Volume 4, Issue 1: Spring 2008


Cold Pastoral: Notes on Becoming a Vincent Owner

Matthew Biberman

This essay is an attempt to understand the appeal and meaning of motorcycles in two ways. First, I approach the question abstractly and offer a theory (part I); next I illustrate my theory through my own experience (part II). Finally, in part III, I bring the two threads together by way of a brief conclusion.

I. Unnatural Transport

According to Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley, “The literature of motorcycling is thin, which on the whole is probably as it should be” (D02). Yardley goes on to explain it’s because motorcyclists are illiterate low-lifes—a stereotype as false as it is ubiquitous. In reality, according to a 2003 survey conducted for the Motorcycle Industry Council, “The average motorcycle owner was 41 years old, with a median household income of $55,850 in 2003. 29% have college degrees.” I do concur though about the dearth of motorcycle literature, but I have a different explanation.

Motorcyclists, despite being educated and quite capable of producing a body of literature, have failed to do so, I believe, out of respect for the experience. Their silence reflects a sense of religious awe. Or if that language seems too elevated for its own good then allow me to fall back on an old warhorse: If I have to explain it then you wouldn’t understand. Riding is an activity that, as the poet John Keats might have put it, teases you “out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral” (44-45).

No doubt Keats, with his love of travel and extreme sensation, would have fancied a motorcycle, for in these few words he has put his finger on it: cold pastoral. A motorcycle is just that—a quintessential expression of the pastoral as Virgil bequeathed the art form to us in his Eclogues. The power of the pastoral lies not simply in its content, that is, in the rural life and rustic characters (the farmer, the sheep herder) it depicts; rather, it is in the reflexive effect the poet gives this subject matter. The intrusive technical virtuosity with which he renders the bucolic reminds us of our own urbanity, and in our appreciation of that artifice lays as well the tragic sense that the acquisition of such refinement has come at a cost.

As poet and translator David Ferry explains, “our vivid consciousness of the artifice of its forms makes us vividly, radiantly, conscious of our experience of its meanings” (xiv), and at the core of the pastoral experience is the recognition that the natural, simple life is appealing but ultimately unobtainable, because it’s understood to be a state of past innocence we have surrendered on the way to assuming our cultured state. Put another way, when you play out the desire to return to the natural you realize that the assumption of such a state would ultimately require you to surrender the you that you have become. That loss of consciousness is a transformation that cannot be realized, except through death, at which point, as Hamlet deduced, you very likely cease to dream. In just this way, motorcycling is a form of unnatural transport moving its rider toward the natural without actually arriving.

Sure, it’s thrilling to get lost in the visceral sensations and in the internalized, now instinctive, procedures of operation, but that pleasure is at its most intense at the end of the ride when the helmet comes off, and you return to thought, knowing that for a brief moment your cares had been lifted and you had almost stepped out of your cultured self to be with the nightingale. I say almost because all along we know that we never actually stopped thinking; rather we have experienced an aesthetic simulation of what we imagine it must feel like to be an animal acting on instinct alone. In this, the experience of motorcycling is similar to the contemplation of an idyllic painting of peasants resting midway in a half-threshed field with tools and simple food spread before them. The tranquility such a scene inspires can never be experienced in the moment of brute existence that is real mowing, but this contradiction doesn’t invalidate pastoral art; rather it engenders it.


So why begin with the meaning of it all? Because I ride a Vincent Black Shadow, the bike that lies at the very heart of motorcycling’s mystery. Unfortunately, little is written about Vincents that goes beyond a stock description of the machine or a test ride. This essay attempts to redress this state of affairs. Equally important, by exploring the meaning of this iconic bike, I hope to pursue the thesis outlined above into lived experience.

First then, there is the history: Readers new to motorcycling probably have never heard of the Vincent Black Shadow and are no doubt surprised to find it occupying a slot they thought reserved for Harley-Davidson. The two bikes are very similar in spirit and share many design features, but the laurel has long rested on Vincent’s brow—at least among true motorcycling aficionados. And such an arrangement is typical; one famous to the general public, the other appreciated largely by the inner circle, who would very much like to keep it that way. After all, if everyone knew what a Vincent was, Vincent owners would no longer have the fun of answering the questions.

