Vincent Motorcycles - a very British story
Think of classic British motorcycles and most people can tell you a story about Norton or Triumph. However, it was Vincent Motorcycles that really started it all off - one of the most revered brands in motorcycle history.
Andy Carr speaks to Tim Kirker, President of the Vincent Owners Club about one of most unusual backstories in motorcycling...
“In my view, the Vincent really was the first successful British Motorcycle – they were definitely the best tourer,” Tim explains. “The technology and power had not been seen before, but [as a company] they really were tiny. They only made around 11,000 bikes in their short history. For comparison, Hinkley [the home of Triumph] were turning out 30,000 Bonnies every year!”
So why then does the Vincent name resonate so loudly in the motorcycle history books?
Tim explains that the original company, HRD, was started by a fighter pilot named Howard Davis who was shot down and incarcerated by the Germans in World War I. So the very first Vincents weren’t called Vincent at all.
The story goes that after Davis returned home from the war, he and pal EJ Massey made some successful machines with a great track record on the racetrack under the HRD name. They sold them in small numbers, but they struggled to balance the books.
“The ‘HRD’ that you see on the tank represents the initials of the creator of the very early bikes: Howard Raymond Davis.”
Enter Phil Vincent
In 1928, shortly after Davis had sold the ailing business, Phil Vincent stepped in; buying the company from the receiver for a paltry sum.
“He picked up what was left of the company – the name, some tooling and the engineering plans for £450.” [approximately £15k in modern money]
Phil Vincent was the son of a wealthy Argentinian beef magnate. He was a talented engineer keen to put some of his ideas into production, but without an established brand, he feared he would fail.
“Phil Vincent was a great design engineer,” says Tim. “He came up with one of the first rear suspension systems. At the time, most people would have thought he was mad; believe it or not, most believed rear suspension was actively dangerous. He wanted a name with a reputation and HRD became available at just the right time.”
Vincent snapped up the brand and all that went with it. He added his name and Vincent HRD Co. Ltd, was born.
“The first bikes were pretty crude – agricultural you could say, and plenty still do. Back then materials were scarce and I guess the guys would trade whatever they could find – a bit of mild steel here for something more exotic there.
“They didn’t start off with their own engines either, most makers didn’t back then – and particularly in early HRDs. It was more of an assembly process and lots of people used JAP engines in their own design frames.”
When Phil met Phil
Vincent went racing, competing at the Isle of Man TT. The JAP engines were fast but unreliable, so they struggled with consistency. It was not until a partnership with Australian engineer Phil Irving changed the direction of the company for the better. The partnership had already started, but it took time before it really clicked. But when it did…
“Phil Vincent had hired his pal Phil Irving, a well-known Australian engineer. They went racing and did well, but they had reliability problems. At the IOM, they had one engine failure after another and it took a toll on their patience. They decided enough was enough and that they’d have to build their own.”
Phil Irving was a talented engineer who settled in the UK, working at first for Velocette. He and Vincent worked together, on and off, for years and later Irving employed his talents in F1. He went on to build the engine that powered Jack Brabham to his 1966 world title.
At Vincent, resolved to build his own engines, Phil Irving set about creating a reliable power plant, which would feature in several models over the next few years. Things were going well and the standards they were setting were drawing attention from the UK and American markets.
Now they needed more power.
As legend has it, Irving was sat at his drawing board with two sketches of their successful 500cc OHV engine, side by side. He is said to have laid one over the other, lined up the centrelines of the crankshaft and seen the future: a 1000cc V-Twin.
“It was when Vincent got into big twins that things really started to happen. They used the basic design of the successful 500 to create a monster V-Twin. Nothing could touch them at the time”.
The big V-Twins breathed life into a bike that secured Vincent’s place in the history books. Nothing was faster, and the combination of Irving’s massive power plant, and Vincent’s innovations in suspension were game-changing for the company – they would leave a legacy that can still be seen in today’s motorcycles.
“Vincent came up with stuff that most people think someone else invented,” explains Tim, picking up the story. “They were the first to install rear suspension on a bike, and their design – effectively a mono shock – was later adopted and patented by the likes of Yamaha. You still see the basic design in use today. In later bikes [the 1946 Series B], Vincent used the engine as a stressed member in the frame design – an approach favoured by the best lightweight sports bikes today.
With the big V-Twin they had to be on to a winner. The engine first appeared for sale in 1937 when Vincent launched the Vincent HRD Series A Rapide. The big bike was capable of a whopping 110mph – a lot for 1937!
Vincent Motorcycle's American adventure
More big V-Twins followed and, in 1948, the growing popularity of British bikes across the pond led Indian Motorcycles to approach Vincent. At first Indian sent their own bikes, hoping that the Irving power plant could somehow be squeezed into one of their existing models, but this approach was flawed from the start. Eventually, Indian Motorcycles agreed to distribute the Vincent HRD bikes in the American market.
