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Michael FitzSimons has a Vincent story as good as Richard Thompson’s famous song – 1952 Vincent Black Lightning – but with a happy ending. Boy loses numerous drag races to a Vincent Rapide in 1955. Boy buys the crashed Vincent in 1956, repairs it, races it, joins U.S. Air Force, and sells it. Boy sees his Vincent again in 1962, doesn’t buy it; sees it again in 1977 in bits, doesn’t recognize it, finds it again in 1997 – still in pieces – and restores it.
When Detroit’s horsepower wars started in 1955, 19-year-old Michael FitzSimons had a front row seat, rocketing across town in his father’s new Oldsmobile 88 to visit his girlfriend in Bloomfield Hills.
He’d drive northwest on Woodward Avenue, crossing roads named for their distances from Michigan Avenue. The City of Detroit ended at 8 Mile Road, and when FitzSimons reached 18 Mile Road, he was nearly there. Police patrolled Woodward Avenue to 15 Mile Road, beyond which street racers would gather.
One day FitzSimons had his eyes opened in an encounter with a British Vincent Rapide He’d owned an Ariel 350cc, and a Royal Enfield 500cc, but the Vincent literally blew him away.
Philip Vincent bought the bankrupt British HRD motorcycle company in 1928 and produced his first superbike in 1936 with the 998cc V-Twin Series A Rapide. Fast and powerful, it was known as the “plumber’s nightmare” for its outside oil lines. During WWII Vincent redesigned the engine and the 1946 Series B Rapide was significantly improved. It now had internal oil routing, and a unit-construction engine and gearbox unit. Vincent also eliminated a traditional frame, using the engine as a stressed member.
The 1948 Series C introduced the Black Shadow and Black Lightning. The Lightning developed 54 bhp, weighed only 458 lbs and was good for 125 mph. It had ported heads, free-flow exhaust, skeleton foot pegs, and drilled sprockets. Vincent built only 31 Black Lightnings, but any Rapide or Black Shadow could be upgraded.
Rollie Free set a Bonneville record in 1948 on a Black Lightning at 150.313 miles per hour – almost 20 miles per hour faster than the Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter, and Vincent billed itself as “the makers of the world’s fastest motorcycles.”
But Vincents were too expensive for financially devastated Britain. Only 11,000 were produced after WWII, and the majority were exported. Indian Motorcycles of Springfield, Massachusetts, became the U.S. distributor for Vincent, Royal Enfield, Matchless, Norton, and AJS in 1948. But in 1955 Vincent closed its doors.
FitzSimons continued to chase the Woodward Avenue Vincent, but even when his father bought a 1956 Chevy with a stick shift, the bike stayed ahead of the car for the first mile.
“This guy on the Vincent, nobody knew who he was,” FitzSimons said. “I would pick him up at 15 Mile or 16 Mile, the light would change, and off we’d go. He was hard to beat off the line, up to 60 or 80 miles an hour. Then I heard he had crashed.”
But the rider’s bad luck turned into good luck for FitzSimons. He spent many Saturday mornings at Cutler Norton, and one day in 1956 he heard about a wrecked 1952 Vincent Rapide for $100. FitzSimons knew from the straight pipes and Lightning parts that it was the Woodward Avenue Vincent. He scraped up $100 to buy it and street raced it for a year before joining the Air Force, and selling it for $150. It would be 60 years before he rode it again.
In 1962, FitzSimons drove by Nicholson’s Triumph in Ann Arbor and saw a Vincent through the window with straight pipes he recognized. He called the store and discovered it was his old bike, but he was busy and thought no more about it.
By the 1970s, FitzSimons was restoring vintage British motorcycles. He established a reputation as a Vincent expert before moving on to Brough Superiors. Meanwhile, Rapide 8489, belonged to Illinois collector Dave Smith, who advertised a “Vincent sellout” in the July 1976 issue of Cycle World magazine. Smith was selling four titles, one Lightning, one Shadow and two dismantled bikes, along with boxes of parts, engines, and assorted pieces.
In 1977 British bike enthusiast Leland Monroe bought Smith’s Vincent collection, which was stashed at John Healey’s Triumph in Wellesley, Massachusetts. FitzSimons stopped in but didn’t pay much attention to the broken-up motorcycles and boxes of parts, which, as it happened, included 8489.
When Leland Monroe died in 1997, the hoard wound up with Bob Fast, who had settled Monroe’s estate. FitzSimons still had plenty of Vincent connections, and told enthusiast Herb Harris, about the Fast collection. It was far larger than Dave Smith had advertised in 1976, and FitzSimons still had no idea his old Rapide was included.
Harris moved the parts to his home in Austin, Texas, to join dozens of other dismantled Vincents. He started the Harris Vincent Gallery, and began to produce a half-dozen restored Vincents each year.
It took Harris two years to sort out the Fast collection and when FitSimons told him about his old street racer, it occurred to Harris that he might have it. He sent FitzSimons some paperwork and FitzSimons was astonished to discover his Woodward Avenue racer still existed. He immediately determined to rebuild it.
Harris was able to provide factory Lightning parts: Monobloc carburetors, straight pipes – even engine number 8489. The V-twin was rebuilt with modern alloy pistons, for a tighter, knock-free fit. The sole “creature comfort” on the Woodward Avenue bike is an electric starter, since the radical cams make kick-starting a challenge.
Even with the starter and a Miller headlamp and generator, the Vincent weighs barely 400 lbs. Both FitzSimons and Harris are happy with the restoration, and Rapide 8489 announces its Woodward Avenue Vincent status on the tank.
“Seeing my first Vincent, and hearing it run for the first time in nearly 60 years, was a very special moment,” FitzSimons said. “It took me back to the time Detroit was the center of the world, and a college student could afford one of the world’s fastest motorcycles.”