Engine: 499cc air-cooled OHV single, 84mm x 90mm bore and stroke, 8:1 compression ratio (6.45:1 stock), 30hp @ 5,300rpm (est.)
Top speed: 100mph (claimed)
Carburetion: Single 32mm Amal Mk1 Concentric (1-1/16in Amal 276 stock)
Transmission: 4-speed Burman, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v Miller generator, BTH magneto ignition (Lucas K1F GM2 magneto stock)
Suspension: Brampton girder front, dual shocks w/friction and hydraulic damping rear (friction damping only stock)
Brakes: Twin 7in (178mm) SLS drums front & rear
Tires: 90/90 x 19in front, 100/90 x 19in rear (originally 3 x 20in front, 3.5 x 19in rear)
Weight (dry): 386lb (175kg)
Seat height: 32.75in (832mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.2gal (16ltr)
Price then/now: $692 U.S. (approx.)/$25,000 (est.)
Sidney Morton Biberman may not be a household name, but as Vincent owners and aficionados know, “Big Sid” was one of the marque’s most famous and respected tuners and restorers. At almost 6 foot 5 inches and 300 pounds in his prime, he was a larger than life presence on the dragstrip, at rallies and on the international Vincent scene for more than half a century.
Sid grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, developing an early love of motorcycles as a teenager. As a 20-year-old in 1950, Sid rode his first Vincent, a friend’s Black Shadow, and was profoundly impressed by the machine’s performance and engineering excellence. By 1953, Sid had bought himself a red Vincent Rapide, joined the Vincent Owners Club and, while stationed in Germany as an American serviceman, visited the factory in Stevenage, England.
Sid had a tuner’s ear and an uncanny sense of what an engine needed in order to perform at its best, and was best known for making the company’s 998cc twins go faster. Over the ensuing 60 years, he built many fast Vincents and established himself as a pre-eminent Vincent authority. Yet throughout his long association with Vincents, he owned only one of their 499cc singles: a 1950 Series B Meteor. Sid bought the Meteor in 1993 when he was 63 years old and wanted a bike that was lighter and more nimble than the larger twins. During the 20 years Sid owned the Meteor, he made extensive modifications to improve its performance. For Sid, functionality always took precedence over originality.
Vincent produced 499cc singles and 998cc twins before World War II (Series A bikes), and then after the war (Series B, C and D bikes). All the machines shared an 84mm bore and a 90mm stroke. A major redesign took place between the Series A and Series B machines, although there were some shared items such as the Brampton girder forks seen on A and B machines. The introduction of the Vincent-designed Girdraulic forks, as well as a re-branding from “HRD” to “Vincent” on the tanks and crankcases, marked the transition from Series B to Series C machines.
For the postwar singles and twins, there were essentially three levels of tune as a result of differing carb sizes, compression ratios and cams. Among the twins, the Rapide was the touring model, the Black Shadow the sport model and the Black Lightning a race-only model. In parallel, the Meteor, Comet and Grey Flash singles were tuned to Rapide, Shadow and Lightning specification, respectively.
The first big British bike show after World War II was the 1948 Earls Court show in London, and Vincent chose that opportunity to introduce their new postwar models. As a result of supply issues with the new Girdraulic forks, the Series B Meteors, Rapides and Shadows were produced with the prewar Brampton girder forks, while the Series C models were introduced with Girdraulic forks. Once adequate supplies of the new Girdraulics were available, the Series B models were subsequently dropped in 1950.
During the brief period when both Series B Meteor and Series C Comets were on offer, the company tried to differentiate between the two models (and justify the cost difference) by offering the Meteor without the two front prop stands and magneto cover found on the Comet. In addition, the Meteor’s lower compression ratio and smaller carb gave it somewhat inferior performance to the Comet. Since the price difference was relatively small (about 25 pounds sterling, or roughly $80 U.S. at the time) most buyers opted for the Comet. Only 126 Series B Meteors were produced between December 1948 and February 1950, making the Series B Meteor one of the rarer Vincent models; only Black Lightnings, Grey Flashes and White Shadows were made in fewer numbers. By comparison, approximately 3,900 postwar Comets were produced.
The singles share many components with the twins, but weigh about 75 pounds less and have a 3/4-inch shorter wheelbase, making them more responsive to steering input and actually more fun to ride in the twisties than their bigger siblings. Many feel that the Brampton forks afford a lighter feel to the bikes compared to the Girdraulic-equipped machines, and some contend the Series B Meteor is the best handling of the road-going Vincents.
