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Justin Kell - 1954 Vincent Drag Bike Build

The Shotgun Purchase, History, Design, and Plans for the Future

Written by Trent Reker, Photography by Coop
6/11/2010 11:40:41 AM

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I met Justin Kell like I meet a lot of people, in the evening when I'm drunk and surfing the net. I was browsing my favorite bike sites and found a photo and a paragraph about a recently-discovered 1954 Vincent Black Shadow that was going to be turned into a drag racer by a vintage expert in Hollywood, CA.

"A vintage expert in Hollywood," I smirked out loud, moved by the hare-brained chatter of my irresponsible frivolity as I belched, "who the fuck is that?" Now, I know a few things about Harleys and Hondas but not much about British bikes and certainly very little about Vincents, other than they are considered remarkable bikes largely due to the many unprecedented design and engineering elements and their amazing speeds.

On the night I discovered Justin's bike, I left a message on the site where I found it stating that the photo of the bike looked as if, "someone saw a Confederate Fighter, didn't have six figures to blow on one, but had a wicked Vincent motor and a machine shop. Thus, I exposed my ignorance of all things Vincent and was set off on a path of discovery.

I wasn't the only one who thought the bike had a Confederate style. Soon though, Justin replied, "Those who said Confederate should have their mouths washed out with soap."

I thought to my drunken self, "Who is this fucker? What a smart-assed thing to say." I smiled because I like passionate people, and with my amazing Google powers, I researched Justin Kell. Then I wrote to Bandit who gave me the green light to tell this story on Bikernet.

I quickly found that Justin is the motorcycle coordinator for movie productions, with a resume that includes the Benjamin Button film, the latest Star Trek and Indiana Jones flicks, as well as the Quentin Tarantino-produced '60s biker take-off "Hell Ride" which everybody on Bikernet ought to rent. Justin Kell owns a retail shop on Hollywood Boulevard called Glory, where you can see a bunch of cool bike stuff I can't afford, and he has a garage where he repairs and restores vintage British and American motorbikes.

This is part one of his 1954 Vincent drag bike build.


Trent: Please tell us about how you found the Vincent. It's one of those classic barn finds, right?

Justin: The finding of the Vincent was actually classic. Steve Crocker, a Northern California collector and Moto Melee rider, found it on the Vegas craiglist. He called me, knowing that I was looking for a Shadow project. He made the initial contact with the owner, and then I took over. The owner was a bit rough around the edges to say the least. Seeing that I'm fluent in, "biker," I decided to take over negotiations.

I got the long story of how the bike was acquired as well as the some very interesting views on world politics. Turns out, some wanker calling himself a "Vincent collector" from Tennessee was trying to buy the bike as well. Good thing our Nevada desert friend only wanted cash. Also, it's a much quicker drive from LA than from Tennessee.

Two days later, I'm driving my truck in 110-degree heat with a shotgun behind the seat and a wallet full of cash. Soon, I'm back on the road to LA with this shipwrecked Sprinter strapped in the back.


Trent: Why the shotgun? Because the current owner was edgy or because you�d have a rare bike exposed in the back of your truck? Or was it the money in your pocket? Probably all three, huh?

Justin: That was funny. See, the guy I bought the bike from spent hours on the phone telling me about his "views" about everything. Because I wanted to solidify the deal, I just kept listening to him and taking it all in with a grain of salt. I was expecting to arrive at some crazy compound in the middle of the desert.

Traveling with an ass load of cash is always a bit nerve racking, but when you kind of expect to show up at a less-than-safe location, it makes it even more scary. My wife was very nervous. It was funny, she kept telling me to call her when I arrived, when I left, etcetera. The truth is, the guy I bought the bike from was all talk. There was no revolution at his house, just a bunch of cats and a killer old Vincent! He let on like he didn't really care about the bike, that he was, "a Harley guy," but I saw that look in his eyes. It was killing him to let go of a bike that was his favorite possession. It may have sat in parts in his care for years. Hell, he may have never even ridden it, but since 1972, he could tell people that he owned a Vincent Black Shadow.

As for a rare race bike in the truck, very few people could recognize that machine (Confederate anyone?). When I got back to my house, I told my kids that I had a new Vincent in the truck. The five year-old said, "That's not a Vincent."

The seven year-old asked, "What happened to it?"

