Classic British motorcycle aficionado puts pieces together to form a one-of-a-kind custom Vincent motorcycle
Paul Zell's custom Vincent Special.
Year produced: 2005
Claimed power: 70bhp @ 6,000rpm
Top speed: 125mph
Engine type: 998cc, two-valve, 50-degree V-twin
Weight: 171kg (380lb) dry
Price: Custom, not for sale
Paul Zell likes classic British motorcycles. And like many aficionados of old British bikes, he believes they can sometimes stand a little improvement. Case in point: his 2005 custom Vincent Special.
Classic Vincent motorcycles are unquestionably among the most charismatic of motorcycles. One of the few road-going British motorcycles that change hands at five-figure prices, they are also one of the few motorcycles from the Forties and Fifties that are comfortable at freeway speeds.
Since the Fifties, Vincents have been a magnet for "specials" builders who craft custom motorcycles with the aim of improving performance and handling. Typically, the specials builder shoehorns a hot engine into a light, good-handling chassis, and upgrades the suspension and brakes.
Paul Zell built his custom Vincent motorcycle in this tradition. With a unique combination of imagination, ingenuity and mechanical smarts, Zell builds custom motorcycles that draw small crowds — previous projects have included a streamlined sidecar with clamps for a folding wheelchair and a Velocette with an electric starter. He has just finished this custom Vincent special.
"The standard Vincent is nice for a touring machine," Zell explains. "The brakes and suspension could be improved for sport riding. I wanted a more aggressive chassis."
Ironically, the Vincent-HRD Co., Ltd., manufacturer of the Vincent, was started because Philip Vincent was disappointed in the suspension and brakes of the available two-wheelers, and wanted something better.
The son of a wealthy Argentinean, Vincent’s enthusiasm for motorcycles took root at an early age. In the 1920s, while at college in England, he designed a frame with rear suspension. After he graduated, he persuaded his father to come up with financial backing, and in 1928 he purchased the then-defunct HRD motorcycle company. HRD are the initials of Harold R. Davies, a famous racer of the Twenties whose motorcycle factory went into the red due to excessive entertainment expenses.
The reformed Vincent-HRD company got off to a slow start, however. The British motorcycling public thought Vincent's frame was ugly and sales lagged. But things started looking up when Jack Gill rode around the world on a Vincent-HRD sidecar combo and, more importantly for Vincent’s future, returned to England in 1930 with Phil Irving.
Irving was an Australian motorcycle designer, engineer and talented mechanic, and some months after arriving in England he signed on with Vincent-HRD. The first thing Irving did was rework Vincent's frame into something that looked much more appealing to the motorcycle-buying public (although he retained its rear suspension), and sales started picking up.
The first Vincents used JAP and Rudge engines, but quality control problems led Vincent and Irving to design their own 500cc single in 1934. This single had a unique valve train with the camshaft located high in the crankcase (sometimes referred to as a “semi-overhead cam”), shortening the pushrods of the overhead valve engine. With metallurgical improvements making short-stroke engines practical, Vincent specified a bore and stroke of 84 x 90mm.
The two Phils next put their minds to the design of a twin. The Rapide, nicknamed the Snarling Beast or the Plumber's Nightmare — depending on whether you loved the power or hated the looks — debuted in late 1936. This 998cc V-twin was easily capable of over 100mph, incredible speed for a street motorcycle in the Thirties.
After World War II broke out, Vincent and Irving spent their time making war materiel during the day and planning for a return to motorcycle production at night. In 1946, less than a year after the end of the war, they introduced the Series B Rapide. The B’s transmission and clutch were integral with the crankcase, and the massive drive train was employed as a stressed part of the chassis. Each rocker arm acted on a collar mounted in the center of the valve, and double valve springs and twin valve guides, along with the high camshaft, increased valve accuracy. This was the start of the Vincent legend.
Vincents were soon exported to the United States, where they were snatched up by folks with a need for speed. In 1948, Rollie Free blasted the speed traps at Bonneville at more than 150mph, and trumped his own record in 1950 at more than 160mph. The Series B evolved into the Series C, with its distinctive Girdraulic combination girder and telescopic forks, and then the Series D, with innovative fiberglass enclosure. Unfortunately, the Vincent company, never very financially secure, had a run of bad luck and was forced into bankruptcy in 1955.
