In the history of motorcycling, there are a few select machines so memorable that they earn their own individual name. Not a nickname for the entire line of bikes, like Harley’s Knucklehead or Ariel’s “Squariel,” but names that sum up a spirit somehow forged into the very metal of the machine.
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In recent decades, we’ve witnessed this embodiment of mechanical personality in Lucifer’s Hammer, the Harley that dominated AMA Battle of the Twins road racing in the hands of Jay Springsteen and Gene Church during the early ’80s. But in the annals of British motorcycles, the most famous such machine may be this 1947 Vincent Rapide factory racer, now owned by AMCA member Bar Hodgson. In its heyday, it became known as Gunga Din, for the indomitable Indian character in the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name.
For all its later fame, the origins of Gunga Din were actually rather modest. George Brown, a test rider/racer at the Vincent plant, was having great success on the track with a 500cc single-cylinder machine known as the Caldwell Special because of its record of victories at England’s Caldwell Park racetrack.
But in 1947, company founder Philip Vincent and engine designer Phil Irving wanted to test the racing potential of Irving’s 1,000cc V-twin Series B Rapide. So they asked George and his brother, Cliff, a race mechanic at the company, to build a competition bike out of available Rapide parts.
Cliff pieced together the engine, starting with a discarded unit from a road test. He polished the internals, chose a matched set of cams and cleaned up the oil passages to improve lubricant flow. He also added a second set of valve springs and machined adapters to fit larger carburetors.
George, working with Irving, modified the bike’s stock frame, which consisted of a backbone using the engine as a stressed member, a very modern concept. That frame was connected to an equally advanced rear swingarm, with an early cantilever suspension design, much like the Monoshock system Yamaha would unveil for its motocross racer in 1974 (except that in the Vincent, there were two spring units with a damper in between).
When they were done, the bike remained a modified production machine. Indeed, much of the development work done in creating Gunga Din would go into the company’s most famous production model, the Black Shadow, introduced in 1948. And in spite of all its engineering wizardry, Gunga Din was hardly considered a sure thing on the track.
At the time, British racing was focused on 500cc and 350cc single-cylinder machines, with an emphasis on light weight and great handling. Brown’s Caldwell Special, for instance, weighed only about 290 pounds, while the twin tipped the scales at over 400 pounds.
But Brown immediately took to the machine, challenging riders on works Norton and AJS bikes—the bikes that were then dominating the European road-racing championship of the Federation Internationale Motocycliste (FIM), the series that would become the motorcycle grand-prix championship starting in 1949.
In an effort to prove its big twin’s prowess, Vincent loaned Brown’s bike to British motorcycle journalist Charles Markham for a rugged, weekend-long test ride. Markham’s story, appearing in the November 13, 1947, issue of Motor Cycling, noted, “In spite of its size, (the bike) conveys an indefinable feeling of safety at high speed, difficult to express but usually described in the hackneyed phrase ‘race breeding.’ ”
It was that story which would give George Brown’s Vincent its enduring name, as Markham used the words of Kipling’s popular poem to describe how the Vincent’s capabilities exceeded his own, saying, “You’re a better man that I am, Gunga Din.”
Early the next season, Brown had both the 500cc Caldwell Special and the 1,000cc Gunga Din at a meet consisting of several races at the British Haddenham track. He won every race he entered on the single, and the other competitors complained that he should at least ride the twin for one race. He did, beating them all and setting a course record for the meet.
That same year, Brown seemed well on his way to victory in the Clubman TT on the Isle of Man when he ran out of gas and coasted to a stop 6 miles from the finish line on the 37½-mile public-roads track. He got off and pushed Gunga Din all the way to the finish line, still managing to take sixth place.
Brown’s racing career almost ended later in 1948 when he was leading a race in Wales aboard the bike and had to swerve to avoid a spectator crossing the track. He crashed, suffering severe facial injuries. But by the next season, he was back aboard Gunga Din, winning everything from sprints to hillclimbs. The two would continue racking up wins for three more seasons, by which time George Brown and Gunga Din were the dominant force in British motorcycle competition.
Of course, as with all racebikes, Gunga Din was never just one collection of parts. It was constantly being refined and rebuilt during the years it was being raced by Brown, and even after he left the Vincent factory in 1951. On one day in 1952, in the hands of other riders, an updated Gunga Din was involved in an endurance run on a 1½-mile banked oval in Montlhery, France, in which eight 1,000cc speed records were set. And a year later, it hit 143 mph in a record attempt on public roads in Ireland.
