by Paul Brodie
The Vincent enjoys a vast, glorious reputation, despite being one of the most highly over-rated motorcycles in history. I write this after what I have seen, heard, and experienced in owning a Vincent for a quarter of a century.
It’s true that Vincents were the World’s Fastest Motorcycle for many years. The company’s advertising would always mention this, accompanied by, “This is a fact, not a slogan”. Rollie Free set a record at the Bonneville Salt Flats, lying prone on the Vincent Black Lightning, clad only in his underwear. A truly classic image, one that will forever be associated with the famous marque.
However, such fame, coupled with the bike’s inherent great looks, does not necessarily make it an easy bike to live with. Vincent owners fall into two categories: those that are enjoying trouble-free miles, and those that are not. Problems tend to revolve around the big V-twin motor, sometimes requiring extensive machining at great expense. Vincent faults and weaknesses, not often mentioned, have caused some owners to park their bikes in museums indefinitely, because, “that’s the best place for a bike like that!”
Die-hard Vincent owners who ride their bikes great distances usually have one entire saddlebag dedicated to tools and spare parts. This might include a piston and barrel, primary chain, electrical parts, maybe even a spare gearbox. To the modern motorcycle owner, this is overkill to the point of being absurd. For the experienced Vincent owner, it can be the difference between riding home or taking the bus. No matter how well your Vincent motor is prepared, you never know how long it will last, or what your next problem will be.
I had a hard time understanding this at first. If the motors were so troublesome, how did they ever sell bikes back in the ’40s and ’50s? And what about those Vincents that went 100,000 miles before being rebuilt? How did that happen? Part of the answer lies in the fact that stock motors had small carbs, modest cam timing, and low compression ratios. In short, they went OK, but performance wasn’t spectacular, and engine stress was relatively low. Many people rebuilding these motors opt for parts with the Black Lightning specs; higher performance with corresponding stress levels. Parts now come from many sources, ever since the Stevenage factory shut its doors in 1955. Some parts may vary slightly from the factory specifications, and the material and heat treatments may vary also. If you buy a Honda part, you know it will fit your Honda. Not so with a Vincent part; there’s probably a 50/50 chance it will fit.
Here, on the West Coast, there are a small handful of enthusiasts who have the expertise to properly rebuild a Vincent engine. They all have a machine shop at their disposal. Some operations are to fix previous butchery or blowups, others to fix imprecise machining from the factory all those years ago. These Vincent rebuilders are skilled, resouceful, and very good at problem solving. And they have to be, because there are a myriad of different things that can cause problems. Dan Smith is one such individual, known for being able to fix or modify virtually anything on a Vincent.
Smith’s Vincent looks fairly stock at first glance, but looks can be deceiving. Closer inspection reveals a multitude of modifications designed to enhance performance; connecting rods 5/8” shorter, Harley Davidson 2-stage Screaming Eagle ignition, Suzuki alternator mounted on the crankshaft, 34mm flat slide carbs, and a five- speed transmission with first and second gear ratios that Smith made himself. Many cycle parts, including a titanium oil tank, are secured with aluminum and titanium fasteners. A custom five-gallon gas tank is a boon on those long trips. Aluminum brake drums with shrunk in cast iron liners replace the stock cast iron units. The Girdraulic fork blades are hollowed on the inside for lightness.
As with anything, there are limits to how far you can go before you have “crossed the line”. Smith’s Vincent, despite being quite non-standard, has not crossed the line, because it still has a strong resemblance to the original intention. The same could not be said for my Vincent, however. I chose to build a special, and the only things stock were the engine, oil tank, and shifter rubber. I knew it didn’t get the same respect as a standard Black Shadow, and I accepted that. Vincent owners have a rating system that puts the 500cc Comet fairly low, often referred to as “half a Vincent”. The 1000cc Rapide gets respect, but not as much as the Black Shadow. Black Prince owner Tony Cording may own a valuable motorcycle, but he sure puts up with a lot of ribbing for its looks. At the top of this hierarchy is the Black Lightning racer, which may explain why one recently sold for $150,000 USD.
Other notable exceptions are the Egli-Vincent, manufactured years ago in Switzerland by engineer Fritz Egli. His nickel-plated frames were well designed, and the bike handled well. The Norvin was a Vincent motor stuffed into a Norton featherbed frame, also noted for its handling. The Vincent motor was too big to fit, so the gearbox had tobe cut off and mated to a Norton 4-speed transmission and clutch. Sacrilege! This was only OK if you had blown up the Vincent gearbox and destroyed the shifter cam spindle boss. The Egli-Vincent is probably held in a little higher regard than the Norvin.
Chris Timberley was responsible for getting me into Vincents when I was the tender age of nineteen. At that time he owned a Black Shadow with a Norton front end, and a “B” series Rapide. We both worked in the same machine shop, and one Monday morning he said there had been a Vincent for sale on the weekend for $50. “Where?” I exclaimed. He was only half serious, though. He had tried to start his Black Shadow all Sunday morning, and got so pissed off that if someone had offered him $50 on the spot, he would have taken it. I knew I was hooked; it was just a matter of time.
Why it is that hard starting has become a part of the Vincent mystique. Timberley and others believe it’s mostly to do with the stock ignition system. If the magneto is not 100% one cylinder will get a weaker spark because of the 50 degree V-twin configuration. Timberley says the magneto was made down to a price, and could have been higher quality. He made his own coil ignition system, which he says really helped the starting. Dan Smith says people really have to “use the kickstarter, not make love to it”. Those big flywheels have to be made to spin.
Robert Watson, longtime Vincent owner, knew how to start his bike, but it took him a little while to fix his gearbox, which blew up three times. The last time was at 70 mph on the freeway, causing the rear wheel to lock solid. Fortunately, Watson used his roadracing experience and managed to skid his rear tire to the safety of the shoulder. Worn engagement dogs had caused too much pressure on the shifter forks, leading to overheating and finally, seizure. Watson didn’t trust the stock engagement dogs anymore, so his solution was to order a new five-speed aftermarket transmission from England for a couple grand. End of that problem.
Vincents have sometimes been known to do the occasional tank slapper. All the Vincent owners I talked to highly recommended keeping the steering damper ”nipped a bit”. Years ago, Timberley experienced one such tank slapper, but thinking back, attributed it to worn fork bushings, a poor damper, and a rippley road. He used the rear brake hard and somehow managed to stay on. Robert Watson has ridden half a dozen Vincents, and says that, “when you ride them hard, it feels like it has a hinge in the middle. So what, you just hold the throttle on. It will shake its head a bit.”
In 1974 I bought a few boxes of Vincent parts and a set of crankcases for $600. It became my project bike, one that I was always promising to finish “next year”. I did get it running for a short while in 1981, only to find some serious swingarm related problems that called for a total redesign and further fabrication. Years later my grandmother came to the rescue by declaring,”You’ll never get that thing running!” Being a man, I set out to prove her wrong. In the spring of 1996, I pulled out all the stops and worked on the bike 16 hours a day for a 60-day marathon. It was finished to the point of being operational, and I was riding. The engine came apart a few times to fix a few “minor” problems, including the pushrods, transmission, clutch, primary drive, and camshafts. I did ride it to California that summer, making it back the last few miles on one cylinder. More cam problems and a broken pushrod…
Vincents are great to look at, but can be a handful to ride and maintain. Despite faults and weaknesses, namely, the motor, there will always be loyal owners who will stand by them, no matter what. Dan Smith falls into this category, and he maintains that all Vincent woes are really just,”people problems, not bike problems”. My best advice is to buy a Vincent for a financial investment, and keep it in a museum.
“written in 2003”