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Vincent Black Shadow: The Ultimate Classic Motorcycle

As you delve into the world of vintage motorcycles, one name stands out among the rest: the Vincent Black Shadow. Produced from 1948 until 1955, this iconic motorcycle has earned a reputation for being a true engineering marvel of its time.

Manufactured in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, England, the Vincent Black Shadow was a standard class motorcycle, boasting a powerful 998 cc (60.9 cu in) 50° OHV V-twin engine with 55 bhp (41 kW) at 5,500 rpm.

Phil Vincent called it the worlds fastest motorcycle and it certainly was. Its impressive top speed of 125 mph made it the world’s fastest standard motorcycle of the day.

As the progenitor of modern superbikes, it shares its DNA with many high-performance motorcycles that followed in its path, much like how the Lamborghini Miura paved the way for modern supercars.

The Vincent Black Shadow was not only about speed, though; it was a stunning visual masterpiece, appealing then and now to collectors and enthusiasts alike.

Its enduring legacy and captivating history make it an emblem of engineering, design, and innovation that continues to captivate the hearts and minds of those who have had the rare opportunity to witness its beauty firsthand.

History and Development

Vincent Black Shadow

Vincent Motorcycles

Before we go any further, it’s important to understand the company behind this iconic motorcycle. Phil Vincent wanted to build the best motorcycle in the world, the new Brough Superior. Back in 1928 when HRD had gone bust, he was advised to buy the rights to it rather than start his company from scratch.

He originally named the company Vincent HRD before later dropping the HRD and changing the name to Vincent Motorcycles.

The company produced motorcycles with advanced engineering and design for that time, earning a positive reputation in the industry.

From Vincent Rapide to Black Shadow

Vincente Rapide B

The journey of the Black Shadow begins with the refinement of the Vincent Rapide’s design. The Vincent Rapide, introduced in 1936, was a powerful motorcycle featuring a 998 cc 47° V-twin engine. As Vincent aimed for a higher performance version of the Rapide B, the resulting Black Shadow emerged in 1948. Some of the changes included:

  • Altering the original 47° V-twin angle to 50°.

  • Utilizing the engine as a stressed member in the frame.

  • Girdraulic forks (girder forks with hydraulic damping)

  • Pioneering cantilever rear suspension 30 years ahead of its time

  • Four speed gearbox

  • Front and rear dual drum brakes

  • Series B and C had an upper frame member (UFM) which doubled as the oil tank.

  • Early Black Shadows had a third inner valve spring

  • Different pistons than the B Rapide

Series C Black Shadow

Of the various iterations of the Black Shadow, the Series C stood out as the most sought-after model.

The Series C Black Shadow gained recognition as the worlds first superbike for its unprecedented performance during the time. Its innovative rear suspension for example would be adopted by the Japanese manufacturers some 30 years later in the 1970s.


1952 Vincent Black Shadow

Engine and Performance

At the heart of this Vincent motorcycle is a 998 cc air-cooled, four-stroke, 50° OHV V-twin engine. The engine’s bore and stroke are 84 mm x 90 mm, with a compression ratio of 7.3:1. Due to its remarkable design it delivered an impressive 55 bhp (41 kW) at 5,500 rpm.

Australian engineer Phil Irving joined the team after Phil Vincent decided his motorcycles should have their own engines rather than use the those built by J.A.P. (J.A. Prestwich Ltd).

Phil Irving designed a 500cc single cylinder engine that was used in the Vincent Comet and Meteor motorcycles.

In 1936 Irving had fused 2 of these single cylinder engines together and created a very powerful V-twin. They fitted it into a frame to test the new engine and it proved to be exceptionally fast. So fast that they called the new motorcycle the Vincent HRD Rapide, the forerunner to the Black Shadow.

The engine enabled the Vincent motorcycle to reach a top speed of 125 mph (201.2 km/h), which made it the fastest production motorcycle in the world at the time.

If you consider that it actually held that title until the 130 mph Kawasaki Z1 was released in 1973, some 25 years later, then you start to realise just what a machine this actually was.

Stressed Member Construction

The Vincent Black Shadow’s revolutionary design featured a stressed member construction. In this type of construction, the engine serves as an integral structural element of the motorcycle.

This design not only reduces weight but also enhances the overall rigidity and handling of the bike. As a rider, you would experience improved stability and more precise cornering, a testament to the innovative engineering involved in creating the Black Shadow.