“Indian (Motorcycles) were massive at the time, but they couldn’t sell a bike with HRD on the tank – it would have been too confusing for customers as they were competing with Harley-Davidson.”
So, in 1950, the HRD name was dropped.
The record books
With the arrival of the Black Shadow and Black Lightening, Vincent was convinced they were building the fastest bikes in the world. So were their customers here and in the USA. But it wasn’t proven.
On the morning of September 13 1948, any doubt was settled. Roland ‘Rollie’ Free, a motorcycle racer, took a Black Lightning (or Black Shadow – no one knows which) out on to the Bonneville Salt Flats, aiming to break the motorcycle speed record.
These Utah salt flats expand across an otherwise empty desert and were becoming a Mecca for engineers and car makers, keen to prove the mettle of their metal.
Rollie knew that he could set a record that day, and he was not going to be beaten.
After several runs in a specially designed protective suit, he was incredibly close to breaking the 150mph mark. The suit he had built to protect him had ripped in places but, as close as he got, he could not quite hit the magic 150mph mark.
“He knew the bike could do it, but he just couldn’t get it there. He needed to be more aerodynamic. Discarding the suit, helmet and gloves, he took off his clothes and laid out on the seat like Superman.”
On the next run – wearing nothing more than Speedos and a shower cap – Roland ‘Rollie’ Free broke the world motorcycle land speed record, recording a speed of 150.313mph.
“Everyone has seen the picture,” says Tim, smiling. “Rollie Free on the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah – stretched out in his swimming trunks at over 150mph. The picture is instantly recognisable… and the bike is a Vincent.”
The image earned the bike the nickname ‘Bikini Bike’ and remains one of the most iconic motorcycling images of all time.
The last of the original Vincents
It was unequivocal. Vincent made the fastest bikes in the world. Over a flying kilometre or over the mile, nothing could keep up.
After the Black Shadow and the bikes that immediately followed, Vincent enjoyed some fleeting commercial success. The bikes were not cheap, though. All this power and technology came at a price. The equivalent Norton cost half the price of a Vincent and there were just not enough customers who could afford one.
“It was not just the finances and the sales slump,” Tim explains.
“The trouble was that Vincent bikes were pretty bomb-proof. You had to do something pretty catastrophic to write one off, and they were reliable too. Basically, if you bought one, you never needed to buy another.”
Irving eventually left the company but the pair remained friends. The pair were reunited when Vincent wrote to Irving asking him for his help to design a groundbreaking new lifeboat engine to help save downed airmen. They worked on the project together, but the contract never came off.
Desperate to balance the books, the company chased various contracts for the Ministry of Defence and others. They dabbled with importing scooters and smaller machines, but the time and resources invested never quite translated to sales success.
Failed adventures and the complexity of their stock in trade made to the exacting high standards they insisted on could not be sustained and, in the winter of 1955 just before Christmas, Phil Vincent announced that he was ceasing production and the very last Vincent rolled off the line at the Stevenage plant.
Vincent motorcycles today
The Vincent HRD Owners Club, originally set up by Vincent and today run by Tim and his committed team, are the biggest force in the quest to keep the Vincent name alive. They are doing everything in their power to keep the remaining bikes alive, including building brand new ones.
“Other people have tried to bring the bikes back,” says Tim, impassioned. “The most tragic of which was the tale of Vincent Motors USA, owned by Bernard Li. Li invested millions in the development of a modern Vincent, using Honda engines. American investors loved the idea of resurrecting Vincent, but hated the idea of a Japanese power plant. Li went back to the drawing board to source new engines but, before he could get a new bike together, he was killed in a motorcycle accident while riding with friends. So the project never happened.”
Later, after Phil Vincent’s death in 1979, Phil Irving became President of the Owners Club and Tim Vickers, now bestowed with the honour of President of the Club, recognises the huge responsibility that comes with his position.
Tim and his colleagues do everything they can to keep the remaining bikes on the road. The bikes were rare in their day, so good ones are even harder to find now.
“As a club, we own the VOC Spares Company. So, we know we can keep bikes on the road. We’ve re-engineered or, in some cases, created parts from original drawings – enough parts to make a whole new bike. The great thing is that our members like to ride their bikes. I am sure there are plenty in museums, hidden in barns or garaged as rock solid investments, but our members like to ride their bikes”.
While there’s plenty of incentive for members to wear out parts, some find it extremely difficult.
“The bikes were really reliable. A man called Tony Rose, a travelling sales rep, set out to do 100,000 miles without major servicing. Apart from a few oil changes and maybe a de-coke, his old Vincent did it, with no complaints.”
