“A phone call to P. C. Vincent explaining my troubles — and the fact that I had been talked into entering for the five lap outer circuit handicap race [at Brooklands] on the following week-end produced the sort of service for which the firm has always been noted. The bike was collected, rebuilt (and between you and me, secretly breathed on, I think) and returned in three days.
“We lined up for the race, and I felt horribly out of place with fearsome track machines on either side, drilled almost transparent with holes, and with handlebars which made me want to laugh. There were plenty of glances at my machine, complete with mud-guards, dynamo, toolbox …
We were off! What fun that ride was and how soon it was all over! On returning to the paddock I was told I had won my Gold Star at 106mph.”
— Jim Kentish, well known mid-20th century British racer, on his first race.
Vincent motorcycles have probably generated more legends per bike built than any other brand. The photo of Rollie Free at the Bonneville Salt Flats stretched out on a Vincent Black Lightning and wearing nothing but a bathing suit has been cited as the most famous motorcycle photo of all time. People still pass around the story of the time George Brown, the works development rider, outran the local police, pushed the Vincent into his garage and had it half apart before the constabulary showed up.
Still on the road
Behind all the stories are real motorcycles, many of which are still taken on the road on a regular basis. A Vincent is one of a handful of bikes built in the 1940s and 1950s that is comfortable at freeway speeds today. It has been estimated that 11,000 were built before Phillip Vincent had to stop production at the end of 1955, and many have survived.
The Vincent Rapide shown here is registered as a 1950, but was actually built in 1949. According to factory notes, which are now maintained by the Vincent Owners Club in England, it was tested on a rainy day that August. The Rapide is now in the care of Mark Stephenson, and he plans to ride it.
Way back when
Phillip C. Vincent was the scion of a wealthy family in Argentina. Sent to school in England, he became fascinated by motorcycles, but was not happy with the bikes on the market in the 1920’s. He designed a cantilevered rear suspension before he left Cambridge University.
Vincent talked his family into financing a motorcycle factory. Advised to buy a name already familiar to the British public, he bought the rights to HRD — racer Harold R. Davies’ motorcycle venture, which had just gone bankrupt. The first Vincent HRD’s were powered by either Rudge or JAP (J. A. Prestwich) single cylinder engines, a common practice before World War II. Many motorcycle companies of the time (including such famous marques as Brough Superior) only made their own frames and a few other components, and assembled their bikes with proprietary engines, forks and clutches. The bikes Vincent built were badged HRD Vincent until 1949, when, concerned that prospective customers in the U.S. would confuse Vincents with Harley-Davidsons, Phil Vincent changed the name on the bikes to Vincent. This Series B is a transition machine, with no logo on the cases.
In 1930, John Gill, an early enthusiast, embarked on a round the world tour in a Vincent sidecar outfit. Traveling through Australia, he lost his sidecar passenger, but found Phillip Irving, a trained engineer who was out of work due to the Depression. Irving decided to go to England with Gill, and kept the outfit running by inventive wrenching. Irving went on to design many of Vincent’s trademark features.
In 1934, Vincent entered three JAP-engined racers in the Isle of Man TT. They all broke down. Furious, Vincent and Irving designed their own single cylinder engine, with valves operated by a forked rocker arm between double guides. The rocker arm was actuated by short pushrods moving on a camshaft sitting high in the crankcase. This arrangement was later used in the Vincent twins. Another innovation was oil feed lines to the top end, a practical idea that some contemporaries derided as “ugly.”
Phil Irving got the idea of a twin when he noticed two drawings of the single cylinder engine, one on top of the other. The resulting 998cc, 47.5 degree V-twin, debuting in 1936, weighed only 45 pounds more than the single but made twice the horsepower, and wrung 45 to 50 miles out of a gallon of gas. The prototype was timed at 108mph at Brooklands, but was nicknamed “plumber’s nightmare” due to the external oil feed lines. About eighty of these Series A twins were built before motorcycle production was suspended in 1939 due to World War II.
The Vincent factory spent the war subcontracting machining work. After hours, Vincent and Irving worked on upgrading and revising the Series A specifications. The clutch was barely strong enough to work with the powerful engine, and a stronger clutch and gearbox were clearly needed.
The result was the Series B twin. The angle between the cylinders was increased to 50 degrees to accommodate a Lucas magneto. Four main bearings supported the crankshaft. Cylinders, pistons and cylinder heads were made from aluminum alloy. A newly designed clutch and gearbox were integral with the engine.
The most radical change was to make the engine a stressed member of the frame, which shortened the twin’s wheelbase to 56.5 inches. A thick backbone, bolted to the engine, incorporated the oil tank. The Series B was introduced in 1946, and stoked by excited press reports (one British magazine said the Vincent was the size of a 500cc TT racer and just as fast) sold so well the factory was moved to a larger facility. Vincents were sold worldwide, with Argentina, the home of Phil Vincent’s parents and sister, being an important market.
England had suffered badly during World War II, and spent much of the ensuing years trying to regain stability. The country had huge war debts, among other problems. The small Vincent company had to cope with material shortages and power outages. These and other problems rendered the factory unable to produce enough bikes to meet demand. In 1947, Phil Vincent had a motorcycle accident, leaving him with head injuries that affected his balance enough to preclude riding.
That year, Phil Irving and George Brown collaborated on a tuned version of the Series B Vincent Rapide, the Black Shadow, which went on sale in 1948. A contemporary British magazine complained wistfully that, “No airfield or stretch of road could be found which would allow absolute maximum speed to be obtained in two directions, against the watch.”