Aesthetics and Appearance

The aesthetics and appearance of the Vincent Black Shadow are equally as impressive as its performance. This motorcycle combines a sleek and elegant design with striking visual elements, making it a true classic.

The signature black enameling on the engine and frame was achieved by applying a coating of chromate anti corrosion primer followed by t layer of Pinchin and Johnson black enamel. Along with the stunning polished aluminum components, it created a distinctive look that ensured the bike stood out from the crowd.

In conclusion, the Vincent Black Shadow is a fine example of exceptional engineering and timeless design, resulting in a high-performance motorcycle that is both fast and beautiful.

Variants and Special Models

Vincent Black Lightning

The Lightning was a racing version of the Black Shadow, built for those who craved even more speed and performance. Here are a few key points about this remarkable motorcycle:

  • Engine: Features the same 998 cc 50° OHV V-twin engine as the Black Shadow. However, it was tuned to generate around 70 bhp, making it more powerful than its sibling.

  • Top Speed: With its increased horsepower it could reach speeds of over 150 mph, a remarkable feat considering the era it was produced.

  • Racing Success: It made headlines when a heavily modified Lightning by Phil Irving set the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948, with Rollie Free riding it in a prone position, wearing only swimming trunks.

The EP Black Shadow

While details about the EP are somewhat scarce, it’s important to cover in this section. You should note the following:

  • Limited Edition: The EP Black Shadow is believed to be a rare and exclusive edition, with only a few units produced.

  • Unique Features: Unfortunately, there isn’t much information available about the specific features of the EP Black Shadow. However, it likely featured upgrades or modifications that set it apart from the standard model.

A word about the Egli-Vincent

The Egli-Vincent is a custom motorcycle that was created by Swiss motorcycle designer Fritz Egli in the 1960s. It is based on the original motorcycle and around 100 were produced.

The Egli-Vincent Black Shadow features a custom frame made of welded tubular steel, which is stiffer and stronger than the original Vincent frame. It also has a variety of other modifications, including upgraded engine, modern electrics such as an electric starter and improved carburetors.

The Egli-Vincent Black Shadow is highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts and is considered a classic of the cafe racer genre.

Record-Breaking Speeds

Bonneville Salt Flats

Rollie Free

You might be interested to know that the renowned Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah have a deep connection with the Vincent Black Shadow. In 1948, Rollie Free, a motorcycle racer, broke the US motorcycle land speed record riding a modified Vincent Black Lightning on these very salt flats.

This incredible feat helped cement the Vincent Black Shadow’s reputation as the world’s fastest production motorcycle at the time.

Land Speed Records

The Vincent Black Shadow was part of a factory bid to set a new 24-hour speed record at Montlhéry in France in May 1952. Although mechanical failures prevented the attempt from being successful, the event further emphasized the Black Shadow’s high-performance capabilities.

The Vincent Black Shadow featured a distinctive and oversized 150 mph 5-inch speedometer, which was designed to ensure riders were well aware of their speed while pushing the motorcycle to its limits. The odometer clocked the motorcycle’s journey as it achieved impressive land speeds both on the Bonneville Salt Flats and in other racing events.

Remember, the Vincent Black Shadow’s remarkable speed and performance made it a coveted motorcycle in the 1940s and 1950s, and it continues to hold a special place in the hearts of motorcycle enthusiasts to this day.

Impact on Popular Culture

Top Gear

It’s no surprise that a show like Top Gear would feature the Vincent Black Shadow. Widely recognized for its coverage of extraordinary and groundbreaking vehicles, Top Gear showcased this superbike as an example of British engineering prowess.

Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond, the well-known television presenter and motoring journalist, is a fervent admirer of the Vincent Black Shadow. His love for this iconic motorcycle further validates its influence in pop culture.

Hunter S. Thompson

Journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote “If you rode the Shadow at top speed for any length of time you would almost certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the Vincent Black Shadow Society.”

Thompson owned a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle. He famously wrote about his love for the bike in his book “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.”

Jay Leno

Jay owns 10 Vincents including a Shadow and an Egli-Vincent Cafe Racer.

Other notable owners of Shadows have included Steve McQueen, musician Jerry Lee Lewis, and author and journalist Tom Wolfe.

