A brief history of Vincent motorcycles and the 1932 HRD Python Sports 500.
1932 Vincent HRD Python Sports
Claimed power: 30hp
Top speed: 85-90mph (claimed)
Engine: 499cc air-cooled 4-valve OHV single, 85mm x 88mm bore and stroke, 6.8:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 310lb (141kg)
Fuel capacity: 2.75gal (10.4ltr)
Price then/now: £60 ($210)/$100,000-$125,000
In the early days of the British motorcycle industry, it was common for small manufacturers to use “bought in” engines. Norton’s first TT winner of 1907 was powered by a Peugeot engine, and Royal Enfield started out with engines from Swiss manufacturer Motosacoche. The most popular proprietary 4-stroke engine of the 1920s by far was made by the Tottenham, London, firm of John Prestwich & Co, sold under the brand name “JAP.”
Hoping to capitalize on this market, in September 1930 the Rudge-Whitworth Company announced that it would make its 4-valve engines — including the race-derived bronze head models — available to bike makers under the brand name Python. One of their first customers was the fledgling Vincent HRD Company.
During the 1870s, the licensee of the Tiger’s Head pub in Wolverhampton, near Birmingham in Britain’s industrial West Midlands, was one Daniel Rudge. A keen cyclist and innovator, Rudge’s key invention (British Patent no. 520) was the adjustable ball-bearing wheel hub, which rendered obsolete the plain bushings used to that date. It improved performance so much that racers using Rudge wheels had to start 10 yards back! After Rudge died in 1880, his company eventually merged with Charles Pugh’s Whitworth Cycle Company. Rudge-Whitworth was soon the most successful bike builder in Britain, building 75,000 bicycles in 1906 alone.
Rudge-Whitworth introduced its first motorcycle in 1911, using an engine of its own design. The single-cylinder 500cc used roller bearings for the connecting rod and had an intake-over-exhaust (F-head) valve arrangement. The variable-speed “Multi” of 1912 established Rudge as a leading motorcycle manufacturer, but by the early 1920s its design was obsolete. In response, John Vernon Pugh, then chief designer, decided to leapfrog the competition.
Many overhead valve engines of the day experienced valve issues. To achieve higher performance, valves were made larger. Unfortunately, these were more prone to breakage and the larger ports often led to cylinder head distortion. Four smaller valves meant lighter weight and less risk of a valve head separating, and smaller ports meant less cylinder head distortion. Engineer Harry Ricardo was working on a 4-valve engine for Triumph, and Pugh arrived at a similar solution. The 4-speed, 4-valve pent-roof cylinder head 350cc “Rudge Four” was introduced in 1924 — the same year then 16-year-old Philip Conrad Vincent bought his first motorcycle.
Vincent’s first foray into motorcycle manufacture is well recorded. After designing his cantilever rear suspension system while at Cambridge University, Vincent dropped out of school, and with financial support from his family purchased the trademark, goodwill and remaining component parts of the defunct HRD Motors Ltd in 1928.
HRD had a good racing pedigree, winning the 500cc Isle of Man TT in 1925, with five more top 10 finishes in the 500 and 350 TTs over the next two years. But in a failing economy sales fell, and HRD ran out of money. Having bought the brand, Vincent decided to cash in on the associated goodwill, naming his new company The Vincent “HRD” Co. Ltd.
Developing a new engine from scratch would have taken time and considerable investment, so the first Vincent HRDs used bought in JAP engines, though engines from Motosacoche and U.K. companies Blackburne and Villiers were also used. The engines went into a triangulated frame of Vincent’s own design, built from straight tubes welded together and with the Vincent cantilever rear suspension. Sales were disappointing, and the blame fell on the triangulated frame. The notoriously conservative British motorcyclist balked at the clever but unattractive frame, and treated the rear suspension with suspicion. And while JAP engines were widely used (the V-twins were even good enough for George Brough’s Superior), Vincent thought something more sporting than JAP’s ubiquitous 500cc overhead valve single would sell more bikes.
