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. This excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Intriguing Circumstances,” and tells the story of how the Vincent Black Lightning went from collector to collector, even though every one of them was unwilling to part with it.
Reg Dearden was all set to run for the speed record at Bonneville in 1950. His Vincent Black Lightning was one of the fastest production motorcycles ever constructed and his was even faster. One of only 32 (some historians put the number at 31) Lightnings built, this rare version was retrofitted by the factory with the installation of a supercharger.
Dearden hoped to break the 173.625-mile-per-hour world speed record that had been set in 1937 by a BMW.
Additionally, this particular Black Lightning’s frame was stretched by 6 inches—under the direct supervision of company founder Phil Vincent—in order to improve the bike’s straight-line stability.
The bike was beautiful, glossy black and purpose-built for speed. Dearden hired famed racer Les Graham to ride the bike. But Graham was killed while racing on a Norton at the Isle of Man and the Vincent never made a single run.
British aviation authorities refused to let Dearden transport the motorcycle from England to the United States in his personal Cessna, so Dearden put the Vincent into storage for 20 years. Around 1970, Dearden decided to part with the bike, and it appeared for sale in a Cycle World magazine advertisement.
When Michael Manning from Philadelphia expressed interest in purchasing the rare Vincent, the English government stepped in and put a halt to the sale.
“The Vincent Black Lightning was deemed a national treasure of England, and it was not allowed to leave the country,” said Somer Hooker, a Vincent expert from the Nashville area. “But the eccentric Manning was determined to own the rare bike.”
Manning, with the help of some nonloyal British motorcycle enthusiasts, quietly purchased the bike and disassembled it. He shipped it back in boxes, never attracting the attention of customs agents in England or the United States.
Manning, who owned a couple of Vincents but was not a serious collector, had the bike reassembled and brought to Shadow Lake, a huge Vincent rally in Canada. Manning showed up with the Vincent in the back of his van, among more than 150 other Vincents and scores of enthusiasts from all over the world attending the event. The extremely low-mileage bike—probably less than 100 miles—was on display at the rally when Manning got a wild idea: He promised to fire up the rare motorcycle with the original 20-plus-year-old lubricants in the crankcase.
This idea didn’t go over well with the Vincent aficionados in attendance, and luckily they talked Manning out of the foolish deed without first changing the fluids. But he did fire it up and he did ride it.
“He took it out to a lonely state highway and it just took off,” said Hooker. “I tried to follow him on my Black Shadow, but it didn’t kickstart right away and he just took off. That’s how fast he was.
“Another day he took it to a nearby town and ran it around the road course.”
When Manning left Canada, both he and the Vincent Black Lightning disappeared for nearly 26 years.
Actually the bike was stored in his carport in Philadelphia, uncovered and unprotected.
Folks had heard about the bike and attempted to purchase it, but Manning was adamant about not selling it, until one day when a nurse he knew convinced him that he should begin selling things of value, such as the motorcycle. The strategy she developed was that he offer it to Jay Leno, since he is a well-known motorcycle collector.
“Leno is not interested in vehicles that he can’t drive on the streets, so he passed on it,” said Hooker. “But he passed along the information to his friend Herb Harris, a lawyer from Texas.”
Harris bought it about 12 years ago and has treated it with the respect a motorcycle with this history and condition deserves.
Harris had an excellent detailer clean up the Vincent, which still had all the original stove enameling on the frame, tank, and fenders. The original method for applying stove enamel was to dip the part in a vat of enamel paint, then hang it in an oven—or over a stove—to dry rapidly.
Other items—the cables, handle grips, other hardware—were in amazing condition for a motorcycle that is nearly 60 years old.
The bike had one large S.U. carburetor mounted on it, which was actually sourced to a bus. This carburetor was in need of repair, but once the old fuel was cleaned out, it flowed fuel quite well.
Hooker, who admitted to having owned around 120 Vincent motorcycles in his lifetime, is honest to a fault when it comes to the famous brand.
“Let’s face it, these were cantankerous when they were sold new 50 years ago and they haven’t gotten any better with age,” he said. “However, these supercharged bikes are really nice to ride and run well because they have low compression at low rpm.”
When it was all cleaned up and running well, Harris took the bike to Jay Leno’s to show him what he had passed up several years earlier. According to Hooker, they made quite a bit of noise around Leno’s shop when they fired that Vincent Black Lightning up.
“It has great patina, low mileage, and a great history,” said Hooker. “It’s everything every motorcycle collector would want.”
More from The Vincent in the Barn:
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Vincent in the Barn, published by Motorbooks, 2009.