1949 HRD Series C Comet

A Vincent by any other name, this HRD Series C Comet features a few upgrades to make it a more usable bike.
By Corey Levenson
May/June 2014
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1949 HRD Series C Comet
Photo by Corey Levenson
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1949 HRD Series C Comet
Top Speed: 90 mph (claimed)
Engine: 499cc air-cooled OHV single, 84mm x 90mm bore and stroke, 7.3:1 compression ratio, 28hp @5,800 rpm
Weight (dry): 390lb (177kg)
Fuel Capacity/MPG: 4gal U.S./ 80mpg (est.)
Price then/now: £273 (approx. $1,007)/$20,000-$30,000

If it looks like a Vincent and sounds like a Vincent, it’s probably a Vincent, right?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Sometimes it’s an HRD. Most enthusiasts are familiar with the iconic V-twin Rapides, Black Shadows and Black Lightnings made by Vincent. Their recent meteoric rise in value has only added to their legendary status. The single-cylinder machines are less well-known, especially those sold under the HRD name.

HRD, Vincent and singles

Philip Conrad Vincent developed an interest in motorcycles at an early age. As a teenager, he designed and later patented a novel cantilevered rear suspension system. He built his first “Vincent Special” motorcycle in 1927 while studying engineering at the University of Cambridge in England and later convinced his father to help him establish his own motorcycle company. Philip’s father felt his son would be more successful bringing a machine to market with a recognized brand name rather than launching a new machine under his own name, which brings us to HRD.

Howard R. Davies founded HRD in 1924. Riding a machine of his own design, he went on to win the 1925 Isle of Man Senior TT. His company produced motorcycles for a few years, encountered financial problems and was liquidated in 1928. Later that year, Philip’s father purchased the rights from OK-Supreme to the defunct HRD name, tooling and patterns. Vincent-HRD was thus established with “HRD” displayed prominently on the new company’s products.

In 1931 Phil Vincent hired the brilliant Australian engineer Phil Irving as chief designer. Both Phils shared a profound passion for motorcycles and they worked together toward the common goal of producing high-performance motorcycles, built to a standard of uncompromising excellence, regardless of cost.

The first product designed by the new company featured Vincent’s sprung frame rear suspension, quite revolutionary at the time. Initially, the firm used engines from J.A.P., Rudge and others but eventually the Phils decided to design their own. Their first engine was a single-cylinder, 499cc high camshaft design with unique features such as double guides for each valve and short, rigid, splayed pushrods.

They launched their new model, the Comet, in 1934. It was capable of speeds in excess of 90mph, impressive performance for a new design. By 1936, the model line had expanded to also include a new V-twin model, the 998cc Series A Rapide.

Motorcycle production was interrupted during World War II but resumed in 1946 with the introduction of the Series B Rapide. The new machine had a shorter wheelbase (closer to that of a 500cc single), an integral transmission, a novel servo-clutch, and aluminum alloy heads and barrels. It was lighter, faster, stronger and better looking than its predecessor.

The chassis and suspension were quite advanced for the time. The cantilevered rear suspension was retained and the new unit-construction engine-transmission allowed the power unit to be employed as a stressed member, essentially replacing the traditional tube frame. The box section backbone (under the gas tank) served as the oil tank and was bolted to the cylinder heads and supported the mounting for the front Brampton forks. The swingarm rear suspension was attached to the rear of the power unit. The oil pump was internal and all oil ways were drilled, resulting in a much cleaner, less cluttered appearance to the engine. The crankcases were internally ribbed for extra strength and the primary drive was by triplex chain. The crank was built up with heavy flywheels and was supported on the timing side by a pair of roller main bearings and a roller and ball race on the drive side. Each of the connecting rods ran on triple row un-caged roller bearings and shared a single crank pin. The entire power unit, though heavy (240 pounds), was extremely robust and well-engineered.

The entire machine bristled with features to make the riding experience more pleasurable. Both wheels could be easily removed without tools. The brake drums were separate from the hubs so that spoke tension did not distort them and the drums could be selectively removed, for sprint competitions, for example. The rear wheel could be configured with two different sized sprockets and flipped to change overall gearing. All the points-of-contact (handlebars, footpegs, etc.) were adjustable. All fittings and finishes were first class. The gas tank featured gloss black paint and hand-lined gold leaf along with a winged Mercury motif decal, a reminder of Howard Davies’ victory at the IOM TT.