Though Rudge had stayed out of racing during the early 1920s, they returned for 1926 with a 500cc version of the 4-valve, pent-roof engine. Entries in that year’s Senior TT yielded a 13th and 15th.
Then in 1928, Graham Walker won the Ulster Grand Prix on the 500cc Rudge, repeating the feat in 1929 at an average speed of over 80mph. So impressive was this achievement, that Rudge renamed its 500cc Sports model “Ulster.”
In 1930, Rudge introduced a new cylinder head design for its 350cc race bikes, with the four pushrod-operated valves set radially around the head; six rocker arms operated the exposed valves. 1930 was also Rudge’s best racing year, with a spectacular 1-2-3 finish in the Junior TT, and 1-2-6 and 7 in the Senior.
For 1931, the 500cc race bike received a new valve arrangement, with parallel intake valves and radial exhaust valves, while the Special, Ulster and 500 Replica retained parallel valves. In the same year, Python 350cc and 500cc engines became available to other manufacturers.
1931 was also a pivotal year for Vincent HRD, with the arrival from Melbourne, Australia, of a talented young engineer: Philip E. Irving. The story famously goes that Irving traveled overland riding pillion on a 1929 600cc HRD motorcycle ridden by a John Gill of Bradford, England, who was completing a round-the-world ride. Serendipitous or not, Vincent hired Irving, first to redesign the HRD frame and rear suspension layout. Irving came up with a more conventional open diamond frame of lug-and-braze construction, introduced as an option on 1932 models while the triangulated frame was phased out.
For the 1932 model year, Vincent HRD offered a choice of engines, 350cc or 500cc, with either single- or dual-port JAP, and either Python or Python Sports engines.
The Python Sports engine was a 499cc 4-stroke single of 85mm x 88mm bore and stroke with pushrod operated overhead valves. By 1932, Rudge had adopted the “semi-radial” 4-valve layout for the 500 Sports on the basis that it was less complicated and more reliable than the full radial head, and performance differences were minimal. The Python Sports cylinder head was also cast in aluminum-bronze for better heat dissipation.
Two factors contributed to Vincent’s decision in 1934 to develop his own engine. First, Rudge’s fortunes declined in the early 1930s. Metallurgy had moved on, and the 2-valve overhead cam Nortons and Velocettes were at least as reliable and were faster. In 1934, Rudge announced it would cease deliveries of Python engines. That left JAP as Vincent’s only viable source of proprietary engines.
In 1934, Vincent HRD entered the Isle of Man Senior TT with motorcycles powered by a new JAP racing engine. Unfortunately, engine failures meant none of the Vincent-JAPs completed practice or the TT itself — not quite the result Vincent was looking for, and a serious blow to JAP’s reputation. So Vincent and Irving set to, and between the TT races in June of 1934 and the motorcycle show at London’s Olympia stadium in November, they completed their design. The 500cc Meteor and Comet were launched in 1935.
Gene Brown owns what he believes to be the oldest Vincent in North America. It’s a Vincent HRD Python Sports that was dispatched to its first owner on Oct. 15, 1932. And Brown has the Vincent “Works Order Form” — signed by none other than P.C. Vincent himself — to prove it. “It was tested by Phil Vincent and passed by Phil Irving,” Brown notes.
Brown had heard that Herb Harris of Harris Vincent Gallery in Texas (see sidebar) had most of a Python Sports in boxes, but hadn’t completed the restoration. “I’d been hearing about (the Python Sports),” says Brown, who was intrigued by the bike’s rarity. “It’s hell on wheels to find parts for,” Brown says he was told when he contacted Harris, who added, “But if you’re looking for a rare bird … ” “I sold three bikes to get two,” Brown says, the other bike being a rare black-framed but otherwise red 1952 Vincent Series C Rapide.
“The attraction of this bike (the Python Sports) was that, basically, from what (Vincent specialist) Somer Hooker has told me, it’s the oldest Vincent in North America. And he’s as knowledgeable about Vincents as anyone else outside of England that I know of. There were 106 of these made between 1932 and 1934. The VOC (Vincent Owners Club) in London says there are five or six left, maybe.”
