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Vincent Black Shadow

A Spirited Stallion


The Vincent Black Shadow was, in recent years, featured in one of the challenges of the BBC’s flagship motoring programme, Top Gear. In a race against a car and a train from the same era, it came an ignominious last, not even reaching the finish line. It should have won.


In the Top Gear race, the Black Shadow was beset by reliability problems. However, when Vincent’s Series C motorcycles - the racer “Black Lightning” and the road-legal version “Black Shadow” - entered production and became commercially available in 1948, it had amongst the most easily maintained engines available.


Due to the poor quality of oils and fuels, 1950s-era maintenance generally required the engine to be disassembled in order to grind down the intake and exhaust valves, which would build up a coating of residue. The Black Shadow’s engine could be removed from the frame and taken apart by a skilled mechanic in less than half an hour, with barely half a dozen bolts holding the 998cc engine in the frame. The engine itself was actually a structural component of the frame and the frame itself even provided some of the storage capacity for important fluids and lubricants, with the forward sections of it storing the oil.


The engine is believed to have been devised entirely by accident. Supposedly, two schematic diagrams of the 500cc Meteor engine designed by Phil Irving were coincidentally overlaid in roughly the configuration of a V-twin. This became the OHV engine which powered the Black Shadow.


Equally, the controls of the Black Shadow are rumoured to have been inspired by Royal Air Force aircraft flying over the Stevenage factory. The designers created a bike which could be easily operated by a wounded man. Such men may have had a slight shock in their journey, then, because the Black Shadow was known to occasionally throw its rider for no obvious reason. It would not happen especially often but, to this day, no one exactly knows why this widely documented phenomenon occurred. Also, the advance/retard lever was known for breaking more than a few ankles if it was not correctly controlled.


The most famous image of the Black Shadow (indeed, one of the most famous in motorcycling history) is of American racing legend Rollie Free, stretched out over a stripped down bike; himself stripped down to a bathing suit and crash helmet. This was during his successful attempt to break the land speed record on Bonneville Salt Flats on 13 September 1948, achieving a top speed of 150.313mph.


The Black Shadow also had an excellent racing career with Vincent test rider George Brown at the controls, taking records for hill climbing aboard Gunga Din and sprinting on Nero and the supercharged Super Nero.


The standard Black Shadow was guaranteed to do a minimum of 125mph, as displayed on the iconically oversized speedometer. Indeed, there were incidences of riders purchasing a Black Shadow, testing it to see if it would achieve the required speed and, if they found it could not, contacting Vincent HRD. The company would ask them to come to the factory, put them up in a hotel for a few days, diagnose and rectify the problem and send the rider on their way - at in excess of 125mph.


With such a reliable, easily maintained and powerful engine available (for the sum of 50 pounds, at the time, though they are now commonly valued at in excess of £40,000), café racers often put the Black Shadow’s beating heart into the ever-popular Norton Featherbed frame, creating a “Norvin”, though this did require some modification to the gearbox. The engine was extremely highly regarded and was very rarely significantly altered, though some riders later replaced the Miller 6V 45W dynamo with an alternator from a Citroen 2CV to improve the electronics.


Unfortunately, the Black Shadow came about at a time when cheap cars were starting to enter the market. Being twice the price of a BSA Gold Star, the Black Shadow was not particularly common. It proved to be the pinnacle of Vincent HRD’s success, before they eventually went bankrupt in 1959.