By Brian Day
Lost in a gritty suburb 30km South of Buenos Aires, I knew we were in trouble when the gates of Eva Peron’s Children’s City flashed by for the third time. I’d traveled 8000 miles searching for a mythical Vincent that remained just out of reach. My vacation was trickling away, and I wondered if this particular “adventure” would end in disappointment.
Two months earlier, I’d spoken with Somer Hooker, a soft-spoken classic bike broker from Tennessee who owns seven Vincents. He was savvy enough to visit Argentina in 1991 when the government lifted its longstanding ban on exporting the muscular English machines as national treasures. He brought back 2 complete Vincents, 3 partial bikes (including a genuine Gray Flash) and six large crates of parts.
Hooker heard about a Vincent twin that was supposedly displayed outdoors as a police monument. Skeptical that such a valuable machine could remain unmolested in public, I was still intrigued, as it could be an important remnant of the Vincent legacy in South America. Somer’s tale stuck in my mind and I thought I might attempt to locate the bike and document its history.
The Vincent-HRD/Argentina connection is well documented in P.C. Vincent’s book “Fifty Years of the Marquee.” (Vincent Publishing Company, 1977) Vincents enjoyed racing success in Argentina, Brazil and even Cuba, winning events like Havana’s National Handicap Road Race of 1948. PCV’s father was Argentine, and PCV himself had dual citizenship in the UK and Argentina. The family owned a large Argentine estancia and part of the Stevenage works capital came from this source. The company enjoyed government contracts and these ties were deep enough so that the very first Series “B” Rapide was shipped directly from Stevenage to the Vincent agent in Buenos Aires.
Hooker said 800 Vincents were exported to Argentina from 1946 to 1950, most being Series “B” Rapides for the Argentine police. Period photos show leather-clad policemen parading their big twins before huge crowds, including Eva Duarte Peron.
Sending bikes to South America makes sense in the context of the UK’s post-war restrictions. British firms got more liberal allotments of scarce raw materials like aluminum and steel if their products were exported, returning money to the cash-starved home country. Export motorcycles kept the factory busy when the home market for big, fast, aristocratic motorcycles faded. In the dreary post-war days of shortages and reconstruction, Argentine exports kept the Vincent works humming.
But a rare classic motorcycle left outside, supposedly unguarded? Perhaps the bike was slathered in cement, like one particularly bizarre example of moto-entombment. Sandra Ilene West, a wealthy obsessive US millionaire oil heiress, was buried sitting upright behind the wheel of her powder blue Ferrari clad in a black lace negligee. The Texas matron, her sports car and slinky nightgown were all covered with six feet of fresh concrete at the Alamo Masonic Lodge Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas in 1977. The true story of the Argentine police Vincent was just as improbable as the dead woman buried in her Ferrari.
The first week of my vacation was spent enjoying Buenos Aires’ sophisticated culture. But the hard-core moto-nut part of me sulked; the city swarmed with utilitarian machines ridden by mask-wearing daredevil messengers. They weaved through traffic, jumped curbs and threatened pedestrians recklessly. I saw some modern Japanese multis, but the British and Italian classics I’d hoped for failed to materialize.
On Saturday, March 29, four days before my return flight, I connected with Daniel Lopez Imizcoz of the Norton Club Buenos Aires (NCBA). He was excited to speak with a classic motorcycle enthusiast from the US and sent a hired car to my hotel, which eventually delivered me to a small bar called Obsoleto. There I met and talked with other NCBA members.
Obsoleto is a cozy, brick-walled tavern 25km north of central Buenos Aires in the upscale suburb of San Isidro. Lovingly renovated by owner and NCBA co-founder Willy Paleo, it’s a popular meeting place for old bike and car enthusiasts. Choice classic bike bits are used as interior décor. Entire Velocette engines hang over the windows. Shelves and cubbyholes hold speedometers, brass carburetors, magnetos and colorful vintage oil cans. High up one wall, a life size cutout of Humphrey Bogart beams down at the lively bar below.
That Saturday afternoon, I was lucky to see photographs of the member’s bikes, hear about their trips and adventures and generally was treated like visiting royalty. The NCBA men truly love their old machines and some have impressive collections. Daniel Lopez Imizcozs’ stable boasts a rare export-only AJS 1000 V-twin, one of the last 500 Indian Chiefs to leave the Springfield factory in 1953, a Velocette 350 MSS and several BMW’s such as a R60 and R69S.
