HRD Series A Rapide
First came the astounding AJS V4 – astounding because apart from the single example that was manufactured in 1935 and exhibited at that year’s Earl’s Court Show in London and subsequently dismantled with the planned production run cancelled – virtually nothing exists. As we saw in issue 75, this almost total absence of reference material did nothing to deter Dan’s resolve, in fact quite the opposite.
Then came a second challenge – the fabled Velocette Roarer, but at least one example of the supercharged 500 twin that completed a solitary lap on the Isle of Man TT course in 1939 existed in the hands of Ivan Rhodes in UK. Dan was able to take measurements and compared notes with Ivan, but it was still an immense project, which was detailed in issue 76. Now to complete the trio we bring you the story of how Dan Smith came to create a replica of the Vincent H.R.D. Series A Rapide, a machine for which he holds great affection. Like the AJS and the Velocette, Dan chose not to slavishly copy the original, instead incorporating some modern internal components and taking advantage of the availability of materials that were not in general supply nearly 80 years ago. And unlike the other two bikes, this one was going to be ridden, and ridden regularly, because Dan and his wife Eileen are keen tourers, having covered hundreds of thousands of miles across several continents on a variety of machines, including his 1949 Vincent Rapide. Not for nothing is the pre-war Rapide known as the “Plumber’s Nightmare”, with external oil lines, hoses and so on running everywhere. But in many ways, this jumble of ‘plumbing’ adds to the machine’s appeal – it certainly did for Dan. At this point, a little background is relevant.
It would have been a relatively logical step for Philip Conrad Vincent (known to his friends as PCV) to simply slip into the family cattle business, which was based in Argentina, but during his education at Harrow, became increasingly drawn to motorcycles, and especially their design. Even before he graduated, he had designed his own frame with rear springing, using a triangulated pivoting structure. This was to remain in basically the same form until production of the motorcycles bearing his name ceased in 1955. By 1926 he had drawn up several motorcycles, but converting them to metal was another matter. With financial assistance from his parents, one of these was built, using a 350cc MAG engine, upon which young Philip clocked up a considerable mileage. With a further injection of family money, a company was formed and premises formerly occupied by the carriage builders Ottfords at Stevenage, north of London, acquired. By now it was 1928, the same year that successful racer Howard R Davies decided to relinquish the company he had formed in 1925 to manufacture his own motorcycles. Aboard his own HRD, Davies had sensationally taken victory in the 1925 Senior TT, a win that instantly elevated him to legendary status. When Davies took the decision to cease trading, he found a ready buyer for the business in young Philip, and production was transferred to Stevenage. Philip Vincent wisely chose to use the HRD brand (at least initially) as it was a proven product, rather than go through the travails of launching a new brand (Vincent) on a cautious buying public. A variety of motorcycles was produced, albeit in quite small numbers, using engines from MAG, Blackburne, J.A.P., Rudge and Villiers (and even one with a Cross Rotary valve head). Although J.A.P. was the favoured powerplant, Vincent was dissatisfied with the quality control, and in 1934 Rudge announced they would no longer supply engines to other manufacturers, so it was time for a re-think. In 1931 PCV had engaged the services of Australian Phil Irving, who had coincidentally arrived in Great Britain from his native Victoria on the pillion seat of a 500cc HRD ridden overland by John Gill. Irving’s practicality was the perfect foil to Vincent’s adventurous attitude to design, and the first original fruit of Irving’s labour was a fairly conventional single cylinder overhead valve 500, with a high-mounted camshaft, released in standard form as the Meteor, as the Comet in sports trim, and as the TT Replica in full racing specification. Irving says the selection of the bore and stroke for the new engine was conceived in a novel way. “84mm was the smallest cylinder I could get my hand into for cleaning, and as Vincent did not like long-stroke engines, the stroke chosen was 90mm, giving 498.7cc.” The new 500 was very well received – fast and reliable – and set Vincent’s ever-active mind upon the next project. It has gone down in motorcycling history that the engine that followed the 500 single came about as a result of happenchance. Irving was working at his drawing board on the timing side crankcase half of the 500 engine, and by turning over the tracing paper and superimposing it on the main drawing, he found himself staring at what was in effect the layout for a vee-twin with a 47-degree included angle between the cylinders. This meant that the second cylinder’s camshaft could be driven by the idler gear already used for the first. He went on to say, “Translating the idea into reality was not as simple as it looked during the first fine careless rapture of discovery, but the simple plan of offsetting the rear cylinder 1 1/2 inches to the right permitted its exhaust pipe to clear the front cylinder, and allowed two standard con-rods and big-end assemblies to be mounted side-by-side on a long crankpin.” Apart from new, wider crankcases, the twin used the same engine components as the single, with both exhaust ports facing forward. The frame was also similar to the Meteor, although lengthened by three inches. The new twin was named the Rapide, and the prototype was completed (with the exception of the
“Translating the idea into reality was not as simple as it looked during the first fine careless rapture of discovery...”
crankshaft and flywheels and a metallic painted wooden chain case) in time for it to be exhibited at the 1936 Show at Olympia. However Irving was not part of the launch, having left to re-join Velocette. The 998cc engine developed 45 bhp and tipped the scales at around 200 kg, giving it a theoretical top speed of 110 mph. During early testing, the Rapide engine was discovered to be too powerful for the Burman gearbox, but apart from a redesign for the clutch, little could be done without a complete redesign, something that could not be accomplished at the time. With no suitable alternative transmission available, it was up to the owner to treat the ‘box with kid gloves to avoid major failures that even included cracked casings. From its general release in early 1937 and up to the outbreak of WW2, 77 (some reports say 79) Rapides were delivered to owners who could afford the asking price for what was rightly claimed to be the fastest standard production motorcycle – in fact anything on two, three or four wheels – in the world. Naturally, there was a high attrition rate for the Rapides over the next six years, some even being scrapped for their metal content. During the conflict, PCV and Irving found themselves working together again, this time for the Air Ministry. In what spare time they had, the pair discussed what could be, post-war, the evolution of the Rapide – the Series B – with unit construction of engine and gearbox to eliminate the earlier issues.
