Marty Dickerson is best known for setting speed records on his own Vincent HRD Rapide during the 1950s. Dickerson set a Class C record of 129 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1951. When the record was broken a year later, Dickerson came back with an improved version of his Vincent in 1953 and turned in a run of 147 mph. That record held for 20 years.
Dickerson was also a top-notch West Coast road racer. He won the 250cc division in the famous Catalina Grand Prix in 1953 on a Jawa.
Dickerson was born in Inglewood, California, on November 3, 1926. He grew up on a family ranch on property that is now part of Los Angeles International Airport. He graduated from Inglewood High School and went to work for Northrop Aircraft, where he worked on the Northrop B 35 Flying Wing.
Dickerson first became interested in motorcycling while still in high school. A buddy had an old Harley-Davidson and Marty saved up the money to buy a 1929 JD Harley for $65.
"The bike didn't run, but it had fresh tires and that was important during World War II," Dickerson recalls. He and his buddy managed to get the bike running, and on his first ride, Dickerson took a tumble. Despite his inauspicious start, Dickerson continued riding.
After the war, Dickerson ordered a new Triumph Tiger 100, which took six months to arrive due to the manufacturing backlog in Great Britain. With the Triumph, Dickerson got involved in the Los Angeles area street-racing scene that was all the rage in the 1950s. He hopped up the Tiger and ran 98 mph on the Rosamond Dry Lake.
"At the time, 104 mph was as fast as anyone made those Triumphs go, so mine was a pretty good one," Dickerson said.
Dickerson enjoyed hanging out at the local motorcycle shop and stories began circulating about a big British V-Twin that was the fastest thing on the road. Dickerson was intrigued and found out that the distributor and dealer for the bike was in nearby Burbank. One Saturday he rode his Triumph to Burbank to check out the vaunted machine. It was at Mickey Martin’s Burbank shop where he first laid his eyes upon a Vincent, but it wasn’t love at first sight.
"I thought the bike was ugly," Dickerson said, referring to the rough sand-cast engine cases. Still, he would go back to Martin’s shop almost every weekend, hoping to work out a trade for his Triumph. Martin eventually figured out a way to take the Triumph in on trade for a new Vincent. And in October of 1948, Dickerson finally had his rare and speedy Brit V-Twin.
"It was a little scary to ride," Dickerson said of his first experience on the Vincent. "Starting the bike was a real chore and it took racer Tex Luse quite awhile to teach me the technique. On top of that, it had a light switch for a clutch – it was either on or off, real touchy. That was not a good thing to have with a bike that had so much power. I rode the bike home that day, and this was before all the interstates in L.A., so it was on city streets. By the time I made it home, I mastered how to start the thing and how to leave a stoplight without laying a black rubber patch all the way across the intersection."
Dickerson was having trouble keeping up with the payments of the pricey Vincent, and Martin came up with a novel job for his customer. He needed to open more dealerships in the West, so he hired Dickerson to travel around on his Vincent to demonstrate it and try to generate interest.
The sales job turned into a city-to-city drag racing tour for Dickerson. One of his first stops was in Phoenix. While eating dinner at a restaurant, Dickerson noticed a few guys checking out the Vincent in the parking lot. Before long, motorcyclists began pouring into the lot to check out the unusual Vincent. When Dickerson went out to talk with the riders, they set him up with a street race against the fastest hot rod car in the area.
After a long ride out into the desert, the race was set up on a dark and isolated road with dozens of riders lined up to watch the race. Dickerson and his Vincent beat the big Chevy and the angry driver tried clipping the Vincent’s front tire as he sped away.
For months, Dickerson would make trips to towns all across the West, but the trips, while highly entertaining, didn’t prove to be a success from a business standpoint. So instead of being the West Coast Vincent field rep, he decided to open his own motorcycle shop in his hometown of Hawthorne, with help from Mickey Martin. Dickerson’s Vincent shop opened in 1951.
A year earlier, Dickerson rode to Utah to help the legendary Rollie Free in his speed runs at Bonneville. While there, he caught the speed trial bug. The ride home from Utah would be the last street miles his beloved Vincent would see.
The bike was completely disassembled and modified for top-speed runs. The next season, Dickerson returned to Bonneville on his Vincent and set a Class C record of 129 mph. Dickerson’s archrival at the time was Sam Parriott, who rode an Ariel Square Four. In 1952, Parriott and the Ariel broke Dickerson’s record on the flats.
Philip Vincent, the founder of Vincent Motorcycles, knew of Dickerson’s efforts and sent him some special cams and exhaust pipes. Dickerson also studied the rulebook and found some unique loopholes that allowed him to do away with the standard seat and replace it with just a small pad low on the rear wheel well. He also turned his handlebars upside-down to give him a more streamlined riding position.
With the new modifications, Dickerson went back to Bonneville in 1953 and shattered the Class C record, turning in a two-way run that averaged 147 mph. During that run, he cracked the elusive 150 mph barrier in one direction. The 147 mph record held for a remarkable 20 years until a Yoshimura Kawasaki Z1 finally broke it in 1973, with a speed of 155 mph.
Dickerson put brakes on the Vincent and competed successfully in Southern California road races. Dickerson went on to become a leading road racer in the sport’s formative years in America. While his racing was mostly confined to Southern California, he won some fairly prized events. In 1953, he entered and won the 250cc class of the Catalina Grand Prix on a two-stroke Jawa that he used for off-road riding.
In the 1960s, Dickerson took a position teaching motorcycle service at a vocational school. In that capacity, he taught hundreds of aspiring young mechanics during his 17-year career as an instructor. Many of the country's leading racing mechanics of the 1970s, through to the 2000s, bragged about training under Dickerson.
In 1996, Dickerson, who was 70 at the time, brought his trusty old Vincent out of mothballs and set a vintage speed record.
When inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002, Dickerson was retired and living in the beautiful rolling hills of Creston, California. He continued to be involved in the sport as a special guest at numerous Vincent rallies around the world. Riding continues to be his favorite pastime.
Dickerson will always be closely associated with Vincent motorcycles. Enthusiasts of the famous British marque continue to seek his knowledge of the brand some fifty years after his remarkable record runs.