Other club members include Roberto Dell Aquila, whose robust collection of some 30 bikes includes a 1937 AJS 1000, a pair of Indian fours, a HRD “B” Rapide and a 1918 Henderson four. Max Fourcade runs a Douglas EW and a trio of Nortons including “… 70% of a 1936 Manx…” Alejandro Ornia Pacher has a Norton 16H and ES2. Willy Paleo is not surprisingly a staunch Norton man who fettles three ES2’s, one ’49 unrestored and two 32’s disassembled, plus a CS1 from 1932.
Soon our talk turned to Vincents. Roberto’s Rapide was used in the 1996 Alan Parker movie “Evita,” partially filmed in Buenos Aires. Roberto dressed in full period police leather and rode the “B” in several scenes but I don’t know if Madonna got a pillion ride.
In late 1970’s in Argentina, you could buy three running Vincent twins for the price of a new Honda 750. Back then, classic motorcycles were simply old bikes. They were oily, maintenance intensive, noisy and terribly un-chic. Modern imports gradually replaced classic bikes as daily riders in Buenos Aires.
Willie Paleo pulled down a stack of photo albums as I relayed Somer Hooker’s tale of the mythical Vincent monument. To my delight, other NCBA members had heard of the machine too. Willy found two old snapshots of a Vincent twin entombed inside a large, dusty glass display case. Eureka – proof positive the bike did in fact exist!
I had 72 hours left in Argentina, but at least Somer Hooker’s story was true. Willy had taken the snapshots years ago but couldn’t remember exactly where the bike was. He thought hard and finally said “…it might be in front of a police station on Highway 2 near Quilmes…” Another NCBA member concurred, and with that I had a single precious clue to my evanescent goal.
Buenos Aires is the ninth largest metropolis in the world with eleven million inhabitants. The city covers 75 square miles, and its boundaries encompass an area known as the District Federal. I knew the mystery Vincent existed, but time was running out and I was chasing a needle in a haystack. On Sunday morning March 30, my Argentine guide Grace Ullead and I set out on an odd treasure hunt. Consulting a map, Grace found Highway 2 about 30km South in Quilmes.
Downtown Buenos Aires is as sophisticated as New York or Paris, but once in Quilmes I was firmly bought back down to the gritty reality of rural South America. Leaving the modern freeway, we traversed a stark landscape of chaotic small towns, horse carts and half-finished houses with laundry flapping in the dusty wind. Outside sagging cinder-block buildings, groups of idle kids lobbed rocks into a ditch and stared at our Ford compact. The smell of grilling meat wafted from open-air stands amidst scrubby tracts of pampas grass, and rusty diesel buses belched smoke as they lurched past.
Quilmes was an unlikely place to find one of the most valuable British motorcycles ever built. Even the word was unique. Originally the name of an Indian tribe, it’s also the best-selling beer in Argentina. We finally came Quilmes, the town, named after the beer. The progression of Indians, beer, and rundown small towns underscored that I was far from the comfort of home seeking a wispy legend.
We made several false starts. Inquiring at a police substation, Grace consulted a swaggering patrolman. “He remembered an old motorcycle on display,” she said, “and he gave me directions.” Off we sped full of optimism, but thirty minutes later we were good and lost.
We passed an odd looking stone gate over a dried-up moat and miniature rock-walled castle. “Children’s City,” said Grace. “A whole tiny town made just for poor kids, everything designed down to a miniature scale.” Built in the 1940’s as one of Eva Peron’s pet projects, Children’s City was later used as a hospital by the Argentine army. An eager American artist and entrepreneur named Walt visited Children’s City in 1949 and thought perhaps something similar might work as a vacation destination. Perhaps you’ve heard of his California version: Disneyland.
Kiddie moats aside, our progress was laborious but unavoidable. The sun got hotter and my stomach rumbled, and I wondered if spending my last two vacation days chasing down the ghost of a rattley old English motorcycle made sense to anyone but me. Finally Grace hailed someone who seemed to actually know where the police station was. Had our luck finally turned?
Driving past the Children’s City gates for the last time we headed fifteen kilometers down General Belgrano Street. Suddenly Grace braked hard onto the gravel shoulder. In front of a low concrete building sat the grimy glass box from Willy Paleo’s snapshot. Eureka! But ominously, it was empty.
I snapped photos of the empty case then we walked back into a courtyard filled with Argentine policeman wearing bulletproof vests, talking, smoking, working on vehicles, and carrying sawed-off shotguns. Smiling through our intimidation, we found an office, and Grace got fabulous news. “Yes, Brian, your old motorcycle is still here.”
