The Fab Five
You wouldn’t doodle on a Picasso, would you? Conventional thinking says you don’t mess with a classic Vincent motorcycle, either. But the builders of these wild custom Vincent motorcycles weren’t listening — and what they made is anything but conventional.
In the early 1950s, Dale Keesecker discovered Vincents for the first time, courtesy of a Popular Science article on the Daytona 500. Featuring profiles of bikes from Norton, BSA and Harley-Davidson, the article also had a page devoted to the Vincent Black Shadow, the 125mph superbike of its day. It left an indelible mark on Keesecker: “Every time I saw a picture of one, it was like magic,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘someday, I’m gonna own one.’” The seeds were sown.
In 1957, two years after Vincent quit making motorcycles, Keesecker finally laid eyes on his first example, a Series C Black Shadow. “I was a junior in high school, and a local fellow had this Black Shadow. I knew him really well, and I rode it, and I was just fascinated by it, just so awestruck by it,” he says.
But even though his interest in motorcycles was building, like many of us he applied himself to the realities of life, staking out a career in farming, getting married and raising a family.
Thirteen years passed before Keesecker bought his first new motorcycle, a Honda CB750 Four, and that bike re-kindled his love affair with motorcycles. By this time his business was doing well and he started buying old bikes, quietly building his own collection of mostly European machinery.
The Vincent brand was at the top of Keesecker’s A list, but another 12 years passed before he realized his dream of a owning one of the fabled bikes from Stevenage, England. His first, a Black Shadow, came along in 1982, and then he started pursuing the brand with a passion, buying orphaned engines, frames and basket-case bikes at swap meets at every opportunity. Along the way, he developed an eye for Vincent specials.
The why of specials
No stranger to judged events, Keesecker knows that with stock restorations, the devil is in the details, especially with a brand as well-documented as Vincent. Get it wrong and your 100-point restoration suddenly slips to a 95. And yet, he thinks the specials are harder to craft than a stock restoration. “It takes more time to do a special, because you have to make parts, do a lot of R&D,” he notes. “You do something, test it, and then do it again to make it work right.”
Press Keesecker on why he’s so fascinated with his Vincent specials, and he’ll respond simply, “Because they are special. There are no two alike, and you can do them the way you want to,” he says. “It’s not a thoroughbred, so you don’t have to worry about what’s correct, because nothing’s correct, and nothing’s wrong. I think it’s like how an artist paints a picture, it’s what’s in his mind.”
The Vincent reputation for speed proved inspirational, and years after the company’s demise enthusiasts continued trying to improve on the brand’s legendary traits. Looking for lighter weight, better acceleration and improved handling, they concocted their own vision of the ultimate Vincent. Chief among these early Vincent specials were what became known as Norvins, hand-built machines usually combining a Norton featherbed frame (hands-down the best handling frame of the time) and a Vincent engine.
How many were built is anyone’s guess, but it’s likely at least a few hundred Norvins rolled out of the garages and workshops of industrious Vincent owners, chiefly in England. Keesecker’s first Vincent special was one of these Norvins, an abandoned project that wound up in the hands of a Vincent specialist in California.
When Keesecker picked up the bike 14 years ago, it was in boxes. “Basically, what we had was a Series B engine, a Norton frame and a two-piece fuel tank, and that’s about it,” he recalls. A saner person would have taken the best bits and used them to fuel a restoration or a new project, but the Norvin intrigued Keesecker.
Building the Norvin was a complicated affair, as just about every part on it is handmade or modified. The front hub, for instance, started life on a Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, while the rear hub and swingarm are from a Ducati 750, the latter extensively modified to clear the Norton frame.
Norton Roadholder telescopic forks hold the front end together, the left fork leg almost invisibly modified to take the Guzzi hub. Keesecker swapped the shifter and brake pedals so it’s now a left-hand shift, and Tracy Tice, his full-time, in-house restoration mechanic, fabricated the engine mounting plates and the center stand from scratch, while a neighboring machinist fabricated the custom rearsets.
Built to be ridden, the Norvin sees regular use. Its torquey engine and sorted suspension let the rider explore the bike’s great handling, and Keesecker says it’s a blast thrumping down country roads on this classic twin.
In the late 1960s, Swiss engineer Fritz Egli turned to the 998cc Vincent V-twin as the basis for a new bike employing his own spine frame. Like the original Vincent, Egli’s frame carried the engine as a stressed member and acted as the reservoir for engine oil. By carefully selecting materials and upgrading critical components, Egli’s Vincent was lighter, faster and better handling than the original.
When Keesecker was presented the opportunity to buy a 1971 Egli-Vincent 12 years ago, he didn’t hesitate.
The Egli he bought is one of 200 built by Roger Slater in England, under license from Egli. Although complete, it was in rough shape and required extensive restoration. The engine, from a 1949 Rapide, is highly modified with bore and stroke increased to yield 1,300cc. Keesecker says it puts out close to 100hp at the rear wheel. By comparison, a stock Rapide put out 45hp.
Compared to his other specials, Keesecker says the Egli received the fewest modifications. The controls and foot gear are all original to the bike, although it’s now sporting custom-fabricated 1-3/4in dual pipes (stock was a two-into-one, 1-5/8in system) and breathes through 36mm Del’Ortos instead of the original Amals. Like most of Keesecker’s Vincent specials, it has dual-plug heads and Pazon electronic ignition.
For sheer power and the adrenalin rush, the Egli is his favorite Vincent special. Given its punched out engine, you’d expect it to have the manners of a junkyard dog, but it’s smooth and tractable, and the power just keeps on coming as you roll on the throttle.