Collectibility and Auctions

Rare Models and Notable Sales

The Vincent Black Shadow is a highly sought-after motorcycle, and its rarity adds to its collectibility. While there are different models of the Vincent Black Shadow, the most iconic and valuable are the Series C and Black Lightning.

In recent years, some notable sales at auctions have gained attention. For instance, an original and unrestored Vincent Black Lightning that once held an Australian land speed record sold for an astonishing $929,000 in 2018. This sale set a new record for the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction.

Value and Appreciation

The value of a Vincent Black Shadow can greatly vary depending on factors such as the model, its condition, and of course, its rarity. To give you an idea of the motorcycle’s value, a 1950 Series C Black Shadow in excellent (#2) condition is currently valued at $100,000. But remember, the market fluctuates and can change over time.

When it comes to appreciation, Black Shadows have shown a significant increase in value over the years. For instance, a 1951 Vincent Series C Shadow was sold for $82,500 in August 2019 at a Bring a Trailer auction. And more recently, a Vincent Black Shadow was auctioned off by Car & Classic for £75,000, which is currently the highest price paid for this particular model.

In conclusion, the Black Shadow’s rarity, collectibility, and potential increase in value make them a desirable addition to any motorcycle enthusiast’s collection. If you’re in the market for a Vincent keep an eye on auction listings and be prepared to act fast if you come across one as these treasures almost always fetch high prices!

Legacy and Influence

First Superbike and Its Impact

The Vincent Black Shadow is regarded by many (including me) as the worlds first superbike, with a legacy that has left an indelible mark on motorcycle design and performance. In post-World War II England, when the country was still grappling with economic challenges, the Shadow emerged as a symbol of innovation and engineering excellence.

Its impact on the motorcycle world is significant and it set a benchmark for performance that competitors would work tirelessly trying to surpass.

When the Shadow achieved a world-record speed of 150.3 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948, it solidified its place in history. This achievement not only demonstrated its unrivaled performance capabilities but also showcased the importance of aerodynamics in motorcycle design.

Influence on Future Motorcycles

The Black Shadows legacy extends far beyond its immediate impact on the motorcycle industry. Its innovative design, commitment to performance, and focus on aerodynamics have directly influenced many motorcycle models that followed.

For example, the Lamborghini Miura, often considered the first supercar, drew inspiration from the Black Shadow’s revolutionary approach to performance and speed. Similarly, the development of modern superbikes can be traced back to the Black Shadow’s groundbreaking performance record.

The Vincent Black Shadow also broke traditional norms by offering variations like the White Shadow and the Black Lightning, catering to different market segments and preferences.

Furthermore, the Black Shadows legacy has had a lasting impact on the world of sidecar racing. Its powerful engine and emphasis on performance revolutionized the sidecar scene, taking it to new heights and inspiring others to push the boundaries of traditional motorcycle design.

In summary, the Vincent Shadow’s influence on the world of motorcycle production and design is still felt today. As you reflect on its legacy, it’s unmistakable how important it has been in shaping the industry and igniting the passion for performance in countless motorcycle enthusiasts across the globe.


Differences between the Black Shadows and Lightnings?

Black Shadows and Black Lightnings were both performance motorcycles produced by Vincent Motorcycles in the mid-20th century. The Shadow was introduced in 1948 and was powered by a 998-cc V-twin engine that produced 55 horsepower.
The Black Lightnings were racing versions of the Black Shadow that was produced from 1948 to 1952. It was built to be lighter and faster, with every necessary steel part replaced by aluminum alloy and anything not essential removed altogether.
These changes helped reduce the weight from 458 lb (208 kg) to 380 lb (170 kg). The Lightning was capable of delivering up to 70 horsepower, making it one of the most powerful motorcycles of its time.
The Lightning cost £500 and the average wage in Britain at the time was £10 so it’s no surprise that only 20 were built and as of today 17 with matching numbers are known to survive.

Is Bernard Li re-launching the Vincent brand?

Bernard Li purchased the Vincent trademarks in 1994 with the idea being to relaunch the company with an updated, modern Shadow. Unfortunately Bernard Li was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2008 before he was able to fulfill his dream.

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Saturday 6th of May 2023

I bought my 1954 Black Shadow in 1956. Back then this bike was the fastest thing around, I bought a 1951 Repide in 1957 just for parts.