Unlike the twins, the singles feature a separate engine and gearbox. A single-row primary chain drives the conventional multi-plate clutch for the Burman BAP 4-speed gearbox. Further, the twins have their chain drive on the right side, whereas the singles have it on the left. The cycle parts – fenders, brakes, wheels, seat, tank, forks, instruments, etc. – are the same on both twins and singles.
Big Sid’s 1950 Series B Meteor
Not much of the history of Sid’s Meteor is known until the early 1990s, when the Vincent Owners Club began keeping computer records. Sid bought the bike in 1993 from a VOC member in the London area. According to factory records accessible through the VOC, Sid’s Meteor was ordered from the factory on Feb. 8, 1950, making it one of the last Meteors made. The finished machine was road-tested and then delivered to the Kings Oxford dealership owned by Stan Hailwood, father of the famous racer Mike Hailwood.
Vincents have three identification numbers: an engine number, an upper frame member (UFM) number and a rear frame member (RFM) number. According to the VOC, the engine number on Sid’s bike (F5AB/2/3521) is correct for a Series B Meteor, but the UFM (RC8044) is from a 1951 Rapide, the RFM (RC/1/8537) is from a 1951 Comet, and the timing cover is from a 1950 Rapide. Sid’s philosophy was old-school: “Who cares about matching numbers, just ride it!”
Keen-eyed readers will have noticed that although the Meteor’s engine cases are embossed “Vincent,” the gas tank is marked “HRD” in large letters. 1950 was a transitional year for Vincent, during which the HRD designation (from the days when Philip Vincent bought Howard R. Davies’ motorcycle company) was dropped because of confusion in the U.S. with Harley-Davidson. During the rebranding, bikes were made with cases, tanks and inspection caps emblazoned with HRD, Vincent or a mixture of markings.
Sid enjoyed the Meteor – it was easy to start, comfortable, reliable and handled well. Naturally, he felt it was underpowered and wasted no time making changes to wring more performance from it. Modifications included an 8:1 compression ratio forged CP-Carrillo piston, an Andrews Mk1 cam, a SuperTrapp competition exhaust and a double-speed oil pump. The engine also features a modified breather setup attached at the inlet valve-inspection cap, and the inlet port was opened up from the stock 27mm to 32mm to mate with an Amal Mk1 32mm Concentric carb. A hydraulic damper was added to the rear suspension and the wheels were rebuilt with 19-inch Weinmann alloy rims. A magneto cover and Comet spec prop stands were added. The electrics were upgraded from 6 to 12 volts with a JG voltage converter (still positive earth) and the aging Lucas magneto was replaced with a modern BTH magneto (which is really an alternator with coil ignition).
The compression ratio and carb size are the same as the race-only Grey Flash version of the single, and output is probably somewhere between a stock Meteor (26 horsepower) and a Grey Flash (35 horsepower). Sid’s son, Matthew, told me that in 1998 he and Sid rode their Vincents on several hot laps at Road Atlanta during the AMA Big Kahuna race weekend. With Sid on his Black Shadow and Matthew following on Sid’s Meteor, they were clocked at 105mph down the back straight.
How Sid’s Meteor landed in my garage
I met and befriended Sid and Matthew in 2009 at the Barber Vintage Festival while they were on a book tour promoting Big Sid’s Vincati. Afterward, I stayed in touch with Matthew, talking about his ongoing and planned Vincent projects, and telling him that while I had long dreamed of owning a Vincent, my dream was unlikely to come true unless I won the lottery.
Sadly, Sid passed away in 2013, and new homes needed to be found for his Vincents. Matthew’s preferred ride is a Black Shadow that Sid built for him, and he had no need to keep any of Sid’s bikes. Matthew and Sid had previously discussed the eventual fate of Sid’s machines, and agreed that his Vincents should go to friends and fellow enthusiasts when Sid was no longer around to enjoy the bikes.
Matthew gradually found new homes for Sid’s Rapides and Shadows. The last remaining bike was the 1950 Meteor. In November 2017, Matthew asked me if I’d be interested in serving as the bike’s next custodian. I don’t know if it was because I am now the age that Sid was when he got the Meteor or maybe that Matthew knew I’d respect the memory of Sid by riding the bike and not restore or flip it for a quick buck. Whatever the reason, I was flattered by the offer.
