NOW OR NEVER
The 49-year bike build
Remember when social media was passing notes to that pretty petunia in French class? Or when steam locos still hauled freight in Appalachian back hills overnight? Well, that’s when the motorcycle on these pages had its beginnings. Its designer had just stepped up from his first bike— an overhead cam 450—to a big, nasty, old 998 Vincent. It was kind of a short- checkered affair. He called it a Black Shadow, though actually it was a milder Rapide variant— because spray bomb paint and oil leaks made the engine a mean, mangy black. It was blindingly fast, hard to start, and generally cantankerous. It fouled plugs by the bushel basket. Its street career ended late one night. It seized a rod bearing and the designer hitchhiked home. Turned out, a prior owner’s idea was needle roller bearings— with spot-welded aluminum cages— in the big end. Kind of sub- optimal work, ya think?
In the aftermath of that incident, the designer began to ponder an improved version, sort of his version of the ultimate Vincent. A chopper of sorts and, the way things eventually turned out, a period piece.
Because this was the age of the early custom chopper. Backyard builders bitten by the bug had to do things themselves. Extended front ends were made, not bought. Some stuffed late-model Big Twin engines into early VL frames. Lower ends, front hubs, and girder forks got adapted and swapped from one bike to another. Powerplants sprouted home-brew, big, badass dual carburetion. Sissy bars and exhausts grew to the sky.
Today, of course, the Vincent is revered as an antique. But 50 years ago, the designer viewed it as eminent chop fodder like a Triumph or a BSA. And the fact that the Vincent was a big V-twin equal to a Harley EL in displacement? All the better.
So the designer began to collect, modify, and chrome plate parts for a classic early California custom job on vintage English machinery. He still has all those now-yellowing 1960s- era letters he received from Switzerland, England, and California.
There was no email, remember? A Brampton front end needing repair went to Buchanan’s for extended legs. From Fritz Egli Sr. in Switzerland came a passel of go-fast goodies: alloy pushrods, Mark II cams with lightened gearwheels, and weight-reduced and polished followers and rocker arms. A NOS Series D crankcase emerged from Great Britain. Richmond Hill Speed Shop in England provided big valve cylinder heads and crankshaft with oversize crankpin and mainshafts. A better-looking Horex fullwidth alloy hub and brake got swapped for the Vincent front wheel. In the rear, a Slater cooling muff on a lightened Shadow rear drum with a Slater aluminum brake plate and hard-anodized alloy sprocket got ordered.
The design was sprinkled with other speed parts off the Vincent racing model, the Black Lightning. Plus, he planned a raked neck, tall front wheel, sky pipes, rigid rear, and twin big- choke Dell’orto carbs— all the good stuff. Surely, in just a few months this bike would hit the pavement to join its early custom chopper brethren.
But not so fast. A few other things then happened in the designer’s life. Suffice it to say, he got to live a few dreams and miss some others. Decades passed. The Vincent project got mothballed: It sat in a large sealed box, ensconced in various basements over time.
One day decades later, however, things changed. The designer received the six-letter life- changing news that no one ever wants or expects: cancer. As far as malignancy went, it was a real doozy. Think full-blown and injected, bored and stroked. His pretty oncologist told him there were about nine other people on the planet who had what he had. Kind of like hitting the lottery— in reverse. Or scoring a NOS Vard front end at your neighbor’s yard sale.
So while she and her colleagues prescribed and ruminated about what to do with his curious case, he determined to fight back in the best way he knew how: return to his roots. And of course there was that bike waiting in the box. Now all of a sudden, this Vincent became his best therapy because in effect building it became now or never.
The designer broke into the fabled Vincent tomb and obtained new parts: five-speed Quaife transmission, 21-inch front and 19-inch rear Akront alloy rims laced to hubs by Buchanan’s in California, billet Cnc-machined alloy steering head lug by Craftmethod LLC, in Ray, Michigan, and a steady stream of stainless bits and crucial parts from Coventry Spares in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The engine parts went out for sorting, massaging, and assembly to master motor magician Pete Talabach of Mohawk Garage in Becket, Massachusetts. Pete reported back, yes, the engine was a real hot rod, with big valve heads— in fact so large that with high lift Egli/lightning cams the cylinder liners had to be relieved for things to clear. The engine’s unusual oversize mainshafts and big end also made fitting bearings quite a project.
The rest of the machine landed in the equally capable confines of Stone’s Motorcycle Company in Northborough, Massachusetts. Steve Stone’s wizardry included raking the steering angle via an oil tank mod and fabrication of a batch of polished parts. New 50mm exhaust headers were made from convoluted thin wall stainless that combined light weight, strength, and enhanced heat dissipation.
Aaron Richard of Revive Custom Motorcycles in Coventry, Rhode Island, fabbed the alloy gas tank, with difficult recesses for the front 35mm Dell’orto carb and 2-into-1 choke cable coupler. The result: a street custom that weighs 12 pounds less than the fabled Vincent Black Lightning racing model.
And so what has materialized is the ghost of the owner’s long-ago Vincent past and the ’60s early chopper craze. It seemed only fitting to give this phantom a pale metallic will- o’-the-wisp color scheme. And call it the Silver Lightning.
Given the outlook, I’m not sure how much he will ride the completed piece. There are still electrics and carburetion to sort out. But it sure will make some headstone, ya think? (Oh, and in case you hadn’t guessed: The designer, scribe, and photog are all one and the same.) SC