NOW OR NEVER

The 49-year bike build

Street Chopper - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TOS: SANDY ROCA

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

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