Riding a 1948 Vincent Series B Rapide
Power: 45 hp @ 5,300 rpm
Top Speed: 110mph (claimed)
Engine: 998cc OHV air-cooled 50-degree V-twin, 84mm x 90mm bore and stroke, 6.45:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 455lb (206kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4gal (15ltr)/40-50
Price then/now: $1,250 (approx.)/$15,000-$45,000
“A Vincent owner might forget his wife’s birthday or anniversary, but never his engine number.” — Doug Carper
Rolling off the throttle and lightly bracing for a series of upcoming bumps, I pull in the Vincent’s clutch. Pressing carefully on the shift lever with my right foot, savoring the gentle burble of the big V-twin and the precise engagement of the next gear, I ease back into the throttle. Feeling the effortless surge of the engine as we gather speed in a gentlemanly fashion, I marvel at the perfection of the action. No primary lash, no stutters or lurches as the clutch puts the power to the drive train and the rear wheel takes it to the ground, just the richest, soul-enlightening, two-wheeled mechanical experience imaginable.
Like an old locomotive with a full head of steam, we speed down into a shady valley deep in the rolling Virginia hills. As I watch the speedometer needle climb around the Vincent’s big Smiths dial, marveling at the bike’s competency, the unique series of events that fell together in such a way as to find this unworthy moto-scribe riding one of the rarest, most-storied motorcycles in the world starts coming into focus.
You don’t generally own a Vincent before putting a few decades in the saddle under your belt, and Doug Carper is no exception to this rule. Born into a military family in St. Louis, Mo., his first exposure to motorcycles came at the tender age of 6 years old. A teenage family friend owned a Cushman scooter, and watching him ride off into the sunset with another buddy on a matching machine was all it took to get Doug hooked.
The year 1952 brought a military posting to Germany for his father and Doug’s first real exposure to motorcycles. With Germany rebuilding from WWII, cars were few and motorcycles were everywhere, and when his nanny’s boyfriend took him for a spin on an old BMW, Doug knew he had to have a motorcycle of his own. Dad said no, of course, and it wasn’t until he joined the military himself and got his first military posting in Panama that Doug could afford a real motorcycle, a Triumph T100R.
In Panama in 1967, you couldn’t just walk into a Triumph dealer and get a bike. Doug bought his Triumph T100R sight unseen, the bike arriving a couple of weeks after he’d sent a check to a man who sold Triumphs somewhere in the country. Still in its crate, Doug quickly put it together and starting riding.
And so the real love affair began, as Doug divided his time between jumping out of airplanes and riding the Triumph. A detour to active duty in Vietnam forced the unfortunate sale of the bike, but it didn’t end the passion. Doug returned Stateside to work for the phone company, and while looking for another Triumph fell in love with a BMW R50/5. A series of problems while trying to obtain a license nixed the R50, but he did eventually end up with an R75/5 a few years later.
The movie On Any Sunday was just out, so Doug bought a Yamaha DT1E. It was, in his own words, “terrible,” and he ended up with a Bultaco Matador instead. By the early 1980s he was riding a Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster and then a Super Glide, as all sorts of other machines started rolling in: a BSA Starfire, a Honda Hurricane, and various BMWs, Triumphs, and more. Through all of these various makes and models, one bike always stood out though, and he blames a 1971 copy of Cycle magazine for inflicting him with the disease.
Some time ago in my career-long quest to better educate myself as a rider, I found myself slumped against a grassy bank covered in sweat at the Cornerspin motorcycle training facility in Spencer, N.C. More exhausted than I could remember, I watched in awe as one of my classmates kept making lap after lap. Watching him fall repeatedly as fatigue consumed him, I knew that anyone stubborn enough to keep riding after hitting the ground so many times was someone I needed to know.
Less than a year later, David Reid was a firm friend, and we were embroiled in the adventure of a lifetime riding old Honda XR600s around Peru. If Cornerspin had been a mole hill, Peru was a mountain, and David’s indomitable spirit was one of the key factors in the success of our mission to ride around Peru in less than 10 days, and take funds to the orphanage I support in the southeastern desert.
Although David’s a master woodworker by trade, the lure of the mechanical beast recently drew him to a new job at a motorcycle dealership in his hometown of Richmond, Va. By this time, he was racing hare scrambles on a highly modified Husqvarna 125, riding a Kawasaki 650 on the street and restoring a 1966 Triumph Bonneville. With the regular communication that has developed between us, it was no surprise to see a picture text on my phone from him recently. What was a surprise was the subject of the photo.
David was sitting astride a Vincent Series B Rapide, getting ready to take a ride. Part of his job at Ken’s Cycle Center in Richmond involves servicing and putting miles on Doug Carper’s motorcycles, and on this day it happened to be Doug’s Vincent. I called immediately and caught David right as he was leaving. This sparked a few animated conversations over the next few days, hatching the idea of me coming up to the shop to meet Doug and ride his Vincent.
Charlie Taylor was the man responsible for that long-ago Cycle article, and it was around that same time that Doug started to become aware of the legend of the Vincent through a number of other sources. A guy at Doug’s local shop told stories of a machine that could top 150mph, and was so fast it had been banned. Rollie Free did in fact hit this magic mark (150.313mph, to be precise), and the image of him aboard his Vincent in a pair of swimming trunks is perhaps the world’s most iconic motorcycle photograph. But in reality, most of the stories about Vincents were untrue. “One thing is clear to me now,” Doug says. “It was this erroneous legend that sparked my pursuit of owning one.”
