Ted Bishop’s book Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books demonstrates what happens when motorcycle culture intersects with culture with a capital C. With great humor and often penetrating insight, Bishop traces the inseparable connections between reading and riding. Riding the twin vehicles of the motorcycle and the book, he illuminates these seemingly disparate worlds. The book, originally published in Canada, was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction, was nominated for the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, and won the Motorcycle Awards of Excellence. The book will be published in United States in the fall by W.W. Norton. In this excerpt, Bishop writes of his encounter with Herb Harris, a bibliophile who owns a gallery of Vincent motorcycles in Austin, Texas.
“It’s not the hardware, it’s the history”: the Harris Vincent Gallery
Adapted from Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books by Ted Bishop. © Penguin Canada 2005. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Lawyer and collector Herb Harris often rode his Brough through the limestone hills not far from where we were sitting. Austin had surprised me again. While the Harry Ransom Center had been acquiring the prize documents of British modernism, Harris had been collecting the prize examples of British motorcycling: the most historically significant Vincents in the world, nicely bracketed by some Broughs from the 1920s and a few Triumphs and BSAs from the 1960s.
One of the first things Harris said to me as I settled into the couch in his living room, between a BSA Gold Star and an AJS cutaway engine, was, “You’ve got to have an extensive library if you’re going to collect motorcycles.” He has a complete run of Vincent shop manuals, and he has also collected sales pamphlets, “so you can see what the factory thought was important at the time.”
On his web site he speaks of the importance of having the original title certificate, and he told me “I like what I call ‘history bikes’. When I buy a bike I take along a tape recorder and I make an audio tape of the owner. I want to get everything I can about the bike, all the stories. The first question most people ask is ‘How many bikes do you have?’ I’m more interested in how important the bikes are. You could have a great collection of only three bikes.”
He is happy enough to have a fine example of any Vincent, but what really excites him are bikes with a past. As he’s fond of saying, “It’s not the hardware, it’s the history.”
Reviewing Harris’s web site later, I was impressed by his advice to collectors. He speaks of the importance of provenance, the history of ownership: “Never surrender an original title without keeping a photocopy. Much history is on an old certificate of title which the State will kindly shred for you when you register your motorcycle,” he writes, sounding just as cranky as a curator.
Philip Vincent was an engineering student at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1928 when he sketched his radical motorcycle. The first Vincents rolled out of the factory in 1937, and after 1940 when Brough ceased production they became the bike to own. If T. E. Lawrence had not died in 1935 he surely would have owned one: he loved speed and the Rapide would do 110 mph (177 kmh), the Black Shadow 125 mph (201 kmh), and the Black Lightning 150 mph (241 kmh).
Vincents were notorious for developing speed wobbles, a “tank slapper,” which is less hilarious than it sounds: it’s an oscillation in the frame that increases in amplitude until the ends of the handlebars are hitting the tank, sometimes so violently that they leave dents. More frequent in older bikes, tank slappers rarely happen to newer motorcycles with modern frames and suspension, but other factors like unevenly loaded saddlebags, a tall windshield, or steering head bearings in bad condition, can cause small vibrations to increase, like feedback from a guitar amplifier. Beyond a certain point the bike implodes and bike and rider go down.
Vincents became icons. Richard Thompson sang about them, Hunter S. Thompson wrote about them, and what is probably the most famous motorcycle picture ever–of a guy named Rollie Free in nothing but a bathing suit, shower cap, and sneakers stretched out on a seatless bike racing across the desert–immortalized a Vincent Black Lightning. I had, quietly, always been a little uncertain of the aesthetics of Vincents. The engine is undeniably beautiful, with the two exhaust pipes curving out, forward and then fusing into one before entering the muffler.
It is erotic, and echoes, softly, the straight-edged triangle of the front suspension, and it catches the eye because it curves into empty space, there is no front frame member to box it in. What has never quite worked for me is that seat perching over the shocks like a bridge across a canyon, as if Vincent didn’t really want a seat at all but grudgingly realized that his beautiful creation had to have a rider and that rider had to sit somewhere. Maybe that’s one reason the picture of Rollie is so compelling–the seat is gone and he lies groin on fender with his belly dipping down into the space above the shock absorbers.
commodities and culture
The Harris Vincent Gallery looks like an Edwardian library, with heavy burgundy drapes, dark wainscoting, and wooden shelves. The room displays documents as well as motorcycles: Phil Vincent’s original drawings, beautiful in themselves, from when he was an engineering student at King’s College Cambridge in 1928, and the one-page contract transferring the assets of the HRD motorcycle company to Phil Vincent’s father. Harris pointed out the handwritten line at the bottom, instructing the father to make the cheque out to the owner personally–not to his company, which was in receivership. “People think modern CEOs are different. They’ve always been up to shenanigans like this.”
Harris first showed me the Supercharged Black Lightning. It’s ugly and scary, with a giant carburetor (“off of a bus”), big copper tubes for the supercharger, and a stretched-out frame. “It looks like a coffin,” Herb acknowledges cheerfully. “This one I haven’t ridden.” But it’s one of the most important of his “history bikes.” It was built in 1949, the year after Rollie Free’s run, to try to bring the motorcycle speed record back to Britain.
“The guy who owned it wanted to sell it and the Vincent Club over there said they were going to have it designated an historical artifact so it couldn’t leave the country. So he took it all apart and boxed it up in separate boxes and mailed it out of the country. One box every couple of days so it wouldn’t arouse suspicion. I was at a club meet in Britain and this guy with a thick Scots accent took a strip off me, said that bike is part of their heritage. But at the end he acknowledged it was in good hands and that it’s probably in better shape than if it had stayed.” I told him it was the same at the Ransom Research Center in Austin: British curators resented their buying up works by W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and others, but the relatives appreciated both the cash and the care that the manuscripts were given.
Harris showed me an early Brough that had been used by a hunter in Africa, a couple of early Vincents, and then directed me to the most famous bike in his collection, the “bathing suit bike” on which Rollie Free set the world speed record of 150.313 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948. I said the name was almost laughably symbolic: “Rolling Free,” like those nineteenth century novels where a man with many children is called “Mr. Quiverfull.” “It’s better than that,” said Harris, “there was a journalist who thought that’s what the picture was about–‘Rolling Free,’ the state of Nirvana that you reach at high speed.”
Harris rides all his bikes. That too is history. “These bikes dictate a certain pace, one that reflects the pace of life at the time. You can’t just push a button and go like on modern bikes. If you’re in a hurry to get it started it’s going to be a frustration. If you look at it as a task in itself it’s satisfying. Like that BSA Gold Star in the garage. If you get it started in three kicks you feel you’ve accomplished something.
“For the Brough it’s even longer. The fact that you have to get a grease gun, you’ve got to oil the rocker arms before starting out, tells you something about the way they lived. Including getting his leathers on and everything, a man would need maybe half an hour to get ready to go on a ride.” I thought of T. E. Lawrence suiting up. “On an old bike the world of the past becomes reality. They say the brakes were bad on those old bikes, but they were just fine for the time. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road and people weren’t going eighty miles an hour. Those old brakes did the job.”
He’d put his finger on something I had felt chuffing through the countryside on a twenty-five-year-old R 80 BMW, following Glen Worley on his R1100. He had sophisticated suspension and ABS brakes; I had forks that turned the bike into a rocking horse if I shifted down too quickly. We were riding on the same road but in different eras. I was cruising in a time warp. On old bikes you not only move at their pace, you move into their space. Hardware that takes you into history.