We can’t find anything, and after resetting the plug I fire the Norton back up. It’s better, but something’s still wrong. Heading back out, it occasionally runs perfectly, but then falls on its face, cutting to one cylinder. A few miles later we join up with RR 337 again, turning east for the final 21-mile ride back to Leakey. This western leg of RR 337 is another amazing roller coaster running through the Hill Country, but it’s hard to enjoy with the Norton running so poorly.

Rally time

Friday night is the Vincent rally, so we leave the Norton for the time being to join members of the Vincent and Norton clubs at the Frio Pecan Farm club house. Among the Vincents is Peter Allen’s 1936 Vincent HRD Series A Comet. Beautifully restored, it’s been upgraded for real road duty, with interesting modifications including a repurposed Honda clutch and 12-volt electrics. Peter also brings a surprise to the event, the ex-Rod Coleman 1951 AJS 7R, a true factory race bike ridden to a string of victories by Coleman, Bill Doran, Reg Armstrong and Bob McIntyre in 1951-1952. Allen fires it up for the crowd, the sharp bark from its single megaphone pipe drowning out any possible conversation. Fantastic.

The next morning we fiddle with the Norton to minor success, and Mark, eager to get back out for another run of The Twisted Sisters, decides to heck with it, telling me to take the Vincent while he rides the Norton. No arguments here. I’ve only ridden a few Vincents, and never very far, so this is a new experience for me. Mark’s bike fires up on the first kick, and heading north for RR 336 I take my time, adjusting to the bike and getting a feel for its personality. Shifting is predictably slow, but the shifts are smooth and the engagement solid. The undamped girder front end feels harsh and the brakes a bit weak, but otherwise the Vincent is spectacular, pulling strongly and revving easier than I expected.

As I settle into the Vincent, I start to really appreciate how advanced it was compared to its contemporaries back in 1948. It was — especially in Black Shadow trim — truly the sport bike of its day, faster and more capable than anything else on the road, and it feels surprisingly similar to the Norton: light, torquey and willing. We loop back to Leakey, where I’m joined by longtime friend Tara Bonin, now living in San Antonio, before heading back out for a two-up run with the rest of the group, the Vincent proving it’s just as fun and capable with two riders as one.

The Norton club pulls out the stops for its Saturday night shindig in Leakey, treating the assembled to a full pig roast and all the libations one could possibly want. Vincent and Norton club members line up for a group photo, then settle into a comfortable evening of eating, drinking and storytelling as stars fill the clear Texas sky.

Sunday comes all too soon, and before I know it Mark and I are packing for the return trip to Austin. The Norton’s still acting up, but it doesn’t seem to be getting worse. The ride back’s not as fast as the ride in, our tempo slowed thanks to the Norton’s misfiring. But we still have fun, Corey joining us on his Motus for the ride to Luckenbach, where he’ll peel off for San Antonio. Corey encourages me to take a turn on the Motus and it doesn’t disappoint, its 180 horsepower pushrod V-4 propelling it with serious urgency. Handling is crisp and confidence inspiring, and I can only imagine using all its capacity. I’m used to the modest output of the Norton and the Vincent, and the Motus feels like a jet, which, by comparison, it is. Climbing back on the Vincent, I can’t help but feel that the Motus is today’s Vincent, an exceptionally well-engineered machine capable of transporting its rider with unmatched speed and comfort.

The closer we get to home the worse the Norton runs, but we make it. A post-mortem reveals the Norton’s upset; the right carb is missing a piece of its slide and the locating groove for the slide needle clip on the left carb has worn so badly the needle has literally been floating in the slide. It’s amazing it ran at all. The Vincent, however, hasn’t missed a beat, nor has it used any appreciable oil, even after almost 800 miles of Hill Country slogging. Amazing. When do I get to go back? MC