I hope I wasn’t the only one enjoying the music, Dire Straits, “In the Gallery,” and the first thing I want to say
Dad you made it, “You’re in the Gallery.”
And the funny thing to me about this song is that I bought this record new. I was not even ten at the time. And from I first time I listened to “In the Gallery” I knew immediately that this song was about men like my father.
Although only a boy, I understood that there was a purity to my father’s passion for working on motorcycles. And I understood that there would be a lag between his death and a general appreciation for what he had done. In conversation, Jay Leno made the point bluntly: he told me there are two kinds of mechanics: one guy works on a part for an hour and puts down ten, the other guy works on a part for ten hours and says to himself, jeez I can’t charge the owner ten and he puts down one. Matthew, he told me, Sid is that kind of guy and guys like that don’t end up living in Beverly Hills. But on a night like tonight we can celebrate that kind of guy, just like Mark Knopfler celebrates his artist friend Harry in the song In the Gallery.
My host John Lawless made this moment happen. And I pause now to thank him. His instructions to me were, and I quote: I'd like to have you speak for about 20 minutes on your late father, your book, and your adventures with Vincent motorcycles.
And that is what I’ll do now, in a way that I hope you find enjoyable. But I am going to do it in a way that will allow me to focus on this Vincent before me, LOLA, the last of the three customs I built with my father who I am sad to say died a little over a year ago.
So I am going to start by reading briefly from the opening of Big Sid’s Vincati. It’s the bit that sets up the story that I tell about the first bike we built together.
BIG SID’S VINCATI READING 1
What I find so refreshing about reading this material now is that I tried my best to write down a memory in words that made it absolutely true to the experience as I remember it happening then. And at that moment in the hospital room, when I stared at the photo of a Vincati at the 1999 Isle of Mann rally, I really had no secret or extended plan to write a book about building a Vincati. I was seized only with this crazy idea that Sid and I should build one.
The odd thing is that when the book came out, I constantly encountered a presumption among potential readers that I had embarked on the project as subject matter for a book. No. It was a spontaneous decision in a hospital room. People do not realize that Sid had his heart attack in 2000 and the Vincati was not completed until 2005. The book does not come out until 2009, almost ten years later. So there was no stealth commercial plan launched in a hospital room. I dwell on this point in part because, for me, it accounts to some degree why the sales of the book were small. But more importantly it illustrates the cynical culture in which we are trapped. Because when you insist that the story of the Vincati must somehow have been fabricated in advance for commercial success, what you are really doing is psychically putting a wall between yourself and the core of what makes a human being more than just an animal. And people resist that. And I think its a pity.
However in this case something even more amazing happened. Because the story of Sid and of what Sid and I did together eventually overcomes much of this resistance and now I am going to talk a little bit about how I think that happened.
You see back in 2008, I simply played the hand I had been dealt as a story teller. Of course, my editor wanted me to take the Vincati to the Salt Flats and set that record that had eluded Sid all his life. But the publisher wasn’t willing to pay for this junkit. And really the Vincati was a road going machine and not set up for the salt. So we were facing the inescapable truth that the story I had to tell simply was not going to have that magical movie ending my editor wanted, one similar to the Burt Monroe saga, The World’s Fastest Indian. I was left with working with the fact that building this special custom, half Ducati, half Vincent—one of seven in the world and the only one built outside of Australia looked then to be the pinnacle of Sid’s career and the best that Sid would get to do to fulfill his landspeed racing dreams came when he fly with me to Bonneville for the 2005 BUB meet where we had sat in the pits and cheered on our fellow Vincent owners while we watched them race. And that is how I ended the book. I tried to evoke a muted, autumnal mood. I’ll read that now for you.
BIG SID’S VINCATI READING 2
I felt proud of this ending, one that seemed right to me. And it was absolutely true. But at the same time, I believed the Vincati would somehow have more gifts of story to give to me.
Of course I had thought, or dreamed really, that those gifts would come via sales of the book. But such sales did not materialize. In my opinion people were just too cynical to embrace the story. At least that is what I told myself after I heard that the hardback copies were being returned from the book stores. But I knew I had gotten my shot at that kind of success. Most writers never get that far. Not even close. And I took much satisfaction in that.