But the demise of the Vincent company had little effect on the enthusiasm of Vincent owners.
In the mid-Sixties, Swiss custom builder Fritz Egli started buying up Vincent engines and began producing his Egli-Vincent. Offered as complete bikes or kits, Egli-Vincents incorporated the potent Vincent engine in an excellent frame, with an oil tank incorporated in the backbone. Although Egli discontinued building the Vincent frame years ago, copies are still being built in France, England and Australia, a testimony to the enduring quality of Egli’s frame design.
Today, the value of Vincents continues to skyrocket, and owners continue to ride their bikes. Parts are readily available and Vincent club membership remains strong.
Zell got into Vincent motorcycles by accident. He was riding a Harley and a Honda when he started going on Saturday breakfast runs with a group of British motorcycle riders. After enduring weeks of kidding about his choice of ride, Zell decided to buy a BSA. He followed up on an ad in the paper, but learned that the bike for sale was a competition model, with no lights. "But," said the owner, "I also have a Vincent in pieces I would like to sell."
Zell had little idea at the time what a Vincent was, but when he casually mentioned the bike to his Saturday morning friends, "The next thing I knew, I was in a truck, and eight guys were driving top speed" to the seller's house. Paul struck a deal for the bike, and spent the next two years putting the Vincent back together. He still owns the bike, which is now hitched to his hand-built sidecar.
The idea of the Vincent special was sparked when Zell learned that Vincent racer, record-setter and former dealer Marty Dickerson was selling a pair of Series C engine cases. At the same time, a used crankshaft, connecting rods and a British-built, Egli-style frame became available from the Vincent Owner's Club.
"I just started buying pieces," Zell says, including a set of Ceriani front forks from ex-racer John Burkhart, Borrani wheels, huge Grimeca drum brakes and a pair of 36mm Dell'Orto pumper carburetors. "You see Italian aftermarket parts on a lot of specials," Zell says. "I used photos of other bikes I liked as inspiration for this project. A lot of them were Italian. With all the Italian parts, you could say this bike is half-Italian."
With a garage full of parts on hand, Zell started building his bike. The engine was built up with 9:1 Specialoid pistons, cylinders and heads from American Vincent Club stalwart Dave Malloy, and a Harley-Davidson primary belt and clutch. The transmission is a five-speed Quaife, used in many vintage racers. "It costs the same as the stock four-speed box," Zell says.
Zell learns a new skill every time he starts on a project; previous projects have served as vehicles to learn bottom-end balancing and upholstery. The Vincent gave Zell the excuse to learn even more: "I ended up learning TIG welding, so I could fabricate the bodywork. I bought an English wheel to roll the aluminum sheet for the tank and seat, and learned to use it last winter."
Careful machining adapted the belt and clutch to the Vincent engine. The ignition is via Lucas magneto, rebuilt by John Cooper. "I'm trying to stay away from a battery, primarily because of the weight. I may go to a battery eventually." Zell made the exhaust himself and capped it with shorty aftermarket megaphones. The headlight is from a Norton Commando and the speedometer is from an aftermarket supply company.
A standard Series C Vincent Rapide produces 45hp @ 5,300rpm. Compression is 6.45:1 and top speed is about 110mph. A Black Shadow (the sport version) puts out 55hp @ 5,700rpm and is good for about 125mph. Output of Zell’s Vincent may be as high as 70hp, with top speed to match, but he hasn't taken it to the drag strip yet — and probably won't.
At this point, Zell is just starting to break in his bike. "It's still settling down. I am using standard oil for the first 500 miles. Synthetic oil is so slippery the rings won't mate properly to the cylinder, and the bike will burn oil. I'm using standard cams until I break the bike in, then I may try hotter cams. I'm taking it slowly, ramping up to more aggressive riding. Since it's a special, I don't know exactly what it is — and isn't — capable of. At this point I am riding it at 75 percent of its capability. I don't want any surprises."
Since the bike is a special, it doesn't come with an owner's manual, so Zell has to figure out his own maintenance schedule. "I look the bike over every time before I ride it. I plan to check the points in the magneto and change the oil twice a year.
"This is my idea of aesthetics. I treated it almost like art for a while — my own personal statement. At this point, it is almost art. The bike has to be functional, but there is room for artistic talent." MC