The Parkin Special
About the same time the Norvin bug was spreading in England, Derek Parkin, a Vincent racer, decided he could do better. Instead of shoe-horning a Vincent engine in a Norton frame, Parkin focused on improving performance by shaving weight off the stock Vincent frame, while simultaneously strengthening it at critical stress points. In a nod to the Norvin builders, Parkin used Norton Roadholder forks and a modified Norton swingarm.
Parkin planned to build a series of his specials, although it’s likely no more than 10 were constructed. That makes Keesecker’s Parkin, thought to be the original prototype first developed in 1962 and perfected over the next half-dozen years, a rare bird.
When Keesecker got the Parkin 10 years ago, it was ready for help. “Cosmetically, it was horrible, and the tank was crushed on one side,” he says. “Fortunately, the engine was in good shape. Really, everything inside looked almost brand new.” Restoration centered on repairing and color-matching the tank (a bit of original paint was still visible on the tank’s underside), reconstructing the seat pan and giving the engine (a Series C Black Shadow) a general freshening.
Probably the biggest challenge Keesecker faced was deciding whether to fix a controversial Parkin engine modification. To reduce weight, Parkin cut out the wall separating the engine and transmission internals. This meant the transmission no longer had its own supply of lubricant, relying instead on whatever oil the crankshaft flywheel happened to throw its way. Removing the material saved maybe a half pound (not counting the weight of the trans lube), but put the transmission at risk. “Hell, you could have saved that much weight just by not eating before the race,” Keesecker says. Ultimately, he decided to weld the missing material back in. “I’ve been told that purists called Parkin a butcher,” he adds.
Because of its rarity, Keesecker doesn’t ride the Parkin much, but he says it loves running fast and handles extremely well, aided no doubt by having a mere 364lb to haul around, almost 100lb less than a stock Rapide. Parkin claimed a top speed of 140mph, something Keesecker hasn’t tried to confirm.
Terry Prince RTV1000
Fritz Egli wasn’t the only one to marry Vincent engines to newer technology, although it seems like everyone who has was or is keyed into Egli in one way or another.
In the late 1990s, Australian Vincent specialist Terry Prince, who worked with Egli developing the Egli-Vincent, decided to pair a Vincent engine with his own Egli-inspired frame and modern components. The result was the RTV1000, about the most radical looking Vincent special ever. With its carbon fiber mufflers, Quaif five-speed gearbox, White Power inverted front forks and mono-shock rear swingarm, you have to look closely before realizing it’s powered by an almost-60-year-old engine.
This was about the same time that Vincents were being rediscovered by enthusiasts, and Prince, riding a wave of new interest in the marque, planned to take the RTV1000 into production. Although the RTV received favorable reviews, the project went nowhere (“I think they ran out of this,” Keesecker says, rubbing his index finger and thumb together), and only a few samples were made.
Keesecker found his RTV about eight years ago, and once he found time to work on it, he had it on the road quickly. “It took a month to get it sorted,” he says, “and it’s a really nice rider now.” Keesecker’s quick to point out that this isn’t really a restored bike, per se. Rather, it’s a sympathetically refurbished machine, still wearing its original red paint (except on the fairing, which was cracked and required extensive strengthening) and receiving only a top-end overhaul.
The RTV’s combination of old-meets-new turns off some purists, but Keesecker says it’s the best of the lot for riding, adding, “It’s really a lot of fun; because of the disc brakes and the modern shocks it’s a lot like a Ducati.”
Before he started the RTV1000 project, Terry Prince kept busy supplying Egli-style frames to the market Down Under. He’d left Egli in the late 1970s and moved to Australia, and by the early 1980s he’d become a highly regarded Vincent specialist.
Keesecker picked up one of Prince’s frames during an ag tour in Australia some 10 years ago, and decided it was the perfect foundation for all the Vincent parts he’d been accumulating.
At some levels, the black Prince represents everything Keesecker’s learned about Vincents. The frame may be Egli-inspired, but from the bike’s high level of fabrication to its performance, the rest of the build is pure Keesecker.
The engine is from a 1955 Series D Black Shadow, but runs two front heads (identifiable by both carbs residing on the bike’s left side), dual plugs and electronic ignition.
Keesecker found the tank, originally made for a Ducati, at the Steamboat Springs races in the 1990s for $50. “The guy who built it was just getting started, and it had a couple of dings in it,” he says, adding, “But we had to adapt it to fit, which meant we had to cut it up and weld in a sleeve to fit the frame. It was major, major work.”
This bike really defines the old term “bitsa.” For example, the front hub is off a Benelli Tornado, and the rear came from a Laverda 750. Handlebars are from a BMW R90S, the monoshock started life on a Suzuki and is attached to a modified Vincent swingarm, and the front forks are Ceriani. A Matchless fender covers the rear tire and a Laverda fender the front, while the instruments are authentic Vincent Black Lightning units.
Keesecker and crew made the seat base and fabricated the custom, 1-3/4in dual exhaust system, not to mention just about every mounting plate and special fastener on the bike, all of it polished to a mirror finish by Luke Applegate, who tends to all the plating, polishing and painting in the shop.
Keesecker puts the black Prince between the RTV1000 and the Egli in terms of riding, saying, “It’s heated up, but not like the Egli, and it handles like a Ducati. It’s a good compromise between the two.”
So what’s the next Vincent special in Keesecker’s sights? “I don’t know,” he says, “it’d have to be something that really trips my trigger. And I think I have enough already; my daughter likes to say that what started out as a hobby has become an obsession.”
Perhaps, but it’s an obsession shared by many. Vincent was featured at the 2007 Legend of the Motorcycle Concours d’Elegance, where Keesecker’s specials were lined up on the lawns of the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif. MC