in the year, David Wright pointed out to me that March
14, 2008 would be the centenary of the birth of Philip
Conrad Vincent. I could not discover any special events
being planned at that time by various chapters of the
Vincent H.R.D. Owners Club, and I thought, “Why
not toss together a little Motohistory tribute to the
man and his machine?” I passed the idea by Wright,
Bill Hoddinott, and Sid Biberman. I thought we might create
a little monograph with writings by a couple of Vincent
experts on either side of the Atlantic. Then the networking
began and the excellent writings began to flow in. With
tributes and testimonials from the 13 experts published
here, we simply ran out of time. I am painfully aware
that there are other respected Vincent experts who deserve
to be included, and to them I sincerely apologize.
also need to say some words about editing. Technically,
editing was not difficult, because these are all skilled
writers. But I had some trouble finding an “editing
philosophy.” In addition to the unique features
of individual style, there are characteristic differences
between British and American English in punctuation, sentence
structure, vocabulary, and spelling especially. The last
thing I wanted to do as an editor was homogenize this
rich mixture and destroy the individual and cultural flavor
(flavour?) of the contributors. As we all know, England
and America are two nations separated by a common language,
and I felt it my obligation to keep it that way. Thus,
I have edited as lightly as possible in the interest of
maintaining the heart and soul of each individual who
has worked so hard to support this project. Spelling is
inconsistent between British and American contributors,
and it is intended to be that way.
I sincerely thank everyone who contributed, and apologize
to those I had to turn down due to the limits of time.
I hope Vincent lovers the world over will enjoy our Centenary
Tribute to Philip Vincent.
– Ed Youngblood; March 14, 2008.
Sid Biberman, Jacqueline Bickerstaff, Kevin Cameron,
Marty Dickerson, Roy Harper, Herb Harris,
Jerry Hatfield, Bill Hoddinott, Somer Hooker,
Stuart Jenkinson, Bruce Main-Smith, Glenn Shriver, and David Wright
Scroll down, or
click on the name above to go directly to that individual’s
The Vincent, the Bard
By Sid Biberman
|I have been a Vincent man since
my first thrilling ride on a pal’s Shadow in 1950 along
remote country roads not far from Norfolk, VA, then my hometown.
The experience inspired me to get one for myself, a goal I achieved
in 1951 when, while helping a local Indian dealer prepare for
a big hot rod show, I stumbled across a beautiful red touring
Rapide, still in its crate. My attachment grew still greater
after I was able to visit Stevenage and tour the Vincent Works
in 1953. A GI on leave, I traveled from my base in Germany,
and as luck would have it, my visit coincided with that year’s
annual Vincent Owners Club Rally.
That trip -- and a subsequent visit -- remain high points of my life. I toured the factory, met many luminaries, including Mr. Vincent, and saw many fabulous machines, among them the Works racing mount Gunga Din. That vision would later lead me to develop my own Rapide. Although I campaigned it successfully at the drag strip for many years, I always dreamed of taking it to Bonneville.
These experiences are especially fresh in my mind at the moment because my son, Matthew, is busy writing a book about our joint effort to build a Vincati, a special comprised of a 1,000cc Vincent motor mated to a Ducati GT chassis. A stickler for details, Matthew dug up the club magazines that contained accounts of that 1953 Rally and pressed them into my hands, and indeed turning those brittle and browned pages conjured up a lost world.
What really caught
my eye was an account supplied by Rollie Free. In it he details
his recent efforts at Bonneville in September of 1953 when
he set a new American Record with an average of 160.78 mph.
He did five runs, but admits that he remembers little beyond
the first pass because he was suffering mightily from sun
stroke. He writes, “It is a fact that we now have had
four Vincents in the USA exceed 150 mph, one of them on gasoline
(one way on the salt, of course). We also now have two of
these four machines which have topped 160 mph on fuel for
two way averages. The John Edgar machine 150.313 mph two ways
[on methanol], Marty Dickerson over 150 one way [on gas and
with 8 to 1 compression], Joe Simpson 160+ two ways [fuel],
and my Dennis Minet tuned machine [on fuel] . . . No one can
say a Vincent does not handle well—for at 160 mph and
not in possession of your thinking facilities, shows that
you do not actually steer a Vincent, it steers itself!”
