Motorcycle Classics

The Woodward Avenue Vincent Rapide

In 1955 the American auto industry was enjoying unprecedented performance and prosperity. A game of corporate one-upmanship had begun in 1949 with Charles Kettering’s Oldsmobile Rocket V-8, followed by Chrysler’s 180hp FirePower V-8 in 1951. When Ford launched its overhead-valve V-8 in 1954 — followed by Chevrolet with its new-for-1955 small-block V-8 as a low-cost option for its entire lineup — it was clear the Big Three automakers were officially waging a full-scale horsepower war.

It was a magical time, and 19-year-old Detroit, Michigan, resident Michael FitzSimons was soaking up every minute of it. He was a car-crazy kid living in the golden age of American performance, and he wasn’t alone in his joy. Young drivers all over the country were borrowing their parents’ abundantly powerful coupes and sedans and challenging each other to races on public streets. These unplanned drag races usually took place between traffic signals — sometimes among friends, sometimes between complete strangers, but always with an eye out for law enforcement.

Woodward Avenue

A sophomore in the Ann Arbor University of Michigan Engineering School, FitzSimons would help himself to his father’s Rocket-powered Oldsmobile 88 to visit his girlfriend in Bloomfield Hills. This meant traveling north/northwest on Woodward Avenue (aka “Detroit’s Main Street” and later state route M-1) and crossing a series of laser-straight east-west routes named for their distances from Michigan Avenue. The city of Detroit proper ended at 8 Mile Road. Royal Oak was around 11 Mile Road. Birmingham, the bedroom community for Detroit’s middle management, started at 15 Mile Road. By the time FitzSimons reached 18 Mile Road, he was in Bloomfield Hills, the “billionaires’ row” of its day and home to captains of the car industry.

The grid system north of Detroit produced some very predictable, lightly traveled highways that were perfect for stoplight grands prix. Police patrolled Woodward Avenue as far north as 15 Mile Road, watching for speed-crazed teenagers. “I knew I had to take it easy until I got to Birmingham,” FitzSimons says. “Once I hit 15 Mile Road, I would see if there were any takers for a race.”

The Vincent

It was in the Oldsmobile 88 that FitzSimons first encountered, and lost to, one of the fastest ground-based missiles he had ever seen — a Vincent Rapide modified for racing with many Black Lightning parts.

FitzSimons was not a stranger to two-wheeled fun. At the age of 12, he had a bicycle with a Briggs & Stratton engine, followed by a Whizzer motorized bicycle, an Ariel 350cc, and a Royal Enfield 500cc — but this Vincent was a whole different animal. He knew very little about Vincents except that he wanted one: In fact, he wanted that very Woodward Avenue Vincent!

Philip Vincent bought the bankrupt HRD motorcycle company in 1928. His new firm, located 30 miles north of London, was established as Vincent HRD and produced a variety of motorcycles under that name through the 1930s, but it was the post-World War II 998cc V-twins that became the 20th century’s first true superbikes. The 1946 Series B Rapide carried Vincent’s most powerful engine to date, along with a host of other improvements such as internal oil routing and single-unit engine/gearbox construction. Because Vincent emphasized lightness, the Series B did away with traditional frame tubing, with the engine and gearbox assembly acting as a stressed member of the frame.

Vincent performance further escalated in 1948 with the introduction of the Black Shadow and Black Lightning models, the latter managing a 150mph top speed in factory trim owing to its 70 horsepower output and race-lightened overall weight of 380 pounds. The Black Lightning benefited from ported cylinder heads, 1-5/8-inch free-flow exhaust system, skeletonized foot pegs, drilled sprockets and damper knobs, and many other trick parts. Anywhere a tenth of an ounce could be removed, Vincent shaved it. Vincent built just 30 or so Black Lightnings, but the Lightning’s catalog of low-fat, go-fast parts could be installed on any Rapide or Black Shadow. Rollie Free famously set a Bonneville speed record in 1948 on a modified Black Lightning at 150.313 miles per hour, almost 20 miles per hour faster than that year’s Indianapolis 500 pole sitter managed in qualifying. With many speed records to its credit, Vincent was only stating fact when advertising itself as “the makers of the world’s fastest motorcycles.”

Unfortunately, the engineering and labor-intensive methods that gave Vincents incredible performance made them too expensive to be sold in large numbers, especially in financially devastated Great Britain. Only 11,000 Vincents were produced after WWII, with the majority of the firm’s output exported to countries experiencing economic booms. In 1948, the financially troubled Indian Motocycles of Springfield, Massachusetts, became the U.S. distributor for Brit bike makers Vincent, Royal Enfield, Matchless, Norton and AJS. This arrangement increased the number of Rapides, Black Shadows and Black Lightnings in the U.S., but spotting a Vincent on the road remained a rare treat.

