Motorcycle Throwback - The 1949 Vincent Black Shadow

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Motorcycle Throwback - The 1949 Vincent Black Shadow

There are a lot of record breaking motorcycles and with technology rapidly and steadily advancing, the only this that is sure when you break a motorcycle record is that someone will beat it. And probably sooner rather than later. That is, unless you're breaking records with a Vincent.

While Vincent Motorcycles didn't officially start producing bikes until the 1920's, the companies roots started to grow in 1917 when, as legend has it, a man by the name of Howard Raymond Davies, a respectable British Royal Flying Corps pilot, was shot down and captured by the Germans. As a prisoner of war, what else does one have to do other than dream about what they love? And Davies loved motorcycles. During his involuntary stay with the Germans, Davies supposedly dreamt of building the perfect motorcycle. Once he was freed, Davies sought to make his dream a reality and he partnered with E. J. Massey to form HRD Motors.

During this time, the two partners worked to produce several motorcycle models, all generally powered by JA Prestwich Industries' (JAP) engines. For four years the company's motorcycles won races consistently. But winning wasn't enough and the company spent more on the motorcycles that they produced than they were actually making. So in 1928, the two partners called it quits and put the business up for liquidation.

The famous picture of Rollie Free breaking the land speed record in nothing but his trunks and sneakers.   The last Vincent Black Shadow to come off the production line in 1955.
The famous picture of Rollie Free breaking the land speed record in nothing but his trunks and sneakers.   The last Vincent Black Shadow to come off the production line in 1955.

Around that same time, Philip Vincent was dreaming of his own perfect motorcycle. In 1927 and 1928, Vincent built his own model and even registered a patent for a new cantilever rear suspension design. But Vincent was urged that if he was to start producing motorcycles he should do it under a previously established company name. With the help of some family money and a touch of faith, Vincent bought what was remaining of HRD from the man who had purchased it during liquidation and renamed it Vincent HRD Co. After WWII when the U.S. began pumping out motorcycles, the HRD was dropped to avoid confusion with the HD of Harley-Davidson and the company's motorcycle was thereafter known as The Vincent.

The first Vincent model in 1928 was powered by another JAP single-cylinder engine with a cantilever frame designed by Vincent himself. For a while, Vincent continued to use these engines as well as a few Rudge-python engines. However, at the 1934 Isle of Man TT, three Vincent Motorcycles were entered and all three failed to finish due to engine problems. Three years earlier, Phil Irving had joined the Vincent team as chief engineer and the Isle of Man disaster encouraged him and Vincent to start designing and producing their own engines.

Over the years, Vincent and Irving worked together to produce several popular motorcycles such as the Rapide. But it was in 1948 that the Vincent C series known as the "Black Shadow" was created. The model came from a demand for a more sport oriented motorcycle. So Vincent returned to an earlier Rapide design that was specifically tuned for racing and threw on some enlarged ports, bigger carburetors and increased compression all with a stressed frame design.

The most recognizable and famous difference that the 1949 Vincent Black Shadow featured wasn't its engine, however. Well, not exactly...In a day and age where everything was decked from wheel to wheel in chrome, the Black Shadow was completely black. Hence the name. Vincent achieved the look by going as far as to color the crank-case and covers with black baked enamel. Even today, the 1949 Vincent Black Shadow's all black appearance is unique and with a 998 cc v-twin engine and a weight of a relatively light 458 pounds, the design was as fast as how sleek it looked. The bike was capable of 125 mph right out of production, which warranted a new and larger speedometer that went up to an unheard of 150 mph.

But 150 mph wasn't unheard of for long. On September 13, 1948, a motorcycle racer by the name of Roland "Rollie" Free (how perfect of a name for a motorcycle racer?) took a Vincent motorcycle to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah with one goal in mind: to break the land speed record. Although it is most commonly thought that Free took a Vincent Black Shadow to the Flats, some do debate that it was actually a Vincent Black Lightening (only 16 of which were produced). The Black Lightening was similar to the Black Shadow but was lighter and slightly more powerful.

Either way, Free was determined and to break the record. To lighten the bike, the racer removed any unnecessary parts such as the headlight, front mudguard and seat and stripped himself down to nothing but his swim trunks and sneakers. Of course, Free slapped a shower cap on his head for good measure. Without the seat and in order to decrease drag, Free lay flat across the bike in what may have been the first attempt at the current viral phenomenon of "planking." While most motorcycles of that time topped out at 90mph, that day Free flew down the Salt Flats at 150.313 mph and set a record that wouldn't be broke by any motorcycle until Free returned to break it himself on the Vincent when, in 1950, Free managed to hit 156.58 mph even after suffering a crash during the speed trials. This second record remained unbroken until the 1970's.

Still, breaking records wasn't enough to keep the Vincent Motorcycle Co. afloat. In the summer of 1955, Vincent announced that the company could no longer produce motorcycles due to heavy financial losses. That same year, one week before Christmas, the final Vincent Motorcycle came off the production line and manufacturing ceased. Since then, a few idealists have acquired the Vincent Motorcycle name and tried to revive the company as well as attempted to manufacture frames for the Vincent engines. But Vincent remained defunct.

In October of 2002 news hit the motorcycle industry that would leave enthusiast shocked and excited. In San Diego, CA, self made millionaire Barney Li ripped the covers off five prototype motorcycles that were all styled after Vincent models including the Black Shadow. But the motorcycles took years to refine and design and engine issues kept them from being produced. Tragedy struck the company on Saturday, May 3, 2008 when visionary Li crashed on Highway 260 in Eastern Arizona and later succumbed to his injuries. With his death, so died the dream of a modern Vincent Motorcycle line.

But Vincent Motorcycles and the 1949 Vincent Black Shadow remain remembered in the records that Vincent Motorcycles set and the strong following they incurred. Though less than 1,700 Vincent Black Shadows were produced before Vincent Motorcycles closed their doors, to this day they are sought out and collected with fervor.

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