And remember, all of these achievements were done on standard
machines! Looking back on it now, I can say this was truly
a historic moment, one that propelled the Vincent into the
legend it remains.
And now, 100 hundred years after Phillip Vincent’s
birth, his gifts shine even brighter. But to fully appreciate
that legacy, one needs to acknowledge the remarkable design
team he put in place. Among them, Phil Irving stands most
prominent. Together, the two Phils made a supreme team. They
complimented each other perfectly. Vincent brought uniqueness
and daring. Witness, for example, his innovative swinging
rear frame section-now termed the mono shock. It is found
almost universally today among performance-oriented motorcycles.
Irving, on the other hand, drew from an almost unequalled
of past design practice. As R. C. Cross notes
in his introduction to Irving’s classic "Motorcycle
Engineering," here was a man who “combines first-class
technical engineering with sound common sense.” Cross
goes on: “Not only is Phil Irving capable of saying
what he means firmly and believing with all his heart in
what he says, but he can also write with equal lucidity
and conviction.” No wonder then that Irving’s
books remain essential texts for any aspiring engineer.
the best way to understand why the Vincent possesses its
uncanny character is to consider how its creators came to
view what they had done. As Roy Harper records, late in
life Vincent confessed that he regards his motorcycles “with
affection, but thinks they are old fashioned” because
even then he was caught up in a new dream, the so-called
Series E. When Irving—with whom I had a long-standing
friendship—broke off writing his autobiography because
he found himself too close to death to continue, he dashed
off one final note to his publisher: “It is not easy
to decide which of my designs has been the most satisfying
but on reflection I would have to say the Black Shadow.”
And then, in a move that reflects the man, Irving provided
an explanation for his choice. He writes, “it was
the most satisfying because of the breadth of its achievements.”
For me, the contrast captured in these two comments couldn’t
be more clear. In one we see Vincent, ever the idealist,
while in the other we see Irving, ever the realist; but
what a gifted realist he was.
Together, this team, along with the many dedicated men and women who punched in at the Works, gave the world a motorcycle that remains a benchmark for the sport. The Vincent will endure because it combines performance with beauty in a way that will never be achieved again. This is so because, like that other English classic, Shakespeare, the Vincent is now for all time while also reflecting firmly its own time.
About the author:
As a young man, Big Sid raced a methanol fueled Vincent
dragster, collecting more than forty trophies. He has worked
on motorcycles - usually British and often Vincents - for
over 50 years, and his customers' machines have won many
awards in competition and in shows. Big Sid also enjoys
writing and has published widely. With Matthew Biberman,
his son, he wrote “Vincents with Big Sid.”
A new book entitled “Big Sid's Vincati,” by
Matthew, is forthcoming from Hudson Street Press in June
2009. Sid and Matthew Biberman are pictured above with their
famous Vincati hybrid.
An Appreciation of Philip Conrad Vincent
By Jacqueline Bickerstaff
It is 100 years since Philip Vincent
was born, 80 years since he started the Vincent H.R.D. motorcycle
company, and sadly 50 years since the Amanda water scooter
project failed and the Receiver came again, leading to PVC's
company being sold the following year, although it had ceased
the manufacture of motorcycles in 1955. It is also 60
years since the Black Shadow was announced – a name
which continues to resound in the world of motorcycling. The
Black Shadow and Black Lightning alone would be enough to
warrant the Vincent legend, but Phil Vincent should be remembered
PCV, as he was known
in the press, was born and educated in England, although his
parents lived in Argentina, where they raised prime livestock.