In the motorcycling press, a Vincent article generally comes in one of two forms: a first-time road test or a potted history of the marquee, but in either incarnation the tone is distant adulation. The opening of Margie Siegel’s profile for Motorcycle Collector is typical: “The Black Shadow is a masterpiece” (28). This sentiment finds its inevitable extreme expression in Mike Clay’s verdict (common among the English) that the Vincent is “God’s gift to motorcycling” (90). In large measure this legend solidified because a well-kept Vincent continued to compare well against the newest machines—despite the company’s collapse in the mid-fifties. In a March 1970 Motorcycle World, Steve Remington writes that “Even though Vincents haven’t been made since 1955, few modern bikes can stay with one above the 60mph mark” (40). Even into the ’80s the urge to evaluate a Vincent against current machinery persists. In a 1980 Classic Bike road test Royce Creasey concludes that “This thirty-year old Rapide does almost everything as well as the best moderns and some things better” (43). And almost twenty years later, Peter Egan, longtime columnist at Cycle World, writes in his 1998 feature article “To Ride A Vincent” that since youth he had been “trucking all this lore around in my small young brain. The Vincent as ultimate” (52). Egan concludes his road test with the verdict that “other than high maintenance and the archaic (but useful) rear stand, there’s no penalty for the bike’s 50-year-old design” (56). Indeed, because Egan is a seasoned rider, his observations confirm the cavalcade of judgments made over the intervening years. He is also right to conclude that while a Vincent can no longer match the performance of today’s cutting edge, if one limits the comparison to current big bore twins (a la Harley) set up to cruise or tour, a properly set-up and maintained Black Shadow will adapt rather well, with modifications readily available from after market merchants.

This legacy would come as no surprise to the men responsible. In 1953 Vincent’s advertising declared that the “Motorcycles of the future will be judged by the standards set by Vincent today” which history has proven correct.[1] Quite simply, knowledgeable motorcyclists recognized back then that the Vincent was something special: it was uniquely not of its time.

Biberman1Figure 1: Assembly area inside the Vincent Works (Stevenage, England). Visible are two Vincent twins with the one in the foreground arranged to illustrate how the bike separates into three components: rear frame member, engine, upper frame member and front fork. The raised oil lines visible on the timing chest cover indicate that the photo was taken very early in the post war run, probably in 1947 as part of the publicity surrounding the return to peacetime production and the debut of the Series B Rapide. Photo: Dee Vincent-Day. (Click to enlarge)

Upon its debut the Vincent Black Shadow went beyond anything previously offered to the general public. The first new design to emerge from Britain’s motorcycle industry after World War II, the Vincent 998cc twin (dubbed initially the “Rapide”) was greeted with adulation as it appeared to confirm that a new age of peace and pleasure had finally dawned. The first road test, published in the May 29, 1947 issue of The Motorcycle, anticipates the incredulity of readers at what this bike could do: it will “sound unreal to quote such high cruising speeds. But rapid road work is the type of riding for which the Vincent H.R.D. was designed.” And then the kicker: “Mean maximum speeds are given for first [56 mph], second [86 mph] and third gears [98 mph] but it was not possible to find a private road with a suitable run-in to achieve a mean two-way average in top gear” (Ayton 18-20). Vincent’s decision to mount an additional drum both front and rear (making for a total of four brakes, a feature that remains unique) also proved to be a stroke of genius and was hailed: “Test panel brake figures verge on the incredible, but give factual evidence of something almost beyond even journalistic powers of description” (“Road Tests” 34-35).[2] 

