Vincent Motorcycles was a British
manufacturer of motorcycles in the United Kingdom
from 1928 to 1955. Their Black Shadow is one
of the best known high performance motorcycles
of the 1950s. In 1955 the company discontinued
motorcycle production due to heavy financial
Vincent Motorcycles, "the
makers of the world's fastest motorcycles",
began with the purchase of HRD Motorcycles,
less the factory premises, by Phil Vincent in
HRD was founded by the British (RFC) pilot,
Howard Raymond Davies, who was shot down and
captured by the Germans in 1917. Legend has
it that it was while a prisoner of war that
he conceived the idea of building his own motorcycle,
and contemplated how he might achieve that.
It was not until 1924 that Davies entered into
partnership with E J Massey, trading as HRD
Motors. Various models were produced, generally
powered by JAP (J A Prestwich) engines.
Unfortunately, even though HRD
motorcycles won races the company ran at a loss,
and in January 1928 it went into voluntary liquidation.
The company was initially bought by Ernest Humphries
of OK-Supreme Motors for the factory space,
and the HRD name, jigs, tools, patterns, and
remaining components were subsequently offered
for sale again.
The legend has it that Philip
Vincent dreamt of building a quality motorcycle
bearing his own name, just as Howard Davies
had, but rather than start from scratch he was
advised to start production under an established
name. He had built a motorcycle of his own in
1924, and in 1928 had registered a patent for
a cantilever rear suspension of his own design.
In 1928 Philip Vincent left Cambridge University
with an engineering degree and, with the backing
of his family wealth from cattle ranching in
Argentina, acquired the trademark, goodwill
and remaining components of HRD from Humphries
The company was promptly renamed
Vincent HRD Co., Ltd and production moved to
Stevenage. The new trademark had "Vincent"
in very small letters above "HRD"
writ large. After World War 2 Britain had an
export drive to repay its war debts, and the
USA was the largest market for motorcycles,
so in 1949 the HRD was dropped from the name
to avoid any confusion with the "HD"
of Harley Davidson, and the motorcycle became
In 1929 the first Vincent-HRD motorcycle used
a JAP single-cylinder engine in a Vincent-designed
cantilever frame. The earliest known example
extant exists in Canberra, Australia. Some early
bikes used Rudge-Python engines. But after a
disastrous 1934 Isle of Man TT, with engine
problems and all three entries failing to finish,
Phil Vincent (with Phil Irving) decided to build
their own engines.
Phil Vincent also experimented
with three wheeled vehicles, amphibious vehicles,
and automobiles. In 1932 the first 3-wheeler,
"The Vincent Bantam" appeared, powered
by a 293 cc SV JAP or 250 cc Villiers engine.
It was a 2.5 cwt delivery van with a car seat
and a steering wheel. The Bantam cost £57-10-0
and the windscreen and hood option cost £5-10-0.
Production ceased in 1936.
In 1931 Phil Irving joined Vincent
as chief engineer. His first engine design was
an OHV 500 cc single-cylinder engine in 1934.
The standard motor was known as the Meteor and
the sports motor was the Comet; it was distinguished
from earlier Vincent engines of that name by
the "Series-A" prefix. There was a
TT replica & the Comet Special (basically
a TTR with lights, horn etc) , which used a
bronze head. The Meteor motor produced 26
bhp (19 kW) @ 5300 rpm.
An unusual feature of the valve
design for these motors was the double valve
guides, and the attachment of the forked rocker
arm to a shoulder between the guides, to eliminate
side forces on the valve stem and ensure maximum
valve life under racing conditions.
The Series-A Comet could do 90 mph (140 km/h),
but Phil Vincent and his racing customers wanted
1936 Series A Rapide
Legend has it that Irving accidentally
put a side-view tracing of the Vincent 500 motor
wrong way up on top of an equally sized drawing
of the same view of the same motor, and saw,
moving the tracing so the crankshafts and camshafts
coincided, that the result looked like a possible
design for a V-twin. This resulted in the 47.5°
V twin which appeared in 1936. (The single leaned
forward 23.75°.) With 6.8:1 compression,
it produced 45 bhp (34 kW).