Running on low-octane “pool” fuel, the new machine could hit 100mph at 4,600rpm and topped out at 112mph. This blistering performance led to the famous “World’s Fastest Production Motorcycle” slogan. The superior design also resulted in impressive longevity. Bottom ends could run up to 100,000 miles before requiring service. The Series B Rapide was the precursor to the legendary high-performance Black Shadow and Black Lightning.

The Series C Comet

Why spend so much time talking about V-twins in an article about a single? Because postwar singles were derived directly from the twins, a development path that mirrored the evolution of the prewar twins from the singles. Much of the design and most of the technical features of the postwar singles are shared with their bigger siblings.

In 1948, single-cylinder machines were reintroduced to the product line. The first production models were launched in mid-1949 as Series B Meteors (only 175 were made), followed by the higher performance Series C Comet.

The Comet shared many components with the Rapide and Shadow but, because there was only one connecting rod, the crankpin and crankcase were shorter and the sandcast crankcases were narrower. The whole bottom end was stiffer and stronger than that in the twins. In fact, the Comet was the basis of one of the fastest Vincent drag bikes. In 1977, Brian Chapman’s Comet-based supercharged “Mighty Mouse” did a record-breaking 8.81-second/157mph quarter-mile run making it, 25 years after the engine was made, the quickest single-cylinder drag bike in the world.

Lubrication in the singles was also better since the same pump used in the twins was serving the smaller engine. The carb used on the Comet was the same as used on the Black Shadow. The singles differed from the twins in having a single-row primary chain and conventional 5-spring multiplate clutch. The 4-speed Burman gearbox was lighter than the gearbox in the twin and was more than adequate for the Comet’s claimed 28 horsepower. The singles utilized the same upper and rear frame components as the twins, with slightly lighter rear springs.

1949 was a transitional year for the company. Up to that point, the motorcycles had been marketed as HRD-Vincents with the HRD initials more prominently displayed than the Vincent name, which was often contained in a small scroll over the larger HRD initials. This changed after Phil Vincent made a number of trips to the U.S. to promote his brand and discovered that Americans were confusing the HRD designation with Harley-Davidson. He decided to use only the Vincent name on the company’s products to avoid further confusion.

Approximately 3,900 Series C Comets were produced and the 1949 HRD Comet featured here is one of about 500 made before the name change. For comparison, a total of about 6,850 twins were made through the years. Although offering a more affordable alternative to the V-twins, at £273 (approximately $1,000 U.S.), the Comet was the most expensive single-cylinder production motorcycle in the world.

The factory also made 31 examples of a race version of the single known as the Grey Flash, featuring hotter cams, bigger carbs and a higher compression ratio. The factory entered three Grey Flashes in the 1950 Senior TT. They didn’t win, but they lapped the island at a respectable 84mph. Before he went on to become the only man to win World Championships on both two and four wheels, a teenaged John Surtees cut his racing teeth on a Grey Flash. John’s father, Jack, was a Vincent dealer and John was an apprentice at the factory.

1949 HRD Series C Comet — engine No. F5AB/2A/2979

Vincenzo Murphy is the proud owner of the beautiful Comet featured here. According to factory records, the bike was road tested on Oct. 25, 1949, and sold to its first owner by Eleanor Motors in London. Although the stock Comet compression ratio was 7.3:1 (like the Black Shadow), Vincenzo’s bike was special ordered with a lower, 6.8:1 compression ratio piston, presumably because of the lower octane fuel available at the time.

The story of how Vincenzo and his Comet crossed paths begins in 2000 when Vincenzo went on a Vincent HRD Owner’s Club ride in Austin (riding a Honda Super Hawk) and ended up post-ride at the home of well-known Vincent aficionado and collector Herb Harris.

Vincenzo found himself sitting on the floor of Herb’s house staring at the famous Vincent Black Lightning on which Rollie Free set a land speed record at Bonneville in 1948 while stretched out on the bike wearing nothing more than a swimsuit. Vincenzo also got to examine Marty Dickerson’s “Blue Bike” and several other machines with legendary status. Something clicked in Vincenzo and he had a moto-epiphany: He resolved to someday own a Vincent if there was any way to make it happen.

Vincenzo’s second date with destiny came when Herb hired him to work with Tony Temple, Herb’s chief mechanic, helping to maintain Herb’s collection. Vincenzo had fallen into the proverbial honey pot and landed the ideal job: fettling and test-riding a fleet of priceless Vincents.

