Vincent Black Shadow

The first superbike

The Black Shadow

Image: Mecum Auctions

It has been 70 years since Vincent released the Black Shadow and it is still a favorite for the many who appreciate just what a significant bike it was. It was the bike to aspire to for most performance enthusiasts but like a Ferrari in the car world, it was out of reach for all but the well heeled few. The model came in three different versions, the standard Rapide, the more highly tuned Black Shadow and the racing Black Lightning. The performance of these machines was astonishing. A standard Black shadow could hit 125 mph in an era when doing a genuine 100 mph was considered a feat.

The Black Lightning racer
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Not only is this one of the most desirable motorcycles ever, it is also one of the rarest mass produced ones. Official records say that 1774 Vincent Black Shadows were made. There was also an even rarer model, the "White Shadow", only 15 were built. It had the same mechanical specifications as the Black Shadow but with an engine that was polished rather than enameled. White Shadow engines had a prefix of "1A/".

The unique rear suspension

There were 11,000 Vincents made including single models, from 1946 to 1955, or about 1,100 motorcycles per year over 10 model years. In comparison, at their peak, Triumph Motorcycles were building over 30,000 Bonnevilles a month! Vincents are considered a must for any serious collector and the 1952 Black Shadow that was used in world record speed trials in Montlhery, France, France, in May 1952 to set a six-hour record at more than 100mph, set another one when it was sold for £113,500 at an auction in 2013.

The rear mudguard was hinged for ease of wheel removal

The Vincent story really begins in World War I, when young English Royal Flying Corps pilot Howard Raymond Davis designed and built a motorcycle he called the HRD. He built several models using JAP engines. While HRD Motorcycles began winning at the racetrack, they ran at a constant loss financially and the company was bought by Phil Vincent, who re named it so that the HRD would not get confused with the HD of Harley Davidson.

The Vincent engine is revered for its great performance and looks

The famous photo of Rolland Free setting a record of 150 mph on a Black Shadow

Modern versions like the 165 hp Irving Vincent can be bought new today

In 1931, the gifted young Australian Phil Irving joined Vincent as Chief Engineer. He quickly set about designing the 500cc OHV single Series A Meteor. It has been said that the twin cylinder engine came about when two blueprints of the single were inadvertently lined up on a drawing board, resembling a v-twin. The 1936 Series A Vincent Rapide was born.

A superb looking bike with performance to match

The Series C Black Shadow is the most sought-after Vincent. Shadows are essentially blue-printed Vincent Rapides, with hotter cams, bigger carburetors, a higher compression ratio and a lower first gear for better acceleration. Their engines are stove-enamel black. The engine is a 998cc big thumper of a v-twin that is said to fire once every lamppost. The standard model puts out 55 hp but the Black Lightning racing version is good for 70 hp. That may not seem like much, but a 1975 model 900ss Ducati produced the same amount of power 27 years later.

The 150 mph speedo wasn't just for show

Apart from being fast, Vincents were technically advanced for the era. The engine is a stressed member of the frame; there is no downtube. Their narrow-angle engines have aluminum pistons, forged connecting rods, a unique rocker arm design, twin Amal carburetors and a dry sump oiling system. At a time when brakes seemed to be an afterthought, (most American bikes only had a rear brake) the Vincent had two brakes on each hub. It also had a unit construction four-speed gearbox when a separate gearbox was common. The rear suspension was a unique twin shock cantilever design and Yamaha was to use a single shock version decades later.

The Vincent engine has powered racers of all descriptions

Attention to detail was everywhere. The bike was made to be as user friendly as possible. A lot of chassis adjustments could be made without spanners using the built in T-bars and knurled nuts. There's a beautiful aluminum knurled knob on the dipstick. The rear mudguard was hinged for easy wheel removal. The rear wheel was reversible, and different size rear sprockets could be fitted for quick final-drive ratio changes. It also had a huge 5-inch chronometric speedometer that is unmistakably Vincent.

An Egli Vincent

The Black Shadow was introduced in 1948 and went through three revisions during its life until the factory closed in 1955. Ironically this attention to detail could have been a contributing factor to the company's demise as they were expensive to make and subsequently, expensive to buy. They cost about $1200 when a Triumph twin was roughly $600. Like the Brough Superior before them, they were considered an exclusive product.

However, the bike was a sensational performer that was also comfortable to ride. It had what was called a Feridax Dualseat, a first on a motorcycle. It was adjustable and the gear lever could also be extended if you had big feet. It weighed just 208 kg, not much more than a single cylinder bike at the time. It is a bike that will still hold its own on the highway and was built for high-speed long distance touring.

It can't be said that the Vincent started a trend in superbikes, that really didn't happen until the 1970's. This is another reason why the bike was so unique for its time. Such is the aura of the Vincent that enthusiasts the world over have refused to let it die. There almost always has been someone producing a new one in some form, that you could buy. Today, new bikes can be bought from Irving Vincent in Australia, The Vincent-HRD Owners Club, JMC Egli-Vincent and others. The Vincent lives on.

Written by Paul Harmon. 26-1-18
Bibliography: Wikipedia, Classic British Motorcycles

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