Jeff Decker may be a familiar name to many, but not to all for the same reason. In some circles, he’s known for his vintage motorcycle and race car bronze sculptures; currently, he’s the only licensed Harley-Davidson sculptor. In others, he’s known for his cycle collection, both vintage and custom, but all rare breeds for the most part. But no matter how you know him, anyone who’s ever met him will attest to one thing: His interests are backed by encyclopedic knowledge, firsthand experience, and a true passion no money could ever buy. There’s no doubt Jeff inherited the right oil-soaked genes from his father, Alan. Hell, his baby crib was filled with stuff like Offy fuel pumps, not rattles or pacifiers. But while his particular tastes in all things gasoline-powered are heavily influenced by his upbringing, Jeff has learned that not everything his ol’ man taught him to believe in holds true forever. Such is the case with British motorcycles—Vincents, to be exact…well, at least their hidden inner beauty.
I was ruined from the beginning. My ol’ man had put blinders on me in my youth, and I was forcefully convinced: Limey bikes were junk.
Aside from that, I was passionate about land speed records—and Bonneville more specifically—from an early age, and had seen the legendary picture of Rollie Free setting the record in 1948 in that iconic prone position. I’d heard the lyrics from rock ’n’ roll to Irish ballads praise the Vincent, and had done enough research to realize Rollie was a local guy…and someone my pop’s acquaintances had known.
In 1997, I decided to sculpt “Flat Out At Bonneville.” I got in contact with Herb Harris, who at the time was the current owner of the first Vincent Black Lightning. It was a B Model Shadow, and if you talk to Vincent gurus, which I don’t recommend, they will tell you only C Models were brought to Lightning specs. Well, they are wrong.
Anyway, when the first Vincent you ever see, touch, and ride is the actual John Edgar Lightning—it’s all downhill from there. It made me realize how wrong my father was; Vincents were nimble, lovely creatures of perfect proportion.
I had unearthed a scrapbook that Margaret Free had compiled of her husband’s racing career for reference. I then made the sculpture and sold every single edition with ease. By now, my experiences were opening my mind to the fact that, perhaps, father “doesn’t know best.”
I then gave my dad some advice, and he actually listened. But when we saw a stock Vincent together, he said, “Come on boy, look at that pig!” He was right. In all my studies I had never paid attention to a stock model.
Big, heavy chrome-plated rims, too many gauges, the grossest seat in the industry, a fat squat tank, a headlight that belonged on a rat rod, lines and hoses hiding the motor, and the pegs perched from the top of the hidden powerplant, both of which mechanically camouflaged the bike’s best feature. That’s when it dawned on me how a stripped racing model was just plain beautiful, while her street-legal sister was, well, not so much.
The Rollie Free/John Edgar Lightning is monikered the “bathing suit bike,” of course because Rollie set the record in his swim trunks and wife’s shower cap. But for me, the name also carries a wonderful analogy. A race-ready Vincent is like a 100-pound bathing beauty: She is perfect, but she allows her prude stepmother to dress her for the ball in a taffeta prom dress that hides all her good qualities.
I have built two Vincents over the years and have tried to capture what first impressed me about the marque.
Along with my uncle Curtis and Herb Harris (whom I hadn’t worked with for a full decade) on board once again, we got started on another Decker Custom. This time, though, it started with a new, fully built motor (to complete Lightning race specs) from HVG.
The goal was to eliminate or play down any nonessential ingredients that made the road model recipe the fattening dish it is. We unencumbered the motor as much as possible by running lines in nonstock areas, revealing the full beauty of the powerplant, repositioned the footpegs and controls so they too would not break the lines of the engine, and even ran the exhaust in a flattering manner to not clutter its view.
The tank we narrowed four inches; created a seat using a Stingray pan; brought the handlebars in as narrow as the pegs. The headlight bucket was yanked off a random donor in the pile, reworked, and then pulled in as tight as possible.
The bike is a 1952, but we chose to use a 1948 fork as it is more delicate. The brake drums are handmade, and the linkage is hard. The rims are alloy—20-inch rear and 21-inch front with impossible-to-find Avon High Speed tires to cap them off.
Of course, as all good race-ready Vincents should be, she is running two front cylinder heads to accommodate a dual-carb setup.
The list goes on, but to give a basic idea of how lean, low, and mean she is, look at the jockey shift and make note that the factory anticipated the ball of your foot to be horizontal and forward of its pivot point!
As they say, one man’s junk is another’s treasure—but in this case, my ol’ man’s perception of junk is what eventually became my treasure…twice.