Back to Woodward

In 1955, while young Michael FitzSimons was getting soundly whipped for the first time by one of Vincent’s monstrously fast machines, the British motorcycle maker was preparing to close its Stevenage, Hertfordshire, shops after 27 years. Philip Vincent made the announcement that his company was insolvent at a Vincent Owners Club dinner that summer, and the final bike rolled off the production line the week before Christmas. Hindsight shows us a sad juxtaposition taking place that year — as the sun was setting on the British Empire’s once-dominant motorcycle cottage industry, it was simultaneously fueling America’s horsepower explosion.

The Vincent continued to goad FitzSimons, and even when his father got a 1955 Chevy with a stick shift the Woodward Avenue Vincent still stayed ahead of him in short to medium sprints. FitzSimons could catch him only if the race lasted the full mile between roads. “This guy on the Vincent, nobody knew who he was,” FitzSimons says, “but it was easy to imagine that he was some rich Bloomfield Hills guy who wanted to show everybody he had bought the fastest bike around. I would pick him up at 15 Mile or 16 Mile, the light would change, and off we would go. I had a few drag races with this guy, as did a few friends of mine. He was hard to beat off the line, up to 60 or 80 miles an hour. Then, I heard he crashed the thing.”

The bad luck of the mystery rider proved to be FitzSimons’ good fortune one day in 1956. The engineering student was carrying a heavy load at the University of Michigan, but he managed to spend many Saturday mornings at Cutler Norton, a motorcycle shop on Ford Road. It was during one of those mornings at Cutler’s that he heard about a wrecked Vincent for $100. FitzSimons knew from the description — the straight pipes, the purpose-built Lightning parts — that it had to be the Woodward Avenue Vincent. Whether the mystery rider had crashed it too many times or had moved on to another toy, FitzSimons didn’t know or care. He managed to find $100, bought the wreck, and put it back together.

The Woodward Avenue Vincent had started life as a Rapide, serial no. 8489. It was an immigrant that had arrived through New Orleans, Louisiana, shortly after leaving the Vincent factory on Jan. 29, 1952, but it took to American roads like a red-white-and-blue native. FitzSimons street raced it for the better part of a year before graduating from college and joining the Air Force, at which point he parted with the Vincent for $150.

Close brushes

If this were an article about an ordinary motorcycle and an ordinary motorcycle enthusiast, we would be at the end of the tale. The rider would never see the Vincent again, and the whole story would be the two-wheeled equivalent of “the girl that got away.” Not so for the Woodward Avenue Vincent and Michael FitzSimons — two forces of nature that were always meant to be together. The Lightning-enhanced Rapide would spend more than 50 years working its way back to his care, although the two would cross paths a few times before the eventual reunion.

In 1962, FitzSimons was in the Detroit area for an alumni get-together when he drove by Nicholson’s Triumph in nearby Ann Arbor and saw a Vincent through the window with straight pipes and some other pieces he recognized. “I called Roy and Ray Nicholson to ask about it,” he says. “It sounded like they had an employee who bought my old Vincent, put it back in shape, and was selling it. I had a lot happening in my life and didn’t think much then about getting the bike back.”

By the 1970s, FitzSimons had the resources to return to his passion. He began collecting and restoring vintage British motorcycles and chasing original parts, establishing a reputation as an expert on Vincents before moving on to the classic sporting motorcycles produced by Brough Superior of Nottingham, England.

Rapide 8489, on the other hand, had made its way to a collector in Low Point, Illinois. The collector, Dave Smith, advertised a “Vincent sellout” in the July 1976 issue of Cycle World magazine. Smith was selling one Lightning, one Shadow, two more bikes in parts, plus engines and other boxes of parts. At this low point in its life, the Rapide fell into the “in parts” and “boxes of parts” categories.

A lawyer and British bike enthusiast named Leland Monroe purchased Smith’s Vincent cache, which was sitting in boxes at John Healey’s Triumph in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1977, when FitzSimons stopped in to check on a Vincent that Healey was building. At the time, FitzSimons saw only a stash of broken-up motorcycles and did not look through the boxes that held his disassembled Woodward Vincent. Had he done so, his engineer brain would have instantly recognized the engine cases stamped “8489.”

Leland Monroe passed away in 1997, and the hoard, including FitzSimons’ Rapide and Lightning parts, wound up with Bob Fast, the lawyer who settled Monroe’s estate. FitzSimons, who was collecting Broughs at the time, but still had plenty of connections in the Vincent community, told yet another lawyer/Vincent enthusiast, Herb Harris, about the Fast parts stash. The Fast collection was now many times larger than what Dave Smith had sold through Cycle World in 1976, and FitzSimons still had no idea that his old Rapide could be found there.

Found and rebuilt

Harris purchased Fast’s collection and moved the boxes of parts to his home in Austin, Texas, where they fit in nicely with the dozens of other dismantled Vincent motorcycles Harris had collected. This out-of-control inventory of parts led Harris to start the Harris Vincent Gallery, where he and a full-time mechanic now produce a half-dozen restored Vincents each year.