Even today, radical designs often draw on the Vincent legacy. Consider Harley’s sport bike offering, the Buell XB9R Firebolt. The continuing challenge for the Buell engineering team has been to mate Harley’s signature power plant, a 45-degree vee twin engine (quite similar to the Vincent’s power plant), to a chassis suitable for the sort of high speed road work for which the Black Shadow was designed. As Tim Carrithers reports, to achieve this goal the resulting motorcycle is “a radical departure, even for Buell” (48). At the core of the redesign, lay the decision to use the motor as an integrated stress-bearing part of the frame, a layout that allows for a more compact wheel base (in this case an eyebrow raising 52 inches) and a low center of gravity. The intent is to improve handling as well as damp out an infamously rough motor. Now that’s thinking outside the box, but at the same time, it must be said that the Vincent design team, headed by the legendary engineer Phil Irving, hit upon all of this well over a half century ago, as documented in the previously mentioned ad campaign: “With the immense rigidity imparted by the massive internally ribbed crankcase all need for the conventional frame has been eliminated.”[3]  Therefore the Firebolt can be accurately described as another stab at a modern Vincent.

At the same time, the Vincent was also just as clearly a throwback to motorcycling’s golden age, the twenties and thirties, because Philip Vincent’s inspiration was to surpass George Brough’s fabulous SS100. Made famous by Lawrence of Arabia, the Brough had established itself as “the Rolls Royce of motorcycles.” Phil Vincent had been working on a better SS100 when the world had been plunged into war, so what he gave the public in 1947 was in many respects simply a 1930s update that had been put on hold. Moreover, despite the Vincent’s performance, the British motorcycle industry continued to pursue a different course, banking instead on inexpensive, sleek models all built around a vertical twin motor of smaller displacement. As Steve Wilson explains, “The fact that their [Vincent’s] vee-twin engine configuration with its slightly uneven galloping beat was at the time unfashionable to the point of obsolescence, gave their achievements even more of a mystic, atavistic tinge” (139). Thus, the Black Shadow was a bike of no time as it offered the performance of the future with the ethos of the past.

The key to Vincent’s retro character is the maintenance and mechanical accessibility. Egan’s comments reflect a modernist predilection when he characterizes the Vincent’s “high maintenance” as a “problem.” I don’t think Vincent or Irving would have characterized the required maintenance as problematical, which is not to say that the Vincent’s creators did not value both trouble-free running and durability. The difference is more subtle and it has to do with the sort of owner for which the Black Shadow was designed. In his Autobiography, Vincent writes:

It was designed to appeal to the man who wanted that marvelous uplift that can only be obtained far out on distant high roads, astride a true thoroughbred of incomparable urge and performance. And that performance had to be available at all times on low quality petrol, so knife edge tuning was quite unacceptable as an essential to obtain it. The 100mph must still be on tap after tens of thousands of miles without lifting the heads. (92)

Vincent’s dream was to build the ultimate sport-tourer because he considered that sort of activity to be the essence of motorcycling. For Vincent, sharing this philosophy marks one as an aficionado, not an average rider as his comments make clear:

The manufacturers go to a lot of trouble to find out what the average rider prefers, because the maker who guesses closest to the average preference gets the largest sales. But the average rider is mainly interested in silly (as opposed to useful) “goodies” to try to kid the public that he is riding a racer. (44-45)

Yet as the Black Shadow’s chief designer, Phil Irving, makes clear, Vincent’s vision of sport-touring as the ideal pursuit (as opposed to racing, or boulevard cruising) stamps him as a product of motorcycling’s golden age. In a short, but insightful essay, Irving pinpoints the significant difference between the competitive side of motorcycling in the ’20s and ’30s and the present. Today the accent is almost entirely on racing on artificial circuits and off-road scrambling. Most sales publicity is hung around the results of such contests which after all have little relationship to the needs of an ordinary rider. Forty years ago racing was of much less sales importance. Better publicity was gained either by long-distance reliability trials over county roads which were little better than modern scramble circuits but several hundred miles longer, or by lone attempts at establishing some sort of record which would appeal to the public by demonstrating the utter reliability of the product concerned (Irving 60-61).




