Vincent Black Shadow – The first Superbike

As a strike of lightning came the announcement that in a short time a Vincent motorcycle would arrive in our workshop in Bagsvaerd. It was my workshop neighbor Mr. Nielsen – or Lars as he informally called. He delivered the news with a relaxed attitude, but did allow himself to be a little over-excited. It is not often we have guests of such excellence.

I reacted to the news by exclaiming “It’s the world’s first Superbike! – And never surpassed since.” The last part of the sentence was an expression of enthusiasm and can probably be discussed. But Lars nodded appreciatively to my factual outbreak. His workshop Gonzomoto is now officially a place where you can also make repairs and service the Holy Grail of motorcycles: The Vincent. Beautiful, I must admit.

We sat in the newly installed workshop couch and admired the British motorcycle, which has long been a myth. I told Lars that I had not seen a Vincent since my own great motorcycle trail in Australia. That is over 25 years ago. Lars, who has to do with motorcycles on a daily basis, had not even seen a Vincent for 30 years. There was a solemn atmosphere in the workshop this late afternoon. The coffee tasted unusually well – although we should of course have had a cup of tea and a scone with butter when in the company of a British hallmark. We let our eyes wander and explored the mechanics of the many wonderful craftings of the materials. When I – as mentioned in the introduction – had said: “… and never surpassed since,” it was probably a little exuberant, but as we sat there on the couch and admired the details, ideas and craftsmanship, it was hard not to think otherwise.

Vincent Black Shadow. Photo: Søren Navntoft

Vincent Black Shadow. Photo: Søren Navntoft

When you look upon a Vincent Black Shadow, you have to relate to the time at which they were designed and built. The company Vincent HRD existed before World War II broke out in 1940 as a small producer but had already attracted attention with the Series A Rapide. After the war the Series B Rapide saw the light of day already in 1946, and two years later came the faster, but otherwise identical Black Shadow.

Britons had back then experienced five years of rationing, air raids and a six-day working week of 60 hours and like other European countries the population was tired. Machinery for production was worn and materials, especially steel, rubber and copper was in short supply. And worse yet, could only be obtained by applying through the officials, who unfairly based assessment of the applications on prewar consumption numbers. On top of that, you were only assigned materials if 80% of the final products would be exported. But there was plenty of aluminium and Vincent was forced to use this metal to an unprecedented level in the production of their motorcycles.

vincent_gonzomoto_2016_sn-2

Any Caféracer envy the upright speedometer – with a diameter of 5 inches – on a Vincent Black Shadow. Any familiar aesthetics with the instruments on a fighterplane is not hard to get. Photo: Søren Navntoft

The heart on Vincent is not surprisingly the engine. With a bore of 84 mm, as the anecdote tells us, it was constructed with the aim of man being able to clean it easily by putting his hand through the cylinder with a cloth. A stroke of 90 mm gave the two-cylinder engine cylinder a capacity of 998 cc. The cylinders sat at an angle of 50 degrees and were sitting slightly offset so the connecting rods could sit side by side on the crankshaft – which helped it cool more efficiently on the rear cylinder. There are lots of small technical details that made Vincent something special and that ultimately contributed to it being the fastest vehicle on two wheels – and I think also four back then.

vincent_gonzomoto_2016_sn-3

998 ccm. 50 degree V2 engine cast in aluminum. Photo: Søren Navntoft

A Black Shadow weighs about 233 kg, with tools, oil and a full tank. It disappointed the constructors back then as it was heavier than expected, but it was still about 25 kg lighter than competitors’ large machines.

The engine is a self-supporting part of the frame and thus helps to achieve a higher rigidity, even if Vincent several times were reported to have a tendency to “wobble” at high speeds.

With the smaller Amal carburettors, a compression of 6.8: 1 and relatively “soft” camshafts the machine delivered 45 hp at 5600 rpm. There was room for a sharper setup, but it was enough to do 180 km/h. The figures were made public, and although Vincent did not not boast much, they did annex the slogan: “The world’s fastest standard motor-cycle!”

vincent_gonzomoto_2016_sn-4

The cover on the tank of a Vincent is so overdone and such a beautiful a piece metalwork that you almost get tears in your eyes. Photo: Søren Navntoft

Today we are accustomed to large brake discs and multi-piston calipers. In that light the small drum brakes on a Vincent, which was able to do more than 200 km/h in a marginally hotter setup, can provoke anxiety. If you look closely you will see that both front and rear have brakes on both sides. It almost doubles the braking force compared to what you see from other motorcycles from that period, but still it seems like a tad too little compared to the speeds the machine could achieve.

Now one should accept that feelings of safety is a relative size and that mankind previously had not quite the same understanding of the concept of safety as we generally have now.

Vincent received much attention as a Vincent motorcycle starred in a photograph that went round the world in 1948. It was daredevil Rollie Free, who tried to set a speed record wearing only swimming trunks and a swimming cap. To reduce air resistance further he lay stretched across the tank and the seat of his Vincent motorcycle. The outfit pushed Rollie Free over 240 km/h at the Bonneville salt plains in the US in 1948. Again, let us not dwell too much on the safety aspect here.

rolliefree1

Rollie Free in 1948. 240 km /h at Bonneville saltplains in the US wearing slippers and a nifty little underwear. Security WAS another matter in the past. Photo: vincent-hrd.co.uk

Vincent also made a version with higher compression, larger carburetors and a top speed of 241 km/h which got the model name Black Lightning. Later they developed the models Black Knights and Black Prince with full fairing for reducing air resistance. They had now covered the most beautiful motor to an extent that made the motorcycle look like a big Vespa. The fairings became standard on motorcycles later, we all know, but back then it was a glimpse of the future. So much future, that the 1956 film version of George Orwell’s novel “1984”, had motorcycle cops running on them.

vincent_gonzomoto_2016_sn-5

Throughout our session the seat was not installed on the motorcycle. Without the seat the motorcycle appeared as a Tour de Force in mechanical aesthetics. Any thoughts of rebuilt Harleys or British or Italian café racers were gone. These creatures seemed like creations of a DIY job, when faced with something that might resemble a near perfect experience – with 68 years of age. Both touching, sad and utterly wonderful.

Lars Nielsen has taken a number of photographs of the details of the motorcycle which can be enjoyed in the gallery below.

Leave a Reply