Better Than One: The Legendary Vincent Series A Rapide

Meet Robert Watson and his perfectly restored 1939 Vincent Series A Rapide, one of just 79 and a Vincent motorcycle that still gets ridden.

| September/October 2012

  • Vincent Series A Rapide
    Because of its profusion of external oil pipes, tubes and hoses, the Vincent Series A Rapide did indeed earn the epithet “Plumber's Nightmare.”
  • Vincent Rapide Front
    The 1939 Vincent Rapide Series A is one of six owned by Robert Watson.
  • Robert Watson
    Robert Watson and his lovely Rapide, which he completely restored.
  • Vincent Rapide Left Side
    Robert Watson restored this Rapide from its dissasembled parts over the course of five years.
  • Vincent Rapide Right Side
    Some Vincent purists note that Watson's Rapide doesn't appear to be completely stock, but Robert has 1940s photographs showing the bike as it is here.
  • Robert Watson Riding
    Robert Watson rides his Rapide regularly. We first saw the bike at our 2011 Barber show, where it took home our British trophy.

  • Vincent Series A Rapide
  • Vincent Rapide Front
  • Robert Watson
  • Vincent Rapide Left Side
  • Vincent Rapide Right Side
  • Robert Watson Riding

1939 Vincent Series A Rapide
Claimed power: 45hp @ 5,500rpm
Top speed: 110mph (est.)
Engine: 998cc air-cooled OHV 47-degree V-twin, 84mm x 90mm bore and stroke, 8:1 compression ratio (6.8:1, stock)
Weight (dry): 430lb (195kg)
MPG/Fuel capacity: 40-50mpg/4.4 gal US (16.6ltr)
Price then: $600

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Because of its profusion of external oil pipes, tubes and hoses, the Vincent Series A Rapide did indeed earn the epithet “Plumber’s Nightmare.” That’s just one of the many legends surrounding Vincent motorcycles, its founder, Philip C. Vincent, and its long-time chief engineer, Philip Irving. The strange part is, just about all of the legends are true.

For instance, in 1927, Vincent did indeed file the patent application for his cantilevered motorcycle rear suspension system — before his 19th birthday, while still studying at the University of Cambridge. In 1930, Irving really did arrive in England from Australia on the back of a motorcycle (world-traveler John Gill’s 1929 HRD sidecar outfit). And the general layout of the Vincent twin-cylinder engine is certainly apparent if you superimpose one drawing of a Series A single over another and rotate it through 47 degrees.

Against the tide

Was Philip Vincent driven by a restless pursuit of something better, or just a need to do things differently? Whichever theory you subscribe to, he always swam against the tide. Having acquired, with the help of family money, the name and intellectual property of HRD Motors Ltd. in 1928, he set out to revolutionize motorcycle design.

The first Vincent-HRDs used bought-in, off-the-shelf engines housed in a cleverly triangulated frame using straight tubes and, of course, Vincent’s own rear suspension. Unfortunately, Nigel Motorbike-Buyer had a fixed idea of how a proper British motorcycle should be. Previous attempts at rear suspension by other makers had been unsatisfactory and simply added to the cost. And the straight-tube frame, whatever its merits, was also regarded with suspicion. Vincent-HRD sales were disappointing.

By 1931, Phil Irving had joined Vincent-HRD, and his first tasks were to design a semi-sprung passenger pad (something he no doubt had an opinion on after the trip from Australia!), and to create a steel tube diamond frame to appeal to the conservative British buyer. The rear suspension stayed, albeit with the spring boxes hidden under the seat.

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