Figure 2: Phillip C. Vincent astride a prewar Series A Comet. Photo: Dee Vincent-Day. (Click to enlarge)



Above all, for Vincent, it was this vision of a lone rider, somewhere out there racking up thousands of miles on one of his machines that dictated his design work, and, in practice, amounted to a marked emphasis on accessibility to the motorcycle’s internals. Return to the rider in the midst of his uplift on some distant peak, when suddenly something goes astray. “Ixion,” the greatest of the golden age writers, captures the attitude Vincent ascribes to his ideal rider:

When a tyre bursts or an engine seizes or a chain snaps, no Anglo-Saxon expletive is adequate to express one’s first impulses. But ripe wisdom teaches us wisdom. Each stoppage assures the rider of at least two compensations. Relief of some sort is inevitable; whether it be the relief of continuing one’s journey or at last completing the exhausting push to the nearest railway station time alone can show. Secondly when the mortification and labour are over there will be a tale to be told. (94)

And that tale, it was assumed, would, involve the owner’s efforts to return the bike to service. Vincent, therefore, expected the owner to perform regular maintenance to understand its function and be ready to deal with a problem. Accessibility therefore had to extend beyond the physical realm to include the conceptual. Design elements that go beyond the needs of real world riding were dismissed as needless complexity. The point was to provide a motorcycle the rider would embrace because he could understand how it worked. Ultimately the resulting design meets the interactive needs of the rider.

A Vincent needs care and, unlike modern bikes, it was built in order to facilitate that activity. Each of the motor’s subassemblies (primary drive, clutch, timing chest, gearbox and selector mechanism) is enclosed under removable covers. The tools provided in the original kit are sufficient to perform most maintenance. Removing the heads can be done without extricating the engine from the frame. Key components—such as the magneto, generator and battery—are immediately accessible. The guts of the bike are, in a sense, external. I don’t have to split the cases to get to the starter motor or lift the tank to change jetting. I don’t need a socket extension to examine a spark plug. Modern bikes don’t take owner involvement into account because there’s no need: operation is now virtually maintenance-free, and manufacturers discourage tinkering. This is a long way from Vincent’s vision where the motorcycle soon took on the imprint of its owner, becoming the subject of story.

II: One Shadow’s Story in Three Takes

TAKE ONE: Provenance



Figure 3: Phil Irving (left) and Big Sid Biberman in conversation during a rally in the late '70s. Photo: Matthew Biberman. (Click to enlarge)



In the Spring of 1956, my father, 6’5” “Big Sid” Biberman, rode his heavily modified Touring Rapide in Shadow Plus tune down to Daytona from Norfolk, Virginia to attend the races. Riding with him was his buddy Bugs (so named because of his thick eyeglasses) on what 47 years later was to become my Black Shadow. Neither had been to Daytona before, and both wished to witness the prowess of a mutual friend AMA racer Tommy McDermott (who would finish that year’s 200 miler in fourth on his BSA Gold Star).



Figure 4: "Bugs" astride my Shadow on the way down to Daytona, 1956. Sid's red Rapide alongside. With the exception of two batches of red Rapides and one show model Shadow finished in blue, all postwar Vincent twins were painted stove enamel black. Photo: Sid Biberman. (Click to enlarge)



They covered the 800 miles in a day. Sid can recall the trip faithfully, indeed it has become a touchstone of his motorcycling memories. Bugs was clearly the better rider, capable of sustaining a blistering pace for as long as their tanks held fuel. Sid quickly adopted Bugs’ riding style—lying flat across the tank with the left arm slung forward gripping the front fork leg—while the miles flashed by. To make things more interesting they swapped bikes. It was during this exchange that Sid decided that Bugs’ standard Shadow was a really good one, easy to ride fast in comfort, the motor quiet and remarkably devoid of vibration.



