"The Vincent Black Shadow is famous for a lot of reasons. Released in the late-40s, into an era of post-war austerity, it was groundbreaking, intimidating and fast enough to turn a pilot’s eyelids inside out. It made such "
Vincent – Night Rider
A neo-gothic speed machine
Look at it. Before we start chatting tech specs and bike biography, just look at it.
Stare at the splaying cylinders, curling mudguards and serpentine exhaust system, each part a pointed, polished contrast to the black. Black fuel tank, blank forks, black headlight surround, black chain guard, black engine cover. Call it midnight, obsidian or whatever you will: if this bike wore any more of it, it’d be a neo-gothic revival. It could only be a Vincent Black Shadow.
The Black Shadow was an icon of the late 1940s biking scene: an all-British, 55bhp machine with a kerbweight the smallest shred over 200kg and a speedo half the size of its headlight. In a crisp, white font, the single clock announces numbers well beyond the damp, drear reality of post-war Britain. 150mph – imagine that, in a world where the Morris Minor was the bleeding edge of family transport.
A standard Shadow wouldn’t run quite that quick but one race-ready example, running a sky-soaring compression ratio, just about pipped the headline figure in 1948. Running on the Bonneville Salt Flats, the bike eventually reached 150.3mph. It didn’t come easily: the rider had to strip near-nude and lie horizontal along his Vincent to grab the last couple of clicks. Factory-fresh road bikes weren’t too far behind, reaching 60mph in barely six seconds and achieving top speeds around 125mph.
Based around the earlier Rapide, which had entered production in the mid-1930s, the Shadow grabbed its extra performance from a series of detail changes: polished ports and conrods; slightly larger carburettors; a higher compression ratio; and stronger brakes. Yet it was a single aesthetic change which swivelled heads: black engine casings, giving the bike its iconic, understated look.
The story behind the finish isn’t quite as glamorous. ‘It’s said that because of poor materials, Vincent were failing a lot of Rapide castings,’ says Ian Savage, managing director of Vincent Spares. ‘They were using icing class to get the castings out but that led to black spots which couldn’t be polished out. Once he found out, Mr. Vincent told them to stop doing that, so they painted the castings black instead.’ Add the mechanical changes and you’ve got a Sports Rapide Black Shadow.
Today, Vincent Spares helps customers keep their classic bikes on the road. Founded by the Vincent HRD Owners Club, the firm can provide almost any part you can imagine. ‘We have two distinct customers,’ Ian explains, ‘the user, who comes in for oil, gaskets and bushes regularly and the restorer, who wants everything. Every call is different but, after the popularity of modifying in the 1970s and 1980s, complete originality is now one of the big things amongst owners.’
In 2005, keen to prove their talents, the firm and the club took parts supply and reproduction to their ultimate conclusion: they built an all-new, all-authentic Black Shadow. ‘It started with one of our club members asking if we could build a complete engine,’ Ian explains. The company had already remanufactured a number of parts but a whole bike was a whole new level. ‘The idea galvanised the club to do it,’ he continues, ‘it meant that drawings were finished, and parts machined and verified. There was a lot of fettling and finishing to do but we knew it wasn’t going to be a simple job.’
‘There were moments in the build where we thought, “Oh heck, we haven’t made one of those… no-one since the factory themselves has!” Those were the parts which never wear out or break: things like the kickstarter and carburettor. We worked with AMAL, the original carb suppliers, who made a new set to fit and we’ve sold another 100 sets since. Going from repairing the old to making new parts was always going to be a leap of faith.’
Two bikes were eventually constructed and yes, they were as good as you’d hope. ‘I road it and it was very close to an original Black Shadow,’ Ian smiles. ‘The only mechanical compromise was a different generator, which was still fairly close to the original. It felt exactly like a Vincent but a new one.
It handled beautifully: slicker; sharper; crisper. A well-made Black Shadow is a glorious thing to ride!’
Photos: Vincent H.R.D Owners Club
CLICK TO ENLARGE