He was headstrong from the start, and ended his Cambridge
studies prematurely. His interest in motorcycles had started
late, but by this time he had his own ideas, including his
patented form of spring frame. The story of his buying the
H.R.D. name (but not directly from Howard Davies) and commencing
manufacture of Vincent H.R.D.s has been well told! So too
has the story of Phil Irving joining the firm, and their branching
into design and manufacture of their own engines, including
the V-twin Rapide when Irving saw two single cylinder tracings
superimposed and realised not only that many engine parts,
but also production jigs, could be re-used. It was from this
base that the two Phils developed the post-war Rapide, the
legendary Black Shadow, and the racing/record-breaking Black
It was with these
models that private owners began breaking national and world
records, one of the most famous being Rollie Free, who broke
150 mph at Bonneville in his bathing trunks, on a specially
prepared machine which was listed on its build sheet as a
Black Shadow, but advertised by the factory as the first Lightning.
In racing, the 1000cc capacity limited opportunities, but
where they could compete they were successful. In Australia
they became the dominant force in sidecar speedway, and Vincents
featured in sprinting and drag racing for decades. The factory,
too, raced and went record breaking at Montlhery in 1952,
to take records up to 11 hours, including 6 hours and 1000
km at over 100 mph. Had the heat been less, and the big-ends
of racing pattern, they might have been the first to achieve
100 mph for 24 hours, instead of Velocette (who bravely took
the record later with another roadster, using their 500cc
Venom). His staff advised against using the standard, crowded,
big-ends, but PCV stubbornly insisted. Was he wrong to jeopardise
the record, or right to demonstrate what he sold? To crown
this period, in 1955 Burns and Wright captured the solo and
sidecar world speed records.
But these feats
have overshadowed other achievements, which should be remembered.
Vincents are not usually respected for their racing, but were
one of relatively few UK manufacturers who entered teams in
the TT in the thirties, and the fifties. It would not be fair
to credit PCV, who was only a boy at the time, with H.R.D.
TT wins of the 20s (Senior in 1925, Junior in 1927), but the
factory was well enough regarded to be approached by JAP to
use their experimental race engines in the thirties. Riders
included Manliffe Barrington, C.J. Williams, and Jock West,
and even Eric Oliver rode a Vincent H.R.D. in the TT before
the war. Before the Vincent entries (and those of Moto-Guzzi),
rear suspension was unfashionable, but afterwards it began
to appear on the major marques, such as Velocette and Norton.
The factory were
innovative in other respects, with their twin brakes on each
wheel, a banking sidecar for the proposed 1933 sidecar TT,
and in 1936 a supercharged 500cc appeared at the TT (although
raced normally aspirated). Soon the major factories, BMW,
AJS, and Velocette (who had also earlier experimented with
their ‘Whiffling Clara’) were all drawing up supercharged
machines, although most would be made obsolete by the post-war
FIM ban on supercharging. Most post-war Vincents were made
whilst the factory finances were marginal (in fact they were
probably always marginal) and a Receiver in charge, but they
still managed a 1950 team of Grey Flashes for the TT (best
finisher Ken Bills 12th at 84 mph). George Brown was a top
racer, both at the TT and on short circuits, before he turned
to sprinting and became the top man in that sphere with ‘Nero’
and ‘Super Nero.’ The great John Surtees was apprenticed
at Vincent H.R.D. and started his racing career riding private
and factory Grey Flashes.
Not only did riders
gain experience on Vincent H.R.D.s, so too did engineers.
Phil Irving is, of course, the best known, credited with much
design work on the motorcycles. But PEI worked at other
factories too, not least Velocette (where he designed the
adjustable suspension and laid down the initial concept of
the LE), yet it was only at the Vincent works that he was
given the freedom to exercise his talents to such good effects.
Phil Irving would later go on to design the F1 winning Repco-Brabham
engine. Matt Wright, one time designer at New Imperial, and
later designer at AJS, spent time at Vincent H.R.D., as did
Jack Williams, the engineer who went on to develop the 7R
‘Boys Racer’ so effectively that it remained a
mainstay of 350cc racing for many years. Other engineers moved
on into the automotive and aerospace engineering fields. Indeed
Stevenage’s place as a centre of the aerospace industry
is not unconnected with the development of a skilled workforce
after Vincent H.R.D. came to the sleepy small town in 1928.
