More than a half-century after the last bike left the factory in Stevenage, England, people still praise the Vincent Black Shadow. It was the fastest motorcycle of its era, widely considered the world's first superbike, and it still holds its own on the highway. You've probably seen that famous 1948 photo of American motorcyclist Rollie Free wearing just a bathing suit, a rubber cap and sneakers while setting a 150-mph record on a modified Shadow at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The image was flashed around the world.
Where I grew up, in a small New England town, the Vincent was a motorcycle you only ever heard about. But the legend surrounding the bike was so strong. There was a guy who lived a couple of towns over who had a Vincent that had allegedly run in the renowned Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race off the coast of the U.K. Every now and then, somebody at school would say, "I heard it go by the other night." All the kids would stop to listen to his story. "What did it look like? What did it sound like?" We all wanted to know.
I only saw that bike once, when I was in high school. Thirty years later, I heard about a Vincent for sale in Haverhill, Mass. I tracked it down and discovered it was the same one. Now it's sitting in my garage. Turns out, it was a Series C Black Shadow, and "Big Sid" Biberman, a famous Vincent mechanic, had rebuilt the engine. It had a custom frame similar to a Norton Featherbed.
The Series C Black Shadow is the most sought-after Vincent. Its 998-cc V-twin puts out 55 hp; the Black Lightning racing version is good for 70 hp. That may not seem like much, but a Vincent twin weighs just 458 pounds, about as much as a 500-cc single. A well-tuned Shadow could hit 125 mph in an era when doing an honest 100 mph—or "the ton," as the British say—was impossible for many bikes.
People forget that in 1952, the fastest series production vehicles in the world came from England. The fastest saloon car was the Bentley Continental, the fastest sports car was the Jaguar XK120, and the fastest motorcycle was the Vincent Black Shadow. Vincent ads read: "The World's Fastest Standard Motorcycle. This is a Fact Not a Slogan."
Shadows are essentially blueprinted 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.
All Shadows have a prominent 5-inch chronometric speedometer that you can read a mile away. The needle doesn't fly around; it advances—ink, ink, ink—in steady increments. Once when I was riding one of my Shadows, a cop pulled me over. "Y'know how fast you were goin'?" he asked.
"No, sir," I replied. "I've no idea."
"You were doin' 93 miles an hour," he said. "I clocked you right off your speedometer!"
Aside from being fast, Vincents are technically interesting. Their narrow-angle V-twins have aluminum pistons, forged connecting rods, a unique rocker arm design, twin Amal carburetors and a dry sump oiling system. There is no front downtube; the engine itself is a stressed member. Changing wheels requires only simple T-handles, or tommy bars, as the British call them. The rigid Girdraulic front forks are easily adapted for sidecar work by flipping a cam over to change the setting, and there are two rear sprockets, quickly reversible, so you can run a sidecar with a lower gear ratio.
At a time when no other motorcycle manufacturer gave a hoot about brakes—American bikes had just one rear brake for years—Vincents had four brake drums, one on each side of the hub, each with a balance bar; Shadows had finned drums. Vincents also boasted four speeds when a Harley-Davidson had only three.
The rarest of my 10 Vincents is a prewar Series A. They called it the plumber's nightmare because it has so many external oil lines. In the owner's manual, it actually says: "After every 1000 miles, disassemble the engine and check everything. Reassemble." The Brits insist that there's nothing more enjoyable than spending a Saturday morning decoking the head on a motorcycle. Not true. People like to ride their bikes.
Motorcycles don't have a "gait" anymore, but riding a Vincent is a little like riding a thoroughbred horse. The engine fires about once every lamppost. There's a measurable heartbeat-like quality to the sound of the V-twin that doesn't exist with a four-cylinder or a high-revving parallel twin.
You accelerate and the engine goes DibdibdibdibDIBDIBDIBDIIIIIIIIIIIB!!!
The riding position is the classic British "sit up and beg" stance. It's comfortable, and everything is adjustable. If you have big feet, you can extend the shift lever so your toe catches the end of it. There's also a hand shifter, so veterans who couldn't fully use their legs could reach down and shift. Even the Feridax Dualseat, a first on a motorcycle, was adjustable. You could alter brake tension with your fingertips. It was a true enthusiast's machine.
Sadly, that level of detail helps explain why the company ceased motorcycle production in 1955. There is a lot of time-consuming handwork involved in a Vincent. They say the best ones were made before 1951, because in later bikes, the dies tended to wear out in the stamping presses and the parts weren't as good. They were also expensive bikes, costing about $1200 when a Triumph twin was roughly $600.
At the end, Vincent was trying to sell fully faired Black Knights and Black Princes. They had taken the most beautiful engine in motorcycling and covered it up so the bike looked like a big Vespa. Although fully faired motorcycles caught on years later, the Vincents were so far ahead of their time that the 1956 film version of George Orwell's novel 1984 had the police riding them.
You can tell that Vincents are my favorite motorcycles. There's a wonderful mechanical-ness to them; they are such quality machines. When you check the oil in a Vincent primary case, there's a beautiful aluminum knurled knob on the dipstick. It's overdesigned, way better than it needs to be. The general public ignored this kind of detailing because they could buy something cheaper. But today, the Vincent is considered a piece of art to be revered.
By Jay Leno
Published August 10, 2011 on Popular Mechanics.