An officer led us to a huge garage, and behind an iron gate in a dim pool of light sat the Vincent HRD v-twin, flanked by rows of modern police bikes. The bike looked complete, so we asked to take photographs. Unfortunately the mechanic who held the garage keys was at a local car race and wouldn’t be back. No one else had a key and that, unfortunately, was that. Coming so far to be stopped by a cheap padlock was maddening. In 56 hours I’d be on a jetliner headed back to California.
Grace and I huddled and hatched a shaky contingency plan. The station’s jefe, or commander, was very proud of the old British bike. Since I’d come so far to see it, perhaps he would help. Several long phone conversations later we were told to come back the next morning. But Grace’s availability was sketchy, and this particular Monday was an Argentine national holiday. Fate seemed against us and on the drive back to Buenos Aires I thought I’d never see the bike again but at least I knew it actually existed.
The next day Grace called my hotel early. She’d rearranged her own schedule and tracked down the jefe, Chief of the Motorized Division of the Police Road Security station Commissioner Ernesto Raul Jimenez. He’d be happy to tell us about the Vincent and let me take photographs. This time the drive from downtown to Quilmes was an easy 40 minutes.
I thought it was an HRD Series “B” police Rapide from the late 1940’s, a grizzled road warrior kept on as a symbol from the good old days. Perhaps they saw the bike as a proud example of Argentina’s glorious past and a link to her uncertain present. The truth showed me just how wrong my Norte Americano assumptions could be.
Sr. Jimenez was straight from central casting – handsome, authoritative, well spoken, with a regal mane of silver hair and intense greenish-brown eyes. Like most Argentines he was a gracious host, sipping mate while we were served strong coffee in tiny cups. As we settled into his office, Sr. Jiminez told us the story of the old British bike.
This particular police station was headquarters for an elite unit of moto-escorts called the Argentina Road Security Police. Using specially equipped vehicles, they accompanied various government officials and visiting dignitaries around Buenos Aires. Additionally the officers performed trick motorcycle riding and stunt shows, and the 1947 HRD in the garage alongside their shiny new BMW’s and Kawasakis was frequently used in parades and special functions.
However, the machine had only been in Quilmes since 1978. Sr. Jiminez had organized his men to pool their slender paychecks collectively and buy the bike from a mysterious Italian collector for about US$400. Moreover, Sr. Jiminez didn’t know the Argentine police rode Vincents in the past. He thought Harley Davidsons and Indians were the machines of choice back in the good old days, so my dreamy theory about the bike’s glorious history was simply wrong. No one at the station from Sr. Jiminez on down had a clue that their classic English machine was a link between two countries that would later wage a war over some rocky islands covered in bird droppings.
Historical debate aside, they loved the elderly HRD. Sargento Primero Rodolfo Ibarra was the mechanic responsible for the bike and he wheeled it out into the sun. It was probably a Series “B” Rapide but the engine castings had been polished so many times the serial numbers had simply blurred away into smooth alloy.
Other modifications include a thickly padded short seat, hydraulic dampers added to early “B” girder forks and huge cast alloy brake drum extensions. The usual number of factory fittings and bolts had been replaced with other fasteners, but overall it was a fine unrestored specimen with a lovely, rich patina. Aside from a slightly slipping clutch, apparently it ran well.
The bike had indeed been on display in the outdoors glass case unguarded for about ten years. In 1991, someone broke into the display and snatched the original Amal carburetors. Now the bike ran on more modern Mikuni’s and was always kept locked and safe inside the cavernous garage.
Sr. Jiminez said a wealthy gringo collector once tried to buy the bike. His offers quickly rose to US$20,000. No deal though – the bike just wasn’t for sale. Like members of the NCBA, the Road Security Police unit had a deep, abiding connection with their old machines. In spite of the huge profit potential, no one wanted to sell the bike to a rich man thousands of miles away.
Photo session over, we all shook hands then Grace and I left for the city. That afternoon I passed on Sr. Jiminez’ contact information to Willy Paleo of Obsoleto who promised to photocopy a service manual for the 1947 HRD and donate it to help fix the slipping clutch. In return, Sr. Jiminez promised to ride the bike to Obsoleto and share it with the other NCBA members.
Flying back to California, I reflected that my oddball Argentine adventure had been satisfying indeed. I’d validated Somer Hooker’s story and met some wonderful motorcycle enthusiasts in the process of tracking the old bike down. Sr. Jimenez has his service manual and a further source of support if the HRD needs fettling. Willy Paleo and the NCBA men have gained a good contact in the handsome police commissioner with a fondness for classic motorcycles.