The 1949 HRD Comet had been acquired by Herb as part of the Leland Munroe collection. Tony subsequently bought the Comet from Herb, recognizing it as one of the rare Comets sold as an HRD. Knowing that Vincenzo also had his eye on the Comet, in 2005 Tony offered to sell it to him. He knew that Vincenzo would keep the bike, enjoy it and someday pass it on to another enthusiast, and not just flip it to make a quick buck. Vincenzo was in no position to buy the bike for what it was worth, but Tony told him that he wanted Vincenzo to have the bike and assured him they could figure out a way to strike a deal.

Vincenzo sold seven motorcycles and a car and cleaned out his bank account. He put the cash proceeds in a box and rode his Super Hawk over to see Tony. They shook hands and Vincenzo came home without the cash or the Super Hawk, but he was the owner of the 1949 HRD Comet.

His Comet differs somewhat from stock specification and is unusual in a number of ways. The most obvious difference is the presence of the Brampton front forks from the Series B bikes rather than the Girdraulic units fitted originally. The bike also has the larger 8-inch Miller headlight and a BTH magneto rather than the stock Lucas unit. The original Miller dynamo was replaced with an Alton alternator so that 12-volt electrics could be used.

The clutch has been converted to the Honda unit sold by Conway’s in the U.K. The saddle was also replaced, and the Brampton forks and speedometer have been reconditioned. Authorized Vincent accessories include a Feridax locking throttle and a Vokes air filter. A number of other modifications were made to make the bike more suitable for everyday use. These include replacing the stock aluminum alloy fenders, the spokes and most of the original plated fasteners with stainless steel equivalents and installing a Dave Hill “Tread Down” centerstand.

Since acquiring the Comet in 2006, Vincenzo has performed a number of tasks including replacing front and rear wheel bearings and swingarm bearings, and installing a new wiring harness. A minor engine rebuild included a new Omega 7.3:1 piston, valves, guides and springs. The exhaust system was replaced and the bike was repainted.

Practical aspects of ownership

Vincenzo loves the Comet. It’s not a show bike and there are a number of non-stock items, as previously noted. He prefers the handling of the Brampton forks to the stock Girdraulics, saying the bike feels lighter and more responsive. The machine is used regularly, with Vincenzo putting about 30,000 miles on the bike since acquiring it.

Compared to other 500cc singles from the same period, such as Velocettes and BSA Gold Stars, the Comet is much smoother, Vincenzo says. Designed as the ultimate “Gentleman’s Bike,” nothing happens in an abrupt fashion. It comes up to speed gradually and will cruise all day at 75mph without vibration. Since it has the same brakes as the twins, but weighs less, its stopping power is superior to the larger twins. It was built to a very high standard with robustness, comfort and longevity in mind.

As far as future plans for the Comet are concerned, Vincenzo says he’ll just “watch it acquire patina.” As the bike’s caretaker, he believes his responsibilities include showing it at events and riding it often so others can enjoy it, and perhaps get bitten by the Vincent bug.

The smaller HRD/Vincents were more affordable alternatives to the big twins and were often abused or used as parts bikes to rebuild the more valuable Rapides and Shadows. They were often ridden hard and not pampered like the twins. Parts are available, but since they’re often the same parts that fit the more desirable V-twins, they’re expensive. Replacing missing parts after purchasing the bike can add significantly to the total cost.

If you want one, do the research to get to know engine numbers, the features of the various models, etc. There are many online sources of information as well as an excellent international owners club with many local chapters. The books Know Thy Beast by E.M.G. Stevens and Vincent Motorcycles by Paul Richardson are considered essential reading for Vincent owners and those contemplating ownership. The factory-published Vincent Rider’s Handbook is also recommended.

“I’ve been a motorcycle enthusiast as long as I can remember,” Vincenzo says. “I never imagined I would be lucky enough to own a bike like this. Riding the Comet is such a pleasant experience; it’s just magic.” Luck, magic and destiny are funny things. Given Vincenzo’s name (the Italian variant of Vincent) and the fact that his father’s first name was Rollie, maybe some things are just meant to be... MC


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TimKern
5/22/2014 9:09:27 PM
28 horses, 400 pounds, 90mph? Hmmm. Still, the thing is gorgeous.








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