Big Sur on a 1950 Series C Vincent Rapide
1950 Series C Vincent Rapide
Years produced: 1949-1955
Total production: 2,758
Claimed power: 45hp @ 5,300rpm
Top speed: 120mph (est.)
Engine type: 998cc overhead valve, air-cooled 50-degree V-twin
Weight (wet): 206kg (455lb)
Price then: $1,250
Price now: $15,000-$35,000
Both the motorcycle and the road are reminiscent of a calmer, quieter, almost magical time before the advent of hyper-performance engines and broad, featureless freeways. The magic of a Vincent is undeniable, and the Big Sur has more than a bit of magic about it, especially when ridden in the cool light of early morning. The fact that this semi-wild place, El Sur Grande, The Big South, as the Spanish in Monterey called it 200 years ago, even exists in the 21st century is attributable in equal parts to Mother Nature for the original concept and to the far-sightedness of a few people for its preservation.
Not all that much has changed in the Big Sur in the past 50 or so years, and the reality of those 100 thin miles of asphalt, from the Carmel River in the north to Cambria in the south, is that this is one of the most dramatic rides in the U.S. of A., as close to two-wheeled heaven as one can find here on earth. Riding it on the Vincent makes it doubly so.
The Series C Vincent Rapide
The Series C Vincent Rapide is one of the most famous motorcycles ever built, and riding a properly restored one can be heavenly. By the standards of 1950, the Vincent was an exceptional machine. The 998cc, 50-degree V-twin put out between 45 and 55 horsepower, depending on the state of tune (Rapide or Black Shadow). It was easily capable of exceeding “the ton,” as the Brits referred to the then-magical 100mph mark.
The owner of the Vincent for our ride is John Laughney. John, who considers himself merely the current caretaker of this Vincent, firmly believes that motorcycles of all ages are to be ridden, not put up on a mantelpiece. He had lusted after a Vincent for 20 years, but always found the cost prohibitive. Finally he came to the sensible awareness that the price would never go down, and better to buy sooner rather than later. Bought in 1993, John’s 1950 Series C Rapide model had led a strenuous life, including racing in Vintage classes. But John’s relaxation comes from restoring elderly, abused bikes, and spare parts for such a well-known marque are readily available. All the job requires is a good set of Whitworth tools, mechanical competency, and many, many hours to devote to the task.
John’s garage is home to several Laverdas, a 1962 Velocette Venom Clubman, a /5 BMW (all in excellent repair) and two newish Ducatis that he and his wife ride. Trained as an old-school philosopher specializing in 19th century German phenomenology, John is a man of many skills.
He and his brother own a factory that manufactures essential, but unromantic, plastic products. He is also a connoisseur of good wine, and he labors in a small vineyard behind his house, specializing in pinot noir grapes. In honor of his Irish heritage the label reads “Ceanncon,” from whence his ancestors emigrated long ago. The license plate on his Rapide reads “VN ROUGE,” though the paint is not wine-colored but Chinese Red, a Vincent option. John lives not 15 miles from our starting point in Cambria, named by some homesick Welshman.
Riding the Big Sur
Gas tanks full, we set off. The “we” in this case is John on the Rapide, Bob Hodgkinson on his 1968 Norton N15 and Marty Dickerson on his Honda GB500. A man of Vincent fame, Marty set several records at Bonneville on Vincents, and knew Burt Munro well, serving as an advisor on the film The World’s Fastest Indian. I rode along on a Hinckley Triumph Bonneville.
The first few miles run through flattish, open country on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, with cattle, horses and zebras grazing on the lush coastal grass. Zebras? Yes, we are passing San Simeon, the 90,000 square foot homage to excess built by publisher William Randolph Hearst and better known as the Hearst Castle or Hearst’s Folly. The old boy liked having strange animals around to impress his guests, and while he’s long gone, his zebras are still there.
This 100 miles of asphalt we are following is technically California State Highway 1, though it’s more commonly known as the Big Sur Highway. Its official name is the Cabrillo Highway, named in honor of Johnny Cabrillo, the first European to take note of California. Back in 1542 he claimed the whole state for the king of Spain, which was the way real estate deals were made back then.
John’s Rapide is a rider, and a very good looking one at that. No matter where he stops, people gawk and ask silly questions such as, “Is that an Indian?” although the Vincent decals on the gas tank are quite obvious.
John has improved engine performance with Black Shadow pistons, Mark II Black Lightning camshafts and larger 376 Amal Monobloc carburetors off a Series D Black Shadow, with modern K&N air filters. He’s also fitted period Craven panniers and a luggage rack for longer trips. As we round the curve going over Arroyo de los Chinos a long straight appears and Vin Rouge surges ahead at triple-digit speeds — not bad for a 56-year-old.
We swoop down low to the crossing over San Carpoforo Creek and the highway changes in personality from gentle curves to tight and twisty, demanding considerable use of the gearbox. The four-speed transmission runs in its own supply of oil, and the “servo-clutch,” a complicated affair that operates roughly like a twin-leading-shoe brake, needs to be oil-free to operate properly; John has recently done an overhaul on his primary drive, and the clutch works perfectly.
A dozen hard bends later we’re hanging onto the edge of the Santa Lucia Range; our buddy Cabrillo first saw these mountains on St. Lucia’s day (hence the name).
This road was not completed until 1937, and one of the difficulties was cutting it out of the side of sheer slopes running down to the ocean. It is one thing to make a road, but quite another to maintain it through winter storms and summer earthquakes. Even now, 70 years later, a section of the highway is sometimes destroyed by a mudslide or a major tremor and closed for a week, a month, or maybe more.