As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, and eventually the 1990s, Doug continued collecting an eclectic assortment of brands, but never lost his interest in the fabled Vincent. In 1995, he set out in earnest to own one. A Charlie Taylor rebuild advertised in Walneck’s for $18,000 caught his interest, but as there was no title with the bike, Doug decided to pass.
But that didn’t stop him from calling Charlie and learning of a basket case 1948 Series B Rapide that Vincent specialist Somer Hooker had found and brought back from Argentina. The story goes that in the summer of 1948, a number of Vincents were exported to South America to satisfy the British government’s requirements for exports. By 1955 Vincent was out of the motorcycle business, and no more parts were being exported to Argentina. By the time Hooker arrived in Argentina, all he found was an assortment of very rusty and abused motorcycles in pieces. He bought them all anyway, shipped them back to America, and commenced building complete Vincents from the remains.
Working closely with Doug over a two-year period, Hooker assembled the best of what he had, and found or bought what he needed to finish the bikes. As Doug saw his Vincent Series B Rapide come to life, it was like watching his cloudy dream come into focus. In 1948, the original engine cases were mated by hand, and Doug’s cases use matching numbers. Marveling at how precisely they fit together, he tells me these are the most important parts of a Vincent’s authenticity. The barrels came from another bike, and, while the main portion of the engine is original, the primary and timing covers are not.
The second most important piece is the upper frame member, and on Doug’s bike this is also not original to the engine, which is numbered 1314. Neither is the swingarm. One of the hardest pieces to find was the front fork spring, and Doug eventually tracked down a heavy-duty item designed for a sidecar rig.
On a beautiful, sunny day in Virginia, David and I meet with Doug and his lifelong friend, Tom Watson, so I can finally see the Vincent in the flesh and take it for a ride. Talking to Doug, I learn that it wasn’t until 1998 — three years after he’d started — that he had a complete Vincent, albeit one with a number of bugs to iron out before it became the slick-running, first-kick starting motorcycle I would ride.
According to Doug, Vincent icon Big Sid Biberman and motorcycle dealer Ken Germain both spent a number of years “fettling” the Rapide, and this continual fine-tuning kept improving the Vincent, turning it into the bike it is today. As I watch it roll out of the garage, noticing the gas stains, oil stains and general road grime on the Vincent’s wheels and other parts, I know I have found the perfect Vincent for my first ride. This is no trailer queen. It’s not a show-bike or static museum display, but a working and regularly used motorcycle that Doug is not afraid to ride.
The first order of operation is for David to start the bike for me and explain the process. Since he’s tickled the carburetors for his earlier demonstration he doesn’t deem it necessary for me to do it again. For my attempt, I put the bike on the center stand, find compression with the kickstarter, lift the decompression lever on the left handlebar, and give the bike a good, solid kick, releasing the compression lever as I swing toward the bottom of the stroke. Giving it just a wee bit of throttle at the bottom of my swing, the Vincent fires immediately to life.
Doug tells me to take it easy for the first few miles to let her warm up, and listening to his instructions, I realize I’m actually sitting astride a running Vincent for the first time in my life. The clutch is fairly light, and lifting up the shift lever to engage first gear requires just the lightest movement — the action is smooth and slick. Gently easing out the clutch, the big V-twin propels me forward and we’re off for one of the finest adventures of my two-wheeled life.
The bike feels a little fragile to me as I accelerate up through first, and then make a seamless shift into second. Realizing this is more my nervous death grip on the bars than the bike’s fault, I try to breathe deeply and enjoy the ride. Within minutes we’re on the highway and shifting up into fourth gear, and as that big speedometer settles on 55mph, I start to relax and enjoy the ride. The exhaust note is muted, but there is a delightful cadence from the big V-twin and a veritable mechanical orchestra playing away under the tank. Push rods, valves and other mechanical parts harmonize perfectly as we accelerate and decelerate to maintain position on the highway.
Turning onto a secondary road, however, brings a mild bout of concern: There’s no front brake. Well, not one that stops the bike from speed, anyway, so it requires some deft foot action to bring the bike to a halt without leaving a trail of rubber behind. Note to self; “plan stopping actions well ahead of time.”
A good-length ride into the country to a pre-ordained photo stop gives me the chance to find the Vincent’s sweet spots, and I find as long as you are on smooth pavement the handling is reasonably quick and responsive. It’s a little wooden feeling when you turn in, and if you hit any bumps the lack of suspension will have you bouncing around in the seat. I find myself scanning ahead so I can ready myself to lift up out of the seat for the bigger bumps, and just let my grip on the bars go light for the smaller stuff.
Once back on the smooth, quiet country roads with the slick-shifting Vincent wound up in fourth gear, all of those idiosyncrasies recede to the back of my mind, giving me time to settle in, absorb the moment and reflect on the series of events that led to this moment. You couldn’t knock the smile from my face with a shovel.
Doug Carper spent many years realizing his dream of owning a Vincent Series B Rapide, and in the process, helped me achieve one of mine. It’s a riding experience I’ll never forget, and I’ll never forget how I got here. MC