Thursday, March 28, 2013

THE BLUE BIKE


Marty Dickerson on his Rapide in 1953 at the Bonneville Salt Flats
In 1948, an eighteen year old walked into ‘Mickey’ Martin’s Burbank Vincent-HRD dealership, putting a cash deposit on the $1120 sale price of a new ‘Series B’ Touring Rapide, starting a payment plan on what was then the most expensive motorcycle in the world.  The inspiration for his trip to Martin’s LA emporium were the boasts of a Vincent-owning Scotsman who spoke of leaving ‘long black streaks’ on the highway while passing cars, in third gear and 70mph no less. Readers of the late 40s motorcycle press were familiar with Vincent-HRD ads touting impossible speeds, right beside ads for x-ray glasses and miracle bodybuilding powders.  Very few Americans had actually seen a Vincent, even less had ridden one to test the claims.

Marty Dickerson, the youth in question, thought the Rapide was ugly, but he “wanted that power, wanted that speed”.  He was not disappointed with his purchase, and quickly came to understand he now owned the fastest motorcycle on the planet, and soon, as young men will do, set about proving that fact to SoCal motorcyclists who believed they had the fastest bikes.  Harley Davidson had been around since the early part of the Century, as had rival Indian, and their American devotees used the collected wisdom of decades of engine-tuning to make some pretty hot bikes by the 1940s, the toughest and fastest of which tended to be ‘strokers’ with huge motors of over 100 cubic inches displacement (1600cc).  Dickerson and his Vincent aroused the curiosity and pride of LA’s fastest street-racers, who formed an increasingly short line to challenge him to a ‘drag’.  No matter the fame of the engine builder or skill of his rival at fast getaways, it was always Marty’s Rapide which first crossed whatever waved-sweater or crossed headlamp finish line was laid, out there on the lonely roads appropriate for such contests.

There were other ways to test speed, and the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) provided timed evidence to bolster a reputation gained on the streets.  At Muroc Dry Lake that year, Marty squeezed 118mph from his Rapide, while his buddy ‘Tex’ Luce, a Vincent mechanic fated to make his own mark on the racing world, found just a bit more, and recorded 122.04mph on the bone-stock machine, with all lights, mudguards, and mufflers intact and present. Motorcyclists are a stubborn and loyal bunch, and the evidence of a new ‘fastest’ motorcycle didn’t translate into immediate sales.  In truth, Vincent-HRD sales were dismal in California, and by June 1949, ‘Mickey’ Martin had 20 unsold Vincents languishing on his showroom floor.  Knowing of Dickerson’s antics in back-road street racing, and more importantly his success at the game, Martin hatched a plan to send young Marty on a ‘tour’ of the southwest quadrant of the US, to raise awareness of the Vincent-HRD marque in the best way – nudge, wink – he knew how.  Martin offered to cover all travel expenses, and take over the Rapide’s loan payments, and soon Marty Dickerson had the best possible job in the world for a 19 year old, being paid to street race all comers in small towns across America, astride the fastest production motorcycle built.
The Rapide becoming 'Californized', with a bobbed rear fender, trumpet exhaust, cowhorn 'bars...
For one month in that summer of ’49, Marty Dickerson had the ‘drag racing adventure of a lifetime’, covering 5000 miles through Phoenix, Dallas, Tulsa, Ft.Worth, Tyler, Kansas City, and smaller towns in Colorado and Utah.  He raced the fastest motorcycles And cars the locals could muster, sometimes legendary monsters which had never been bested.  There were close calls, such as when he didn’t have time to change a fouled spark plug before a race, and the Vincent spluttered on one-and-a-half cylinders while his rival rocketed ahead.  Quick thinking and a ‘poor man’s tuneup’ (downshifting from 3rd to 2nd at high revs to blast the plugs clean) cleared the cough and saw Marty take the lead once again. There were other times when ‘sore losers’, with much time and reputation invested in their Harleys or Hotrods, made a hasty exit the prudent choice for young Mr. Dickerson.  It must have been infuriating when some short, big-nosed kid on a strange motorbike (‘Harley R Davidson?’) kept pace with the Knucklehead you’d spent months tuning for speed, until your throttle was hard on the stop while you crouched low over the tank…only to watch ‘that kid’ shift into 4th gear, and leave you eating his dust.

The Vincent had its problems in that hard month of racing, requiring the total replacement of a clutch cable and a few engine shock absorber springs, which weren’t expecting such abuse. 
Dickerson’s exploits were legend, and rumors spread like pond ripples from a cherry bomb about ‘a kid’ with a really fast Vincent, kicking butt all over the Southwest.  He came and went through towns so fast nobody remembered it was ‘Marty Dickerson’ riding, he was the Street Racer with No Name, but tales of his exploits reverberate to this day, and form the actual backbone of the Vincent story in America.

