A recent headline in the Daily Mirror Online, Classic Vincent Black Shadow motorbike found in family’s cupboard to sell for £40,000, got me thinking recently about the motorcycle that was always referred to as the World’s first superbike.
The story behind Vincent motorcycles, their successes and failures, is a fascinating one and yet also depressingly familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in classic British motorcycles of old, as the rise and fall of Vincent echoes that of the entire industry itself.
There can’t be many motorcycles being produced today that will be so well remembered and revered as the Vincent Black Shadow and yet the company produced less than 11,000 motorbikes from the end of World War II until the last Vincent motorcycle rolled off the company’s production line in Stevenage on December 18, 1955. Clearly then, there must be something special about the Black Shadow that has allowed their mystique to reverberate through the decades and will continue to do so for as long as there are motorcycles and motorcyclists, perhaps even longer.
Following on from their first model, the Rapide, Vincent had decided that their next machine was to be a more sports oriented bike and as such, the Black Shadow was adapted from an early model Rapide. With many new features and engineering innovations, the new design helped to distinguish the new model from the Rapide upon which it was initially based.
The finished model, named ‘Gunga Din’ and seen below, was hand built by George Brown, Cliff Brown and designer Phil Irving and formed the basis of the Black Shadow released in 1948. The Black Shadow had impressive specifications for the time with ‘Girdraulic’ telescopic forks rather than the girders of the previous Rapide, whilst the handsome and mechanically superb engine, instead of being cradled in the bike’s frame rails, was suspended above, becoming a stressed member of the bike. The innovative frame of the Vincent, combined with the modern cantilever rear suspension, offered the well heeled owner handling that easily matched the performance available from Vincent’s famous, black V-Twin engine, and what a powerplant it was.
That all important engine was an air cooled, four stroke, 50 degree, OHV V-Twin of 998cc and despite being largely unchanged from the Rapide, they were breathed on to yield even more power. The Vincent Black Shadow had 54 hp at 5700 rpm & was good for 125 mph, a phenomenal speed for the time compared to the more mainstream opposition from Triumph, B.S.A. et al, hence the title ‘The World’s Fastest Production Motorcycle’.
And then, Vincent inadvertently helped to create perhaps one of the most iconic motorcycle pictures of all time, that of the ‘Bathing Suit Bike’. On September 13, 1948, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Rolland “Rollie” Free took a Vincent Black Shadow on several high speed runs but failed to break the 150mph barrier. He decided that the wind resistance of his clothing and sitting in a riding position was keeping him from achieving 150mph so he stripped down to nothing but a Speedo swimsuit, a bathing cap and a pair of borrowed trainers, removed the seat, lain prone on the back mudguard and proceeded to break all records with a 2-way average of 150.313 mph (241.905 km/h). Unbelievable.
This and many more tales of speed and daring meant that the Black Shadow was very popular and overtook the Rapide in production quickly. The appearance of the bike was one of its most attractive features for motorbike owners as the black bodywork was distinctive for its time, standing out against the chrome, polished aesthetic of many other models and has remained memorable for nigh on 60 years.
Despite all of the success, speed and reputation amongst peers, Vincent were almost continually struggling with their finances and went into receivership at least three times. The money side of things just never added up. With a price of almost £500 in 1952, a mid-range Vincent cost as much as a reasonable-sized house and there was the problem brought about by newly mass produced cars.
The factory soldiered on under a series of owners until 1974 upon which the doors finally closed for good. An exciting time for fans and owners alike, a shared history that ultimately ended too soon, leaving legions of Black Shadow fans wondering what if…
After all, at the Bonhams auction during the International Classic MotorCycle Show at the Staffordshire County Showground 28th April, the top-selling lot was a 1952 Vincent Black Shadow, which realised £113,500.
The fully-restored, ex-works machine formed part of the factory’s bid to set a new 24-hour speed record at Montlhéry in France in May 1952. Although mechanical failures prevented the bid from being successful, the British team returned home with eight new records, including six hours at over 100mph. After all, what could modern engineering and materials have achieved when mixed with the thinking that was intrinsic to the Vincent factory.
Where will you go?