Figure 5: Sid Biberman having some fun on what is now my Shadow. Mid fifties. Sid is assuming the position made famous by Rollie Free who used it to achieve 150 mph on a tuned Vincent Black Shadow at Bonneville, establishing a new American landspeed record. Photo: Sid Biberman. (Click to enlarge)


A hand-assembled machine, each Vincent is unique, and some simply left the factory better than others. It was said that some test riders left a chalk mark on the crankcase of a fast one to help friends spot the best machines at the dealer. Bugs’ Shadow deserved such a mark. At 80 mph, Sid could only discern a gentle tapping in the handlebars, throttle response proved immediate and powerful, with a sustained surge all the way up to 126 mph. In contrast, Sid’s modified Rapide (having higher compression pistons as well as Lightning cam shafts and a caged roller big end) was even more powerful above 80 and would steadily pull away off into the distance, especially in third gear where Sid had seen 130-plus. But it was clearly less smooth at all speeds, and when trickling through small towns another difference became apparent. Bugs’ Shadow tick-tocked along with regularity in fourth gear unhampered by speeds as slow as 18 mph, from which it would pull up without protest. Sid’s Vincent would not do this nearly as well, instead lugging until the engine returned to a higher rate of revs. This combination of smoothness and power sparked a jealous desire in Sid to own that bike.

Soon after that trip, Bugs moved and sold his bike to a car dealer who sold it for the princely sum of $350. Another riding buddy, Ed Leksa—known as Lex—bought the bike and rode it for the next decade, then moved to Michigan and acquired a Rapide as well. When he heard a grinding in the Shadow’s engine he correctly diagnosed a pitted main bearing. He was about to ship out to Southeast Asia to service war planes, but rather then tear the bike down, he parked it carefully, planning a full rebuild upon his return. As is often the case, Lex never rebuilt it because his Rapide continued to perform flawlessly.

Sid and Lex remained friends, and, one evening in 1997, Sid told Lex he still had fond memories of that Shadow. If Lex should ever consider selling it, he’d like to make him an offer to rebuild it for his son. Lex responded, “Hell, Sid, I’d rather give it to you.” Sid hung up the phone wondering if Lex had been pulling his leg, but a few days later the title arrived with a Bill of Sale indicating a price of one dollar. A few days later an Allied Van Lines truck arrived bearing the Shadow.

Non-motorcyclists who have heard of the Vincent generally stumbled upon this knowledge from Hunter S. Thompson, who devotes some memorable lines to Vincents in his well-known book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, declaring that a Black Shadow is faster than an F111 until takeoff. But, these days, the far better-known reference is Richard Thompson’s song “Vincent Black Lightning 1952.” This well-crafted ballad tells of the dashing criminal James and his beloved Red Molly. As he lies dying of a gunshot wound to the chest, James “gives her his Vincent to ride.” This sentiment has been bandied about among Vincent owners who are tired of seeing their coveted machines disappear into the collections of rich playboys, seldom if ever to be ridden again. Vincent owners, they say, should find a young motorcyclist keen on riding, and bequeath him his machine, but I know of no other owner who has done what Lex did for me.

TAKE TWO: Restoration

To begin the rebuild, Sid broke the Vincent into three components (rear wheel, seat, swing arm, shocks roll away as one unit, as does the gas tank, handlebar, front fork and wheel). After that, he was free to tear down the engine, and while he worked, he made sure I understood the attitude he expected from a Vincent owner. First, this was to be a proper restoration, not a “trailer queen.” No repainting and certainly no extra chroming. Generally speaking, Vincents require little in the way of time spent cleaning and polishing, old school owners assert a little bit of grit on the threads keeps nuts from vibrating off.

The biggest distinguishing feature between the first Vincent twin model—the Rapide—and the subsequent sports model—the Black Shadow—was the black engine. An engine lover, Sid always preferred the unpainted look. “You aren’t going to be one of those guys that insists that it has to be the way it left the factory, are you?” Ah, the test. After my father closed the family meat market, he opened a motorcycle shop, which seldom provided income for more than our family’s necessities. He specialized in Vincents, painstakingly restoring them to prize-winning status. Customers who didn’t grant Sid leeway to restore their Vincents as he saw fit were told to look elsewhere. He maintained that guys who were sticklers for pointless authenticity were inevitably more trouble than they were worth. Now his own son wasn’t going to turn out like that, was he? And then Sid offered another reason for the naked look: “It’s called a White Shadow. Guys would order it from the factory. A twin with Shadow specs but in Rapide trim. A White Shadow, that’s what you’re gonna ride.”

