Sometimes when a motorcycle is renovated its easy to lose the things that made it so special in the first place, but when you start with something as minimalist and purposeful as this Viscount Vincent, the odds are in your favour.
One of around just 10-12 bikes that were created, this Viscount stopped me in my tracks at the Southern Classic Show at Kempton Park. And while we can’t claim to be experts on the marque or even the late 1950s era, with such a small number of machines built in varying specifications, information is scare even in the internet age.
What we do know is that this bike isn’t a trailered show pony. The purposeful Vincent V-twin engine dominates the assault on your retinas even when it’s standing still. And while any Vincent twin motor is a thing of beauty, the heavy modifications to this 1951 example make it cooler than a penguins’ lunchbox.
Firstly it will run on avgas to squeeze out every last bit of performance, with a compression ratio of 12:1 thanks to the Himalayan pistons. We don’t know what they are but we want some! Then there are the special lightweight pushrods, race spec cams and new conrods with Alpha big end bearings. The cylinder heads haven’t just had their squish cut, but are now twin plug heads with a BT-H magneto providing sparks you could weld with!
The heads are also ported, and the stock-size valves were retained but are now kept in check by Porsche 911 valve springs. And to lay down all this power is a reworked Vincent five-speed box of cogs and a seven plate clutch with a Bob Newby primary drive. Even the fuel tank has been modified inside so that dry ice can be used to keep the fuel cool.
The Viscount Vincents put all that into a Norton Manx chassis with magnesium wheels.
And the reason for all that is that this Viscount Vincent has been rebuilt to compete at the Bonneville Salt Flats in August 2014. It’ll be the first ever appearance of a Viscount Vincent at the hallowed land speed proving grounds, and explains the lack of brakes… Not only is it a treat to stumble across a bike that relatively few people know about, but it’s even better to be educated by a motorcycle that’s been built for go as well as show and will be proving itself in anger shortly!
Vincents and Viscounts:
Vincent combines the fascinating history of two motorcycle marques. Originally HRD Motorcycles were founded by British Royal Flying Corps pilot Howard Raymond Davies who apparently came up with the idea of building motorcycles whilst a prisoner of war in 1917, and in 1924 J.A.P engined bikes were produced and began winning races, although the company was unable to make a profit and went into liquidation in 1928. When the factory was sold to Ernest Humphries of OK-Supreme Motors, the name, jigs, tools and patterns etc were snapped up by Philip Vincent, backed by family wealth from cattle ranching in Argentina.
Vincent had already built his own motorcycle and in 1928 registered a patent for cantilever suspension. Vincent HRD became Vincent after World War 2 to avoid confusion with Harley Davidson for the large U.S export market. Starting with the Meteor and Comet, the Vincent name became most famous for the Vincent Black Shadow and Vincent Black Lightning. The Shadow was capable of 125mph at the start of the 1950s.
It was a Vincent pictured in one of the most famous and iconic motorcycle images – that of Rolland ‘Rollie’ Free laying flat on a bike in a bathing suit to claim an American land speed record in 1948 at Bonneville.
Sadly the hand-built and expensive Vincents struggled to continue, even with the boost of imported and dual-badged NSU mopeds, and production ceased one week before Christmas in 1955. The company tried to switch to general engineering and industrial engines, but went into receivership in 1959, with the name since traded by various engineering firms.
Vincent engines often ended up being re-homed in other frames, with the Norvin using a Norton Featherbed frame as the most common. You’ll also hear the names Vincent-Norton, Vinton and Vin-Nor.
Over the years various companies have attempted to build businesses around the concept, including Hailwood Motorcycle Restorations, Egli-Vincents, Vincent RTV, and Vincent Motors USA, who attempted to build a modern Honda V-Twin powered Vincent.
Back in the 1950s, Staffordshire motorcycle engineer Tom Somerton picked up the most successful of the one-off specials, raced by Peter Darvill, and created the Viscount brand name to build Vincent-engined, Norton featherbed-framed specials which were modified and specified to individual customer requirements. The use of Norton magnesium hubs and aluminium rims plus fibreglass body parts meant that the bikes were incredibly light when given twice the original engine capacity.
Unfortunately the the efforts were doomed due to the lack of donor bikes and the challenge of an affordable price. After somewhere between 10-12 Viscount Vincents were created, the company folded.
Update from Alex Aitchison from Darvill Racing:
‘Pete created two versions of his PJD Vincent (the original name he raced it under inc at the Manx) using a Comet (500cc) and Shadow (as you see above). Tom Somerton approached him to buy both designs in order to re-badge is as the Viscount. Pete agreed as, like all of us when racing, needed the money. Pete wanted the PJD Vincent name to remain but Tom was amendment to use the Viscount name as it sounded more like similar marques of the day (Royal Enfield, Excelsior, New Imperial) so the concession was made.’
Cheers to Alex, and it’s worth checking out Darvill Racing