Historic Motorcycle Brands
Vincent Motorcycles was a British manufacturer of motorcycles from 1928 to 1955. Philip Vincent bought out HRD and formed the brand Vincent HRD, powered by proprietary engines. From 1934, Vincent 500cc single cylinder and 1000cc V-twin engines propelled the world-famous Vincent models.
HRD80 with 500cc racing engine
HRD was founded by the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilot, Howard Raymond Davies, who was shot down and captured by the Germans in 1917. Legend has it that it was while a prisoner of war that he conceived the idea of building his own motorcycle.
In 1924, Davies partnered with E J Massey and trading as HRD Motors. Several models were produced, generally powered by JAP engines.
Unfortunately, although HRD motorcycles won races, the company ran at a loss and, in January 1928, went into voluntary liquidation. The company was purchased for its factory space, so the HRD name, jigs, tools, patterns and remaining components were subsequently offered for sale.
Phil Vincent’s cantilever rear suspension
In the meantime, Cambridge engineering student and motorcycle enthusiast, Philip Vincent, had built a motorcycle of his own design, in 1927 and, in 1928, had registered a patent for a cantilever rear suspension.
Vincent was anxious to produce his own-design motorcycles and was advised to start production under an established name. With the backing of his family wealth from cattle ranching in Argentina, Vincent acquired the trademark, goodwill and remaining components of HRD for Stg£450 in 1928.
The company was renamed Vincent HRD Co Ltd and the new trademark had ‘The Vincent’ in small letters above the large ‘HRD”.
In 1928 the first Vincent-HRD motorcycle used a JAP single-cylinder engine in a Vincent-designed, cantilever-suspension frame. The earliest known example resides in Canberra.
1932 Vincent HRD
In late 1931, Australian engineer, Phil Irving, joined Vincent to work alongside fellow-engineer E J Massey, who had been with the original HRD company. After arriving in the UK, Irving had initially worked on metallurgy with Velocette.
Phil Vincent also experimented with three-wheeled vehicles, amphibious vehicles, and automobiles. In 1932 the first three-wheeler, the Vincent Bantam, appeared, powered by a 293cc Villiers engine. Production ceased in 1936.
Vincent-HRD bikes continued to proprietary engines, but after a disastrous 1934 Isle of Man TT, with engine problems causing all three entries to DNF, Phil Vincent and Phil Irving decided to build their own engines.
1937 Vincent HRD Comet
The first engine designs were the 1934 OHV 500cc, single-cylinder Meteor and Comet sports motors. An unusual feature was double valve guides. Also, the forked rocker arm attached to a shoulder between the guides, to eliminate side forces on the valve stems. That ensured maximum valve life under racing conditions.
The performance bike models were a TT Replica and Comet Special that was a TTR with lights and horn. The Meteor motor produced 26bhp at 5300rpm and the Comet was good for 28bhp.
The Series A Comet could do 90mph (140km/h), but Phil Vincent and his racing customers wanted more.
Inspiration came in 1936, when Phil Irving noticed that two drawings of the 500cc engine lay on top of each other in a ‘V’ formation. He set them out on the drawing board as a V-Twin engine in a longer frame Vincent had made for a record attempt by Eric Fernihough, who no longer required it.
When Phil Vincent saw the drawing he was immediately enthusiastic and a few weeks later the first Vincent ‘Thousand’ had been made, with Meteor upper engine parts mounted on new crankcases. The Vincent V-twin motorcycle incorporated a number of new and innovative ideas, some of which were more successful than others.
Vincent Black Lightning – E Hegeler
With 6.8:1 compression ratio, the 998cc Series A Rapide Vincent produced 45bhp and was capable of 110mph (180 km/h). The Series A had external oil lines that prompted criticism as a ‘plumber’s nightmare’ and a separate gearbox.
The high power meant that the Burman clutch and gearbox transmission did not cope well.
The Vincent HRD Series A Rapide was introduced in October 1936. Its frame was of brazed lug construction, based on the Comet design but extended to accommodate the longer V-twin engine.
It continued the use of ‘cantilever’ rear suspension, which was used on all Vincents produced from 1928 until 1955. Other innovations included a side stand.
1947 Vincent Series B Rapide Special ‘Gunga Din’ – Craig Howell
Innovative telescopic forks were not adopted by Vincent, with both Phils believing girder forks were superior at the time. In 1937 Phil Irving went back to work for Velocette but returned to Vincent Motorcycles in 1943.
Vincent primarily made munitions during World War II, but Vincent engines were trialled in boats and portable pumps. Vincent developed a highly efficient, opposed-piston, two-stroke engine for use in air-dropped lifeboats, but development wasn’t finished before the War’s end.
The Series B Rapide that was designed during the War, was shown to the UK press before end of hostilities. It looked different from the A, principally because the oil pipes were now internal and unit construction allowed Vincent to combine the engine and gearbox into a single casing.
1950 Vincent Series C Black Shadow- Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
The angle between the cylinders was changed to 50° from the 47.5° of the Series A engine, to allow the engine to be installed as a stressed member. This enabled Vincent to reduce the frame to an upper frame, steel box-section backbone that doubled as an oil tank and to which the steering head and rear suspension were attached.
The wheelbase was shorter than the Series A’s and its dimensions were closer to contemporary 500cc bikes.
Vincent used quickly detachable wheels, making wheel and tyre changes easier, and the rear mud guard was hinged to facilitate the removal of the rear wheel.
Different-size rear sprockets could be fitted for quick final-drive ratio changes and the brake and gear shift levers were adjustable for reach, to suit individuals.
Vincent Rapide Series C
Vincent’s advanced cantilever rear suspension was still partnered with Brampton girder forks with friction dampers up front. The two Phils felt that telescopic forks of the time were prone to lateral flex, so they persisted with girder forks, but did eventually use hydraulic damping in the 1948 Series C’s ‘Girdraulic’ forks.
