Vincent Black Shadow
Vincent Motorcycles was a British manufacturer of motorcycles in the United Kingdom from 1928 to 1955. Their Vincent Black Shadow is one of the best known high performance motorcycles of the 1950s. In 1955 the company discontinued motorcycle production due to heavy financial losses.
The legend has it that Philip Vincent dreamt of building a quality motorcycle bearing his own name, just as Howard Davies had, but rather than start from scratch he was advised to start production under an established name. He had built a motorcycle of his own in 1924, and in 1928 had registered a patent for a cantilever rear suspension of his own design. In 1928 Philip Vincent left Cambridge University with an engineering degree and, with the backing of his family wealth from cattle ranching in Argentina, acquired the trademark, goodwill and remaining components of HRD from Humphries for ?500.
The company was promptly renamed Vincent HRD Co., Ltd and production moved to Stevenage. The new trademark had "Vincent" in very small letters above "HRD" writ large. After World War 2 Britain had an export drive to repay its war debts, and the USA was the largest market for motorcycles, so in 1949 the HRD was dropped from the name to avoid any confusion with the "HD" of Harley Davidson, and the motorcycle became The Vincent.
The first model from Vincent was Rapide. However due to demand for a more "Sports oriented model", the Black Shadow was introduced. The model became so popular that the production of the Black Shadow exceeded the production numbers of the Rapide. The Black Shadow was a "Stressed Frame" design. The engine, instead of being cradled in a set of frame rails, was suspended from above becoming an integral part of the structure. The Black Shadow as well as the other post Second World War Vincents featured several new technological innovations such as a unique and original alternative to the primitive telescopic front forks of the day, a sprung rear sub-frame, the extensive use of aluminium alloy and a unit construction stressed engine. It weighed in at a relatively light 458 lb (207 kg) which was about the weight of a pre-war 500 cc bike.
The inspiration for the Vincent Black Shadow was Royal Air Force pilots flying over the factory, and soldiers serving in the war. The designers created a motorcycle that could be operated and maintained by men who had been injured in combat. The clutch could be operated with just two fingers, and maintenance was made far easier than anything previously available.
The reason for its name "Black" Shadow was due to the entire bike (including the engine) being coated with black paint. The reason for the black paint on the cylinder block is still disputed to this day. Some claim that the black paint was for looks, others claim that it had something to do with heat transfer and dissipation. Whatever the original reason behind the painting of the engine, it was very different from anything else at a time when everything was polished and chromed.
Less than 1,800 Vincent Black Shadows were made, all hand-assembled . It is now sought after by classic motorcycle collectors from around the world, and is valued in excess of $50,000 USD in today's market. In the 1960s Vincents were being sold for $200 to $900 at then prices.
The famous picture of a man stretched out in only a bathing suit on a Vincent is not in fact a Vincent Black Shadow but a Vincent Black Lightning. The Vincent Black Lightning was a custom order from the factory and was some 100 pounds lighter and 25 hp more powerful than the stock Vincent Black Shadow. In one of his books, Phil Irving (one of the designers) said that there were only about 16 of the model produced. The Black Lightning is the fastest Vincent ever produced.
As for the famous "bathing suit bike" picture, it is of Rollie Free, an American, riding on the Bonneville Salt Flats on 13 September 1948. Free was determined to break the land speed record in the "Flying Mile." His first pass hit 148 mph (238 km/h), which broke the record, but Free was determined to break 150. Noticing that his riding leathers had started to come apart at the seams from the force of the wind, Free borrowed a bathing suit, cap, and a pair of tennis shoes and laid down on the bike. With the decreased drag, Free broke 150 mph, topping out at 150.313 mph (241.905 km/h), shattering his record of only a few moments before. That bike, also known as the "John Edgar Lightning" after its sponsor, is currently in the private collection of Herb Harris of Austin, Texas.
The Vincent Black Shadow is mentioned in works by Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Kingdom of Fear and "The Great Shark Hunt." In Fear and Loathing, the character Raoul Duke (Hunter S. Thompson's alias) talks about entering a Vincent Black Shadow into the Mint 400, a grueling desert motocross race. This is meant as comic irony since not only is the Vincent Black Shadow deeply inappropriate for off road use but even at the time of writing (1971), the Vincent Black Shadow was considered antiquated and obsolete.
In his essay taken from Cycleworld Magazine called ?Song of the Sausage Creature? Hunter S. Thompson does speak with some affection for the Vincent Black Shadow whilst comparing it to the Ducati 900, describing a bike that was definitely not for the faint hearted or shallow poseur:
"The Ducati 900 is so finely engineered and balanced and torqued that you can do 90 mph in fifth through a 35-mph zone and get away with it. The bike is not just fast -- it is extremely quick and responsive, and it will do amazing things.... It is a little like riding the original Vincent Black Shadow, which would outrun an F-86 jet fighter on the takeoff runway, but at the end, the F-86 would go airborne and the Vincent would not, and there was no point in trying to turn it. WHAMO! The Sausage Creature strikes again. There is a fundamental difference, however, between the old Vincents and the new breed of superbikes. If you rode the Black 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. The Vincent was like a bullet that went straight; the Ducati is like the magic bullet that went sideways and hit JFK and the Governor of Texas at the same time.''
The motorcycle-riding main character of the 1990's action series Renegade, played by Lorenzo Lamas derives his alias "Vince Black" from the Vincent Black Shadow.
Richard Thompson, on his 1991 album 'Rumor and Sigh, has a great song titled "1952 Vincent Black Lightning".