Legendary motorcycle finally restored
Few motorcycles achieve such acclaim — or notoriety — that they’re individually named: Cook Neilson’s Ducati racer earned the tag “Old Blue,” and the oil-spreading, TT-winning Triumph Trident will forever be known as “Slippery Sam.” And a 1947 Vincent factory hack became the legendary test-bed race bike “Gunga Din.”
The story goes that it was Motor Cycling magazine road tester Charlie Markham who gave the experimental Vincent its name. The Rudyard Kipling poem “Gunga Din” tells the story of an Indian water-bearer who saves the life of his military superior, at which the latter declares, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!” The implication? Markham’s realization that the motorcycle’s capabilities were beyond his own.
One man who did have the measure of Gunga Din was Vincent factory tester, development man and racer George Brown. A chance meeting with company owner Philip Conrad Vincent in 1934 led to an offer of work in the fledgling company’s experimental department. Brown had been racing Velocettes until then, but his new position allowed him to spend time breathing extra fire into the Series A Vincent singles and twins to improve their competitiveness.
With his racing background, Brown soon became his own test rider, competing in short-circuit road racing on a Series A Comet, a 499cc single-cylinder machine, and running a 998cc Series A Rapide twin at over 100mph on the famous Brooklands banked circuit in southern England. At the time (the late 1930s), a flying lap of more than 100mph at Brooklands earned the rider a gold star pin (the award for which the BSA Gold Star was named), but you had to be a member of the British Motor Cycle Racing Club. Brown was not.
Gunga Din’s story, and Brown’s association with the bike, began in 1947. Vincent’s first post-war motorcycle was the 998cc Series B Rapide, a machine that, by chief designer Philip Irving’s modest account, more or less designed itself. Irving wanted a light bike, and with steel tube in short supply he decided to dispense with a frame, using a simple box welded up from steel plates to serve as backbone, steering head, oil tank and rear suspension mount.
Everything else was pretty much hung on the engine — a completely redesigned and much improved unit-construction version of the Series A twin-cylinder engine. At the front end went proprietary Brampton forks, and at the rear, Vincent’s own triangulated suspension system. The new machine bristled with innovation, including a servo clutch, reversible rear wheel for easy final-drive ratio changes, interchangeable drum brakes and much more. It was relatively light and compact for its engine size, and with 45hp it was good for close to 120mph: “Maximum speed not attained,” said one magazine’s road test report from 1947.
Irving had designed the Rapide engine with tuning in mind, expecting that one day it might produce as much as 100hp. So a reject Rapide was handed to George Brown’s experimental department — chosen, it’s said, because someone had at one stage added kerosene to the engine instead of oil, which, the story goes, caused it to be mechanically noisy. With relatively minor modifications, such as enlarged ports, bigger carburetors and increased compression, the test mule was soon making 55hp, creating the specification that would become the Black Shadow. This was the motorcycle that Charlie Markham tested in 1948, and from then on, the test bike was known only as “Gunga Din.”
That year, Brown entered Gunga Din in the Isle of Man Clubman’s TT race, and was well in the lead after three laps of the 37-mile Island circuit when he ran out of gas, having to push the bike six miles to the finish. Even so, he set the fastest lap at 86.25mph. More racing through 1948 and 1949 netted Gunga Din a number of hillclimb, sprint and short circuit victories including a win in the unlimited capacity class in the first motorcycle race meeting at the Silverstone circuit.
It was as a test bed that Gunga Din was used to develop the special parts needed to create the Black Lightning race bike. Along the way, almost always with Brown in the saddle, Gunga Din collected scads of wins and records. Then in May 1952, Gunga Din collected eight 1,000cc endurance records ranging from 6 hours at an average of 100.53mph to 11 hours at an average 91.98mph at the French Montlhery circuit. And the following year, Vincent sent it to Ireland for a record attempt when it was clocked at 143mph — on Irish roads!
Brown left Vincent in 1952 to open his own motorcycle store, but he continued to race, building an enviable reputation as a sprinter on his famous drag bike “Nero,” created from a Vincent twin that had been destroyed in a fire. No doubt the pun was intended. With a Shorrocks supercharger fitted and his bike renamed “Super Nero,” Brown ultimately collected at least 24 world speed and elapsed time records for solo and sidecar.
Vincent guru “Big Sid” Biberman recalls visiting the Vincent factory when he was based in Europe with the U.S. Army in 1953. His visit fortuitously coincided with a Vincent owners’ rally, and proudly on display was Gunga Din, still wearing its Montlhery tank, lights and fenders — and with a tank full of alcohol fuel. But by this time, Philip Vincent’s restless mind had moved on from motorcycles to other projects, such as the Picador drone airplane engine, the Firefly moped power unit, a 2-stroke outboard engine and even the Amanda water scooter, a forerunner of today’s personal watercraft.
Unfortunately, none of these projects was particularly successful, and by the mid-1950s, Vincent was out of money. There was no longer a factory racing program, and with Brown gone, Gunga Din languished in the proverbial basement until the company was sold to Harper Engines in 1956.
It was still there in 1960 when Peter Gerrish, then the public relations officer for the Vincent Owners Club, discovered it under some sacks in a factory outbuilding. Harpers had allowed the VOC to gather items that were of no value to the new owners, but which the club might like. Gerrish recalls that Gunga Din was in a sad state, “very rough condition” with a lot of corrosion on the alloy. The front wheel was missing, but a stock Shadow front wheel stored with it was installed so it could be sold.