After World War II, Britain had an export drive to repay its War debts. The USA was the largest market for motorcycles and in 1944 Eugene Aucott opened the first USA dealership in the city of Philadelphia. Others followed.
Rolland ‘Rollie’ Free was a motorcycle racer best known for breaking the US motorcycle land speed record in 1948 on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah on a Vincent Black Lightning.
The picture of Free, prone and wearing a bathing suit, has been described as the most famous picture in motorcycling.
From 1950, ‘HRD’ was dropped from the name to avoid any confusion with the ‘HD’ of Harley Davidson and the motorcycle became just ‘Vincent’.
Russell Wright won another World Land Speed Record at Swannanoa with a Vincent HRD motorcycle in 1955 at 185.15mph (297.97km/h).
1947 Vincent Series B Rapide
The USA offered Vincent a lifeline in the troubled post-War financial times, when Indian came looking to Vincent for an engine to replace its aged Chief powerplant.
In 1948, Indian sent a stock Chief to the Vincent company in England to see if the Vincent V-twin engine and gearbox would fit in the Chief rolling chassis.
Phil Irving aboard the ‘Vindian’
The Vincent engineers got to work and accomplished the task in very short order. The OHV engine and its four-speed, foot-change gearbox squeezed into the Indian Chief framet with no major frame changes.
The finished transplant looked like a factory effort and the Vincent engine’s twin exhaust pipes made the Chief look more balanced than the original.
The fastest Black Shadow and Black Lightning 54bhp, race-tuned engines weren’t deemed reliable for ordinary use and American mileages, but the 45bhp Rapide version was and still offered better performance than did the Indian Chief’s pre-War donk.
1949 ‘Vindian’ prototype
Both the English and US companies tested the prototype and found it satisfactory, but nothing came of the ‘Vindian’ exercise that could have made both companies more profitable.
The 1948 Vincent Black Shadow was at the time the world’s fastest production motorcycle. It was capable of 125mph (201km/h) and a large 150mph (240km/h) speedometer was fitted. The bike was distinguished by the black coating on the engine and gearbox unit known as Pylumin. The engine produced 54bhp at 5700rpm in Black Shadow tune.
The Black Lightning was a racing version of the Black Shadow, in which every suitable steel part was remade in aluminium and non-essentials were removed altogether. These changes helped reduce the weight from 208kg to 170 kg). It had a single racing seat and rear-set footrests.
1951 Vincent Grey Flash 500cc – Lars-Goran Lindgren
In parallel with the big V-twins, upgraded, 35bhpVincent 500cc Meteor and Comet singles were introduced, along with a 500cc racer, the Vincent Grey Flash. The Grey Flash racer used Albion gears, for the greater choice of ratios available. The 500 cc bikes used a wet multiplate clutch, while the 998 cc V-twins used a dry, drum-type servo clutch.
John Surtees learnt his racing trade aboard a Grey Flash in the early 1950s.
Most Vincents had black tanks and frames. In 1949 a White Shadow – a Black Shadow mechanically, but with silver engine casings – was available, but only 15 were sold and the option was dropped in 1952.
In 1950, 16 Red Comets were shipped to the United States and there were also 31 Grey Flash models built.
The company name was changed to Vincent Engineers (Stevenage) Ltd in 1952, after serious financial losses were experienced.
Vincent Comet 500cc
The 1954 Series D was a natural progression of upgraded specifications that included modifications to the rear subframe, suspension, seat arrangement and the addition of a hand-operated stand.
Additional new models were created by fitting fibreglass handlebar fairings, with tall screens, leg-shields and side enclosures, creating streamlining to improve rider comfort. The Victor was based on the Comet; the Black Knight on the Rapide and Black Prince on the Shadow, but market response was poor.
1955 Vincent Black Prince – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
Sales of top-shelf, high-performance bikes declined after the post-War boom, owing to the availability of cheaper bikes and motor cars, so not many more than 500 Series D models were made in total.
Only 11,000 machines were sold post–War and the sales slump forced the company to import and sell NSU mopeds in 1954. Vincent also sold the NSU ‘Quickly’ moped – about 20,000 in one year – showing how the market had changed. The lesson wasn’t lost on NSU, which took control of its own sales.
Vincent also tried, unsuccessfully, to break into the light aircraft engine market. In 1955, the company discontinued motorcycle production, following further heavy financial losses.
The factory then turned to general engineering and the manufacture of industrial engines, but went into receivership in 1959.
Post-Vincent, there were the Norvin – Vincent Shadow engine in a featherbed frame – and the Egli-framed Vincent, of which around 100 were produced between 1967 and 1972.
Subsequently came RTV Motorcycles, which put a modernised Vincent engine in an Egli-style frame in 1998; Vincent Motors USA’s Honda-powered V-twin bike and Australian HRD Engineering re-designed, 1000cc-1600cc replicas.
The Phil Irving legend continued
At the end of 1963, Irving was approached by Jack Brabham to design a simple, lightweight and powerful three-litre V8 engine for the 1966 Formula One engine specifications.
This engine was built around the 3.5-litre BOP (Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac) V8 cylinder block and became known as the RB620. It incorporated some signature technology, including Vincent-style valve inspection caps.
Jack Brabham won the 1966 Formula 1 Driver’s Championship and the Manufacturers’ Championship, using this engine.
In 1949 Irving became vice-president of the Vincent HRD Owners Club and continued in that role until the death of Phil Vincent in 1979, when he was made president. Irving held the presidency until his death on 14 January 1992.
Irving was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s 1976 New Year Honours List for his: “services to automotive engineering”.