After thinking about it for less than a day, I realized this was probably my best chance to own a Vincent. And not just any Vincent – a rare model that had been built and ridden by someone I liked and respected and who also knew how to build fast Vincents. This was one of those decisions, like getting married or having children, that can’t be approached logically. You don’t do it because it makes sense, you do it because you can’t imagine not doing it. I called Matthew back and told him to hang a “Sold” sign on the Meteor; I’d work out the details later. At the end of December, just in time for the holidays, the Meteor arrived in Texas and was welcomed to its new home.
Riding and maintaining the Meteor
Even though it had been several years since the bike had been ridden regularly, the Meteor was in running condition when she arrived. A new BTH magneto had been installed prior to shipping the bike and the ignition timing required some minor tweaking using a degree wheel. The generator needed minor repair and the ammeter replaced, but other than that, the bike was in quite good shape. I’ve put modern Avon tires on it and found a replacement for the missing tire pump that mounts under the fuel tank (Thanks, Herb Harris!).
On the road, the Meteor is quite comfortable and feels very civilized. I’ve put about 1,000 miles on it, the longest ride being about 200 miles. I’m getting about 60mpg and the tank holds 4 gallons, so the range is well over 200 miles. I’m confident the Meteor would be suited to long days in the saddle.
Here’s how Sid described the Meteor: “Fires up with one easy kick, idles like Big Ben, pulls strong to well beyond the ton. Very near vibration-less through the range. Handles very light, excellent brakes. A marvelous road bike, especially on back country roads.” I have yet to take her well beyond the ton, but I agree with the rest of Sid’s assessment.
My only frames of reference for 500cc British singles are my 1963 Velocette Scrambler and a 1970 BSA 441 Victor I rode many years ago. The Vincent feels more composed than the other two bikes, but it’s not really a fair comparison – the Meteor was designed for the road and the other two are desert sleds. Nevertheless, the fundamental differences in the engines are apparent. They’re all 30-something horsepower, but the Velo and BSA rev quicker whereas the Vincent feels more like a locomotive. The yin and yang of big 4-stroke singles…
The Meteor is equipped with both a compression release and a choke lever, but I’ve found that neither is needed for starting. After freeing the clutch plates by kicking it a few times in neutral with the clutch lever held in, I put it in second gear, roll the bike backwards against compression, select neutral, tickle the carb and give it a kick. She usually starts first kick.
The Meteor is an easy bike to ride, but it’s a machine that doesn’t like to be rushed. It prefers the throttle be rolled open and closed without abrupt changes, and the gearbox is happiest when the selector is nudged, not forced. She’s pretty smooth for a big single – probably due to the narrow and extremely rigid bottom end. The bike builds speed steadily and feels well-composed up to 80mph or so. At this early stage of our relationship, I have too much mechanical sympathy to give it full beans – I’m not in that much of a hurry to get anywhere (Sorry, Sid!).
The ride is much more compliant than I expected it to be. Steering is light and nimble and the Brampton forks soak up the bumps quite well. The brakes are about what you’d expect from 7-inch drums. They will retard one’s progress, but not with great urgency. The brakes are the same as on the much heavier twins, so the singles do come to a stop more quickly than their bigger siblings. This is the first bike I’ve owned with a Smiths Chronometric speedometer – what a marvelously complicated device! I love watching the clockwork needle tick up and down with changes in speed.
Looking down the road
Sid wouldn’t approve of his bike being put on a pedestal or displayed as some sort of icon. He’d want the Meteor to be ridden, as Vincents were intended to be. When components break or wear out, I’ll fix or replace them, but the bike won’t be restored. I plan to keep the Meteor as Big Sid set it up and enjoy riding it as often as I can.
Sid expressed his attitude towards Vincent ownership this way: “You have a rare gift to look after and enjoy, quite like a high-strung racehorse – or a lovely child. She will need your constant attention to her needs and well-being to stay healthy. Give her a carefully chosen name. And love.” Roger that, Sid.
Riding a well-sorted Vincent under any circumstances is a rare privilege, guaranteed to improve your outlook. Big Sid’s Meteor doesn’t look or sound like any other Vincent single – it’s a unique testament to the vision of a special man. I can’t imagine a more satisfying riding experience than sitting astride Big Sid’s Meteor, my hands on the grips he held and my feet on the footpegs where his size 15EEEs used to be.
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