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Into the shadows
You rarely get the opportunity to buy a Vincent unless somebody dies,” explains John Newson in his warm London accent as we watch the Spitfire do another lap at BMF’s Merlins & Motorbikes event.
“It’s like trying to get a council house in a little local village! Someone’s got to drop dead before the machines come up for sale. Unless you’re buying through a dealer and then they’re too expensive.”
John Newson is a motorcycle restorer and proud owner of a beautiful Vincent HRD Black Shadow. He is here today, in full battle gear, to do a drag race against the Spitfire watched by the many people who have come to enjoy BMF’s new show, with its live music, trade stands, motorcycles and classic aeroplanes. But for now we’re talking bikes.
“As you mature and get out of your youth, you see these lovely old bikes, but they’re always out of your reach. By the time you’ve saved up enough, they’ve gone up by £500. So you save up a bit more and a year later they’ve gone up another £1,000! They’re always just out of your reach unless the right opportunity comes up.” John pauses and takes a sip of his coffee.
“And that’s what happened with us about six or seven years ago,” he gestures to his fiancé Karen.
Good luck from bad
“We have a good friend who’s got a small collection of old Triumph twins,” says John, beginning the story of how he came to acquire this beautiful machine – the iconic Black Shadow. “His father had a very nice small collection of exotic machines – a Manx Norton, I think he had a Cammy Velocette, KSS, a couple of BSAs and he had this Vincent Black Shadow.
“Not long after his father passed away (in about 2009), the bikes became available.
“Karen spoke to him and said: ‘If you’re ever thinking about selling the Vincent, we’d be interested.’ I didn’t have a clue that Karen was even interested in it! It was a bargain and we could just about afford it between us.”
Restore, revive, renew
It hadn’t been started in years, but John knew he could get it back to its former glory. He was pleased to note that the bike had in fact had significant restoration work done in the past, and it wouldn’t take long to get this famous machine up and running.
“Me and the guy who works for me spent a whole day just getting our fingers in there, cleaning it up. We charged the battery up, cleaned the carburettors out, cleaned out the fuel tank, and it probably started first or second kick.
“The previous restoration was fantastic,” says John. “It was restored over six years by a Mr T Amos, a retired tool maker. He had everything stove-enamelled the old way, not powder-coated. The crank cases, the barrels, the fuel tank – all stove-enamelled. He had the dynamo, the magneto and the speedometer all restored. He made every nut and bolt and washer in stainless steel himself.
“It would have taken hundreds and hundreds of hours to restore that machine,” John takes another sip of his coffee as the meaning of what he’s just said sinks in. He knows what it is like to take that much time restoring and rebuilding old motorcycles.
John decided to take the project a step further than just getting it on the road. Inspired by the motorcycles he loved in his youth, he saw this as an opportunity to create the machine of his childhood dreams.
“I thought of Laurence of Arabia on his Brough SS100 and the racing bikes of the war years,” says John, animated. “I wanted to get the bike looking like that.
“So I made a little fly-screen for it and I had a stainless steel one-off exhaust system made for it – straight through.
“We painted the battery black to make it look vintage, tidied up a little bit of the wiring and took the pin-striping off the tank – masked it up and painted it in by hand with gold leaf paint, just to finish it off.”
Visions of the past
Too often, the dreams of our youth fail to relight the fires of passion in later life. But sometimes something from our past connects directly with us – like a soul-searching, heat-seeking missile.
“If I ever go out on any of the other bikes, I think, “what am I doing on this?!”. It’s like going out in a Morris Traveller when you own a Ferrari. I’m putting away on an old Triumph and I think, “Oh this is lovely, but what am I doing on this when I could be riding the Shadow”. So I use the Black Shadow more than I do any of the other machines.”
And John’s not alone in his love for this most famous of motorcycles.
“I was down in Sussex once,” he beams. “There was this old boy there with his shopping bags in his hands and his wife next to him. He dropped both bags, pointed and nudged his wife in the ribs. ‘Did you see that?’ he said. ‘That was a Black Shadow!’ You so rarely see them out on the road, you see. They’re normally only on display. I do the ton on that one and I ride it a lot. It’s a well-used machine.”
Back in the day
The smell of aviation fuel mixes with sun-toasted grass cuttings and barista coffee as John gives us a tour of the Black Shadow – the Spitfire roaring past overhead. Both are great machines from a bygone era when things were constructed by hand. Technology and culture has transformed over the past decades and motorcycling has not been immune.
John reflects on 50 years of changing motorcycle culture.
“There was a group of us,” he says, matter of fact. “We were called the Rebel Rockers, and we branched out of the 75 Club which started in 1975 in Tenterden. We had the times of our lives.”
John beams. We sense that his mind’s eye is leafing through dusty memories.
“We had motorbikes to get to work, to take our girlfriends out, to go on holiday. It was our only form of transport.
“You’d pick a bike up for 25 quid, anything that gets you to work and take the girlfriend out.
“I had all sorts of unreliable breaking-down British lightweight motorbikes. A James, a Francis Barnett, BSA Bantam, anything. We couldn’t afford to have them repaired so we fixed them ourselves. We learned off of each other.”
“We used to go to Beddgelert in Snowdonia National Park, every Easter that was our first run. And there’d be 20 Triumph twins or BSA twins and our bikes were all knackered and worn out and we’d break down all the way there and all the way back so we had to learn how to fix them. We’d take so many spares with us! We just educated ourselves.”
“Back then, if someone broke down you’d always pull over and help them out. You wouldn’t leave them until the bike was fixed or it got recovered. We didn’t have mobile phones. None of us could afford recovery.”
“We still meet up sometimes, me and old mates. Or I meet up with like-minded people I don’t know. It’s just like the old days. It’s great to talk about motorbikes, talk about what we’ve done on our bikes and how we’ve worked on them.”
“A lot of the fellas there are my age – born again bikers. Their mortgages are paid off, they’ve done a refresher course, and now they are on a bloody rocketship that does 200 miles an hour and stops on a sixpence.”