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Gunga Din – The Motorcycle That Defined an Era

April 1, 2011
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Ever since Daimler and Maybach invented the first motorcycle powered by internal combustion in 1895, designers, racers and backyard tuners have been fascinated with the pursuit of speed – for some, going faster and faster is an obsession that has defined entire careers and lives.

In our era of production motorcycles with engines that approach 200 horsepower, it’s easy to forget the legacy that got us here. Just as Suzuki’s turn-of-the-century Hayabusa has reached a cult status by virtue of its outright top speed, other motorcycles were icons in their times, models such as Brough Superior’s SS100 in the ’20s and ’30s, which came with a guarantee to be capable of 160 km/h (100 mph).

Arguably, no manufacturer embodied the pursuit of speed just after World War II like Vincent Motorcycles. One motorcycle in particular exemplified the British company’s efforts and its zenith in the late ’40s. Best known by its name, the history of Gunga Din reads like a mythological tale in which a hero is born and reaches fame, only to eventually fall from grace before a dramatic rebirth.

Much of Gunga Din’s story is intertwined with that of George Brown, who became a Vincent factory test rider after a 1934 meeting with the company’s founder, Philip Vincent. Vincent recognized the benefits of making a racer part of his company’s experimental and development department, a common practice to this day; Brown’s experience would help to improve the durability and performance of the brand’s machines, and it wasn’t long before Brown was road racing a Vincent 499 cc, single-cylinder machine and using a 998 cc V-Twin for top-speed runs.

In 1947, Brown was introduced to Gunga Din, a Series B Rapide that had been rejected by the Vincent test department as below standard. The bike, which had yet to earn its name, didn’t use a standard steel tube frame; instead, a unit-construction engine (an improvement over the engine used in earlier Rapides) was used as a stressed member. In its first incarnation, Gunga Din was fitted with a derivative of a Brampton fork and Vincent’s patented triangulated rear suspension – most impressive was that the machine, with its rated 45 hp, was capable of a 177 km/h (110 mph) top speed.

In the hands of George Brown, it became obvious that the mildly tuned V-Twin was capable of greater things. Lead Vincent engineer Phil Irving had intentionally over-engineered the engine, and with Brown’s input, the experimental department started to realize some of its potential. Basic tweaking increased compression, along with larger carburetors and bored-out intake and exhaust ports, resulting in a 10 hp increase in power. These changes not only marked the beginning of the machine’s continual transformation, but they also formed the basis for the Black Shadow, the most notorious of all Vincent models, which was launched in 1948.

The improvement in Gunga Din’s performance coincided with the launch of its diverse racing career. It’s hard to imagine now, but Gunga Din was marketed for a wide range of disciplines: short-circuit road races, road courses, hill climbs, high-speed challenges, endurance races and sprints. More incredible was that it began to break records in all of those various forms of racing. At the 1948 Isle of Man TT, Gunga Din set the fastest lap of the race, averaging 138 km/h (86 mph) before running out of gas on the last lap. The successes enjoyed by Vincent’s racing programme inspired a low production run of 30 race-ready Vincents called Black Lightning, all fitted with parts proven by Gunga Din.

When Brown left Vincent in 1952, the fortunes of Vincent’s racing programme dwindled. Despite its valiant service as a test mule, Gunga Din had outlived its usefulness, and it was unceremoniously covered by a tarp and eventually forgotten. It wasn’t until 1960, four years after Philip Vincent had sold his company to Harper Engines, that the neglected motorcycle was discovered. Years of abandonment had taken their toll; fitted with a Black Shadow front wheel that was found next to the bike, Gunga Din was offered for sale, but there was little interest in the derelict machine with its $600 asking price. The worst was yet to come: finally purchased by American Tom Pelkey, Gunga Din was shipped to the United States, where it was decided that despite its pedigree, the bike would be sold, piece by piece. The lowest point in the storied motorcycle’s history was best described by Vincent historian Somer Hooker as the equivalent of sending a thoroughbred to the glue factory.