The wife gave me that "You're out of your fucking mind," look. That's okay, I was smiling the whole way back from Nevada.

Trent: Your reputation is that of being one of the best in working with vintage American and British bikes and with sticking to classic styles. What are your plans for this bike design? Will it be restored to a style reminiscent of Reg Dearden's or maybe Marty Dickerson's bikes, or are you going for something different?

Justin: I think that this bike calls for some good old fashioned So Cal Hot Rodding. Obviously, the bike can't be ridden as a Sprinter, but I will definitely not be going stock. Let's just say that it will not stray far from the shape it took in the mid '60s. I look at this as me being the latest caretaker of this machine. I'll just get it back on the road, and move it on to the next proud owner.

Trent: Do you have photos or illustrations, or can you give us a brief description of what the bike looked like in the mid-60's?

Justin: This one left the factory in 1955 in stock Black Shadow trim from what I've gathered so far. The bike had several owners in Los Angeles before it was turned into a Sprinter by Max Kelley. I'm currently working on some original photos of the bike in stock condition. I've also had the people at Shelby try and dig up some photos of Max with the bike. Hopefully, I'll be able to dig up a lot more info and history soon. I was told that it had a time ticket in the 160 mph range. Mike Parti told me that the bike was slow because he didn't build it. I'm actually going to go to Mike for some help on this one. I wish I had half that guy's Vincent knowledge.

Trent: You are calling this a drag bike. Are you planning on racing it or is "drag bike" simply a descriptor of the body style you are building?

Justin: Max Kelley drag raced this bike. The head was unbelievable. Giant valves, polishing, porting, full bore motor craziness! After looking at the internals of this machine, it was obviously FAST. I will probably replace the heads with a more stock set up. I just want to be able to see it as a rideable machine. If you ever get a chance to plow a Vincent twin through city traffic, you'll understand why it's important for me to turn it back into a street-rideable bike.


Trent: It's arguable that they were ever street-rideable to some. Hunter S. Thompson rode and wrote a few times about the Black Shadow. In "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" he stated that it was, "a fantastic bike" something like two thousand cubic inches, developing two hundred brake-horsepower at four thousand revolutions per minute on a magnesium frame with two styrofoam seats and a total curb weight of exactly two hundred pounds," and that "the fucker's not much for turning, but it's pure hell on the straightaway." Mr. Thompson was a genius at stoned hyperbole, but these bikes seem pretty radical when even stock. Please tell us about plowing a Vincent twin through city traffic. What does a Vincent run and feel like compared to other v-twins from 1954?

Justin: Hunter S. Thompson captured the feeling of what it's like to first ride a Vincent twin. It's like no other bike. The smell, the vibration, the pure muscle. It's like riding around in some little fairy fast car every day, then getting behind the wheel of a Ferrari. I still remember the first time I fired my first Vincent up. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the bike to show from Wales, I gassed it up, pulled the compression release, and kicked it. When that motor fired, I felt the power and I was hooked. My first ride on that bike was through Griffith Park in Los Angeles. I'll never forget it. I rode that thing around every day for months. I get that feeling every time I fire up a Vincent. If ever there was a machine that I was meant to own, this is it. It's a feeling that is usually only appreciated by people who have an unnatural love for machines, particularly fast ones. And yes, I have humped a Vincent.

Trent: Bet you'd have made a killing with that video on a fetish porn site. What do you know about the history of the bike?

Justin: The bike is a Black Shadow built in late '54 and first sold in the USA in 1955. From what I can gather, it has had three owners in California. Two of them were at Glory last week for the party! The bike was built to its current state of dragness by Max Kelley, who was Carol Shelby's head mechanic. It was then sold to the son of a casino owner in the late '60s. In 1972 it came into the hands of the most recent owner. I am slowly accumulating photos and race history on the machine, and dying to find the fabled shot of the bike with Ed Roth and a monkey.


Trent: This image is going to have to do for now, man. It was caught by the Hubble space telescope in August whilst surveying a nebula. Yes, that�s Sean Connery in some stripper's boots and a red diaper. He was there, too. As for the woman, she just needs help. We'll have to get back to her later.

I need another beer first. Hold on".

Justin: Sean Connery has earned the right to wear a diaper. I was actually talking with Nick Smith, who handles the motorcycle auctions for Bonhams earlier this evening. I was explaining to him that I wanted to build this bike into a 130 mph street bike that will make rich old men piss their pants. So, a diaper is very fitting.