In spite of poor light, Gerrish could see that the bike had later D series die cast type crankcases with no serial numbers stamped on them. He was told the engine had at some point become quite rough running; when stripped down, the main bearings were loose in the cases and the gear selector boss was cracked. It was easier to replace the cases from current production than repair them. However, the correct Lucas competition magneto was still fitted, as well as Amal TT racing carburetors, open exhaust pipes and short competition fenders. Gerrish thinks the bike was offered for sale at roughly $550 (about $4,000 in today’s money), but no buyers came forward. At one time U.S. Vincent dealer and collector Harry Bellville in Marysville, Ohio, was said to be interested in acquiring the bike, but no sale transpired.
Eventually, Gunga Din was bought by Tom Pelkey, who brought it to the U.S. Pelkey claimed to have once ridden the bike around an air base in the U.K. But whether or not it had been his intention all along, Pelkey decided to sell off the famous racer — for parts. It was, says motorcycle broker and unofficial Vincent historian Somer Hooker, “like sending Sea Biscuit to a rendering plant.”
That could have been the end of the story, but for four Vincent fanatics: Richard Garrett, Keith Hazelton, Paul Pflugfelder, and Vincent expert Hooker, who documented and verified much of Gunga Din’s later history.
When Pelkey started listing the parts for sale in the early 1970s, Garrett started acquiring them. With limited financial resources, Garrett was careful to verify what he was buying through part and serial number stampings, including many parts that were marked “EX” for experimental. He managed to accumulate almost all of Gunga Din’s trick parts. Without the resources to reassemble the bike, Garrett listed the parts he had collected for sale about 1975.
Vincent collector Keith Hazelton entered the scene when he responded to Garrett’s advertisement. According to Hooker, Hazelton was accumulating the Vincent parts, but never got around to assembling them. However, he did become fanatical about tracking down all the pieces of Gunga Din (“its DNA,” says Hooker) that Garrett had missed, like the wheels, tachometer and its unique and prototypical Girdraulic forks. With most of Gunga Din back in one place, though still disassembled, Hazelton hung on to the parts until around three years ago, selling the collection of Gunga Din bits to Paul Pflugfelder of Concord, Mass.
“A year ago it was still in pieces,” says Hooker. “In April  it was still a basket case.” Incredibly, Gunga Din was fully restored by the time of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August 2009. Precision AR in Newburyport, Mass., better known for its stunning Ferrari and Porsche restorations, did the work. It was the company’s first motorcycle restoration. “This was the first time that Mark and Carrie [Allin] had done a motorcycle — nobody told them it was supposed to take years,” Hooker jokes, before adding seriously, “It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Now with gleaming paintwork and bright parts sparkling, Gunga Din is restored to — and probably much better than — its original state. Original, indeed: It still retains the dents in the Montlhery tank that Big Sid Biberman photographed in 1953. And it runs, too. The Pebble Beach concours requires that vehicles entered must be running, and further must be started and ridden to the judging table. Somer Hooker enjoyed that privilege.
Sometimes, establishing provenance for a significant historic motorcycle is easy, says Hooker. “A good example is the Burns & Wright Vincent,” he says, referring to the Black Lightning that Russell Wright rode to a world speed record in New Zealand in 1955 at 185.15mph. Wright then brought the bike to Bonneville in 1956. Hooker says that bike was left “pretty much untouched after it was pulled off the salt flats.”
However, verifying a motorcycle that was parted out and remained disassembled through three owners and three decades is a daunting task. “Some people question the authenticity if it hasn’t got the original red rubber inner tubes and the English air in the tires, and so forth,” says Hooker. And while he appreciates that being 100 percent certain is hard, he sees the bike as it exists as “the logical conclusion of its history.”
As a race bike and factory test bed, it’s not surprising parts were swapped out and replaced, says Hooker. According to David Bown, a former factory apprentice, Gunga Din’s engine was blown up plenty of times, the first in 1949. Apparently, the crankcases were also replaced for the 1952 Montlhery trials, because Philip Vincent wanted the cases to show the Vincent name, rather than “HRD,” the marking on the original Series B crankcases. Then the engine was used to power an experimental 3-wheeled car in 1955, and blown up again. Bowen remembers it was changed out July 3, 1955. This time, apparently, it was rebuilt with the stronger Picador/Black Lightning bottom end and perhaps the new Series D cases. Each time, though, the same cylinder heads were used.
One thing Hooker is clear about is that Gunga Din still has its original frame, which he verified by examining the type face and size used in the frame serial number. “I’m pretty good about the fonts on serial numbers,” Hooker says. “I got [the restorer] to strip all the paint off the frame so I could confirm there was no grinding or restamping or anything like that. Then I took etchings from two close-in-numbers Vincents. You could see the font was identical; the same numbers had been used. So now we’ve got a match on the frame.” The Vincent Owners Club frequently calls on Hooker’s expertise to help authenticate members’ bikes.
There are other clues, too. The Girdraulic forks are prototypes. “To the untrained eye they look the same,” says Hooker, who has been able to compare these with very early production forks that he found on a Shadow imported from Argentina.
Hooker also had the opportunity to examine many of the engine parts before the engine was assembled during the restoration. “There’s a lot of real trick stuff that was in that motor,” he says. “Those are what I guess you’d say the call signs that it’s pretty much the genuine package in there. Though it’s always going to have that cloud over it.”
That we can enjoy this magnificent machine, perhaps the most significant and evocative in Vincent history, in its present restored condition does credit to present owner Paul Pflugfelder, who is nonetheless modest about his role: “Keith [Hazelton] saved this bike,” says Pflugfelder. “Keith gathered the parts and began to piece it back together. I’m just the current keeper.”
Given Gunga Din’s unique history, the final lines of Kipling’s epic poem seem even more appropriate attached to this most famous of Vincents, now safely back together to be enjoyed for the ages, than when first applied so many years ago:
“Tho’ I’ve belted you an’ flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”