Introduction:

Early 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.

I 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.

Again, 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 writing.

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 knowledge

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.

Perhaps 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 for more.

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 Lightnings.

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 of the

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 achieved.


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

Not 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 the motorcycle.

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.

Page 1    Page 2   Page 3