PCV was a strong-willed,
autocratic engineer, difficult and stubborn, some staff would
say, but always looking to innovate. His patents included
chain gearboxes achieving maximum ratios from minimum hardware,
a 3-cylinder, 6-piston, twin-crank two-stroke engine developed
for lifeboats, and enclosed ‘Monocar’ designs
which were never progressed. After he left the Vincent company
he continued as a designer, his most passionate project being
a multi-cylinder rotary engine, pictured here. PCV ran out
of time, but not before he had collaborated with other engineers,
and shown his ideas around major factories such as BSA. Who
is to say what cross-fertilisation even these later years
The PCV rotary engine
Phil Vincent was flattered by the continuing interest in his motorcycles, but he was never a man to live in the past, and always had new designs for the future. Vincents, and especially the Black Shadow, have deservedly become legendary motorcycles. Nevertheless, there was more to PCV than just the Black Shadow, so next time you see one of these treasured motorcycles, note the name on the tank, and remember Philip Vincent.
About the author:
Jacqueline Bickerstaff has been riding her Vincent Rapide
– already a high-mileage machine when acquired by her
father – for more than 30 years and 230,000 miles. She
also owns a 1926 H.R.D., made by Howard Davies' original company,
on which she has toured extensively around the world. Jacqueline
has served in various offices in the Vincent Owners Club (VOC),
including a long spell as the Technical Officer, helping members
to keep their Vincents on the road. She is a professional
engineer, currently working on GPS satellite navigation systems,
and a freelance writer, often using the ‘nom-de-plume’
PUB after the licence number of her Rapide. She has written
extensively about classic motorcycles, Vincent H.R.D.s in
particular, and is the author of the Restoration guide “Original
Vincent” (now out of print). She is pictured above with
Rapide, PUB335, at the TT Grandstand after the 2007 Vincent
parade at the Isle of Man.
Vincent at One-Hundred
By Kevin Cameron
everything in this world can benefit from research and development.
Some technical solutions are so apt that there is no need
– a favorite example is the tablespoon. Another such is the
cylinder-head-bridging backbone chassis of the postwar Vincent
twins. John Britten quite candidly acknowledged the relationship
between his V-twin and that original, even though his version
was updated by use of carbon material.
One of the hardest things for humans
to do is to abandon traditional ways for better. Very often,
nature or necessity presses us to do this, to find a simpler,
more direct solution, but our old ways comfort us and we become
adroit at defending them. Vincent and Irving were pushed by
circumstance into engine design, for the JAP singles they
had run in 1930s TTs became unsatisfactory. Their own design
was a response to obvious concerns and is not especially ingenious
when compared to others of the time, such as the radial-valve
Rudge or various OHC designs. Did two drawings of that single
happen to arrange themselves on a desktop to suggest a twin?
However it happened, the company was now set on a new path.
Always a feature
of Vincent machines was the triangulated swingarm rear suspension
– even in an era whose mantra was “nothing steers like a rigid”.
Brough prided themselves on their “doubled stays – multiple
frame members joining the rear axle mountings to the rest
of the chassis. If more metal improved steering in a rigid,
why should it not work in a “springer”?
A change of belief
takes a shock. For rear suspension, the lightning on the road
to Damascus was Moto-Guzzi's win in the 1935 Sr. TT – with
rear suspension. Even conservative Joe Craig, Norton's racing
engineer, saw that the rigid was finished. The swingarm still
had a long battle against such contrivances as spring hubs
and sliding pillars, and when it was finally established by
the McCandless-Norton TT chassis of 1950, it still lacked
the “doubled stays” that braced it in Vincent's embodiment.
Finally Yamaha adopted the triangulated swingarm as part of
its “Monoshock” suspension of the mid-1970s, and today Vincent's
original concept is embraced as the definitive rear suspension,
albeit implemented as a triangular sheet-metal box structure.
We like to imagine our approach to simplicity
as a process of taking away the unnecessary, but there is
another path – being forced off the cliff's edge by necessity,
and in creative desperation to leap to the minimum solution.