The Vincent V-twin motorcycle incorporated a
number of new and innovative ideas, some of
which were more successful than others.
The Vincent HRD Series A Rapide
was introduced in October 1936. Its frame incorporated
motorcycling's first "cantilever"
rear suspension, which was used on all Vincents
produced from 1936 through 1955. Other innovations
included foot gearchange instead of hand-operated
gearlever, a four-speed gearbox instead of two
or three, and a side stand.
Pneumatic forks were not to be
a Vincent innovation, with both Phils believing
girder forks were superior at the time. The
Series-A had external oil lines and a separate
The 998 cc Series A Rapide Vincent cost $600,
produced 45 hp (34 kW), and was capable of 110
miles per hour.
The high horsepower meant that
the gearbox and clutch did not cope well.
- Engine - 998 cc, 47.5 degree v-twin ohv
- Bore and Stroke - 84 x 90 mm
- Compression Ratio - 6.8:1
- Power - 45 bhp (34 kW) @ 5500 rpm
- Produced - 1936-1939
- Wheelbase - 58.5inch
- Dry Weight - 430 lb (200 kg)
- Carburettor - 1.0625inch Amal
- Gearbox - Burman 4 speed, triplex chain
primary, wet multiplate clutch
- Frame - Brazed lug duplex tubular cradle.
Cantilever rear springing
- Front forks - Brampton girder forks
- Top Speed - 110 mph (180 km/h)
World War II
In 1937 Phil Irving went to work
for Velocette but returned to Vincent Motorcycles
in 1943. Vincent primarily made munitions, but
Vincent engines were trialled in boats and portable
pumps during the war, and the end of hostilities
saw Vincent ready to return to motorcycle production.
Vincent already looked to America
for sales, and in 1944 Eugene Aucott opened
the first USA dealership in the city of Philadelphia.
1946 Series B Rapide
The Series B Rapide designed during
the war and released to the press before end
of hostilities looked radically different from
the A: now the oil pipes were internal, and
the gearbox was part of the engine casting (Unit
Construction). The angle between the cylinders
was now 50° instead of the 47.5° of
the Series A engine. This allowed the use of
the engine as a stressed member of the frame,
which consisted of an oil-tank spine with the
engine hanging below, and the front and rear
suspension attached at the ends: . This was
considered sensational at the time, and the
arrangement was not seen again till the late
seventies. The cantilever rear became the most
widely used form of rear suspension for motorcycles
after 1980, and the use of the engine-gearbox
unit as a stressed member became more usual.
Brakes were dual single-leading shoe (SLS),
front and rear. The 55.5-inch (1,410 mm) wheelbase
was three inches (76 mm) shorter than the Series
A, and its dimensions were more like a 500 cc
bike of the time.
A more modern hydraulic shock
absorber and spring assembly later replaced
the old twin springs and friction damper. The
rear seat was supported by a sub-frame down
to the rear frame pivot point, providing a semi-sprung
seat with 6 inches (150 mm) of suspension. (Yamaha
would rediscover this suspension system nearly
40 years later.)
The Series B had a Feridax Dunlopillo Dualseat,
and a tool tray under the front.
The Series "B" incorporated an inline
felt oil filter instead of the metal gauze of
the Series "A".
Vincent used quickly detachable
wheels, making wheel and tyre changes easier.
The rear wheel was reversible, and different
size rear sprockets could be fitted for quick
final-drive ratio changes. The brake & gear
shift were adjustable for reach to suit individual
feet. The rear mud guard was hinged to facilitate
the removal of the rear wheel. These are things
taken for granted on modern motorcycles whereas
Vincent was a pioneer in their use.
From today's perspective, it seems
incongruous that Vincent could see the need
for, and design, a cantilever rear suspension,
as well as incorporate so many other new ideas,
yet use Brampton girder forks with friction
dampers up front. The two Phils felt that the
telescopic forks of the time were prone to lateral
flex, so they persisted with girder forks, and
did use hydraulic damping in the Series C "Girdraulic"
forks. Consider now the use of similar forks
on the famous Britten (from New Zealand), the
current BMW K1200 Series & the Honda Rune.
