A Short-Lived But Iconic Post-War Motorcycle
When the topic of the world’s most historic motorcycles is discussed, often among the first to come up in conversation is the iconic Vincent H•R•D Black Shadow. Jet black throughout save chrome pipes and various polished bits, the Black Shadow of the late 1940s- mid 1950s is still a stunner to behold, whether in photos, video or in person. There is something alluring yet menacing about the motorbike, with those sexy curved chrome pipes, that distinctive 50 degree OHV 998cc v-twin and those blacked out engine casings decades before it was modern-hip. These were the original “Black Edition” motorcycles.
The English motor bike brand officially began life when Philip Conrad Vincent bought the rights to the H•R•D (Howard R. Davies) name in 1928, and renamed his motor company Vincent H•R•D later that same year. Like the original H•R•D machines, the early Vincents utilized JAP (J.A. Prestwich) motors until 1934, when Vincent developed their own proprietary 500cc singles and 1000cc v-twins. Production continued to grow even across the World War II years, but in the post-War late 1940s, Vincent developed their most legendary motorcycles in the Rapide and the Black Shadow, specifically.
1951 Vincent Black Shadow Series C. Photo by Bring A Trailer Auctions.
Motorcycles produced by Vincent H·R·D at their factory in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, England were renowned for their design innovation, engineering excellence, high performance and steep price tags. The Rapide was already marketed as “The world’s fastest production motorcycle” but in 1948, the new Black Shadow was announced with a claimed top speed of 125 mph. At “the ton” (100 mph), the bike was only churning 4000 rpm, with another 1700 rpm still available. Built in three iterations, Series A, B and C, The Black Shadow Series C was the “superbike” of its time. With a large speedo displaying a prominent “150 mph”, Vincent announced to the world the power and prowess of the premium Black Shadow.
The unique v-twin powerplant was suspended in an equally unique spine frame which also served as the oil reservoir. The engine was a stressed member of the frame, without a downtube cradle, but with an upper frame member (UFM) that housed a fabricated steel box doubling as an oil tank. While the Black Shadow machines borrowed various elements from their Rapide stablemates, parts were hand-selected and fitted for higher tolerances. The suspension was a cantilever rear shock system, whereas the front forks were a Vincent-designed Girdraulic blade type using a hydraulic damper rather than a coil spring. Amazingly for its time, the Black Shadow employed twin 7 in. SLS (single leading shoe) drum brakes both fore and aft, although they were not interchangeable.
Vincent Series C Black Shadow, with the H•R•D tank badging. Photo by Classic Driver.
Interestingly, the Black Shadow came close to never seeing production. Vincent himself pitched the new model idea and design to managing director Frank Walker, who at first refused to authorize its development. But two Vincent engineers, Phil Irving and George Brown, quietly undertook development anyway, building a pair of prototypes to Mr. Vincent’s specs in February, 1948. Road-tested by Charles Markham of the publication Motor Cycling in May of that year, Markham claimed he hit 122 mph with the bike. They had a winner, and the bike entered production, being showcased later in the year at the London Motorcycle Show at Earls Court.
Of the Series C motorbikes, depicted in our photos here, Motor Cycle journal commented in 1949, ‘‘It is a connoisseur’s machine: one with speed and acceleration far greater than any other standard motor cycle; and with unique and ingenious features which make it one of the outstanding designs of all time. So far as the standards of engine performance, handling and braking are concerned – the chief features which can make or mar an otherwise excellent mount – the mighty Black Shadow must be awarded 99 out of 100 marks: 99 because nothing, it is said, is perfect.”
Rollie Free atop the 1B/900 Vincent Black Lightning, making his historic run at Bonneville. Photo from The Vintagent.
The great American land speed racer Rollie Free further cemented the Black Shadow in motorcycling lore when on September 13, 1948 at the Bonneville Salt Flats he set a new record for naturally aspirated motorcycles of 148.6 mph in his first run on a factory built race bike dubbed the 1B/900 Black Lightning. For his second attempt, Free stripped off his racing leathers, lay planked across the bike clad only in a shower cap, borrowed sneakers and a tight fitting bathing suit, then broke his own record with a run of 150.313 mph. He is forever captured in celluloid atop the “bathing suit bike”, and the shot is arguably the most famous motorcycling picture ever snapped.
The vaunted Vincent brand would soon fall on hard economic times by the early 1950s. The company had to change its name to Vincent Engineers (Stevenage) Ltd. in 1952 due to huge losses from an earlier attempt to collaborate with U.S. motorcycle manufacturer Indian on a Vincent-powered bike for the North American market, dubbed the “Vindian.” Further financial losses in subsequent years led to the demise of the iconic motorcycle company by 1955, when they officially closed their doors. Numerous attempts have been undertaken to resurrect the brand and name in the years since, all with limited, short-term success.
But the legend of the original Vincent Motorcycles lives on, and today these bikes are highly sought-after and highly prized, fetching well up into the $100K range at auction. The 1951 in original patina we showcase above can be admired at The Throttlestop Museum in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Much thanks to them for these outstanding photos.
*Information/history sourced from The Throttlestop Museum, and several verified Wikipedia sources.