With the phrase ‘The World’s Fastest Standard Motorcycle’ a fact not a slogan, in the company’s own words, it was a point of honour that the lowly Vincent Firefly did not insinuate itself into the history of the marque Vincent HRD Co Ltd. Nevertheless, retrospection loves perversity, so it is the Vincent Firefly that is treasured here.
But it is a little known fact that there was even a commercial variant within the Vincent HRD stable.
The Vincent Firefly was also paired with the Gundle tradesmen’s bicycle, to create…
…The World’s Fastest Standard Tradesmen’s Bicycle?
1954 Gundle ‘RR’ Handymotor
Double-Basket Commercial Delivery Bike fitted with a 45cc Vincent Firefly engine
– The Only Commercial Variant of the Vincent Motorcycle
Most of the vintage vehicles on my websites are rare. This one is not only very rare, it is also extremely interesting …because Vincent Motorcycles – manufacturers of ‘The World’s Fastest Standard motorcycle’ – were Great Britain’s greatest thoroughbred marque. It was bad enough for Vincent owners that the company took over production of a 45cc cycle-attachment eninge, the Firefly. But how gauche was it for Vincent Motors Ltd to produce a commercial vehicle – as unthinkable as a Rolls Royce pick-up truck?
Vincent were not doing very well by the early fifties. They made hand-built motorcycles that were exclusive and expensive. This was a big problem. Only 11,000 of their superb machines were sold between 1945 and 1954. The company had to try different ideas to revive their fortunes. In 1954, they built German NSU Fox motorcycles and NSU Quicklys under license for sale in Great Britain. The Fox went on sale in Britain in 1955, but the timing was not good for launching a lightweight motorcycle. The market in 1955 was dominated by the latest motoring marvel – the ‘mo-ped.’ Only 40 were built.
The Quickly fared much better. In its first year on sale in Britiain 20,000 were sold. Unfortunately for Vincent though, because of this success, NSU took over marketing the Quickly themselves a year later. Vincent even tried out a 3-wheeler sportscar version of their pre-war Vincent Bantam 3-wheeler (1932-1936); they did not get beyond the prototype stage because, at £500 when it was introduced in 1955, the ‘Vincent 3-Wheeler’ was simply too expensive and did not sell.
It is against this background that the little Vincent Firefly came on the market in 1953. It’s unfortunate that the Firefly symbolizes such troubled times at one of the world’s finest motorcycle companies. But, if that 1950s downturn in the market for prestigious motorcycles had not affected Vincent so adversely, we would not have had such a delightful cycle-attachment engine as the Vincent Firefly.
Leonard Gundle Motor Co Ltd was a leading manufacturer of tradesmen’s bicycles. In the early fifties, they offered additional motorised models to their range, available to special order. One was a 197cc ‘Open Truck’ three-wheeler and the other the ‘Gundle Handymotor Carrier Cycle’ that you see here. The Vincent Firefly engine could be fitted to either of their double-carrier models, the idea being of course that a motorised version would be able to cope with the extra weight.
Being made only to special order, very few were manufactured. The example you see here is one of only two known to exist. We’ve restored it to its current good running order. There are a few minor jobs still to do, such as fitting its lights and a stand. But I was so excited to hear the engine run for the first time today that I recorded a short video of it (further down the page) and took the Handymotor on location to to the beach for a few photos. I’ll update the page with more pictures when the final fittings have been added.
THE GUNDLE MOTORISED CARRIER CYCLE
The cycle that Gundle used in its advertising for the Handymotor was the ‘Model T’ seen below, with a small front wheel. As a motorised machine this model was not as stable at speed as the ‘Model RR’ featured on this page. If you look closely at the illustration you will see that it was not a finished example. There is no rear brake; the normal rod brake to the rear could not be used as the engine was fitted to the same place; a bowden brake was used instead. Also, the front stand illustrated could not be used as it was too dangerous if it fell out of its housing while rattling along at speed.
In fact, the main reason that so few were manufactured was because they were not actually suitable for carrying much more weight than a normal bicycle: the increased speed made them extremely dangerous when fully laden!
THE VINCENT FIREFLY
In 1952 the hallowed halls of the Vincent-HRD Owners’ Club were trembling with anticipation. The Stevenage factory had intimated that a new model was about to be announced to the motor cycling press. Prospective purchasers waited impatiently, cheque books at the ready. Prospective record-breakers postponed their attempts with their current machines.
