Vincent Motorcycle Project - Overtime Tina

Saving Big Sid's life, one Vincent at a time

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Bob Clarke

Motorcycles make good medicine. Sidney M. "Big Sid" Biberman learned that lesson as a young boy growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, making restaurant deliveries with his father, a butcher. His father could be a cruel man, and Sid remembers the occasional glimpse of off-duty sailors racing motorcycles along the Norfolk city streets as his only joy during those endless, back-breaking delivery runs. A few years later when Sid-by then an American GI and big-time motorcycle enthusiast-returned from overseas duty and found himself betrayed by the man he thought was his best friend, motorcycles saved him again. Sid's tormentor was the best motorcycle drag racer in the Tidewater region. To punish him, Sid built his Vincent Rapide into the fastest bike on the Eastern seaboard, and then used it to beat the man so soundly that he eventually gave up motorcycles for good. Revenge, it seems, is best served on two wheels.

Motorcycles-Vincent motorcycles in particular-continued to soothe and save Sid for four more decades, while he raised his family, opened his own motorcycle shop and earned a rock-solid reputation as one of the world's foremost Vincent experts. Then, in September of 2000, Big Sid faced his fiercest opponent yet, when a serious heart attack almost killed him. Of course, a Vincent motorcycle once again saved his life.

With bad knees, a failing back and a faltering heart, Sid was just waiting around to die. Desperate to pull him from this enduring funk, Sid's son Matthew, an English professor at the University of Louisville, made an insane proposition. The two of them, who never got along well in the first place and especially not in the garage, would build one last motorcycle together. It wouldn't be any garden-variety restoration, however. It would be a "Vincati." This was the mythical hybrid of Sid's two favorite bikes-the Vincent Black Shadow and the Ducati 750 GT-a machine that had animated Big Sid's imagination for decades.

The project, which healed the broken relationship between father and son and saved Sid's life at the same time, is chronicled in Matthew's excellent memoir titled Big Sid's Vincati, which will be released in paperback this May. This story is not about the Vincati, however. This is the postscript, and an attempt to tie up some loose ends. The 1000cc V-twin engine that powers the Vincati came from a Vincent Rapide given to Sid by his old friend Lex, who was dying from cancer at the time. When the Bibermans went to retrieve the Rapide, Matthew made Lex a promise: "We'll use the chassis too," he said. "Once the Vincati is done, we're going to find another engine and build up a bike to race."

This is the story of that next bike, nicknamed Overtime Tina. "We did all the work on this bike after-hours," Matthew explains, "and she just reminded me of a Tina!" Overtime Tina was built to honor Matthew's promise to Lex, and to keep Sid alive for a few more years. "We needed another quest to keep Sid going," Matthew says. Though "The Rattler" (Sid's 10-second, methanol-fueled Vincent Rapide) had won dozens of drag races, Big Sid never held an official speed record, which remained one of his life-long goals. Scanning the East Coast Timing Association's record book revealed a number of 650cc speed records within reach of a well-prepared Vincent single. Father and son decided to make a record attempt at the ECTA's Maxton, North Carolina, race course. Perhaps since I'm more aerodynamic than 6'5", 300-pound Big Sid, the Bibermans asked me to ride the bike.

Maxton is a sleepy nowheresville on the broad coastal plain along the North and South Carolina border. It's an unremarkable place, except for an abandoned, World War II-era airstrip secluded in a stand of pines just outside town. That's now known as the Maxton Monster Mile, home to the ECTA speed trials and Ground Zero for the fastest motorcycles on earth.

Tina looked somewhat out of place among the dozens of 200-plus mph, turbocharged Hayabusas (our sister publication, Super Streetbike, was hosting its annual Top Speed Shootout the same weekend), but viewed from any angle the vintage Vincent is a beautiful and timeless machine. Tina is a bit of a bastard, in the best racing tradition. The chassis comes from Lex's 1953 Rapide, dressed up with Black Lightning-style aluminum fenders, brakes, a sleek, sectioned fuel tank and the saddle from Big Sid's own Black Shadow. The single-cylinder motor is originally from a 1950 Comet, extensively modified by Sid and Steve Hamel, another world-renowned Vincent performance specialist.

Hamel built the engine to racing specs, boring an aftermarket Terry Prince cylinder barrel 6mm over to bump displacement from 499cc to 598cc, and fitting a custom piston to raise compression to 9.5:1. An Amal MK II carburetor was fitted, and a Lucas D Victor points ignition fires a double coil that leads to a twin-plug head. An Andrews race Cam and Terry Prince crank and caged rod balance the bottom end. Behind the motor sits a four-speed Norton Atlas transmission, prepared by well-known Norton racer Carl Hockinson.

Raw brass bar clamps, chunky, Vincent-logo valve caps and countless knurled knobs and turnbuckles make "The Vincent" (as the banner decal on the fuel tank so definitely states) pure industrial art. Sixty years later the Vincent still looks ahead of its time, with "frameless" construction featuring front and rear subframes bolted directly to the motor and Rube Goldbergian technical solutions like the teeter-totter linkage that operates the dual-drum front brakes. I especially appreciated the sculptural engine cases, after Sid told me to run my hand over the left timing chest. "Feel familiar?" he asked. "Phil Irving [the legendary Vincent engineer] told me himself that it mimics the shape of a woman's breast."

