Classic Bike (UK) - - Contents -

Nicksy re­calls Vic Wil­loughby’s high­speed marathon on a Black Knight


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?

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