But at the same time, I had always known that the story of the Vincati—Sid’s story-- had never been about sales and commercial success in the first place. I had learned that long ago listening to IN THE GALLERY. The refusal to frame your actions in this way, that is as commercial products, was something that had been operating in my father from the beginning. This fact makes Sid’s story quintessentially Vincent. Philip Vincent joked that he was not in the business of making money; he was in the business of making motorcycles. That’s why he went bankrupt. And that spirit had carried over to the Biberman story. That spirit was operating in the promise Sid and I had made when we got the Vincent motor for the Vincati. Sid and I made that promise to his dear buddy Ed Leksa. This man gave Sid his Black Shadow so that Sid could fix it up for me to ride and then he gave Sid his Rapide so that we could use its motor in the Vincati. These were gifts. So when I look back now what I see is an economy of gifts, of giving, of love. Not money. So I was not surprised to discover that books that told such a story were being shipped back to the warehouses.
But I still had one more bullet in my chamber. The paperback was scheduled to come out the following year 2010. And believe it or not, Sid and I had a post-Vincati project. When we took Lex’s Rapide, I promised him we would use the left over chassis to build a Vincent single racer.
Now Sid and I worked fast to finish this new Vincent Special, one I named Tina. It is easy to fix her completion date. It came at the East Coast Timing Association’s 2009 September meet where Motorcyclist Editor Aaron Frank rode Tina to a record of just over 100 and then a bumped that record to 105 before the bike was sidelined with a thrown pushrod. Aaron then wrote a beautiful article about the experience, set off by stunning shots of both Big Sid bikes—The Vincati and Tina, and all in time for the release of the paperback in the Spring of 2010.
To me this conjunction of events was nothing sort of miraculous. The book was now being handled through Penguin’s premier paperback division Plume and my agent revived my spirits with stories of books that had risen from the dead with their paperback release. I has happy to learn that the cover was to be changed: This time we went with a shot of the Vincati in the garage with Sid and I standing behind her. I liked the inclusion of the human element. I thought that had been missing in the hardback’s cover. I also liked the fact that Tina was visible behind the Vincati, up on the lift in that photo. Tina is also featured in a new shot in the color insert and I took some pride in writing for the caption that on this bike Aaron Frank had set a record at the 2009 ECTA meet.
So with the building of Tina, Sid and I had kept the story going. That fact alone gave us real satisfaction. Next I learned something even more surprising: when I called to order some cartons of the paperback for myself, I was told the book was out of print. I called my agent convinced that the publisher had decided to scuttle the launch and had withdrawn the book from the marketplace. Instead what I learned was that Sam’s Club had decided to include the book on its table of Father’s Day books and had as a result bought the entire first run. So I was not out of print. I was between printings. I was being reprinted. This discovery gave me one of the great highs of my life. I will always remember opening Sid’s door and saying I AM NOT DEAD! And then telling him the good news.
So I had hope again. Thanks to the Vincati. And now to her offspring, Tina. I will never forget driving Sid down to our local Sam’s Club and seeing our book on the end table displayed alongside BBQ books and books spun off from the Spiderman and Hulk movies. As a writer that was a great moment of triumph.
But neither of these bikes are here tonight. Lola is. The third and final bike I built with Sid. Tina, as I am suggesting, taught me more than the Vincati. Or perhaps it is better to say she continued the lessons begun via the Vincati. And the most important thing I learned from Tina was to embrace people, and life, and love. People are going to see stories the way they want to see them. And if they are not ready to appreciate a story they are not ready. But a good story can wait for its time. I learned that then. And I came to understand something profound about memoirs. If you stay true to the story, the story can grow and transform in inspirational ways. I had not seen at first how rich Sid’s final phase of work would be. I had not seen Tina and then Lola.