We pass from San Luis Obispo to Monterey County. Since leaving Cambria, the coast has been dedicated as the California Sea Otter Game Refuge, stretching all the way to Carmel. Now the land side of the highway is all part of Los Padres National Forest. The greater part of Big Sur is protected from development, thanks to the Big Sur Master Plan developed by Monterey in 1961.
Following the economically restrictive 1950s, the American public was eager to get in the Edsel and admire the countryside and maybe buy a little vacation cottage. Thankfully, Monterey recognized that the Big Sur would have major appeal to developers and put the big nix on that.
The ribbon of asphalt runs along the rock cliffs and the black sand beaches, zipping briefly inland to cross over a creek, then back to the frothing ocean. Sightseers are dawdling along in mommy-vans and convertibles, while terrified flatlanders, having flown in from Kansas and rented a motor home, are half-frozen at the steering wheel. The overtaking possibilities are limited, but the Rapide easily goes by any vehicular obstacle.
Flashing by is the wide spot in the road called Gorda, with food and lodging and the most expensive gasoline in the Big Sur. Then the dirt road called Los Burros goes off to the right, around Silver Peak and down to one of the old mining sites. Long before the Cabrillo Highway was built, miners dug away at the earth and rock, hoping to strike it rich.
We pass Saint Martin’s Point and the road straightens out for several miles as it crosses Pacific Valley. Wooden stiles allow us to get over the fence, wander across open range and look down on the kelp-heavy water, with the occasional otter industriously breaking open a shellfish with a rock.
After crossing Mill Creek there is a sign pointing right, reading Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. This is the only way across the Santa Lucia Mountains between Cambria and Carmel, and a doozie of a road it is, with seven wiggly miles going up to the 3,000ft saddle, and then sliding away down to the Nacimiento River and Fort Hunter-Liggett. We continue on, crossing over Limekiln Creek and the state park that shares its name.
The village of Big Sur is just 25 miles farther along, and the road now settles into an easier, gentler pace. We pass Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and then the road gets seriously curvy, darting inland again and again to cross the little creeks at a narrow point, and then back out to the coast.
Philip Vincent obviously knew what he was doing when he put four brakes on his machines, with narrow 7in, single-leading-shoe drums on both sides of each wheel. Well-tuned, these are excellent brakes, but still aren’t quite like having triple discs with four-piston calipers. But for 1950, they were better than any other motorcycle could boast.
The suspension, however, may be the weakest point of the Vincent; it works fine on smooth surfaces, but the unending repairs on the Cabrillo Highway mean bumpy asphalt and sometimes even stretches of dirt. John wisely slows accordingly.
The Rapide’s Girdraulic front suspension is a complicated combination of link-type girder forks, soft compression springs hidden in the long skinny tubes seen aft of the girders, and a single, hydraulically damped shock absorber behind the headlight. This arrangement was claimed to be superior to the often overly flexible telescoping forks that the other British manufacturers were offering at the time, especially when it came to bolting a sidecar to the Vincent.
Philip Vincent took sidecarring quite seriously, designing the forks so the rake and trail can be adjusted to compensate for the addition of a third wheel. The rear triangulated suspension has what appears at a glance to be twin shock absorbers beneath the seat, but they are merely concealing simple, undamped springs, with a hydraulic damper in between. This was definitely a move up from Triumph’s sprung hub and BSA’s plunger frame, but has its limitations. Hit the right number of bumps at the wrong angle and the Rapide is quite capable of bouncing clean off the road: John knows.
We pass the Henry Miller Museum, which sits in the shade of large trees. The author of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn lived out here from 1944 to 1962, and one of the many books he wrote is titled Big Sur.
A little beyond is the driveway to Nepenthe, a restaurant overlooking the ocean and certainly worth a stop. The place opened in 1950 and has the most magnificent views of the coast, presuming you’re there on a clear day.
Soon we are in the middle of the village of Big Sur, which has a dozen motels and campgrounds, including the lodge at Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park. This is where, 100 years ago, all the Big Sur development actually began, with entrepreneurs building hunting and vacation lodges. The only problem was that the road from Monterey was rough and often impassable in the winter. A request was made to the state in 1915 to improve the road for tourism, but little happened until the U.S. entered World War I. Then the savvy gents rewrote the need for a good road, saying it was for national defense. Money was allocated in 1919, but progress was slow until FDR’s program to combat the Depression came into effect.
Continuing north, we arrive at the Andrew Molera State Park, at the mouth of the Big Sur River. Highway 1 continues through an open coastal plain, and fourth gear is spinning fast as the road crosses over the Little Sur bridge and up towards Hurricane Point. A rider’s enthusiasm for speed is tempered only by the fact that the concrete railings on the bridge look awfully solid.
The rush up the flank of Sierra Hill is a wiggly bit, but has good, smooth pavement, topping out at Hurricane Point. Pulling off at the Vista Point we look down to Bixby Bridge, made minorly famous as the opening scene in the television series “Then Came Bronson.” The Rapide would have eaten Bronson’s Sportster for a mid-morning snack. When the bridge, an innovative concrete span, opened in 1937, it was the completion of the last link between Cambria and Carmel.
After Bixby Bridge the Cabrillo Highway smoothes out a little. We are getting back into what loosely passes for civilization, here called Carmel Highlands. Beyond the Highlands is Point Lobos State Reserve, where entrance by car or motorcycle is strictly limited. However, you can park by the road and walk in.
We pass a last open meadow and drop down to Carmel River State Beach. Cross the Carmel River on a boringly efficient flat bridge, and the choice is to stay in Carmel, or gas up at the filling station and head back. A Vincent can cover those 100 miles rather rapidly. MC
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