A place that max speed could be achieved was, of course, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where that memorable photo of Rollie Free (an Indiana Indian dealer) blasting through the timers wearing swim trunks was taken. A few production versions of the Free racer were built, known as Black Lightnings. By that time, Vincent was well underway on the next iteration, the Series C, which came in both Rapide (fast touring) and Shadow (faster touring) forms. Aside from several engine modifications, the major change was installation of half hydraulic and half girder forks, known as Girdraulics.
At this point, Vincent ran into headwinds. In 1949, friction between the Peron government of Argentina and the British government cut off trade — and the source of a lot of the Vincent company’s income. Indian became the U.S. distributor for Vincent, which should have helped matters, but the floundering Indian company put little effort into marketing Vincents, and Indian dealers had no idea how to maintain them. Phil Irving went back to Australia and company management was put in the hands of a receiver, E.C. Baillie.
Baillie worked to revive the company. He announced a factory team for the 1950 TT, mounted on Vincent singles. One finished in twelfth place, and the outing had the desired effect of restoring customer confidence and advertising the marque. Vincents sold in record numbers between 1949 and 1952, and the company recovered enough to release the receiver.
Solvency was short lived. The Vincent company got involved in side projects that went nowhere, including a target drone and a 2-stroke marine engine. Another problem project was fiberglass enclosure for the big twins. Fiberglass, an enthusiasm of Phil Vincent’s, was simply not developed enough in the early 1950’s to be commercially practical, and was disliked by many riders.
To make things worse, as the 1950’s went on, many motorcyclists married, started having babies and traded the bike for a washing machine. Sales of both singles and twins slowed. Vincent tried importing NSU small displacement bikes to England, but NSU ended the contract after one year. He tried building a 2-stroke industrial engine, which had some potential. However, Vincent had the idea of using it to power a personal watercraft with a fiberglass hull. The fiberglass melted in the sun, and one of the factory testers drowned while testing the unit. Phil Vincent gave up and filed bankruptcy in 1955.
After a few years when Vincents were just old motorcycles and foresighted people bought all the parts they could get their hands on, Vincent twins started to increase in value. A Vincent Owners Club had been formed in England before Vincent threw in the towel. The group started a spare parts company in order to keep their bikes on the road. Still going strong, the VOC Spares Company has partnered with Coventry Spares in Massachusetts for Vincent owners on this side of the pond.
Mark Stephenson has only recently caught the Vincent bug. Unlike many old bike enthusiasts who started riding as teenagers, Mark’s own children were graduating high school before he started riding — on a 1979 Vespa. “I found the Vespa was a gateway drug for motorcycles.” A 1969 Triumph Bonneville and a 1967 BMW R69S followed the Vespa into the Stephenson garage.
Mark started hearing about Vincents while learning more about his Triumph twin. He met Charlie Taylor, a Vincent enthusiast in his neighborhood, and read up on this British marque. Enthusiasm is contagious, and Mark decided he had to get a Vincent of his own. Charlie told Mark, “You should get a Series B.” He explained that as time went on the factory had to cut corners to stay out of the red. Series B Vincents are also lighter and lower. Mark started looking for a Series B, and contacted Somer Hooker, who has acted as the American Vincent broker for years. Several months ago, Somer called Mark. “I got one for you.”
This Series B was probably originally destined for the Argentinian market. When that closed down, the twin sat for several months until arrangements could be made to export it to San Francisco, which is why it is titled as a 1950 machine It also has no logo on the chaincase. Mark thinks that the tank and chaincase originally said HRD, and when the decision was made to rebrand as Vincent, the chaincase logo was ground off and the tank repainted.
The bike ended up in the Midwest, and was restored a little over twenty years ago by well known Canadian restorer Mike White. White rebuilt the engine, had the frame and sheet metal repainted, and laced the wheels with stainless spokes. Stainless steel fenders replaced the original aging aluminum. White also treated the machine to a 12-volt electrical conversion. The bike probably had 18,308 original miles when Mark bought it. The last owner began to have health issues and hadn’t started the bike in a couple of years.
When the bike showed up on his doorstep, it was all there but in need of a little TLC. Mark went to work. He cleaned the carburetors (Amals, upgraded from the originals), changed the oil and had new Avon tires, tubes and rim tape installed. Avon grips, a bar end mirror, and a tire pump came from Vincent Spares in England. Stock short black bars replaced the aftermarket chrome bars on the bike. New rubber pegs replaced the old tired footpegs. While the wheels were off, Mark installed a new 48 tooth sprocket and chain and replaced the inspection caps. “I left blank caps where the originals were blank.” A new valve lifter handle came from Mike’s Indian Parts.
The most time consuming repair was the clutch reconditioning effort. Mark explains that if a Vincent sits for some time, the seals dry out and the clutch slips. Neighbor Charlie rebuilt the clutch with Mark assisting. “It was a learning experience. We had to replace some springs and all the seals.”
Mark continues: “I need to learn how to maintain my bike, but the Vincent Owners Club is good with advice. It’s a vibrant motorcycle community. A lot of the people in the VOC suggested sticking with the original clutch. It’s complicated — about a hundred parts — but it works.”
The clutch fixed, Mark and the Vincent went out for a ride. “I was shocked. It’s the best riding bike I have. I took it on a twisty road and it really handles well. It is surprising for such an old bike. I’m getting the starting pattern down, so I can get it going on the second or third kick.
“It will do freeway speeds easily — which is surprising for a bike of its age. It’s easy, smooth — no vibration in the mirrors, sure footed handling and solid as a rock. I love it.” MC