Nicksy recalls Vic Willoughby’s highspeed marathon on a Black Knight
‘FROM EARLY MORNING TO LATE AFTERNOON, WILLOUGHBY LOGGED 501 MILES’
No other motorcycle has generated more myths than the Vincent V-twin. During its production era, the 998cc engine offered cruising to equal the absolute top speeds of most of its rivals, so it’s not surprising that folklore magnified the Vincent’s reputation after the marque’s demise in 1955. I’ve never met anyone who bought a lorryload of Vincents for a fiver, in the time before the classic movement blossomed. Neither did I get the name of the travelling marshal who unofficially broke the Brands Hatch lap record on a road-equipped Vincent twin, beating the efforts of riders such as Mike Hailwood and Derek Minter on Grand Prix-spec Manx Nortons. But I know it happened, because I was in the crowd one day as a lad and heard spectators talking about it.
But I have identified the source of one Vincent legend. There was something in my mind about a rider doing 500 miles in a day, at speeds of 100mph, on the old Great North Road from London to Scotch Corner and back – and browsing through the Classic Bike library I came across a book called Exotic Motorcycles by Vic Willoughby. Willoughby was a former racer and tuner who became the Technical Editor of the The Motor Cycle magazine, and his book contains 24 riding experiences on machines ranging from 250cc Ariel Arrows to Grand Prix exotica including the MV 500cc four, 350cc DKW two-stroke triple, 500cc BMW Rennsport twin and Giulio Carcano’s 350cc Moto Guzzi flat single, via a 592cc Matchless Sports Twin. I remember meeting him once, in the late ’60s, when he would have been at the dusk of his career. He was a small, terrierlike bloke with glasses, but it’s apparent that he was up for any kind of caper. The one with the Vincent involved the Series D Black Knight, the fully-faired model, complete with a hinged rear shell, that was introduced in the fateful year of 1955. Willoughby was given the 1955 London Show machine, and decided to do the A1 gig, when this old coaching route to Scotland was just a single carriageway.
It’s the detail of how people lived in those times that we look back on today with a kind of revulsion and awe. To test Vincent’s claims that the Black Knight was weatherproof, Willoughby put on pyjamas over his underwear, thick cord slacks, a rollneck sweater, a tweed jacket, a twopiece plastic riding suit and rubber boots.
You wonder that he didn’t need to be winched onto the bike. For head protection, he appears to have worn just a cap, because he complains later in the article that for a photo session staged after his long ride his editor ‘persuaded me to swap my favourite flat cap (specially made, snug and waterproof) for a cork helmet’.
He set out on roads still covered with grime at 6.20am on a winter Sunday. In the dark he cruised at 75mph behind the Lucas beam and when dawn broke upped the speed to 80-85mph. The big Vincent swallowed up counties – Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Rutland, Nottinghamshire. In North Yorkshire he reached Scotch Corner at 10.25am. He stopped at the roundabout to make notes and clean his goggles, then set off back to London. He settled into a 90-95mph cruise, and by the time he got home to north London in the late afternoon, Willoughby had logged 501 miles, 400 of them on wet roads.
He didn’t claim any kind of record, or quote his average speed, because there had been fuel stops, a lunch stop and heavy traffic on the North Circular. But his story gives us an insight into a kind of highaverage-speed motorcycling on ordinary roads – braking, gearchanging and corner lines streamed into one seamless rhythm – that is no longer possible on British roads.
So, while Willoughby’s ride converts one Vincent myth into (semi) reality for me, it has also settled a question that often rages in bar-room banter: were they ’arder in classic times?