Yamaha GP bikes through
the 1980s evolved incrementally. They passed from round steel
chassis tubes to square aluminum, then from triangulated open
bays to sheeted-in boxes, all the while giving up more and
more downtube until only vestigial engine hangers remained.
Finally they saw that the twin box-beams of Antonio Cobas
were their destination. The process took a decade.
Vincent lacked that luxury of time. When
the war ended, there was aluminum in plenty – the vast RAF
bomber fleet and its V-12 Merlin and Griffon engines settled
into the comfortable warmth of the smelters to emerge as fresh
liquid aluminum. Steel to replace war-damaged buildings, bridges,
and machines was in short supply, rationed like food and fuel.
Against that background Vincent wanted to draw a twin with
a wheelbase short enough to be a true sports motorcycle, not
a slow-steering, long-chassis locomotive. This was the
same basic motivation that had driven engineers Gianini and Remor in
1923 to turn an in-line four-cylinder engine sideways. Suddenly
the excessive length of the Belgian FN, with its longitudinal
four, collapsed into a short-wheelbase package that persists
to this day.
Any way Vincent could
conceive a conventional motorcycle, there were steel tubes
squarely in the way of his goal of short wheelbase – downtubes,
swingarm mounting lugs, frame tubes looping beneath the engine,
perhaps to grind against the pavement in turning. He now made
a supreme virtue of doing away with most of the steel in his
design, creating in a stroke what has remained the definitive
modern motorcycle. An abbreviated rigid structure bridges
the heads of a unit-construction V-twin to carry the steering-head.
The swingarm pivots on lugs that are integral with engine
castings. There is no chassis as such, no tubing in the way
of any function. Simplicity achieved.
Walk the pit lane of
today's MotoGP races and see the result. No engine has structure
beneath it. Steering-heads are carried on abbreviated structures
built above engines. Ducati's V4 engine has its “chassis”
actually bolted across its cylinder heads, Vincent-fashion,
and its swingarm pivot passes through a large lug on the back
of the gearbox. A new element has been added – today's chassis
and swingarms are designed to specific levels of lateral flexibility
as a means of providing supplementary suspension at the current
near-60-degrees of cornering lean. Such flexibility has always
existed, of course, and has contributed to tire grip on rough
surfaces. At long last its specific value has emerged from
the tangle of conflicted requirements that have always defined
When I think of Vincent and Irving I
think of getting to simplicity.
About the author:
Kevin Cameron writes,
“At age 18, I thought I'd one day be an academician and a
physicist, but math didn't like me enough and I liked
the internal combustion engine too much. Out the other side
of the ivy-covered brick, I built bikes and went to the races
nights and weekends. Soon, if I wasn't in the van on my way
to the races, I longed to be. It was an ordered madness
that led me from air cooling to liquid, from Yamaha to Kawasaki
and back, and finally, occasionally, abroad. Cook Neilson
unwittingly initiated my recovery by asking me to write about
these things in Cycle magazine, thereby making possible
a more normal life. The typewriter, wife Gwyneth, and in time
three sons, guided me back to a civilized existence, fueled
by food and conversation in the normal way, rather than by
coffee and what's happening in Turn 8.” Today Cameron writes
a regular column in Cycle World.
Phil Vincent: My Impressions of the Man
By Marty Dickerson
In my eyes, Phil Vincent was a man
of vision. He had a vision of a chassis design for a motorcycle
that was way ahead of its time, and he wanted to build motorcycles
using his ideas. He set forth and acquired the fading H.R.D.
company, and proceeded to build motorbikes with his unique
frame. It was a frame that was once described as having a
ball joint in the middle, but history has shown otherwise.
Vincent used other
manufacturers’ engines in these bikes for many years,
but they left him unsatisfied with his products. So he decided
to build his own engines, and hired into his engineering department
an up-and-coming young engineer who happened to have the same
first name as his: Phil Irving. When the two Phils got together,
they came up with a motorbike that surpassed all others of
its time. Phil Vincent, with a chassis, and Phil Irving, who
came up with an engine design that is to this day being cloned
and up-graded, created the marque that is still highly competitive
and still setting speed records around the world.