It took me time, the time it took to build Lola, to realize that Big Sid’s story simply did not need a book for it to spread. Sure among writers and reviewers and critics and book sellers and media people I had encountered skepticism, but I had been wrong to see that extended to all those riders in the motorcycle community. The truth was these people just did not need to read the book to appreciate the story. I was beginning to recognize that people actually did in fact love the Big Sid story; maybe they saw the Leno interview, or read the Peter Egan feature article, or saw the Café Racer TV segment, or just read about our father son project and looked at pictures of the Vincati on the internet. But that was how they got it, and there was no reason, really, not to love these people. So what if they did not buy my book? So what if the sight of my paperback at Sam’s Club was going to be the high point in terms of my commercial success as the author of a motorcycling memoir. With luck I might write more books, and get more chances. And if not, then what I had done was pretty damn good, and even better was the fact that the story was not stopping. Sid was alive and we were pushing on. And it was really this fact that was going a long way to changing people’s minds. More and more motorcyclists were beginning to realize that what Sid and I were doing we were doing out of our love of the sport and not just hype to sell a book.
That summer Sam’s Club did what it could to move its copies and I imagine so did the other book stores when they got theirs. But it was not going to be enough. Soon my agent was telling me that the paperbacks, like the hardbacks before them, were headed for the remainder bin. After all motorcyclists were stingy SOBs.
I was able to accept this turn of events gracefully. It was easy actually because I had just then fallen deeply in love with the woman I was soon to marry, Gabriela. Our relationship began when she wrote to share with me her admiration for what Sid and I had done in building the Vincati. After a brief flurry of emails that summer, I flew in October to Prague to meet her. We rode her Ducati M900 across the mountainous roads of Slovakia, enjoying the late summer weather and the colors of the changing leaves. Later we watched the World’s Fastest Indian and made love. Back in her apartment in Bratislava I promised her that if she came to America, we would go to Bonneville and race Vincents.
It was interesting to me just now to have read you the ending of Big Sid’s Vincati. On the opposite page is a brief epilogue: there I introduce Tina, the new project. And when I do it is by way of this idea of racing at Bonneville. But when I wrote that passage it was just vague dream. Only when I promised Gaby did the idea start to move towards inevitable reality.
And that reality did not turn principally on Tina. You see, In between the writing of Big Sid’s Vincati and its publication Sid and I had acquired another twin. The initial plan was simply to restore her as a standard road going Series C Rapide and sell her. That was it. Simple and sweet. I had never built up a bike with Sid with the single intention of flipping her and I was glad that I was getting that opportunity. I was happy to get the money and I knew it would be a big lesson psychologically to learn to separate the bikes I built with Sid from my relationship with Sid as my father.
Now however when I returned from my first visit to Bratislava, I had a new idea: I told Sid that before we sold this Rapide I wanted to take her to Bonneville and set a record. Then we would sell her. I could tell that Sid accepted the plan without actually believing that we were indeed going to transport this bike out to the Salt and-- with him present-- make speed runs. He thought it was just an exercise in what he called building a wet dream bike. You build it up in Bonneville trim (to use another of his expressions) but you never actually race it; instead you sell it. If that was how I wanted to sell this bike, he was ok with it. That was fun. But I knew differently. I had met the love of my life and we were going to Bonneville.
At the same time, I think Sid held out the possibility that it just might happen. Because it is in that possibility where Sid and I most agreed as artists and as men. I had accepted his philosophy that you should build bikes to ride them. You should make them to use them. The spirit I am trying to describe is the subject of the last passage from the book I would like to read tonight. This passage is about the last ride I took with my father.
Big Sid’s Vincati Reading 3
Again I return to the truth of the memoir. Sid loved riding. I love riding and my wife loves riding.
So that truth is what makes the story of what happens after the memoir so fascinating. Because where I had ended the story with Sid coming up short, so to speak, life now altered that outcome.
