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1947 Vincent Gunga Din. (Bar Hodgson)
1947 Vincent Gunga Din. (Bar Hodgson)

Classic Motorcycle

The legend of Gunga Din lives on Add to ...

In 1947, a V-twin Vincent with a clapped-out, rattling engine was turned over to the British motorcycle company's development department to serve as a test hack for go-faster bits, which rolled open the throttle on an odyssey that saw "Gunga Din" become one of the sport's enduring legends.

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The soon highly developed Vincent became renowned for its performance, leading a journalist who tested it to proclaim, "You're a better bike than I am, Gunga Din" - riffing on the Rudyard Kipling poem.

1947 Vincent Gunga Din.

But Gunga Din's glory days were brief and it disappeared into underground storage in the 1950s, while the company above it slowly foundered. It emerged in the early 1960s and wound up in the U.S. where, horror of horrors, it was dismantled and parted out.

These scattered components - the DNA of Vincent's much-revered Black Lightning and Black Shadow models - soon became the equivalent of multiple holy grails for four Vincent enthusiasts who eventually tracked down and acquired them. Gunga Din was reborn in time for the 2009 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

This storied machine has recently taken up residence in the collection of one of Canada's keenest two-wheel enthusiasts, Bar Hodgson, who since the late 1970s has operated what is now North America's largest bike show, the International Motorcycle Supershow, and the Toronto Spring Motorcycle Show.

1947 REMEMBERED

Fruit flies became the first earth-born creatures to venture into space, aboard a V-2 rocket launched by the U.S. Army Ordnance Corp.

Adventurer Thor Heyerdahl's balsa wood raft Kon-tiki completes a 101-day, 7,000-km trip across the Pacific by smashing into a reef in the Tuamota Islands.

U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager takes the Bell X-I rocket plane beyond the speed of sound in level flight for the first time.

The Tokyo Electric Cars Company launched the Tama, a battery-powered electric four-seater with a range of 65 km that was used as a taxi until 1950.

Canada enters the nuclear age as two reactors are brought on line in Chalk River, Ont.

A quick history lesson for those not acquainted with Vincent, "the makers of the worlds fastest motorcycles":

Phil Vincent, with a newly acquired engineering degree from Cambridge and backed by family money generated by Argentine cattle, purchased struggling HRD Motorcycles in 1928, renaming it Vincent HRD. He was joined in 1931 by a clever young Australian designer, Phil Irving (later of Repco-Brabham Formula One fame), who created the 998-cc V-twin Series A Rapide in 1936, a 45-hp machine that could reach 110 mph.

1947 Vincent Gunga Din
.

Vincents appeared post-war with a new Irving designed V-twin engine serving as the structural central core of an essentially frameless design featuring many other innovations and called the Series B Rapide. A Series C followed, and it was one of these that was handed to racer and development ace George Brown in 1947 to serve as a prototype for faster future models.

A wide range of experimental and modified components were developed for the bike and in Brown's hands it went on to win in short circuit racing, hill climbs and sprints (drag races) and in 1952 set a number of speed records at the Monthlery track in France. It was also clocked at 143 mph (230 km/h) on a stretch of Irish road. Brown left Vincent in 1952, but kept racing Vincents in sprints, most notably with a supercharged machine dubbed Super Nero.

Development of Gunga Din led to the 55-hp Black Shadow, a superbike of its day capable of 125 mph (201 km/h) and the Black Lightning production racer based on it, with 70 hp and a top seed of 150 mph.

1947 Vincent Gunga Din

The Black Lightning is the bike in the remarkable picture of American Indian dealer Rollie Free stretched out full length on his stomach, clad in just rubber swimming cap, a bathing suit and a pair of sneakers while setting a speed record of 150.313 mph (241.9 km/h) on the Bonneville salt flats. And the subject of a delightful song by British folkie Richard Thompson called 1952 Vincent Black Lighting (you can Google it).

Vincent production ended in 1955 after only 11,000 or so post-war bikes had been built and the company was wound up in 1959.

Toronto-born Hodgson acquired his motorcycle licence in 1953 and soon after, a tiny Corgi scooter, followed by a 1938 Triumph 500 and then a 650-cc Thunderbird, purchased from a car dealership that boxer George Chuvalo worked at. He later cadged a forbidden-by-his-boss ride on it.

Hodgson says he was the fastest guy in the neighbourhood until he was beaten by a Harley-Davidson one day and promptly switched camps. In 1959, he built what he calls Toronto's first chopper and later briefly operated a business building them. In 1972, he opened Toronto's first Kawasaki dealership, then sold it and launched a motorcycle flea market in 1977. That led to his first motorcycle show a year later at the International Centre in Malton (now part of Mississauga), which he and wife Hedy still run.

In his early days, Hodgson says, he'd sell a bike to start on the next one but the shows' success allowed him a little more latitude in his discretionary spending, which led to his acquiring a sizeable collection of bikes from around the world. "Basically we're totally out of control here," is all he's willing to say about an assortment of machines ranging from "vintage and classic up to recent times." Gunga Din joins seven other Vincents in the collection.

These few words are obviously just part of Gunga Din's fascinating story. "I want to do the book on that," says Hodgson.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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