The club want Vincent riders to have access to the parts they need but, while the club hold a controlling stake in the VOC Spares business, they, like Vincent, have had their ups and downs too.
“The parts company was really struggling 10 years ago. We were in a really tricky situation, but we are over that now and the company has a healthy turnover in the region of £500k. And, despite the fabled reliability of the bikes, the demand for new parts keeps coming.”
Three years ago, a bike was brought to Tim’s attention that had completed 735,000 miles. That is quite literally, to the moon and back, and back again.
But their commitment goes much further than fixing up old bikes and keeping them surging on.
“The Vincent supply chain keeps – or kept – so much of the knowledge needed to rebuild or recreate parts. That is just the way they did things back then. Someone made this, someone made that. If they made it right, Vincent might ask them to make it again. If you look in the original parts catalogue, you would look up a part number and it would simply say something like – ‘for this part, speak to Smith & Co’ – who would be the company that were machining the cams for them, or such like. Many, if not all of those guys are probably out of business, and if they weren’t, there aren’t any drawings so it would be impossible to keep control of quality.”
Frank Griffin, a Dutch engineer with close ties to Tim is redrawing many of the engineering drawings from parts, so that there is a proper record in place.
The records are not complete yet, but using what they do know and the parts they have, the Club has recently completed a totally new machine, built precisely to original specification.
“For Frank, the work is a labour of love, but it is so important that we keep the brand alive. The bike was a huge project too. It caused a few arguments amongst members. There are lots of choices with a project of this nature. If the materials we have available today could be used in place of cruder materials or metals, we had to discuss that, so it generated some lively debate.”
Once the bike was unveiled, the club were rightfully proud of their work, and so was the public.
“It was really popular, as you might imagine. This was the first original Vincent since production stopped in 1955. The motorcycle media were really interested in the project, and, in theory, if there is that demand, I think we could definitely build more.”
So powerful are the brand and the nostalgia for it in the collectors’ market that the new Vincent was snapped up at auction for £35k.
“The bike looked incredible and sold for roughly what it cost us to produce, which was great. We’re not the only ones who have tried to resurrect the brand, though. Several have tried and I am quite sure others will continue to do so. It would be great to put a Vincent back into production one day.”
If they did, it seems they would have no shortage of interest. Considering the company built such a small number of bikes, the club itself has plenty of members. There are 2,500 members worldwide: 1,400 in the UK and many overseas, including a big following in the USA and Australia.
“You can find one of our members almost anywhere in the world, so there is never a shortage of people to talk to, catch up with or stay with. It is one of the perks of such a close-knit but widely spread membership. The bikes bring us together”.
The bikes themselves, however, are extremely scarce. Finding one is tough and affording to buy one is another challenge altogether – too much for most.
“Our members come from all over the world and all walks of life, from fitters to bankers. The truth is that you need to spend some money to get your hands on a Vincent. If you could find a pre-war HRD V-Twin, you’d be looking at parting with upwards of £250,000. Even a Comet single cylinder would set you back £10-12k and, to put a good Black Shadow in the garage, you’d need at least £50,000. This does mean that, while we welcome new members all the time, it is getting harder to get into ‘the club’. The bikes themselves are so rare and so, naturally I suppose, they remain very expensive.”
Having access to a ready supply of parts means they can keep the trips and ride-outs coming, and this means that the remaining Vincents don’t tend to sit around collecting dust. As co-founding members of the BMF, they also play an active role in the wider community and they are a sociable bunch too.
“The club is really sociable – very friendly and welcoming – and it just keeps going. We meet up whenever we can and every year we have a big international meet that is always really well attended. Our 50th Anniversary meet was held in Pennsylvania, USA and people came from all over the world.”
Vincent HRD motorcycles timeline
1917 - WW1 Fighter pilot, Howard Raymond Davis is shot down and captured by the Germans. He occupies his mind dreaming of designing bikes.
1924 - Davis returns home and immediately hires EJ Massey as partner. Together, they create the first HRD (named using Davis’s initials).
1928 - Despite an impressive record on the track using JAP engines, the numbers do not add up and Davis and Massey put the company into receivership. Enter Phil Vincent, who buys the company from Ernest Humphries, the new owner, for £450. That year, Phil Vincent produces the first Vincent HRD with a JAP engine and his own innovative cantilever frame, a precursor to the mono-shock.
1928 - Vincent HRD Co Ltd, is born.
1931 - Australian engineer Phil Irving joins the team.
1934 - The first ‘all Vincent’ engineered bike is produced – the Vincent Meteor, with a 500cc OHV engine.
1948 - Roland ‘Rollie’ Free breaks the world motorcycle land speed record on a Vincent HRD.
1955 - 11,000 bikes built and the last Vincent rolls off the production line as the company is wound up.