I could talk about Lola a lot. But we don’t have the time. I have already used much of it. So with the time that remains I will share you with only the key facts. First, it is with Lola that Sid gets his record at Bonneville. And as I think I have made clear I had never seen that coming. Neither had Sid. The bike didn’t even see it coming. The lower end of the motor had already been done to standard Rapide specs when I changed our plans. If my wife were here today she would say that from beginning she however did see it coming. And perhaps so. She also saw us taking Tina to Bonneville as well, which we did. By my research we are only the second team to race a single and a twin Vincent at Bonneville during the same meet and get in recorded runs. The only other team was comprised of Marty Dickerson and Joe Simpson in the mid fifties. Two Vincent legends. This fact makes our rookie outing and Sid’s lone appearance as a racer on the salt even more incredible. All told we did six runs with the twin and four with the single. The first two days action was captured by the Café Racer film crew and used over the course of two shows to document the achievement of securing Sid’s Bonneville record. Once again people may think I had lined up the tv feature in advance but it is not true. We simply crossed paths at the meet and the Café Racer crew made and on the spot decision to follow us around, something that put even more pressure on us to deliver a record on our first outing.
And we did. That was the amazing thing about working with Sid in this all too brief final stage of his life. These were miracle years where we simply validated the legend, even after the book had come and gone. Before Sid would die in 2013, we would race twice at Maxton (once with single, and then after our Bonneville outing, with the twin) and there we secured records that – with the ECTA’s change in venue –are now permanent; and once at Bonneville and then finally in 2012 at the ECTA’s new home of Wilmington OH. All told Tina has set three records, and turned her best time on the salt at 110.9 mph. Lola would run 14 times, with her best run coming on the salt at 115.6 (a speed that is pretty damn good for what Sid would call a gussied up Rapide) and in the process set five records. That is a combined eight records, in a four year span. During those four meets we always ran; we always set records. Think about that.
It is a remarkable achievement for a race team headed up by a man in his eighties, and usually sitting in a wheelchair, who was dependent on his English professor son to be his hands and do the work. And what I want to stress is that these achievements, and specifically Lola’s achievements have helped me reframe my entire understanding of Big Sid’s Vincati. For me Lola allowed motorcycle fans to realize and to accept that what I say about Sid is true: he worked for the pure joy of building quality Vincents meant for enthusiasts. And he was good at it, one of the very best this world will ever see. And that’s it.
To me what is so satisfying about Lola in particular is how it represents the Big Sid approach to a café racer. A young builder simply would be aping Sid if he finished a bike in this manner. I am an Anglophile in many things. I like British motorcycles, I teach Shakespeare and I like British rock. Paul Weller, along with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, is one of my Brit rock idols. Weller has been make hit records in England now for close to forty years and he said something in an interview that is really relevant here: He said critics say now some of my current tunes sound a bit too much like some of my old tunes. I say so what, I have earned the right to sound like myself. And when you look at Lola, what you look at is a bike built by Sid that looks exactly like a Big Sid Vincent. I find that look very satisfying. I think it earns Sid his right to be in the Gallery so to speak. This bike has a truly fascinating history, beginning with the fact that it was the stablemate to Gunga Din, the works Lightning, and the bike some say is the most famous machine in all of England. Indeed I can talk about every nut on Lola. But I won’t now. It is time to wind this talk down.
So all I will say is that we enjoyed building it and we had fun with it. And now I am entrusting it to its new owner Doug Kaufman who assures me he understands the significance of the legacy to which he is now the care taker.
But I want to conclude on one final energizing detail I read, and it concerns the reaction of the counter girl in the last vignette. It concerns that Kentucky Shadow.
Tonight it occurs to me that I was probably wrong to suggest that her Grand dad’s Vincent was the one in Versailles. Because after Sid and I got back from Bonneville, we ended up buying one last project. A matching numbers black shadow. We bought it from a man who won it in a poker game in the tobacco country of Kentucky. And now I am thinking that bike is the one this young woman was thinking of. In June of 2013 Sid and I started buying parts to rebuild that machine. Then he ended up in the hospital. One night I brought him a box of parts that had come in the post. That night he looked up from the parts and directly at me and said, son you are going to build this bike on your own. I looked at him and said nothing because this time I knew he was right. And I would like to make good on that promise. I would like to think there is one more chapter to this story. But to see that bike come together I need to find the right owner to work with me to make this dream come true. So if you want to learn more about this machine, or about anything else I have talked about, please don’t be shy. Come up and say hello. I do have a few copies here to sell and I am always happy to chat. Thanks and enjoy the rest of your evening.