But all of that isn’t the most interesting part of this historic bike’s story. The truly amazing chapter only starts when the machine was parked for good in the Vincent factory in Stevenage, England, north of London. From that date, it would be more than a half-century until Gunga Din would be seen in public again.
Philip Vincent’s interests took him in other directions in the mid-’50s, while the company that bore his name eventually ran out of money, and the Stevenage plant was sold.
Sometime around 1960, the plant’s new owners allowed members of the Vincent Owners Club to look through the building and recover historical items related to the marque. One of their members reportedly found the Gunga Din machine abandoned in a building on the grounds, and it was eventually purchased by an American named Tom Pelkey, who took it to his home in Wisconsin.
Sometime in the early ’70s, Pelkey took a step that could have spelled the end for the historic machine—he began selling off Gunga Din for parts. It seems like a crime today, but as Vincent historian Somer Hooker notes, interest in the machine was at a low point.
“At that time,” he says, “it was just another old racebike. Everybody knew where it was, but nobody cared.”
Nobody, that is, except a man by the name of Richard Garrett, who, says Hooker, became incensed that this rolling piece of history would be broken up and scattered around the world.
“It just broke his heart,” says Hooker. “So he started buying as many of the parts as he could.”
Garrett couldn’t afford to claim every piece of Gunga Din, but he focused on the items that carried a serial number showing they had once been part of the famed racer.
Eventually, Garrett ran out of money to spend buying Gunga Din one piece at a time. But another collector, Keith Hazelton, stepped forward to buy all the parts Garrett had assembled and pursue as many other original Gunga Din pieces as he could.
When he was finished, Hazelton had collected a large percentage of the bike in boxes stored in his home near Chicago. And that’s where Gunga Din sat, unassembled, for the next three decades.
A few years ago, Paul Pflugfelder heard about the Gunga Din machine and decided he wanted to put it back to its former glory. So he purchased Hazelton’s entire collection of parts and hired Precision AR, a company known for its work on classic cars, to restore the bike.
Before that work began, though, Paul Holdsworth, another Vincent fan (and now advertising manager of this magazine) was in the right place at the right time to document the famous machine’s internal parts. As the boxes of parts were hauled out of Hazelton’s basement, he placed each piece on the kitchen table and photographed it. Those photographs now provide a vital record of the machine’s DNA, but Holdsworth says he was just curious to see what the Vincent race shop had produced all those years ago.
“I knew that famous bikes often become famous because of modifications that were made to them at some point,” he says, “and I just wanted to see what made Gunga Din Gunga Din.”
Thanks to Holdsworth’s shots, and to detailed records kept by the restorers, Hooker was able to confirm that the restored machine really contained the essence of Gunga Din when Pflugfelder entered it in the 2009 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. There, it finished second in judging behind a rare AJS Porcupine factory racer of the type that George Brown would have faced on the track back in the day.
Since that time, there’s been one more chapter added to the Gunga Din story. Last year, the bike was purchased by Bar Hodgson, the producer of the annual North American International Motorcycle SUPERSHOW in Toronto and founder of the Canadian Motorcycle Hertitage Museum and Hall of Fame. And so, today, the motorcycle that dominated racing in Great Britain, then was broken up in the United States, now has a proud new owner in Canada.
“I was working on a Black Lightning-replica project,” says Hodgson, “when Somer Hooker called and said, ‘How would you like the real thing?’
“At first I couldn’t believe it,” he says, “but then I thought that I would never see anything of this stature come my way again, so I said yes.”
He and his wife, Hedy, are committed to making sure plenty of people get a chance to see Gunga Din.
“I consider us custodians of this bike,” says Hodgson. “It was once the most well-known Vincent in the world, and it’s our job to tell its story.”
That started with a trip to the prestigious Concours d’Elegance of America at Meadow Brook in Michigan last August, where Gunga Din was named the Best in Show Motorcycle.
This fall, it will get a discerning international audience when the Vincent HRD Owners Club holds its international rally in the United States. The event will be based in three locations, September 15-20 in Hunter, New York; September 22-27 in Ligonier, Pennsylvania; and September 29-October 4 in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Hodgson promises that Gunga Din will be on hand, and will be fired up, at each of those sites.
For more information on the rally, visit www.vocinternational.com. And to see videos of Gunga Din being started and ridden away, go to the AMCA website at www.antiquemotorcycle.org and click on Member Videos under Features, then scroll down to the “Vincent Gunga Din starting” and “Vincent Gunga Din being ridden away” entries.
In between its various appearances, though, Gunga Din resides in a location where its owner can admire it often.
“I have it where I can run my hands over it on a regular basis,” Hodgson says. “I haven’t owned it that long, but it’s already like seeing an old friend.”—Bill Wood