The need to diversify

From our 2016 archive

Though his primary interest was producing high-quality performance machines, Philip Vincent was keen to look at other opportunities too.

Words: ROY POYNTING Photography: TERRY JOSLIN

It’s tempting to think Philip Vincent was an impractical dreamer who bankrupted his company making prestige motorcycles that few could afford, but that would be grossly unfair. For one thing he personally kept his business going longer than other well known names like Alfred Scott and James Norton were associated with their eponymous companies.

The Firefly has to be considered a bicycle with an engine, rather than a lightweight motorcycle.

And for another he was quite prepared to diversify from his expensive sports bikes when he saw an opportunity. The Picador version of the V-twin engine was developed for military drone aircraft (ironically many of these units were converted back into motorcycle engines), the Amanda water scooter predated the jet-ski craze by several decades, a prototype three-wheeled sports car was developed, and – most controversially – lightweight motorcycles and autocycles were produced.

It must have been clear to Phil Vincent in the years after the Second Word War that while his big twins were popular and intermittently profitable, there was a significant demand for more affordable personal transport. And in 1952 the Miller concern – better known for their electrical components – evidently reached the same conclusion. As a result they produced a power unit called the Firefly that could be added to a pedal cycle like the already-established Power-Pak and Cyclemaster. Because of its intended application the Firefly was made narrow enough to fit between a bicycle’s pedal, and its clever, neat, design was really impressive for a firm with little experience of engine design.

Vincent and Miller already had an established business rapport – despite the somewhat dubious reputation of the latter’s products – and almost as soon as the Miller Firefly was announced, its production was taken over by the motorcycle concern. The bolt-on Vincent Firefly auxiliary unit was available for the princely sum of £25, and not long afterwards the Stevenage firm went the whole hog and supplied the Firefly as a complete autocycle or moped for an additional £12. Early frames like the one featured here were made by the Sun factory, and towards the end of the Firefly’s three-year production run they were produced by Philips as well. The test bike has a ladies’-style dropped top frame, while other examples have a more conventional top tube. The simple girder fork was probably an optional extra not shown in contemporary advertisements.

“Fireflies are quite collectable now,” says owner Sammy Miller, “because fans of big Vincents are seeking them out to complete their collections.” Well, he should know, because that’s pretty much what he’s done. He’s owned this example for about 25 years, but as he’s recently put together a display of more typical Vincent motorcycles in the front gallery of his museum, he thought the time had come to restore the smallest bearer of the marque’s name. The restoration was no problem for the likes of Sammy and his right-hand man, Bob Stanley. Not only was the machine complete and relatively simple, but it had evidently seen virtually no use. Indeed it still wears the original brake blocks and footrest rubbers, as crisp as the day they were made.

Riding the Firefly is, erm, ‘interesting’ right from the get go. There’s no kick-start lever, so the engine can only be spun when drive is engaged and the pedals are used. In theory this could be done on the stand as it often is with veteran machines, but since the stand barely reaches the ground and is certainly not sturdy enough to support the weight of the Firefly plus a pedalling owner, it all has to be done on the move. The technique is that you engage the drive, push the throttle all the way forward to operate a decompressor valve and pedal away. Once the engine is spinning you pull the throttle lever towards you and the engine pops into life, it’s as simple as that. There’s no tickler on the carburettor (it’s so tiny there’s barely room for one anyway) but the motor doesn’t seem to need enrichment even when cold.

The drive is engaged by the control on the left of the handlebars which operates an odd sort of lazy-tong mechanism sliding the whole engine backwards until a friction wheel presses against the back tyre. The control looks like a clutch lever and could in fact be used in that way except that you pull it in rather than release it to engage drive. However I don’t imagine bringing an already spinning wheel with prominent crosswise grooves into contact with the tyre would do the rubber any good at all and I leave drive engaged (the lever has a clip to hold it against the handlebar) and control things with the throttle/decompressor, giving a bit of ‘light pedal assistance’ when required.

That’s surprisingly seldom on normal roads where the Firefly will buzz along at the claimed 20mph without trouble. I suggest Vincent advertisements were being slightly optimistic with their bald statement that the Firefly would take you to the top of hills without effort, however, as LPA would certainly be needed on anything more than a gentle incline. Adverts also made the vague claim that the Firefly would get you there and back in all weathers (their italics), showing considerable faith in the ability of the forward-facing plug to keep sparking when subjected to water thrown up by the front wheel. At least the conventional ignition coil is protected from water in its bizarre location inside the bottom of the petrol tank, and the energy-transfer system – featuring a flywheel generator supplying the coil with low tension voltage – clearly produces a healthy spark as the engine continues running at very low revs.

Earlier I mentioned that the front brake block rubbers had evidently seen little use, and I soon discovered that they are unlikely to get worn down now, because hardened 60-year old rubber on newly plated rims produces absolutely no discernible friction. The rear brake relies on an expanding cone inside a hub no more than two inches in diameter and understandably produces little more than what could be diplomatically described as gentle retardation.

Well, at least it’s in keeping with the gentle acceleration, and it would be unfair to compare either the performance or the brakes of the Firefly with contemporary motorcycles – even cheap, lightweight ones. No, it has to be seen as an alternative to a pedal cycle for those who couldn’t even afford an economy lightweight, and in that light it no doubt did a sterling job, selling quite well with 3000 produced during its few years of life. It might even have kept the Vincent name alive a little longer, except that it was ironically undone by one of its own maker’s other business ventures. Besides making the Firefly and the last of his heavyweights, by the mid-1950s Phil Vincent was also badge-engineering NSU lightweight motorcycles. That led to an agreement to import NSU Quickly mopeds; classy machines that soon started selling like hot cakes. In fact they sold so well that NSU decided they didn’t actually need an importer. After just one year the German company took over the sales network, and that was effectively the end of both the Vincent Firefly and its proud marque name.

 

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