Matthew did the honor of kicking Tina to life for the first time. A deliciously deep, big-bore bark erupted from the open race pipe, a noise so primitive that even the 'Busa boys looked up from fiddling with their digital boost controls. I suited up and climbed aboard for my first ride, up the 1-mile access road leading to the Monster Mile's starting line. Big Sid's pep talk was priceless: "Just get out there and give that little bitch all you've got!"

It took a few tugs to yank the right-side, reverse-pattern shift lever up into first gear, and then I was off toward the starting line. I was immediately struck by how non-vintage the Vincent felt. The girder fork and proto-monoshock rear suspension literally floated over Maxton's broken-concrete surface with a level of plush compliance utterly unexpected from such an antique machine. The high-compression single idled flawlessly and Sid had the big-throated carb fettled to perfection, delivering perfect throttle response. Torque output was stronger than expected, equal to any modern air-cooled single, and Tina pulled with authority through the lower gears. Even the braking performance was passable-excellent, in fact, by drum-brake standards.

My first run started well, even if I ignored Sid's advice and brought "the little bitch" slowly up to speed. One mile is a lot of room for a single, and even at a relaxed pace I was well into fourth gear at the half-mile mark. Tina pulled strongly until around 5000 rpm and then ran out of steam, like she was starving for fuel. Still, we exited the timing trap at 100.38 mph-fast enough to set a record in the 650cc vintage four-stroke gas class (MVG-650/4).

I returned to the paddock and reported to Sid, who was hungry for details. Tina hadn't been on the dyno yet. In fact, she hadn't even been beyond 50 mph on the streets around Matthew's suburban Louisville home, so top-gear performance was essentially untested. Sid bumped the main jet up from 320 to 330 and sent me out again. This second pass raised the MVG-650/4 record to 105.506 mph, but power still fell off far before redline. Matthew retarded the timing slightly for the day's third (and final) run, but that was a step backward, resulting in a top speed of just 98.63 mph. We retreated to Maxton's finest dining establishment, a Greek-owned Italian joint in a strip mall in nearby Laurinburg, to come up with a new plan.

Noshing on gluey spaghetti in a cramped restaurant booth, Big Sid was glowing. The funny thing about land-speed racing-and drag racing, too-is that for the vast majority of participants, it's not about racing at all. For a tuner like Big Sid, what matters is designing and building the fastest motorcycle possible. The racing is incidental, a slim justification for the countless hours spent tinkering in the garage, or daydreaming about solutions. To be challenged like this was the best possible outcome. If we went fast right off the trailer, Sid would have been bored out of his skull. Instead we faced a genuine problem, a performance puzzle, and the challenge lit Sid up. I could see what Matthew meant. Working on motorcycles quite literally kept Big Sid alive.

Sid's next move was to try a different exhaust on the bike. The first three runs were made using an oversized, 2-inch diameter header, and Sid suspected that changing to a smaller-diameter, 1 5/8-inch pipe might improve power. Sid swapped pipes first thing Sunday morning, and removed the foam air filter as well, before sending me out for a fourth run. The bike still fell flat in top gear, recording a disappointing 98.53 mph. When I returned to the paddock we found the real source of our problem-and it had nothing to do with carburetors or exhaust. Idling up to the pit, just yards from where Sid sat on his stool beneath an EZ-Up, Tina's motor seized tight.

I was horrified, certain that I had just broken some irreplaceable, 60-year-old engine internal right in front of Sid's face. I was sick to my stomach, but Big Sid was unfazed-in fact, he was more excited than I had seen him all weekend. This was what he lived for. "Get that sucker up on the workstand," he said, "and let's figure out what's going on."

It didn't take long. In seconds Sid had the front valve cap off and we could clearly see the problem. Insufficient clearance between the valve stem and guide had caused the exhaust valve to seize, and forced the pushrod to unseat from the rocker arm. The tight valve also explained the high-rpm power loss we experienced. I apologized profusely, even though it wasn't my fault. Sid just laughed it off. "You didn't do anything wrong," he insisted. "Tina just told us she was done for the weekend-and that little bitch waited until she was right in front of me to say so."

The Overtime Tina project started as an attempt to settle some unfinished business, and lucky for Big Sid, it's not over yet. He's going to have to stick around for at least one more year to see Tina run at her full potential. The best Vincent Gray Flashes (the legitimate factory racing singles) are capable of 125 mph. Sid is certain that Tina is capable of similar performance, given a properly operating exhaust valve and a bigger carb. Sid now plans to do some additional headwork in preparation for a trip to Bonneville next summer for another record attempt. Big Sid is not done yet.

Besides, he's still got a lot to learn. "Tina taught us not to expect records to come without effort," Sid said after the fact."She allowed us to experience the full range of emotions that come with land-speed racing, all over the course of just two days." In the meantime, Overtime Tina has sprouted a small headlamp taken from a Triumph Trophy, a matching tail lamp and a modest muffler. She's been spotted roaming the streets of Louisville, with Matthew in the saddle. Big Sid doesn't ride anymore, though he did throw a leg over Tina in the staging area at Maxton on Sunday morning-he later emotionally admitted that was the first time in four years he had straddled a motorcycle. But as long as the Vincati and Overtime Tina are out in the garage, Big Sid can still wrench away on his beloved Vincents to his heart's content. Nowadays, that's medicine enough.

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