Howard Raymond Davies, a young British flying officer, was shot down and captured by the Germans in 1917. To occupy
himself during his seemingly endless hours in captivity, he dreamed of building the perfect motorcycle. Less than
ten years later, in 1924, Davies and his partner E. J. Massey began building the HRD. These stylish, aerodynamic,
JAP (J.A. Prestwitch Co.) powered machines were advanced for their era, incorporating features other manufactures
were years from embracing, and set the standard for motorcycles throughout the 1930's. The motorcycle won the
famous Isle Of Man TT in 1925, setting a speed record of 66.13 mph.
While Davies pursued his ambition, a schoolboy named Philip Vincent, was also dreaming about making his own
motorcycle. Vincent took the first step in fulfilling his dream in 1928 when he left Cambridge University and,
with backing from his family and their cattle ranching business, acquired the trademark, goodwill and few remaining
HRD component parts for £500. The company was promptly named Vincent HRD Co., Ltd., and the logo appeared with
Vincent in very small letters over the top of the bold HRD. The logo remained like this until late in 1949 when
HRD was dropped in order to prevent confusion with Harley-Davidson in the increasingly important American Market.
By 1934, Vincent was making seven different models. Four of these used the first Vincent made 499cc single cylinder
engine, the basic configuration of which never changed. The more than 20 models that were introduced between 1928
and 1934 gave Phil Vincent an ongoing opportunity to experiment with a myriad of new design features.
The legendary Phil Irving joined Vincent as chief engineer in 1931. The first Vincent HRD twin, given the name
Rapide, was introduced in October 1936. It incorporated motorcycling's first fully suspended rear frame. Utilizing
a triangular rear frame with springing under the seat, this feature was used on all Vincents produced from 1936
through 1955. In addition, Vincents bristled with innovations such as foot shift, 4-speed gearboxes and side
stands. The 998cc, air-cooled V-Twin produced 45hp and achieved a top speed of 110 miles per hour. The Series
A Rapide sold for around $600 and was the inspiration for the post-war big-twins. In its time, it had no peers.
Phil Irving departed Vincent to work at Velocette in 1937, only to return to Vincent in 1943 to start plans for
the Series A successor.
Unscathed by German bombing, Vincent was the first company to start producing motorcycles at the end of the war.
For its return to civilian production after WW II, Vincent HRD offered the Series B Rapide, a 998cc V-twin. The
Series B was a dramatically new motorcycle, shattering engineering concepts with its frameless or "monocoque"
design. The front and rear suspension bolted directly to the oil tank which was concealed by an all-encompassing
gas tank. Gone were all the external oil pipes that had caused Vincent engines to be dubbed by some "The
Plumbers Nightmare." Being suspended from the oil tank, the engine appeared, by conventional standards, to be
hanging in mid-air.
The Series B introduction greatly added to the Vincent's reputation and popularity. Twin carburetors and
unusual forward-facing rear exhaust V-twin, gave Vincent-HRD an exciting, new identity among motorcycle
manufacturers, one that did not go unnoticed in America.
Vincent dealerships began springing up in the US in 1944. The first opened in Philadelphia and was owned by
Eugene Aucott. Soon after dealers opened in Florida, New Jersey, Michigan, California and Texas. The Vincent
rush was on, not necessarily as a primary source of dealer income, but simply because the dealers liked
the machine. Comparisons to America's Harley-Davidsons began at once, but there was, of course, no comparison.
One Vincent that became known as the "Rumplecrankshaft," endured a 100,000-mile test without a single
bearing failure. Unfortunately, early gearbox problems cooled American enthusiasm. By 1953 a new shifter
was designed but Vincent's reputation for problems could not be offset by the ease with which it could
Vincent continued to develop other unique features such as a handlebar mounted brake adjuster. A hydraulic
unit replaced twin springs and damper and the rear seat was supported by a sub-frame down to the rear frame
pivot point, providing a fully spring seat with 6 inches of suspension. The rear wheel moved independently
of the seat, resulting in a configuration that would be utilized on most motorcycles in the 1980's. The oil
tank contained a check valve so the oil lines could be disconnected without loss of oil. Wiring could be
disconnected by hand, the battery was held by a hand-spun wheel. It pioneered the "buddy seat", a
novelty in 1946, but within a few years had almost completely replaced the mattress seat throughout the
motorcycle industry. Screen oil and gas filters were a first, and all control levers were fully adjustable.
The famous Black Shadow first built in 1948, was easily recognized by the all black finish of the engine
and gearbox and the big 5-inch, 150 mph Smith speedometer. It could cruise at 100 mph per hour, and would
top out at 125 mph. Based on the Rapide, internal engine components were polished and the gearshift
mechanism was lightened.
It was with the introduction in 1948 of the fully race-prepared Vincent Black Lightning that Vincent emerged
as the most legendary motorcycle of its time. The Black Lightning fired the imagination of motorcyclists
the world over and was known as 'The World's Fastest Standard Motorcycle', a claim it could
have made well into the seventies, nearly twenty years after it ceased production.
The Vincent Black Lightning was available as a custom order machine only and sold for around $1,500.
Besides the absence of street equipment, a few chassis features set the Lightning apart from other
street bikes. The magnesium alloy brake plates were both stiffer and lighter than standard steel
plates, racing tires were mounted to light alloy rims, rear-set foot controls, a light weight
solo seat and aluminum fenders all helped trim the Lightning's weight to 380 lb compared to the
Shadow's 458 lb. Engine specifications varied, but were always based on selection and careful
modification of standard parts along with fitting of higher performance equipment. Engine
performance was rated at 70hp and the Black Lightning could reach 150 mph. Record has it that only
31 Black Lightnings were built, but in the hands of racers around the world, the Black Lightning
did much to enhance the Vincent's growing performance legend.
In the summer of 1955, at a Vincent Owner's Club dinner, Phil Vincent announced that the company
would not longer manufacture motorcycles. The board of Vincent had decided that the company could
no longer function under the continued heavy losses and that production would cease almost
immediately. Rather than abandon company tradition of uncompromised quality, it was decided to
discontinue the complete range of Vincent motorcycles. The week before Christmas, 1955 the last
of these ingenious machines came off the production line and was labeled "The Last." Phil Vincent
promised that parts for his motorcycles would always be available. To this day, parts are made and
sold worldwide by Harper Engineering, who bought the company out of receivership.
The gallant V-Twin is far from forgotten. The Vincent Owners Club is the largest single-brand club
in the world. Vincents are today regarded as one of the most desirable, collectible classics in
the world. A fully restored Black Lightning, or one maintained in original running condition, have
been seen in the market for $125,000, that is about 100 times what it cost new. Many are still
being ridden in speed events the world over and are enjoying a renaissance in the fast growing
sport of classic and antique motorcycle competition.