Briefly owned by legendary film star and motorcycle enthusiast Steve McQueen, this 1953 Vincent Series C Comet will be offered at Bonhams’ Oct. 6, 2018, auction at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. All photos by Somer Hooker.
One day back in the 1970s, I was talking with the late Gene Aucott, who was the first Vincent dealer in the U.S. Gene allowed that he had been contacted by Steve McQueen in regards to a Vincent he had purchased. Gene encouraged him to attend a rally and get more involved. Sadly, soon thereafter, McQueen developed cancer and passed away in 1980. When his estate sale was held, there was no Comet there.
In 1987, I was at the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s big meet in Davenport, Iowa, where I came upon Indian four expert and aficionado Earl Chalfant’s table. I happened to notice a picture of a Vincent Comet there. Of course, I inquired, and Earl told me he had traded Steve McQueen for it in the 1970s! It was then that he told me “the rest of the story.”
McQueen had gone into a vintage bike dealer in the U.K., where he spotted an early Brough Superior SS-80 and the Vincent Comet, with a sidecar on it. He bought both bikes, and with no interest in the sidecar he asked them to remove it.
There were two things about the Vincent that McQueen did not realize: First, the forks were in the wrong position; and two, one of the frame numbers was wrong for a Comet. When it arrived in California, McQueen took it for a ride and found the handling to be atrocious, so he took it to Bob Stark’s Indian shop in California and asked him to sell it. Chalfant saw the Comet at Stark’s and offered a 1939 Indian Chief in trade (later sold at McQueen’s estate sale, Lot No. 648); McQueen accepted and they traded bikes.
A 1988 memo from Indian specialist and McQueen friend Robert Stark at Starklite Cycle detailing McQueen’s trade of the 1953 Vincent Comet for Earl Chalfant’s 1939 Indian Chief.
Later, Chalfant took the Comet to an antique motorcycle club meet and was riding it around when he was stopped by a couple of Vincent owners who said, “Are you trying to kill yourself?” They pointed out that the Girdraulic forks were adjusted for the sidecar position, which is why it handled poorly, and they helped him change the setting on the spot. Sadly, neither McQueen nor the dealer who sold him the bike ever appreciated how well the Vincent’s Girdraulic fork could work.
I wound up buying the Comet from Chalfant, and later sold it to a gentleman in Canada. He kept it in his dining room until 2002, but when his health began to fail he contacted me about selling it. I was able to hook him up with a museum, where it resided until 2016 when it was offered back to me when they were doing a collection rebalancing.
The Brough Superior was gifted by McQueen to Kenny Howard, aka “Von Dutch.” It changed hands from Dutch and then was later sold at a Gooding sale in 2011 at Pebble Beach (Lot No. 133). Part of the vetting was the letter from Earl Chalfant. The Brough was again sold by Gooding in 2018, again at their Pebble Beach sale.
The McQueen Comet will be featured at Bonhams’ upcoming auction at the 14th Annual Barber Vintage Festival on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. Also on offer will be the second-ever Vincent Black Lightning and another McQueen bike, the 1970 Husqvarna 400 Cross that McQueen owned and rode in Bruce Brown’s legendary film, On Any Sunday.
Prices for Series C single-cylinder Vincent Comets have historically lagged far behind the twin-cylinder C Rapides or Black Shadows, but this ex-Steve McQueen Comet will likely command a premium when it sells at Bonhams’ Barber auction Oct. 6, 2018.