I only met Phil
Vincent once. It was some time in late 1949, I believe. I
happened to ride my Rapide over to Mickey Martin’s shop
in Burbank one Saturday. Mickey was the West Coast distributor
for Vincent H.R.D. Vincent was there talking with Mickey.
Mickey introduced us, then had to go talk to a customer, leaving
Phil and I alone for awhile. We talked about a number of things,
but there were three topics of discussion that stand out in
my mind. First, I asked Phil if he thought 135 mph with my
Rapide, using 8 to 1 compression ratio, would be possible.
He thought for a moment and said, yes, he thought it could
be achieved. I then asked him if I could possibility purchase
a set of Lightning cams and exhaust pipes. He paused to think
about it a moment, then said that it was possible. I asked
him how much these parts would cost me, and without hesitation
he replied, “Son, speed is expensive!” I swallowed
hard and didn’t pursue the matter any further, thinking
that was the end of it.
We also talked about
getting into tank-slapping wobbles and just how prone the
bike was to doing this. He said that it can happen if the
fork and seat dampers are not snugged-up, and the rider has
only one hand or a relaxed grip on the handlebar. We were
talking specifically about the Series B girder fork. Vincent
stated that at one time, while he was road testing one, he
encountered “a cube of earth” which put him into
a horrendous tank-slapper. I asked what happened, and he said
he let go of the handlebars and grabbed the steering damper
knob, just to hang on, and the bike straightened itself out
and he continued on his way. Two things puzzled me. What is
“a cube of earth?” I presume he meant a rock,
or something of that nature. The other thing was, how does
one have the fortitude to let go of the handlebars when they
are flopping back and forth so fast you can’t let go?
As it turns out, you can. I have done it on three occasions
over the years.
After this lesson on how to get out of wobbles, I asked
if there would be any possibility of my going to England and
work at the factory. He said yes,
but I would
have to get there on my own, and when I got there they would
give me enough wages to live on. We talked some more about
what my duties would be if I worked at Vincent, and he told
me he had to go to the East Coast, but that when he returned
to the West Coast we would discuss the details further. Then,
Vincent went to talk with Mickey, and I went home. Vincent’s
trip to the East Coast was to finalize a deal with the Indian
Company to distribute the Vincent in the United States. He
didn’t come back to California, but instead went back
to England, and I didn’t hear any more from him about
my going to work at the factory.
A few months later,
I got a long box from England, and in it were a set of un-chromed
Black Lightning exhaust pipes and a set of Black Lightning
cams. There was no letter or invoice or anything else in the
box. I was a bit baffled, because I didn’t order anything,
particularly Black Lightning parts. A couple of months passed,
then I received a letter from the factory and it was from
Phil Vincent. He said he sent the parts to me free of charge
to repay me for helping to establish the Marque on the West
Coast. Evidently, Mickey Martin had told Vincent about the
successful street racing I was doing, and this was his way
of saying thanks. He apologized that the exhaust pipes were
not chrome plated, but, due to the Korean War, chrome was
in short supply. I had them plated locally. Phil Vincent’s
generosity was a great help in getting me on my way to Bonneville.
About the author:
Marty Dickerson traded in his Triumph T100 for a Vincent in
1948, then was hired by U.S. Western Vincent distributor Mickey
Martin to travel western states to demonstrate the speed and
power of the big British twin. He went to Bonneville with
Rollie Free in 1950, then subsequently became a legendary
Vincent land speed racer in his own right, setting a record
that stood for 20 years. In 1996, at the age of 70, he took
his famous Vincent out of moth balls, returned to Bonneville,
and set a vintage speed record. And at the age of 80 in 2007,
returned to Bonneville and rode another vincent for a new
vintage record of 151.685 mph. He was inducted into the U.S.
Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. The photograph above was
taken by Seth Dorfner at Bonneville in 1975.
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