Brown is aware of only two other Python Sports. One, featured on the cover of MPH, the Vincent Owners Club newsletter, “wasn’t exactly correct,” Brown says, and another is reportedly in Austria. The restoration of Brown’s bike, carried out by Harris, took 10 and a half years!
“This bike was in pieces for 15 years,” says Brown. “I have a list of all the prior owners. Obviously the first owners were in England. And the most difficult thing to find was the headlight.” The headlight was made for BT-H, the British Thomson-Houston Company, by specialty light manufacturer Powell & Hamner Ltd., Birmingham, England. “One day we were looking on eBay and it showed up. In Austria, of all places. I think they had a big Vincent dealership in Austria. Two and a half years of searching, and it was barely salvageable.”
Restorers of Python Sports-engined bikes have reported problems with poor quality bronze cylinder head castings, but Brown’s Python Sports hasn’t had any issues. “Many of them weren’t done right at the foundry,” Brown says, “and they cracked. But this has one that is solid. It’s one of the few things that didn’t have to be redone.” In fact, many unobtainable parts had to be made or copied from pictures and period drawings — like the pinstriping on the gas tank. “The configuration was determined by finding old pictures of an HRD-PS being put together at Stevenage.”
Brown’s bike was painstakingly restored, and naturally, it runs. “It has to run because it’s won three significant best-in-shows, and one of the requirements is it has to run,” Brown says. “It won Best of Show at Del Mar in September 2013, Best of Show at Quail in May 2013. It won its class at Radnor Hunt Concours in Marlborough, Pennsylvania, and it won best in show basically at the (2014) Barber Vintage Festival in October.” Brown took his Python Sports to Barber for the gathering of the Vincents organized by Hooker, entering it in the Motorcycle Classics Vintage Bike Show, where Vincent was the featured marque. It took top honors.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Brown isn’t scared to ride the Python Sports, if sparingly. “I’ve had a lot of fun with this bike. I don’t ride it very often, but I ride it around the neighborhood to keep the oil in circulation. It only takes 2-1/2 pints of oil and there’s no filter,” Brown notes. “It’s a hell of a bike. The top end is supposed to be 85-90mph, and I was doing 40mph in second gear.”
Brown was riding the HRD one time when he noticed the headlight switch was loose. “After about 20 seconds, it falls off the back of the headlight and I catch it before it hits the ground. I told Herb the story and he said, ‘well you saved yourself about $1,000 because that light switch is about that, and we’d have to make one!’”
Brown, who has a growing collection of motorcycles, says he plans to keep the Python Sports. “I’m not usually one to turn things,” he says. “This bike is extraordinary, because of the whole history. I’m kind of into things that are very rare, that are pristine and cannot be replaced. You can get a 1968 Bonneville all day long,” he notes — but it’s very unlikely you’ll ever find another 1932 Python Sports. MC
Most of the work to resurrect Gene Brown’s HRD Python was carried out by acknowledged Vincent master restorer Herb Harris at his 2,400-square-foot facility in Austin, Texas. Over the years, Harris has owned and restored some of the most distinguished Vincents in the history of the make, including the 150mph Rollie Free “Bathing Suit Bike” and Marty Dickerson’s famous “Blue Bike.”
Harris’ dogged determination to build the bike to original led him to Ireland, where an enthusiast had the Python Sports’ original numbers-matching rear frame, sporting the same gray paint under layers of subsequent black paint as the main frame. To give some idea of the meticulous preparation that went into the Python Sports, Harris determined there were four different types of black finishes used on the bike, including high gloss paint, stove enamel and a blackened finish similar to Parkerizing used on many of the fasteners. Each finish was recreated separately. Similarly, many different plating finishes were used including chrome, nickel and cadmium, and Harris sourced the correct bronze-bodied 1-1/8-inch Amal carb. It was critical to the success of the restoration to get these particular details right.
Many parts had to be re-worked or manufactured from scratch. Items like the correct High Gate mufflers and original equipment, period thin-gauge spokes, as well as fastidious attention to choosing the correct fasteners and finish for each component ensured the bike’s authentic period appearance. It is, quite frankly, a remarkable achievement.