SALT, SWEAT & HIGH SPEEDS: Vincent Rapide Land Speed Racer

Photography: Luke Ray.

Every year since 1990, Lake Gardiner in South Australia has played host to the DLRA’s (Dry Lakes Racers Australia) speed trials. It’s our equivalent to Bonneville’s famous Speed Week but in true Aussie style, you’ll need to be prepared to “rough it” if you want to attend. You won’t find any fancy motels or facilities nearby and the heat will have you sweating from every pore of your being, but when you’re out on the salt you won’t be hear any complaints from the event veterans and regulars. This year the salt came alive on the 18th of February for the 4 days of speed trials. It was earlier this year than usual due to bad weather shutting it down in previous years and everyone was eager to get going. Our esteemed leader and man behind the camera Luke Ray, made the pilgrimage from Melbourne out to the lake to witness the event and returned to us with much more than sunburn and sweat rash.

Out on the pure white bed of Lake Gardiner, Luke met a local South Australian by the name of Mal Hewett. A fitter and turner by trade Mal is somewhat of a veteran on the salt, making his first visit in ‘99 and attending every year since (weather permitting). His purpose built Vincent Rapide looks right at home amongst the other land speed racers. Mal’s history on two wheels and with his Rapide is one that’ll inspire even the youngest riders so here it is in his own words. I challenge you to resist getting out there for ride straight after this read…

“I started riding bikes at about 12 and my first bike was a Suzuki 70 postie scooter, which I use to fall off a lot. I progressed through a few Jap bikes but then bought a brand new Triumph Bonneville in 1980.  There was always something about the British bikes I loved. I did many miles on the Triumph and a few interstate trips.

There was a lot of mystique about the Vincent, I read a lot about them in classic bike magazine and I often dreamt of owning one. In 1986 I traveled to England in search of a Vincent. I looked around searching for the right bike and visited the TT races in between.  I finally located a one owner, 1950 Rapide with 22000 miles on the clock and the owner was an Aussie! He had bought it brand new after the war and was selling it to visit Australia one last time. I cleaned it up and did a few bits and pieces to get it on the road. I did 4500miles through Europe on my new Vincent before shipping it back to Australia.

Once I got it home I kept it as original as I could (even the original 1950 cables) and rode it as much as I could. The Vincent had torque like a Harley but was smooth to ride like a Ducati. The travel bug had bit fairly hard though, and the Vincent had to sit for 4 ½ years while myself and my partner Angie traveled the world. While I was in the US I bought a Harley and spent 11 months traveling around the states on it. We then shipped it to Europe and stayed there for 3 years clocking up as many miles as we could on it. After all that I sold the Harley, bought an old Triumph Bonneville and rode that overland from England to India. It was quite a trip! We certainly did some miles in those 4 ½ years.

It was great to get home to the Vincent, I rode it until I burnt out an exhaust valve. That was when I completely rebuilt it and bored it to 1200cc with help from Vincent specialist Terry Prince of classic motorbikes.

It was around this time that I found out about the Lake Gairdner speed trials being held not far from my hometown of Whyalla. I think Vincent owners and salt lakes have had a relationship ever since Rollie Free did his bathing suit runs. I headed out to the lake for a look in ‘99 and the next year we were there with the Vincent, stripped of all its road gear and ready to roll. We did 121mph the first year and had an absolute blast, met some great people and we haven’t missed a year since. Over the next 4 years we got the speed up to 140mph, which was a milestone for us, beating the American class record at the time.

Every year I would return the bike to road trim ride it, and then strip it for the salt. After 2004 I decided to retire the bike from racing and put it back to original spec and build a purpose built salt bike based on another 1950 Rapide.  I started collecting parts and making as many as I could to keep the cost down. The bike was complete in 2007 but we had to wait another 2 years to run it as we had two rained out years. In 2009 we finally got out there and after only a couple of runs cracked the magical 150mph that Rollie Free had done all those years earlier. The difference was we were on petrol whereas Rollie ran a methanol mix. In 2010 we again ran reliably and consistently in the 150s. It was then that we decided to take it to Bonneville and have a crack over there.

Riding at Bonneville was an amazing experience. Just being there is one thing but riding there was just great. We broke 2 Southern Californian Timing association records and 2 American Motorcycle Association records during the month we were there. I never thought we would go so well with the burnt out clutch problems we were. Our fastest one way run with a fairing fitted was 163mph and always running gas (102 octane petrol).

We hadn’t made too many changes for the Lake Gardiner salt this year. Trying to pick up where we left off after the 2011/12 rainouts. The track was very bumpy the first day but that got sorted overnight

By one dedicated driver who dragged the track all night. The heat was what knocked us around the most though, it was pretty tough going.   We run 152mph without a fairing and 156mph with the fairing on, not fast enough! I plan to strip the bike and try a couple of different things for next year. It really is trial and error. Some things will work some things won’t and over time you learn what’s what.”

Mal’s record breaking Rapide certainly looks the part, but in Speed Trials it’s what’s on the inside that really counts. The bike started out as a Vincent Rapide and the upper frame member and forks remain original. Mal built the rear swingarm himself and fit a PMFR wheel up front and a Dragway in the rear. The engine has a 92mm x 92mm stroke and a capacity of 1220cc (up from 998cc). Compression is at 10:4:1 and (unbelievably) the bike has used the same set of JE forged pistons for the past 13 years of racing. The inlet valve is now 1.940” and the exhaust 1.640” with 2 S&S B series carbs feeding each cylinder. Finally the primary drive was converted to a corrosion free belt drive. While it doesn’t seem like much work there’s plenty of fine-tuning and ingenious engineering on top of this list of modifications. I’m also pretty sure Mal’s got a few secrets wrapped up in the Rapide that give him the edge he needs to continue breaking those records.

Mal has had a lot of help over the years in his search for greater speeds. He asked that we mention and thank his dedicated crew, Big AL Fischer, Bill Lockwood, Colin Kranz and Digger Hamilton. As he puts it “Without them being there every year it simply wouldn’t happen”. Mal also gave a hat tip to his mates in his hometown Roxby Downs and Whyalla who have supported him over so many years. Hopefully next year we’ll share in the celebrations on the lake when Mal cracks 160mph once again.

Find out more about Aussie land speed racing at DLRA.org.au

This article first appeared in Tank Moto issue 01.

Geoff BaldwinAustralia, Vincent