They still speak of the ghosts of Vincent Vee twins thundering down the Stevenage bypass. Long before the expression was coined, ‘the world ‘s fastest standard production machine’ was in every way a superbike: fast, technically advanced and brutally good-looking.
Years in Production
air-cooled 998cc OHV Vee-twin
55 bhp @ 5500 rpm
backbone box-section, engine as stressed member
double drum / drum
1946 – 1955
Although now associated most of all with that engine, Vincent had originally used proprietary power plants from the likes of Blackburne and JAP. After a duff batch of JAP engines was foisted on him at the 1934 TT, Phil Vincent resolved never to be dependent on outside engine suppliers again.
Although Vincent was himself a brilliant and innovative designer, the resulting engines were the work of the ingenious Australian, Phil Irving. Irving first produced the Meteor, a high-cam shaft 499cc single capable of 90mph in sports ‘ Comet’ form. Then came the big ‘un, essentially a brace of 499cc Meteor top-ends arranged in a 47 degree Vee on a common crankcase. T his became the Series A, dubbed the ‘plumber’s nightmare’ due to an abundance of external oil pipes.
Breath-taking though it was, the Series A had several problems – the wheel base, at 59 inches, was ponderously long; and , worst of all, no proprietary clutch or gearbox could handle its prodigious torque.
The result was the post-war Series B Rapide. The transmission was uprated by the use of an ingenious self-servo clutch , and a new gearbox was designed in-unit with the engine. The latter was not only sturdier than its predecessor, but shorter. A radical new ‘frame’ – basically a box joining steering head and rear sub-frame, with the engine as a stressed member – allowed Vincent to dispense with front downtubes, further shortening the wheelbase. When the Rapide arrived in 1946, this stood at a relatively nimble 56 inches. Meanwhile the Vee was increased to 50 degrees, allowing both the use of a standard Lucas magneto, and better location for the carburettor float bowls.
The Rapide was better in every way than the Series A, and with 45bhp and 110mph, at least as rapid. The first Black Shadow , in 1948 , claimed 55bhp on ‘pool’ petrol – or a staggering 100bhp on racing methanol. In 1949 the Series C arrived , with Vincent Girdraulic forks in place of Brampton girders (but retaining Vincent’ s novel Series A triangulated rear suspension), and began re-writing the record books the world over.
Irving’s post-war engine design survived the next nine years; from Series B to Series D, fundamentally unchanged. Produced in touring , sports and racing guises as the Rapide , Black Shadow and Black Lightning respectively, its performance remained unequalled by any production motorcycle until well into the seventies.
Every red-blooded motorcyclist aspired to owning one, yet very few could; the hand-crafted Vincent was always prohibitively expensive.
Times became particularly hard for the Vincent company in 1954. Vincent’s response, on the one hand, was to manufacture NSU mopeds and commuter machines under licence at the Stevenage factory. More humiliating still, these were marketed under the Vincent name.
His other response was to ask his customers, the Vincent Owners’ Club, what they wanted from the forthcoming Series D . For any manufacturer this is always a risky practice, and so it proved. Series D duly arrived in the form of the Black Knight and Black Prince , successors to the Rapide and Shadow respectively. Some details, notably coil ignition , were better. But both model s were fully enclosed, like giant black scooters. The public was horrified.
Series D was quickly reintroduced with ‘proper’ naked Vincents, and almost everyone was happy. But this costly U-turn was the factory’s last major act. Sales were tumbling and costs rising, and in 1955 Vincent closed their gates for the last time. The big black Vee-twins are no more . But the legend lives on.