Vincent had sold bikes through
Indian Motorcycles dealers in the US and in
1948 an Indian Chief was sent to Stevenage to
be fitted with a Vincent Rapide engine. The
resulting hybrid Vindian did not go into production.
1948 Series C Vincents
Vincent Comet from 1950 at the
The 1948 Series C Rapide differed from the Series
B in having "Girdraulic" front forks
- which were girder forks with hydraulic damping.
The "Black Shadow",
capable of 125 mph (201 km/h), and easily recognised
by its black engine and gearbox unit, and large
150 mph (240 km/h) speedometer, was introduced.The
engine produced 55 bhp (41 kW) @ 5700 rpm in
Black Shadow trim.
The Black Lightning was a racing
version of the Black Shadow, with every necessary
steel part on it that could be, remade in aluminium,
and anything not essential removed altogether,
reducing the weight from 458 lb (208 kg) to
380 lb (170 kg). Every bit the racer, it had
a single racing seat and rear-set footrests.
The 500 cc Meteor and Comet singles
were introduced, along with a 500 cc racer,
the Grey Flash. The Grey Flash racer used Albion
gears, for the greater choice of ratios available.
The 500 cc bikes used a wet multiplate clutch,
while the 998 cc V-twins used a dry, drum-type
Most Vincents were painted black.
In 1949 a White Shadow was available, but only
15 were sold, and the option was dropped in
1952. In 1950 16 Red Comets were shipped to
the United States. There were also 31 of the
1948 Grey Flash built. See production figures
In 1949 HRD was dropped from the name, and the
logo now simply said "Vincent".
- Make: Vincent HRD
- Model: 1948 Series C Black Shadow
- Engine: 998 cc (84 x 90 mm bore and stroke)
50° OHV V Twin, 7.3:1 CR, polished conrods
- Carburetor: 2 x 1.125-inch (28.6 mm) type
- Ignition: Lucas Magneto (1955 models: Kettering
- Electrics: 6v 45w dynamo
- Lubrication: Dry sump, 3 US quarts
- Gearbox: Integral Vincent four speed, triplex
chain primary, dry servo - drum clutch
- Final Drive: 530 chain, 46/21 sprockets
- Tyres: 3 x 20 in front, 3.50 x 19 in rear
- Wheels: Front: 1.65 x 20 in.steel rim; Rear:
1.65 x 19 in.steel rim.
- Frame: "Diamond Frame".(Spine
frame with engine as stressed member)
- Rear Suspension: Cantilever rear springing
- Front forks: Vincent Girdraulic forks, 3"
- Brakes: Twin drums, 7 in diameter in front
and rear, single leading shoe 7/8" wide.
- Weight: 455 lb (206 kg) - 206 kg Wet - 500
lb (227 kg)
- Wheelbase: 55.5 in. (1415 mm)
- Seat height: 32.5 in. (826 mm)
- Performance: 125 mph / 201 km/h - 55 bhp
(41 kW) at 5500 rpm
- Fuel Capacity 3.5 gallons / 16 litres
- Manufacturer: The Vincent-HRD Co. Ltd.,
Great North Road, Stevenage, Herts
1954 "Series D" Vincents
The term "Series D"
was not used by the factory, but was taken as
a natural progression by the motorcycling world.
With sales falling, Vincent tried building two
new high-speed touring models; the fully enclosed
Vincent Victor (an upgraded Comet), the Black
Knight (an upgraded Rapide) and the Black Prince
(an upgraded Shadow). They were poorly received
by the public. A short-lived unfaired version
of the Black Prince was then produced. There
was still a Series D Comet.
Sales declined further after the
post war motorcycling boom owing to the availability
of cheaper motor cars, so not many "Series
D" models were made. A growing media association
between motorcycles and motorcycle gangs in
the late fifties was also giving motorcycling
a bad name.
Black Lightning (1949 - 1952)
It was with the introduction in
1948 of the fully race-prepared Vincent Black
Lightning that Vincent produced the most legendary
motorcycle of its time. The Black Lightning
was advertised as The World's Fastest Standard
Motorcycle - This is a fact, not a slogan! -
a claim it could have made right up until the
release of the 900 cc Kawasaki Z1, 20 years
later in 1972. (This same claim had been made
in advertising before, for the earlier fastest
Around 30 Vincent Black Lightnings
were built during 1949-52. They were available
on special order, selling for $1,500.
