Vintage Vincent: a dependable, reliable ride |

Vintage Vincent: a dependable, reliable ride

“People often mistake it for a Harley,” says Chris McIntosh of the motorcycle he rides around Grass Valley. But a Harley it isn’t. Rather it’s a vintage 1952 Vincent.

Never heard of a Vincent? It comes from England, manufactured by a company that started up in the 1920s, but which revved up production after WWII, says McIntosh, 55, who is English himself and lived there until he was 22.

While he’s in industrial construction now in this country, as a teen it was the motor that motivated him, a love he’s never lost. “Working on them is half the fun for me,” he says of his half a dozen motorcycles, “and I love to rebuild them from boxes.” That means boxes of parts that eventually, over years, come together in the form of a motorcycle. That is, in fact, how he bought his 1952 Vincent.

The previous owner kept the boxes for about 10 years in Gilroy, hoping and expecting to put the motorcycle together, but somehow it didn’t happen. Then, along came McIntosh, to whom he was happy to sell the project, getting it out of his hair finally.

And no wonder. It turned out to be “a fairly demanding project from an engineering point of view,” says McIntosh – “a concentrated mechanical challenge. It was the super bike of its day with the fastest motor.”

At the front of technology it was either the first or one of the firsts to have rear wheel suspension, damped suspension (where a spring is controlled by a hydraulic damper), and both the engine and gear box in one casting. This last feature essentially meant doing away with a tubular frame, which lessened the bike’s weight considerably.

Why is this good? “It’s all tied into performance,” says McIntosh, “mass (or the bike’s weight), plus power equals acceleration.” And power it has, especially for its day. A 1,000 cubic centimeter engine delivers 50 horsepower, which translates into a high-end range of 120 miles an hour.

The restoration took McIntosh 400 hours of labor, which stretched over three years of countless weekends. Missing parts were hard to find, he says, which would stall the project. Then there was the machining that had to be done. Apparently, in the old days a manufacturing process was used called selective assembly.

This meant that if they picked up a shaft to fit it to the cam wheel and it didn’t fit perfectly, they simply picked up another shaft until they found the one that did fit. “They just couldn’t make all the shafts identical,” he says. “Variations couldn’t be controlled. So, when you order a new shaft, it’s hit and miss as to if it will fit. It’s much like getting an unfinished product.”

But complete the project he did, very happily so. “I get real satisfaction working with my hands. Bringing something back that was done for and getting it all working harmoniously again is a real kick – maybe an even bigger one than riding them.”

Now his Black Shadow Vincent is worth “in the mid $30,000s,” says the proud owner. This model is a twin cylinder, 8,000 of which were made by Vincent post war (’46-’55) and exported, most going to the U.S. market. Indeed, several of them are now in Nevada County.

One is owned by a man in Chicago Park who runs the Northern California section – about 50 strong – of the Vincent owners club.

McIntosh loves to ride his reliable Vincent. Besides riding around town he goes to club rallies – a national one every year – and he tries to get away from business to attend international rallies.

Eight years ago he and his wife Jaquel “rode the length and breadth of England,” even going to the Isle of Mann, which he says is the Mecca of motorcycle racing, to drive a closed course with a couple of hundred other Vincents.

“This is a usable motorcycle,” says McIntosh. “One man from Canada even rode to the tip of South America, with his wife” – and survived the trip. “It’s a very comfortable bike. My personal endurance level is around 300 miles a day.”

Of motorcycle ownership and maintenance, all McIntosh has to say is “It’s a great hobby, one that’s less expensive and which takes up less room than a car.”

And of those bystanders who know this bike going by them isn’t a Harley but a Vincent, the reaction, he says, is akin to awe, like “‘Oh, wow!’ They’re thrilled to see it.”


Pam Jung writes about classic cars for The Union. She can be reached at 265-8064.

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