Home » This Sinister Motorcycle Outran Everything On Two Wheels For A Quarter Century, And Now It Can Be Yours

This Sinister Motorcycle Outran Everything On Two Wheels For A Quarter Century, And Now It Can Be Yours

Vincent Ts
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For a whole 24 years, there was one motorcycle that terrorized the streets of England. If you saw one, you knew that you didn’t stand of a chance of catching it. That motorcycle was the Vincent Black Shadow. Its top speed of 125 mph may not be much today, but back then, the 1940s Black Shadow was so quick and so untouchable that it was the fastest bike you could put a license plate on until an early 1970s Kawasaki came around. One of them has come up for sale, and now is your chance to live a lifelong dream.

Every motorcyclist has a bike they would do almost anything to just get a chance at a 30 second ride. Maybe it’s something so quick it bends time and space, or maybe it’s a motorcycle powered by a freaking turbine. I would be willing to gamble my entire fleet just to own a MTT Turbine Superbike. For many, the ultimate motorcycle of all time was built during the short period between 1948 and 1955. It’s a motorcycle so dark, so sinister, and built to do one thing: Be faster than every other motorcycle.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Just 1,774 Vincent Black Shadows were ever built, and they changed the world of motorcycling forever. It’s a motorcycle so stunning that the legendary Hunter S. Thompson penned: “If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the Vincent Black Shadow Society.”

Dark Speed

1953 Vincent Black Shadow 436a34 (1)

The Vincent Motorcycles story started in World War I when in 1917, British Royal Flying Corps pilot and motorcycle racer Howard Raymond Davies was shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans. It’s been said, but not confirmed, that when Davies was a prisoner of war he designed a motorcycle. After the war, Davies returned to the motorcycle racing world. It took until 1924 for Davies to turn his motorcycle ideas into a reality. Davies joined forces with engineer E.J. Massey, forming HRD. Those motorcycles were successful racers, but a sales failure. HRD folded in 1928.

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The scraps of HRD were picked up by Ernest Humphries of OK-Supreme Motors, who wanted the factory. The rest of HRD’s assets were for sale and fell onto the radar of motorcycle enthusiast Phil Vincent. At the time, Vincent was just 20 years old and had purchased his first motorcycle just four years before. However, Vincent was quick to begin designing his own motorcycle chassis and suspension, building his first bike in 1927. In 1928, Vincent got a patent for his cantilever rear suspension design.

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Bonhams

When Vincent wanted to market his ideas as a motorcycle company, he decided to tie his name to a known firm rather than try to make it as a new company. £450 later and Vincent had the HRD name, rights, tooling, and other materials. Vincent renamed the company to Vincent HRD and began churning out motorcycles. Despite the name change, the motorcycles still wore HRD on their tanks in large letters, but now had “The Vincent” in much smaller script.

At first, Vincent HRD built motorcycles with Vincent’s innovative inventions, but with the engines of other manufacturers. When those engines failed in 1934’s running of the Isle of Man TT, Vincent decided that his company needed its own engines. That’s where Australian engineer Phil Irving got to work and in three months, designed a 499cc single-cylinder engine with high performance potential.

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Bonhams

One of the innovations brought on by Irving was a guide system for each valve designed to eliminate the common valve failures of the day. That way, the engine could run hard without falling to pieces.

Benchmarks were set high, with the Vincent HRD Meteor and Comet riding to a claimed top speed of 90 mph in the 1930s. In 1936, Vincent released the Rapide, which raced to 110 mph thanks to a 998cc V-twin. As Silodrome notes, the Rapide was born after Irving put two drawings of the Meteor’s single-cylinder engine together, forming them into the V-twin shape we know to be familiar today.

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Striking Fear Into Motorcyclists

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Mecum Auctions

After World War II, Vincent continued the tradition of laying down even more speed. Next came the improved Series B Vincent Rapide. This bike boasted an engine and transmission in one case and the bank angle of the V-twin changed from 47 degrees to 50 degrees, which allowed the engine to become a stressed member. Vincent used the changed engine design to knock the down-tubes off of the frame.

Reportedly, the genesis of the Black Shadow came when fans of the Rapide begged for even higher performance and faster speeds than 110 mph. Vincent answered the call by creating a racing machine and a testbed for an even faster motorcycle.

Update: I’m told the name of that prototype racer is used as a slur, which I didn’t know about before. I have removed this name reference, which wasn’t really important to the story, anyway.

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Vincent took his idea for a new, faster motorcycle to Vincent managing director Frank Walker, who declined to allow Vincent, Irving, and the team to develop the new motorcycle. The guys weren’t deterred and instead built two motorcycles in secret. Motor Cycling magazine tested one in 1948, and the new motorcycle hit 122 mph. Suddenly, Vincent couldn’t be stopped and the Black Shadow would be displayed at the 1948 Motorcycle Show at Earls Court in London.

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The Vincent Black Shadow would be known for its speed, but that’s not all. Vincent wanted his brand to become a household name in Europe and across the pond in the United States. He figured speed was one factor, but the motorcycles also needed to look the part. So, while so many manufacturers covered their engines and motorcycles with brightwork, Vincent covered the bike, from engine, transmission, frame, and forks, in a deep black color. Now, the Black Shadow had looks that matched its unparalleled thrill.

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Much of the Black Shadow took what the Rapide already had and cranked it up. The Black Shadow had the Rapide’s 998cc 50-degree V-twin engine, but with new pistons, a higher compression ratio, polished ports, and new carburetors. This engine made 55 HP, which doesn’t sound like much, but it was moving a motorcycle with a dry weight of just 458 pounds.