The beginning of the rebirth started in the early ’70s, when Vincent enthusiast Richard Garrett started buying many of the parts that had come from Gunga Din. He meticulously verified their origin through their serial and part-number stampings, many of which bore an “EX” for experimental. However, without the resources to reassemble the bike, Garrett decided in 1975 to sell what he had collected. It was another Vincent aficionado, Keith Hazelton, who made the next attempt at breathing new life into the unfortunate machine. After snapping up Garrett’s cache of parts, Hazelton tracked down items that were still missing, but after finding the wheels, tachometer and its unique front suspension, he did little else to further the reassembly of what now resembled a classic basket case.

After nearly four decades of existence as a collection of parts, the revival of Gunga Din began in earnest when Hazelton sold the bike to Paul Pflugfelder, an exotic car collector with the experience and means to underwrite a full-scale restoration project. In April 2009, Pflugfelder delivered the boxed and bagged collection of parts to Precision AR in Massachusetts and gave the company a mandate: revive Gunga Din and have it ready for exhibition at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in four months’ time.

Precision AR had never restored a motorcycle. The company must have felt similar to NASA when Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that they would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. It took Precision AR’s extensive resources and experience with multimillion-dollar car restorations to bring Gunga Din back from the beyond. The incomprehensible attention to detail during the rebuild resulted in a pristine, running machine that neither George Brown nor Phil Vincent would have recognized as the one they had thrashed regularly. The restoration had also finally frozen the bike in time; the machine that had spent its working life constantly changing was finally at rest, fitted to reflect its state just before its retirement.

With the paint still drying, Pflugfelder entered Gunga Din in the 2009 Pebble Beach competition, the first time that motorcycles were allowed in the prestigious event’s 60-year history. Pflugfelder must have felt bittersweet when Gunga Din finished second to George Barber’s 1954 AJS E-95 “Porcupine,” which won the highly coveted Best in Show award. He had returned an icon of motorsport back into the public eye, and arguably, that achievement deserved more than a second-place ribbon. Less than a year later, Gunga Din went on to win Best in Show at the 2010 Concours d’Elegance of America; ironically, Pflugfelder had sold the bike by then and the glory that had escaped him fell to the Vincent’s subsequent owner.

In an unlikely turn in the motorcycle’s history, it is now in the possession of a Canadian. Motorcycles of Gunga Din’s stature aren’t bought and sold through local classifieds; their custodianship is carefully considered and potential buyers are selected from a short list

of candidates. One candidate on Pflugfelder’s short list was Toronto-born Bar Hodgson. A former motorcycle mechanic with an appreciation for speed, Hodgson had done everything from drag racing nitro-burning Harley-Davidsons to attempting a land-speed record on a turbocharged 600 cc streamliner.

Hodgson’s résumé also includes stints as a race promoter and motorcycle magazine publisher, but he has mostly been known for his role as producer of the North American International Motorcycle Supershow for the past 35 years. As demonstrated by his untiring efforts, Hodgson has a profound interest in the preservation of motorcycle history in Canada. Along with his wife Hedy, he founded the Canadian Motorcycle Heritage Museum Found- ation in 1997, and eight years later he established the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame. However, most important is that Hodgson loves Vincent motorcycles.

Having viewed his extensive motorcycle collection, which includes eleven Vincents, it’s easy to understand how Hodgson ended up custodian of such a highly coveted machine. On the day I arrived to look at Gunga Din for the first time, two other rare Vincents occupied his garage: the recently found Lost Singapore Black Lightning and an Egli Vincent, two highly desirable vintage racing machines. Despite how impressed I was by these machines, I wasn’t prepared for the moment Hodgson pulled back the cover protecting Gunga Din. The sight of the impeccable machine left me standing in a dumbfounded silence.

 

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