The Woodward Avenue Vincent Rapide

Owner Michael FitzSimons drag raced against this Vincent Rapide modified for racing in Detroit as a teenager. Fifty years later, he found it and restored it to its former glory.

| September/October 2016

In 1955 the American auto industry was enjoying unprecedented performance and prosperity. A game of corporate one-upmanship had begun in 1949 with Charles Kettering’s Oldsmobile Rocket V-8, followed by Chrysler’s 180hp FirePower V-8 in 1951. When Ford launched its overhead-valve V-8 in 1954 — followed by Chevrolet with its new-for-1955 small-block V-8 as a low-cost option for its entire lineup — it was clear the Big Three automakers were officially waging a full-scale horsepower war.

It was a magical time, and 19-year-old Detroit, Michigan, resident Michael FitzSimons was soaking up every minute of it. He was a car-crazy kid living in the golden age of American performance, and he wasn’t alone in his joy. Young drivers all over the country were borrowing their parents’ abundantly powerful coupes and sedans and challenging each other to races on public streets. These unplanned drag races usually took place between traffic signals — sometimes among friends, sometimes between complete strangers, but always with an eye out for law enforcement.

Woodward Avenue

A sophomore in the Ann Arbor University of Michigan Engineering School, FitzSimons would help himself to his father’s Rocket-powered Oldsmobile 88 to visit his girlfriend in Bloomfield Hills. This meant traveling north/northwest on Woodward Avenue (aka “Detroit’s Main Street” and later state route M-1) and crossing a series of laser-straight east-west routes named for their distances from Michigan Avenue. The city of Detroit proper ended at 8 Mile Road. Royal Oak was around 11 Mile Road. Birmingham, the bedroom community for Detroit’s middle management, started at 15 Mile Road. By the time FitzSimons reached 18 Mile Road, he was in Bloomfield Hills, the “billionaires’ row” of its day and home to captains of the car industry.

The grid system north of Detroit produced some very predictable, lightly traveled highways that were perfect for stoplight grands prix. Police patrolled Woodward Avenue as far north as 15 Mile Road, watching for speed-crazed teenagers. “I knew I had to take it easy until I got to Birmingham,” FitzSimons says. “Once I hit 15 Mile Road, I would see if there were any takers for a race.”

The Vincent

It was in the Oldsmobile 88 that FitzSimons first encountered, and lost to, one of the fastest ground-based missiles he had ever seen — a Vincent Rapide modified for racing with many Black Lightning parts.

FitzSimons was not a stranger to two-wheeled fun. At the age of 12, he had a bicycle with a Briggs & Stratton engine, followed by a Whizzer motorized bicycle, an Ariel 350cc, and a Royal Enfield 500cc — but this Vincent was a whole different animal. He knew very little about Vincents except that he wanted one: In fact, he wanted that very Woodward Avenue Vincent!

8/11/2016 9:49:45 PM

Someone's gotta bring this bike to the annual Woodward Dream Cruise! Admittedly, it's more of a four wheel venue but that would make it all the more visible.

Ride 'Em, Don't Hide 'Em Getaway

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