That was enough to rocket the Black Shadow to a top speed of 125 mph, faster than any other road-legal bike at the time. Sure, the electrical system was by Lucas, the prince of darkness. But there’s no worry because, with a Vincent, you’ll ride so fast you’ll get home before dark.

1953 Vincent Black Shadow 436a34 (2)

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Helping you keep the dark side up was Vincent’s patented cantilever rear suspension and a Brampton girder fork up front. Later Black Shadows would get Vincent “Girdraulic” girder-style aluminum forks with hydraulic shock absorbers rather than the typical friction dampers of girder forks. A set of four drums with fins slowed the race down when the bike got faster than your bravery.

The Black Shadow was also developed into a racing version, the Black Lightning. These bikes were even more extreme as Vincent tossed everything that wasn’t needed for outright speed into the dustbin. The Black Lightning didn’t have lights or a passenger seat, and magnesium was used where possible to save weight. The result was a machine that weighed 380 pounds dry and had an engine tuned to 70 HP to boot.

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Peter Stackpole via motorcyclemuseum.org

Famously, as Hagerty notes, American motorcycle racer Rollie Free took a modified Black Lightning or Black Shadow (this is debated) to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Free hit 148.6 mph on his motorcycle, but wanted even more speed, so he stripped down to his bathing suit and laid on the motorcycle in a plank position. He reached an average speed of 150.313 mph and photographers generated an iconic photo.

Basically overnight, Vincent became famous and the Black Shadow became the motorcycle to own. I gave you the Thompson quote above, but a Cycle World retrospective continues to drill in just how awesome the Black Shadow is and continues to be:

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Obviously, though, the real eye-catcher is that motor. With alloy barrels and cases and iron liners, it pumps out 55 Clydesdale-size horses at 5700 rpm. This lets the 425-pound motorcycle, with a compression ratio of 7.3:1, sprint to 60 mph in six seconds. At 125 mph, it’s only turning 5800 rpm, and at an easy-cruisin’ 100 mph a mere 4600! Other Britbike riders speak of the uncanny calm of the Black Shadow as it overtakes them at 100-plus. It’s a stump-puller.

There’s enduring appeal, too, in the other innovations and clever touches. A few include: an upward-hinging rear fender for quick wheel removal—or reversing to use the different final-drive ratio of the attached second sprocket; height adjustments for the comfy dual seat; triplex primary chain; 120-horsepower-strong gearbox/tranny; dead-accurate 150 mph speedo; cases machined in matched sets; wide use of stainless and high-tensile steels; and Siamesed exhausts. You can also collapse the whole thing into three main parts, stuff it all into the old Civic and re-assemble when you reach the rally site. (Don’t try this with a ZX-11.) Visually, the Shadow is a feast for the eyes. Look closely—each carefully sculpted rocker cover, decom­pression lever and footpeg hanger is perfect unto itself, yet the whole is integrated, purposeful. It’s all about raw emotion. Park one outside your local high school and you’ll see.

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Vincent HRD via eBay

The Black Shadow was so fast that when it released in 1948, it was the fastest street-legal motorcycle on the road. Vincent called the Black Shadow “The World’s Fastest Standard Motorcycle” and clarified in its advertising that the statement wasn’t a slogan, but a fact. While it has been nearly three-quarters of a century since the death of the Black Shadow, it entered modern consciousness in part thanks to Top Gear:

Motorcycle manufacturers took a while just to match the Black Shadow’s might. The BSA Rocket 3 and the Triumph Trident of 1968 match the Black Shadow’s top speed, as does the 1969 Honda CB750, the bike often called the world’s first superbike. Yet, even though the Honda matches the Black Shadow’s speed, the Black Shadow still earned notoriety for its thrill compared to the more refined, newer Honda.

As Richard Hammond explains above, you could argue that the superbikes we love today can trace their roots back to the black menace that outran everything else. Many retrospectives note the 1972 Kawasaki Z1 as the first production road bike to unseat the Black Shadow. It took a little over a decade longer for the Honda VF1000R to unseat the Vincent Black Lightning racer.

This 1952 Vincent Black Shadow

1953 Vincent Black Shadow 436a34 (3)

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Sadly, relatively few riders have ever gotten the chance to experience the Black Shadow, let alone even see one in real life. As I said before, just 1,774 examples were built before production ended in 1955. As for the Vincent’s price, a new Black Shadow set you back £400 (£12,110 today), or £500 (£15,137 today) if you wanted the Black Lightning. Unfortunately, a Black Shadow today is a motorcycle that easily commands prices from $40,000 and past $100,000.

So, if you want this one for sale on Bring a Trailer, you’ll need deep pockets or a lot of friends.

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This Bring a Trailer auction is fresh with 7 days to go, yet it’s already at $58,000 with 14 bids. See what I mean? At least what you’re getting sounds epic.

The engine is a work of art and is noted to have a pair of Amal carburetors and velocity stacks. The listing states that the motorcycle is unrestored, so what you’re looking at here is a true time capsule from its Smiths instrumentation down to the wonderful brake light. The odometer displays just 1,734 miles and while this hasn’t been confirmed, I would bet that this bike hasn’t gone far in its life.

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Sadly, this motorcycle is likely to sell for so much money that its owner will be motivated to stuff it away into a warehouse. Putting any real miles on it will crater its value. Still, it would be so cool to see this vintage ride cross the United States or at the very least conquer the Pacific Coast Highway. A woman can dream. If you can scrounge up the money needed to buy one of the most iconic motorcycles in history, head over to Bring a Trailer and drop a bid.

(Images: Bring a Trailer Seller, unless otherwise noted.)

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Jim Stock
Jim Stock
23 days ago

I have great respect for those old timers that went that fast on that technology. Wow.

My first bike was a mid-70s Kawasaki 500 2-stroke triple that luckily never ran well enough for me to kill myself.

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