Time marches on
Fast forward to 2006, when Canadian Robert Watson acquired a dismantled Series A Rapide from Toronto, and enlisted help from his friend and fellow Vincent tragic Dan Smith in order to retrieve it from the other side of the country. Smith and Watson had known each other for many years and both were members of the Vincent Owners Club on the West Coast. Before the current situation where there are many remanufactured parts available for Vincents, spares were extremely difficult to come by, so in Smith’s case, being an expert machinist who wasn’t afraid of a challenge was a decided advantage. There was no doubt that the Toronto-based Rapide was a true basket case that would take a great deal of time and effort, and a not inconsiderable amount of money to bring back to life. Fortunately, Smith was up to the task, and during the course of the rebuild, began to think about creating a close-to identical machine for himself. Smith takes up the story. “Robert Watson decided ‚
one day he wouldn’t mind having an A twin to go with his post-war Vincents, so I knew of one in Toronto and through the system we arranged to look at it and Robert bought it. It was stripped, dismantled. So we flew down (from Vancouver), bought a van, and bought it back (a distance of nearly 4,500 kilometres). Before we put it together I made lots of measurements and drawings, then made the appropriate patterns and all the pieces to copy it before we put it together, including the frame dimensions, so it was easier (than building the AJS V4) but it was still a good exercise. I made the frame, but the brakes are post war stuff that I got from Neal Videan. They did have dual front brakes on the early Rapides but they were not finned. These brakes stop pretty good because the normal shoe is 7/8” wide and these are 1 1/8” wide. I had them on my Shadow and they are quite respectable. I do it all myself, I don’t have employees. Neal Videan and Rodney Brown, they farm it all out. There are places I thought, ‘we can improve on this’, because I like to ride it. The tank – I call it a wartime tank because it looked like it had been through the first and second world wars. It’s a post-war tank and I’ve just made it look similar with the ribbing on top – that’s just metal bonded on – and the badges are silver. I made those, I knew a jeweller and he carved the side badges out but he died before he finished them so I had to finish them off. There’s 9 troy in each of those tank badges!” “I made the carburettors (not the floats) inch and a quarter. The biggest Amal made in that series (29 Type) was inch and an eighth. I’m a great one for keeping it stock so I used a standard Lucas mag/dyno. They’re Vincent cams in it, same profile
as Mk 2 which was the Lightning cam, magnetos from a Douglas which was an opposed twin so you can use the same cam ring because it’s a 360. I got it off eBay and it was brand new, still had a wax seal with the stamp from Lucas on it just one of those lucky finds, and it comes with a seal on it so I can run my chaincase wet; the other ones were grease. The chaincase driving the magneto is aluminium. Normally the A twins had the toolbox up here (above the clutch cover), but I put a post war tool box under the seat and it’s a post war seat. I put the oil tank, with a screw-on oil filter, down there in the shape of the tool box because I like to do big miles. I first 86/20 case hardened the cams and the followers, well it ate ‘em within 1000 miles and when I pulled it down I saw the big end was accumulating what was coming off the cams so when I put it together for the second time with Stellite followers and so on, I put the filter on. “I had a set of post wars and I had them re-tubed so they’re the same. It’s a nice bike to ride. They are tubeless tyres on it – I found a tape on eBay from Japan – a kit with two layers of tape. I have them on my Shadow too. The inner tubes now leak down over the winter but these don’t lose more than a few pounds after a winter. So now I just carry a plug kit and a CO2 cartridge for a flat tyre. But I haven’t had to do it. The mud flap is a great thing for keeping foreign objects off the back tyre. A nail will lie on the road and you can ride over it and not puncture the front tyre but it will flick it and that’s why you get it in the back tyre. But when it hits the mudflap it will spit it off to the side. I went to South America and back and never had anything puncture my tyre in 30,000 miles.”
ABOVE Hand made primary chain case. BOTTOM LEFT Man and machine. Dan Smith with his self-made Vincent Series A Rapide.
The fabled yellow-faced instruments adorn Dan’s bike. TOP LEFT Post-war stopping power. LEFT Oil tank sits where toolbox once lived. The tool box is now under the seat. ABOVE Fuel tank was modified from Series B item. ABOVE RIGHT Hand made badges. “There’s 9 troy in each of those tank badges!” RIGHT Magnetos are a tight fit. FAR RIGHT Modern tubeless tyres on specially sealed rims.
It’s easy to see where the ‘Plumber’s Nightmare’ epithet came from.
The Series A Rapide formerly owned by Tasmanian Bill Wiggins that was completely rebuilt following a disastrous fire and now owned by Ian Boyd in WA.
BELOW LEFT All steel front brake with no cooling fins. BOTTOM LEFT Original tool box. BELOW CENTRE Rear wheel carries auxiliary sprocket.