Trent: Excellent! Vincent bikes had some pretty revolutionary design aspects. One of those being the frame design that took many manufacturers half a century to emulate. Many street fighter, sportbike and custom bikes now use the motor as a structural component of the frame, as well as placing the shock under the seat, as Vincent did. Can you elaborate and tell us what else is unique about this frame?

Justin: You really have to hand it to Philip Vincent and Phil Irving, these two guys were responsible for so much technology still used today. That "mono-shock" set up predates conventional twin rear shock se-ups. There was some revolutionary thinking going on here. Looking at a Vincent, you can visually see the forward and modern design qualities. When you take one apart, the real brains of the machine become even more visible. My favorite thing about the Vincent/Irving partnership is that these two guys placed performance and function on the top of their list. To hand-build machines capable of that kind of performance and speed in the '40s and '50s is remarkable. I often wonder where those ideas are today. Of course there are modern upgrades that can be made to a Vincent that will really transform the machines, but given the materials that these guys had to work with, they truly were cutting edge industrial designers.

Trent: Indeed. A stock 998 cubic centimeter Vincent could be ridden at well over 100 miles an hour in 1936. That�s amazing. There is a story of a gentleman riding one over 100,000 miles on one in one year.

Does this frame currently have the monoshock, will it, or are you building a hardtail?

Justin: Think about the other production bikes of that time. They really were tractors. Like I said, these bikes really were ahead of their time. As for the guy with well over 100,000 miles on his Vincent, all I have to ask is, "Which guy?" My favorite Vincent guy is a gentleman here in Southern California named Bill Easter. He's been riding, living and breathing Vincents since before I was born. Bill is the guy who will start a story with, "Oh yeah, that happened to my Shadow in '71 when I was riding home from the meet in Toronto..." The Vincent world is full of guys like him.

Currently, the bike has two strap steel struts holding the back together, but the bike will be re-assembled with an upgraded Thornton rear shock. Thornton makes the best ones in the world. THE BEST.


Trent: The first photos that I saw of this bike were taken by Coop and appear here. The first one I saw was the shot below, and it showed what looked to be a very thin gas tank, but that is not the case. It's the oil tank. How did Vincent set up the gas and oil tanks on their bikes?

Justin: The oil tank is the upper frame member. The motor hangs from the oil tank. The fuel tank then drops over the oil tank with the universal flow monitor hidden in the tunnel of the gas tank. That's why there are two caps on a Vincent tank. This system is not the case on the early machines, which used a traditional mid-bike mounted oil bag. This under-the-tank set up does pose the threat of keeping heat trapped around the tank, but that could only be possible in extreme conditions and when not being properly air-cooled.

Trent: So Vinnies don�t blow like an old Pinto, then?

Justin: Vincents out live their owners.


Trent: Darn. Fire is fun. Please tell us about the front end, another innovative Vincent design. It looks like there is a wrench end sticking out of it above the axle. What is the purpose of that? Is it to connect to the original hub?

Justin: The Girdraulic front end was developed for the Series "C" machines by the Vincent factory. Because the machines were so powerful, the structural and performance limits of the traditional Bramptons had been reached. These Vincent front ends work very well. I had a Comet (500 cc single) on the Moto Melee a few years back, and was shocked at the dampening and smooth riding at high speeds over long distance. Vincents are well-thought-out touring machines by nature. They just happen to go really fucking fast! The "T" nuts on the axels are to make it easy to quickly remove the wheels without a wrench.


Trent: I admit, I have compared the look of the bike so far to a Confederate Fighter because of the frame's angular design and the raw finish. You don't like that comparison. Why?

Justin: It's backwards. There would be no Confederate Fighter without the Vincent design element. Many new bikes draw key elements from historic machines from the past. As a designer, you can't help but draw inspiration from the strongest impacts that have shaped your designs. I can remember seeing a BSA Gold Star as a young child. The Cafe Racer set-up stuck with me, and in my opinion is still one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever produced. The same goes for a Vincent. My love for these designs affects every bike I touch. They are models of complete function that also happen to be beautiful to look at. Have a good look at modern products. That doesn't happen too often anymore.

