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Origainally published in International Motorcycle Magazine, Volume 19, Issue 2 April 2009.

Riding a Legend

1953 Vincent Rapide

Words and photos by Steve Bond

Most vintage Brit bikes are pretty cool but there's just something about a Vincent that makes me want to jump up and down and wag my tail.

The last Vincent rolled off the assembly line almost 60 years ago, but they're still spoken of in hushed, reverent tones wherever motorcyclists get together. Even the emblem on the gas tank displays attitude and arrogance – it simply says "The Vincent".

1953 Vincent Rapide, left side view Vincents were not only the world's fastest production motorcycle, they were technologically advanced for their day and superbly over-engineered. For all my years around motorcycles, I'd never swung a leg over a Vincent until last fall. I was at SUPERSHOW Producer Bar Hodgson's place, getting pictures and background information for one of his motorcycles when right out of the blue he asked, "Would you like to ride the Vincent?"

Really? "Sure – it's gassed up and ready to go."

Usually I'm a bit leery of riding older motorcycles because the good old days are long gone and they weren't that good the first time around.

But the Vincent surprised me. With the exception of the brakes, the Rapide would be a reasonable street bike even today once you mastered the complicated starting procedure. First, open the fuel taps, tickle the front carburetor for four seconds, then tickle the rear carb for three seconds. Engage both chokes. Pull in the compression release. Lift the right footpeg and kick three times (no more, no less). Kick slowly to bring the front cylinder up to compression, add just a teensy bit of throttle and kick HARD once more. Basically, you're doing everything but drawing a pentagram around the motorcycle with chicken blood.

1953 Vincent Rapide right side view
Bar ably performed the ritual and the 998 cc, air-cooled V-twin rumbled into life on the first HARD kick, even though it had been sitting for over a month. Of course, oil had migrated past the check valve and filled the sump, engulfing us in blue smoke for a moment or two.

Pull the amazingly light clutch, lift "up for first" on the right side gear-change, feed in some throttle and the Rapide effortlessly glides away, building speed surprisingly quickly and smoothly. For second and third gear, push the shift lever down.

1953 Vincent Rapide view of speedometer The needle on the huge Smith's chronometric speedometer tick-tick-ticks it's way across the dial like the second hand on a watch, rather than a smooth sweep, and soon I'm in fourth – or top – gear at a relaxed and vibration-free 60 miles per hour (96 km/h).

Legend has it that when riding a Vincent, you feel a power-pulse "every other lamp post" and the engine has a definite cadence, much like the motorcycle has settled into a steady and relaxing gallop.

The ride is surprisingly comfortable, the hydraulically damped girder forks unexpectedly supple over frost heaves, pavement irregularities and railway crossings. It does seem odd to see the headlight shell and speedo moving as the suspension goes up and down. The rear suspension is a cantilever type with twin hydraulic dampers (decades ahead of it's time), and combined with the semi-sprung seat, the ride is firm but still functional. The rear suspension on most modern cruisers comes off as harsh and ineffective when compared to the 55-year old Vincent.

Where most motorcycles of the day had single-leading-shoe drum brakes front and rear, the Vincent has four separate drums, two on each wheel. A firm squeeze on the lever results in casual deceleration – brakes of the day were truly the first anti-lock systems. Anticipate your braking requirements well in advance and do not deviate from the plan.

The handling was stable, although the steering feels a little strange, probably not helped by the odd 20-inch front and 19-inch rear wheels with very skinny rubber. The wheelbase is a relatively short 1,415mm (55.5 inches) and dry weight is listed at 206 kg (455 lb), a real lightweight when compared to modern 1,000 cc V-twins.

Vincent Rapide 1953 motorcycle engine closeup
There's no frame as such, just an oil tank "spine" that everything, including engine and suspension, hangs off. Both axles have T-handles for tool-less wheel removal and the hinged rear fender makes this task even easier. There are left and right sidestands, along with a built-in pivoting rear stand, secured to the rear fender with another T-handle.

The Vincent Owner's Club deserves a lot of credit to keeping these motorcycles around, as virtually every part for a Vincent is available through the membership.

Vincents are amongst the most desirable and collectable of all classic motorcycles and prices have gone through the roof. Any Vincent in running condition will sell for between 35 and 50 large and, at a recent auction, a high performance Black Shadow fetched a cool $92,000.

Steve Bond rides the Vincent Rapide 1953 After riding the Rapide, I was totally impressed and commented on the power, how comfortable it was and how well the suspension worked.

Bar laughed and summed it up perfectly, "Were they ahead of their time or what?"

1953 Vincent Rapide right side view of motorcycle

1953 Vincent Rapide left side view of motorcycle

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