“It took me two whole years to sort out all of the Bob Fast collection,” Harris says. “Lawyers are good at keeping records, and Leland and Bob had made all these notes about the parts I bought. Fitz was telling me one day about his old Woodward Avenue bike, and it occurred to me that that bike just might be in all these parts on my shelves. I sent him some paperwork, he researched it, and said, ‘You’re right. Let’s turn it back into a motorcycle!’”

From the shelves at Harris Vincent Gallery came the factory-built Lightning parts, the Monobloc carburetors, the straight pipes and engine no. 8489. The V-twin was rebuilt using modern, low-expansion alloy pistons, which make for a tighter, knock-free fit. Unlike contemporary Indian and Harley-Davidson engines that tend to overheat, the Vincent V-twin is notoriously cold-blooded and can take as long as 20 minutes to reach operating temperature. Harris says some of his restoration customers prefer the authentic cold-engine knock-knock-knock sound, and he accommodates those who request it.

The sole piece of “creature comfort” equipment on the Woodward Avenue bike — and you have to look closely to spot it — is an electric starter. “We installed the starter because when you put racing pipes on these, it sometimes interferes with the shifter,” Harris says, adding, “and when you have a Vincent in Lightning tune, it’s nice to have a starter. It takes a lot to fire it up.” With the addition of the starter, and the inclusion of a Miller competition headlamp and Alton 12-volt alternator (this is a street-legal bike, after all), the Vincent comes in at a barely-there 400 pounds.

FitzSimons and Harris are happy with the restoration of Rapide no. 8489, which announces its Woodward Avenue Vincent status on the gas tank. “Seeing my first Vincent like it was when I street raced it, and hearing it run for the first time in nearly 60 years, was a very special moment,” FitzSimons says. “It took me back to that year when my hometown of Detroit was the center of the world and a college student could afford one of the world’s fastest motorcycles.” Those were the days. MC

Cruising the avenue: Riding the Woodward

When Herb Harris of Harris Vincent Gallery asked if I’d like to take the Woodward Avenue Vincent for a spin, I immediately responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” — followed just as quickly with, “Really?” Harris had suggested the ride before cameraman Corey Levenson and I arrived for our photo shoot, yet even as I packed my leathers I figured it was just a nice suggestion on Harris’ part, one he’d think better of once we arrived. I mean, really, would you let someone you don’t know ride your just-restored, irreplaceable, $100K Vincent hot rod?

I’d never met Harris, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at his Austin, Texas, shop. If you play with top-shelf rarities like Rollie Free’s “bathing suit bike” and the very first Vincent Rapide Series B ever made, isn’t everything else just boring? Yet it turns out that Harris, a Texas lawyer-cum-Vincent specialist who’s been featured in the pages of everything from The New York Times and Robb Report to Cycle World and yes, Motorcycle Classics, is as enthusiastic and approachable as any motorcyclist you’ve ever met. He just really loves Vincents. Especially really, really rare Vincents.

Throwing a leg over the Woodward under a hot Texas sun, my immediate concerns are: 1) I’m afraid to kickstart it, having torn my Achilles just five month prior; and 2) I don’t want to risk over-heating the freshly built engine doing slow speed drive-bys in front of Corey’s camera.

I needn’t have worried. Starting is a non-issue as owner Michael FitzSimons had Harris equip the Woodward with a Grosset electric starter, and both Harris and his head mechanic, Tim Semeraro, assure me you can’t overheat a Vincent. “If it seizes, we’ll just fix it,” Semeraro says merrily. Um, OK.

After a quick “tickle” to prime the Amal Monoblocs, Semeraro spins the engine over on the electric starter. Given this bike’s high state of tune, I expect it to need a steady feed of fuel, but it soon settles into an easy idle. Getting moving is just as easy: Pull in the butter-light clutch, lift up for first, roll on a little gas and the Woodward pulls away cleanly. I’ve heard others malign Vincent’s “servo” clutch, but on the Woodward it’s brilliant, providing an utterly smooth, drama-free take off. Shift action is on the stiff side (a point that frustrates Semeraro), but picking up speed and going through the gears I start to get a feel for what a special bike the Woodward really is.

Rolling down the curvy Texas Hill Country road Harris has picked for my ride, the Woodward pulls like the proverbial train. It sounds glorious, the two-into-one open pipe venting the big V-twin’s power pulses. There’s no question it can build up serious speed in short order, but given the special nature of the bike — i.e., I couldn’t replace it if I tried — I resist the temptation to see how much lean I can get on the Woodward’s Avon Speedmaster tires, although both Semeraro and Harris are twisting imaginary throttles with their right hand as I spin by, encouraging me to open her up and make her work a little more. I comply, and the bike’s immediate pull is simply intoxicating.

All too quickly, it’s time to pull in. I roll to a stop, blip the throttle once, and let the engine idle, enjoying its lovely burble for another minute before finally pulling in the decompression lever, giving a brief sigh as the engine falls quiet. Damn. I could do this all day. — Richard Backus

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  • Published on Aug 9, 2016
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