On his undefeated return to LA, Dickerson was employed at Martin’s Vincent emporium as a mechanic, joining ‘Tex’ Luce and another fellow with a history of street racing and record-breaking; Rollie Free. In 1950, Free and his pal Marty took a newly delivered Vincent Black Lightning to the Bonneville Salt Flats, and set about taking records in Class ‘A’ racing, in which special fuels were used. Rollie Free raised his infamous ‘bathing suit’ record (taken at 150mph, in 1948), making his Vincent again the fastest standard motorcycle in the world, averaging over 156mph. 

The salt bug bit Marty deep, and he decided to modify his trusty Rapide for higher speeds, choosing Class ‘C’ (pump gas) to avoid direct competition with his pal Rollie.  The Rapides’ transformation from ‘daily rider’ to ‘salt flat racer’ was completed with Lightning parts from the Vincent factory, and a change of color scheme: she was now the ‘Blue Bike’.   A new set of crankcases was required after 3 years of drag racing, and the Blue Bike gained engine cases marked ‘301’.  Two years of development were required before things really came together for this machine; larger carbs and hotter cams gave a new Class ‘C’ record in 1953, averaging 147.58mph, with a fastest timed speed of 150.959mph, on pump gas, with Marty sitting on the seat (not stretched out as Rollie did), and a class-mandated 8:1 compression ratio.  The Blue Bike was massaged, but all the parts were Vincent items, and the bike wasn’t so high strung that it couldn’t be ridden on the street.  That 150mph record stood for over twenty years!  It took a change of rules (allowing higher than 82 Octane fuel), and a hot Yoshimura Kawasaki, to break it.

Over the years,  Marty continued to develop the Blue Bike, returning to Bonneville in 1976, ’80, ’86, ’96, and finally, at 67 years old for the man and 49 years the machine, in 1997.   His later years competing at Bonneville were less dramatically successful than those early days, but had the important function of cementing Dickerson’s reputation among younger riders and new generations of racing enthusiasts, amazed at his stories and respectful of the legends around Marty and his Rapide.  All of which happen to be true.

The number of motorcycles worldwide which have endured serious competition for 50 years can be counted on one hand.  Within this very special group, machines which have taken world records at Bonneville, and cemented the reputation of an entire brand in recognizably stock form, can be counted on one finger.  The Blue Bike is unique.

If you want to see it in person, the Blue Bike is on display at Altai Design in Los Angeles.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

in i964 I could have bought one with a blowup engine for $400.00 us dollars plus some more vincent parts but I didn,t :(

Raúl Vicente said...

Beautiful History made out of pure passion! Man and machine perfectly matched, through my eyes. I would just love to ride a Vincent someday...
Thank you so much for this and godspeed!

WhitelinePsycho said...

Brilliant read on a bloke deserving of a far greater audience for his place in two wheeled folklore. Ta muchly.

Anonymous said...

Back in 2007, a couple of months shy of his 81st birthday, Marty ran over 151 mph on a borrowed Vincent. Howzat for aging gracefully!

- Tom Sappington

Anonymous said...

Great guy! GREAT photo!...

- Ruth Levy Raymond

GuitarSlinger said...

Its also my understanding that Marty's bike in one of its later incarnations before being brought back to its current state was in fact the Vincent photographed for the centerfold of Richard Thompson's " Rumor and Sigh " album ( the one with " 1952 Vincent Black Lightning " ) despite it neither being a Black Lightning or a 52 . Didn't matter though because the photo and the bike were great and together with the song raised the awareness of the Vincent legend to a whole new level in the US .

BTW - Marty's most definitely one of the major legends of Vincent ... not just in the US but Worldwide as well

Anonymous said...

wow! what a story, i'm strting work on a 'treatment' right now.

thanks

59

anton dee said...

Wonderful story, Paul! It reads like it comes from a movie-script, only it really happened.

Thank you!
Anton

Anonymous said...

This post has already caused me to waste several hours on a rainy day when I should be in the garage.

I'm sure this " It took a change of rules (allowing higher than 82 Octane fuel), and a hot Yoshimura Kawasaki, to break it." is an unintentional typo with the octane number.

The Vintagent said...

No typo: 82 octane. Can you believe it?

Anonymous said...

82 Octane; was this 82 MON?

Was the 8.0 to 1 compression ratio restriction lifted at the same time? (Binging Yoshimura 8.0 to 1 smog motor..)

Terry Knott said...

I grew up in the Philadelpia, PA area and there was a story going around for years of some "Mystery Rider" on a Vincent "Lighting" that would call the police in a given area and say "I'm coming thru at such and such time and I'll bet you can't catch me", don't know if the story was true but it sounded good !

"KNOTTHEAD"

brian said...

The Blue Bike is up for sale now.

http://coolstuffwelike.blogspot.com/2013/04/vincent-blue-bike-for-sale.html

Craig Safley said...

I was given the gift of knowing Marty as a teacher of motorcycle mechanics (at West Valley Occupational Center Winnetka Ca.) and as a friend in the years after. The mechanical lessons and quality he instilled in me enabled me to become a technician, later a project coordinator on the space shuttle.. Thanks for a great post and tribute to a world changer!