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Motorcycles: British Bike Invasion

Bill Stermer

In the mid-1990S, Bernard Li, the founder of Eagle One automotive care products, had sold his company to Valvoline and was working on his newest venture: reviving a legendary motorcycle. In 1998, however, that dream was nearly shattered.

The 56-year-old Li, who owned a Yamaha dealership when he was in his 20s, was planning to relaunch the Vincent, a British bike that, from 1928 to 1955, was considered one of the most innovative high-performance motorcycles in the world. In fact, for 20 years, the Vincent Black Shadow held the world speed record of 150.3 mph. “Look at the frame, the triangulated suspension, oil in the backbone, adjustable footpegs, the three-piece pushrods,” Li says of the vintage Vincents. “They just bristled with original and innovative thinking.”

Li’s plans were derailed when RTV, the Australian company that had agreed to supply him with its retro-look engines, went into receivership. “Half the parts and tooling inventory disappeared,” Li recalls. “Everyone glommed onto what they could and ran off.”

Li was stumped. He would have had to raise $150 million to build a new engine from scratch. Li signed contracts with Roush Industries (which builds NASCAR racecars, tuned-up Mustangs, and other vehicles) and motorcycle designer James Parker to sculpt the bikes, then approached Honda to inquire about purchasing its high-performance 130-hp engine from its VTR Super Hawk model. Instead, Honda offered its 150-hp V-twin engine from its race-oriented RC51 machine. “It took me about 12 seconds to realize that this could be the greatest opportunity ever,” says Li. “The RC51 won the World Superbike championship its first year out. This was the engine that was to be the heart and soul of the new Vincent.”

Last fall, Li unveiled four Vincent prototypes, each powered by RC51 drivetrains. The Black Lightning S, which features carbon fiber trim, is the racy top-of-the-line model. The lineup also includes the Black Shadow (fiberglass tank, fenders, and seat cowling, and chromed fenders), the Black Lightning ST tourer (classic fairing, leather saddlebags), and the Black Eagle cruiser (black frame, dual shotgun-style exhausts, set-back handlebar, stepped seat).

Li believes the Vincent bikes will appeal to both cruiser and sportbike enthusiasts, to the Harley owner who wants a bit more performance and to the sportbike rider who seeks a tamer, more refined ride. Li plans to build from 1,200 to 1,800 Vincents as 2004 and 2005 models, and to increase production to 3,000 bikes per year after an initial five-year run—goals that seemed impossible in 1998, but within Li’s reach now. “Failure is part of success,” he says. “Overcoming obstacles is what separates people who are successful from those who aren’t.”

Vincent Motors, www.vincentmotors.com

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