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 losses.
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 company was promptly renamed Vincent HRD Co., Ltd and production moved to Stevenage. The new trademark had "Vincent" in very small letters above "HRD" written 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 The Vincent.
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.
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 , but Phil Vincent and his racing customers wanted more.
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 .
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 gearbox.
The 998 cc Series A Rapide Vincent cost $600, produced , and was capable of 110 miles per hour.
The high horsepower meant that the gearbox and clutch did not cope well.
Vincent already looked to America for sales, and in 1944 Eugene Aucott opened the first USA dealership in the city of Philadelphia. Others followed.
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 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.
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 , and easily recognised by its black engine and gearbox unit, and large speedometer, was introduced. The engine produced @ 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 to . 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 servo clutch.
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".
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.
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 Vincents)
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 , 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 on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Initially wearing full leathers, he could only achieve , 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.
Russell Wright set a 1954 New Zealand speed record of 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 , up from . On the 2nd of July 1955, Russell Wright set a new F.I.M. world speed record of 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 done.
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 A motorcycle.
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 , and reached with a Black Lightning engine in 1955.
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.
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.
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 Hailwood Motorcycle Restorations Specialist frame manufacturers also made frames for the Vincent engine.
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 Hailwood Motorcycle 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 1998.
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. The Honda engine now out of production a resurrection of the Vincent name now seems unlikely.
There is no such thing as a Series C Meteor - all Meteors were Series B's.