The Black Lightning had magnesium
alloy brake backing plates, racing tires on
lightweight alloy rims, rear-set pegs, a solo
racing seat and aluminum fenders. All these
helped trim the Lightning's weight to 380 lb.
(The Black Shadow was 458 lb)
The Black Lightning had higher lift cams, stronger
connecting rods, bigger inlet ports, polished
rocker gear, steel idler gears, racing carburetors,
a manual-advance magneto and could be ordered
with compression ratios from 6.8:1 to 12.5:1.
The engine was rated at 70 hp (52 kW), and was
said to propel the Black Lightning to 150 mph.
The proof of the advertisement's
claim came in 1948, when an Indian Motorcycle
dealer, Rollie Free, riding the very first Vincent-HRD
Black Lightning built, raised the motorcycle
speed record to 150.313 mph (241.905 km/h) on
Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Initially wearing
full leathers, he could only achieve 147 mph
(237 km/h), and his leathers had been flapping
so violently at that speed as to tear. He removed
his riding apparel, and wearing a bathing cap,
speedos, and a pair of sneakers, set out for
another attempt, and set the new record. A fast
car with photographer aboard followed, and took
the famous "bathing suit bike" picture.
Rollie Free in his unique riding
position, and minimal clothing, during his record
breaking run in 1948.
Russell Wright set a 1954 New
Zealand speed record of 140 mph (230 km/h) on
a Black Lightning at the Tram Road Speed Trials.
At the meeting he met Rapide owner Robert "Bob"
Burns who had built a streamliner shell for
a sidecar record attempt. They formed a partnership
for Bob to supply a streamliner shell for Russell's
solo world record attempt, if Russell let him
use the Black Lightning for his sidecar world
record attempt. In December 1954 Bob Burns went
first and set a new F.I.M. World Sidecar record
of 157 mph (253 km/h), up from 154 mph (248
km/h). On the 2nd of July 1955, Russell Wright
set a new F.I.M. world speed record of 185 mph
(298 km/h) on the Tram Road at Swannanoa, near
Christchurch, while Bob Burns upped his sidecar
record to 163.06 mph.
Despite successful record attempts,
other publicity relating to problems with the
gearbox selector camplate damped America's buying
enthusiasm. A new shifting mechanism was incorporated
for 1953, but the sales damage had already been
The English folk Musician Richard
Thompson wrote a song called "1952 Vincent
Black Lightning" about this motorcycle
on the album Rumor and Sigh.
Fireflies, Three Wheelers,
The Firefly was a 45 cc "clip
on" engined bicycle built from 1953 to
1955 under licence from Miller, who were suppliers
of electrical components to Vincent. It was
also known as the Vincent Power Cycle. The Vincent
Owners Club was predictably surprised by this
new cheap entry level Vincent.
By 1954 Vincent motorcycles was
in an increasingly difficult situation. In the
quest for solvency, Vincent looked for ways
to improve their position. The trike idea was
revived. In 1932 the first 3-wheeler, "The
Vincent Bantam" was first introduced. Powered
by a 293 cc SV JAP or 250 cc Villiers engine,
it was a 2.5 cwt delivery van which used a car
seat and steering wheel rather than the standard
motorcycle saddle and handlebars. The Bantam
was priced at £57-10-0 and a windscreen
and hood for an additional £5-10-0, ceased
production 1936 - the first year of the Series
In 1954/1955, due to falling sales
of motorcycles, a one off prototype 3-wheeler
powered by a Vincent Rapide 998 cc engine was
unofficially named "Polyphemus". To
keep development and production costs low, it
used a parts bin-approach, including pieces
from Vincent motorcycles, as well as wheels
came from a Morris Minor and a body based on
the materials used in the Black Knight/Prince.
With the standard Rapide engine the "Polyphemus"
could reach 90 mph (140 km/h), and reached 117
mph (188 km/h) with a Black Lightning engine
After several more prototypes
the then named "Vincent 3-wheeler"
was offered to the public in 1955 at £500
- a high price for any vehicle of the time (the
BMC Mini launched four years later for £497),
especially for a vehicle with no reverse gear,
self starter or hood. Vincent sold none.