Trent: Okay. If I have to get my mouth washed out with soap, can I choose Irish Spring? I heard it goes great with shots of Jamison's and pints of Guinness.

Justin: I'm a very sensitive Californian. I had to call both my therapists and go to an AA meeting after I read that. I haven't been able to do yoga without crying for weeks. Thanks.

Trent: You�re welcome, man. Please tell us about the 1954 Black Shadow motor and some more about the condition of it when you got it.

Justin: The motor was torn down two days ago. Stephen Pate, who is probably one of the best Vincent restorers working, was at my shop, so we dove in. I was expecting a brick in a VCR box, but the motor was full of very nice surprises. Lots of very rare Lightning internals as well as the super heads. The barrels still had fresh cross hatchings on them and the pistons looked unused. The bike appears to have gone through a massive rebuild that was never finished. It was loosely assembled for selling. My biggest worry was the gearbox. Sprinting can really do some damage to a gearbox, and this one was perfect. I will finish it off and split the cases next week.

Trent: Wow. Lighting internals? That's rare. The Black Lightning was a special order and it seems that maybe only 16 were made. A Lightning had 25 more horsepower and was 100 pounds lighter than the standard Black Shadow. It was the fastest Vincent ever produced and carried Rollie Free to 150.313 mph in 1948 in Bonneville and to 156.58 in 1950. That record stood for 20 years. We�ve all seen the famous photo of him wearing nothing but rubber-looking undies with his legs stretched back as he lays prone with his head down, probably praying, at high speed. That was pretty fearless. Hardcore dudes rode Vinnies, didn�t they?

Justin: That's what I love about Vincents. They were built by lunatics for lunatics. These guys were thinking so far ahead of the rest of the motorcycle industry that it's shocking. They were doing a mono shock rear suspension in the 1920s. They were building production bikes in the 1950s that still are able to embarrass guys on modern machines. They are works of art that can get the shit kicked out of them for decades, and still perform. The thing about these machines is that they were ridden by guys who wanted to go fast. This was as good as it got in the day. They were really expensive, and the finest in the world.

Unfortunately, today they have a reputation for being expensive collector bikes that get trailered to bike shows and sit in rich guys rumpus rooms. In a way, that's exactly what they are but there are still a bunch of die-hard guys who ride theses bikes the way they were meant to be ridden. There are old guys with hundreds of thousands of miles on their machines. I remember when I blew my gearbox apart on the Moto Melee one year, half of the Vincent guys thought it was stupid to ride that bike on an event like that. The other half told me that I better fix it and ride it on the Melee next year. It really sucks for most of us that the prices of these bikes are out of control. It makes a perfectly rideable machine out of reach for most of the guys who would enjoy them the most.

engine close

Trent: The stacks are radical on your bike. Please tell us about them and about the modifications you are making to the motor, besides what you�ve mentioned already.

Justin: The stacks are part of the massive 40mm Dell Orto's. I'll figure out how to retain that look, but with a bit more useable carbs. The bottom end of the motor will stay as it is, but unfortunately, the super heads will be better served on a drag bike or on my shelves. I will occasionally make sweet love to them. I really want this to be a super fast, useable machine. A real Southern California hot rod. This is not going to be a museum bike, and I want it to embarrass guys on modern bikes.

Trent: Not much embarrasses me on my bike, but I ride one of those modern scoots with an 110 cubic inch v-twin that was manufactured and assembled in Ohio by Honda. It was last dynoed at 118 ft/lbs and an even 100 hp. It's heavy, but that's good on the freeway. Maybe we can go for a ride some day and see who can keep up with whom. Then we�ll drink a beer or four and determine the best way to help that lady trying to escape the floating head of Ed Roth, the angry monkey and Sean Connery's diaper in space.

Justin: That sounds good. You will more that likely leave me and my ancient machines behind on the straights, but beware of a Vincent in the corners. I will keep you posted on the progress of the Vincent Sprinter. It could be on the auction block next year, or it could be at Bonneville.

Trent: Part two from Bonneville (crossing fingers)!

I can't wait to hear about it, Justin. Let me know of any new developments or photos of the bike as you move forward and we'll get them posted on Bikernet. Thank you for taking the time to tell us so much about your 1954 Black Shadow. It was great fun. I can hardly wait to see what happens next...

Here's an unrestored original Vincent. We will bring its history to Bikernet readers in the near future.

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