In 1953 the same hallowed halls were trembling with shock. The manufacturers of “The World’s Fastest Standard motorcycle – This is a Fact, not a Slogan!” had announced a clip-on engine of 45cc – the Firefly! Indignation filled the pages of ‘MPH’, the esteemed journal of the VOC. It is certain that, if a Firefly owner attempted to join the Club in 1953, he would have received a very frosty welcome indeed!
Nowadays, a Firefly is regarded as a most desirable asset amongst the Vincent fraternity. Epics such as the efforts of ‘Team Firefly’ in the 1991 FIM Rally in Eindhoven have added their own little bit of glory to the marque. But how did the Firefly come about?
For many years, Phil Vincent had had a very good relationship with Miller, the electrical people. Hence, while most other motor cyclist’s batteries were kept happy with the superb Lucas AVC unit, the Vincenteer’s battery either boiled with rage or faded through lack of nourishment with the Miller cartridge trying to supply its needs. Be that as it may, in 1952 the motor cycling press announced a new clip-on engine: the Miller Firefly. A road test and technical description appeared but the exact date and in which of the two main British motor cycle magazines eludes me for the moment [It was The Motor Cycle on 31/1/1952 and there was also a photograph of the Brussels Show model in the previous week’s edition – Ed]. The machine seemed much the same as the Firefly that went into production, except that the sliding back of the engine to engage the rear wheel was accomplished by a lever below the saddle on the left hand side of the cycle. For some reason Miller didn’t continue with the production run; this passed to Vincent Engineers instead.
The engine unit went on sale in 1953. The only significant change was that the rear wheel engagement was effected by a handlebar lever, rather like a clutch lever in reverse. Pull in to engage. A ratchet holds the lever in. Release the ratchet to disengage. The only other handlebar control to the engine is the combined decompressor and throttle lever. Forward shuts the throttle and opens the decompressor; back shuts the decompressor and opens the throttle. The engine fits on rails under the bottom bracket of the cycle and slides back to engage the rear wheel with a toothed roller. This location gives a nice low centre of gravity and does not upset the trim of the cycle. The long thin tank fits to the down tube of the cycle frame.
There are a few interesting technical features. The engine unit has to be very slim to fit where it does but a spacer is normally used to make the gap between the pedals about an inch wider. There is only one size of bearing; this is part number VF41 and is a ball bearing of dimensions 3/4″ × 1 5/8″ × 5/16″. The RHP number is KLNJ3/4 but the equivalent by any other manufacturer of bearings will suffice. An alternator is fitted; surely one of the first cyclemotor units to be so equipped; the vast majority of larger motor cycles in 1953 still relied on dynamo and DC electrics. Ignition is by a coil fitted in a recess at the base of the fuel tank.
Few problems were experienced with the engine unit. The only major one that I know of concerned the rear drive roller, part number VF131AS. The outer toothed rim is rubber bonded to the inner sleeve. The bonding was prone to failure on some early models but this was quickly rectified. The only problem that I have with my Firefly is a reluctance to start on petroil from cold but a few squirts of lighter fuel down the carb does the trick!
Production life of the Firefly was only three years. In 1953 only the engine unit was available; in 1954 and 1955 it came fitted in a specially designed Sun cycle. [The complete machine was known as the Vincent Power Cycle. Sun frames were used at first, later ones were made by Phillips. – Ed] In 1955 Vincent Engineers ceased production of their big motor cycles, although they continued for some more years with industrial engines, Amanda water scooters and the like. Demise of the Firefly, however, is usually blamed on the NSU Quickly.
It is widely known that a liaison between Vincent and NSU led to the ill-fated NSU-Vincent Fox production run. What is not generally realised is that Vincent took on the marketing of the Quickly in the UK. This they did at the expense of the Firefly and to their own eventual cost, as they were so successful at selling the little German machine that NSU decided to cash in on it and handle sales of the Quickly themselves in Britain.
Peter Green, 1996; thanks to the ‘Moped Archive’ – http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pattle/nacc/arc0073.htm
I had two of these Gundle Handymotors. I sold this one to a museum, and the other is in my workshop waiting for me to get round to finishing it off. I’ll update this page when it’s done