Unfortunately Vincent motorcycles
were hand built and expensive - only a total
of 11,000 machines were sold post-World War
Two. A sales slump in 1954 forced the company
to manufacture NSU mopeds. Only forty of the
two stroke 1955 NSU-Vincent Fox 123 cc were
built. There was also an OHV four stroke NSU-Vincent
98 cc, and Vincent also sold the "NSU Quickly"
moped; too well it appears (selling about 20,000
in one year - a foot note to how the market
had changed again), as NSU took control of its
own sales after a year.
The Last Vincent Motorcycle
At a Vincent Owners' Club dinner
in the summer of 1955, Phil Vincent announced
that the company could no longer continue in
the face of heavy losses and that production
of motorcycles would cease almost immediately.
In 1955, one week before Christmas,
the last Vincent came off the production line
and was promptly labeled "The Last."
The factory then turned to general
engineering, the manufacture of industrial engines,
and there was the Amanda water scooter, possibly
the first personal watercraft. A Vincent engineer
lost his life testing it, drowning at sea.
Vincent tried for a government
contract supplying motors for the ML Aviation
U120D target aircraft. The motor had to be capable
of passing prolonged full power operation tests.
This was called the Picador project. The Vincent
motor was upgraded with a better crankshaft,
Scintilla magneto, double speed oil pump and
fuel injection. They did not get a contract.
(Russel Wright's record breaking bike was fitted
with a Picador crank and oil pump, by Vincent,
while in England for Earls Court, shortly after
the 1955 record attempt.)
The company went into receivership in 1959.
It has since been bought and sold by other engineering
firms. In 1955 Phil Vincent declared that Vincent
parts would always be available and indeed they
are still available, through the Vincent Owners'
Club, Vin Parts International and other sources.
The Vincent Owners Club is the
largest single-brand motorcycle club in the
world. Vincents are among the most desirable
of motorcycling classics. A Black Lightning,
in immaculate condition, can bring $125,000.
Vincent engines have been fitted
to other frames. The most obvious is the Norvin,
using a Norton featherbed frame, with or without
the lower frame tubes. The Norvin is made in
the UK by John Mossey Restorations Specialist
frame manufacturers also made frames for the
Fritz Egli, a specialist frame
manufacturer based in Switzerland, produced
an Egli-Vincent, and around 100 were produced
between 1967 and 1972. Egli-Vincents are now
being built in France by Paul Godet, under licence.
and under licence in the UK by John Mossey Restorations.
In 1996, a partnership was formed
to launch the Australian RTV motorcycle. It
used a slightly modernised reproduction Vincent
engine in an Egli-style frame in capacities
of 1000 cc and 1200 cc. They had electric start.
After four bikes were built, the company went
into voluntary liquidation towards the end of
Vincent Motors USA founder and
president, Bernard Li, acquired the Vincent
trademarks in 1994, and formally launched Vincent
Motors USA in 1998, spending about $2 million
building prototypes that resemble the original
Vincent, but utilising modern components, like
the Honda RC51 V-twin engine. Vincent Motors
is based in San Diego.
- 1932 250 cc Bantam trike delivery van
- 1934 500 cc Meteor
- 1934 500 cc Comet
- 1934 500 cc Comet Special (TT replica)
- 1936 1000 cc Series-A Rapide
- 1946 1000 cc Series-B Rapide
- 1948 500 cc Series-C Meteor
- 1948 500 cc Series-C Comet
- 1948 500 cc Series-C Grey Flash
- 1948 1000 cc Series-C Rapide
- 1948 1000 cc Series-C Black Shadow
- 1948 1000 cc Series-C Black Lightning
- 1949 1000 cc Series-C White Shadow
- 1950 500 cc Series-C Red Comet
- 1953 45 cc Firefly (or Power Cycle)
- 1954 1000 cc "Series-D" Black
Knight (Faired Rapide)
- 1954 1000 cc "Series-D" Black
Prince (Faired Shadow)
- 1954 50 cc NSU Quickly
- 1955 1000 cc Three Wheeler
- 1955 123 cc NSU Fox