Along the way, Sid tried all sorts of experiments. The inner clutch arm would be stellited to retard wear. The original aluminum big idler gear would be hardened and refitted. Standard practice was to fit a new steel idler from after market gurus Maugham and Sons, but Sid was curious to see if an aluminum gear would run without flaking. The magneto was rebuilt with a gee-whiz new Mylar-backed condenser. And then the big surprise: the removed flywheel assembly had a balance factor of 35. As recorded by Vincent’s works technical boffin Paul Richardson in his Book of the Vincent, “The balance factor for the Twin is 46 percent of the reciprocating weight” (10), so this was a substantial discrepancy.

Sid thought back to his seminal Daytona ride. Could this fact account for the smooth yet powerful ride of this Shadow? It was too good an experiment to pass up. And after all, it was only my bike, right? The decision was made to go back with a balance factor of 35. Another test. So what if with everything else going back to original specs, all fresh and clean, retaining a balance factor of 35 makes the bike run like shit and we have to tear it all down again! I need to be able to get to the main shaft and the crank by the side of the road, anyway, right?




Figure 6: "Lex," my heavily customized Black Shadow. Modifications include modern tires and rims, dual front discs, 12 volt electrical system, turn signals, halogen lights, and coil ignition. Photo: Martha Greenwald. (Click to enlarge)


I knew I couldn’t start the trip back home to Louisville without first breaking in “Lex”—the name Sid had given my bike. He said, “Get it out on the interstate and then roll it on, up to 70 and then back down to 50, short bursts of load and with luck Lex’ll seat.” Sid had reported that it was the easiest starting Vincent twin he had ever encountered. The first time he heard the bike fire, he happened to lay a hand on the kickstart lever, whereupon it rotated down, discharging a single blast out the pipes. Later, when the time came to actually bring it to life, Lex fired on the third kick, producing, to Sid’s amusement, the remnants of a rodent nest.

But that didn’t mean I, a virtual Vincent virgin, would have the same experience. I tickled the carbs until gas began oozing, then kicked to prime the motor until I heard the engine slurp. I halted the bike just over top dead center on the longer of two kicks so as to maximize momentum and gave a solid but not frenzied boot to the lever whereupon she commenced to fire and settled into an even idle. Perfect. So, with the fate of my venture hanging in the balance, I left Sid to his thoughts and pulled away for my maiden voyage.

On the interstate, I noticed that the torque was immense and immediate with markedly less engine vibration than ever encountered before on a Vincent. Sid had already roughened the outer plates of the clutch to smooth engagement and I found every gear without problems. I discerned a lovely exhaust note, no clutch slip, and a wonderful acceleration curve. The brakes were soft but still bedding in. I rolled the throttle up and down, 50-70 for perhaps 20 miles before noticing that I was lost somewhere out in Chesapeake and so I pulled off to turn around.

At a light, I discovered oil leaking out of various joints, and the air around me hazy with smoke. The smell of a hot Vincent idling is unique. It hit home as I inhaled: this was my Shadow. Memories of summer Sundays returned; in an effort to flee the house and his unhappy marriage, Sid would take me for a ride deep into North Carolina before returning in darkness. Sure, Lucas electrics can fail at an untimely moment, but few things in life are as satisfying as riding a Vincent in the crisp night air, the dew, the wood smoke, the headlamp boring a tunnel of light through which to pass, darkness falling away on either side.

Thousands of outings, tens of thousands of miles, decades as a passenger on my father’s Black Shadow. Now I was on my own, and fear grew in me. My father never had a problem he couldn’t fix. No Vincent of his had ever left him stranded in fifty years. This is an extraordinary testament to the reliability of a Vincent, but at some point, I knew the streak would end. Like now, what did I make of all that oil? Well, checking the oil on a Vincent is easy: the reservoir is located under the gas tank, its cap just behind the steering damper. I twisted it off and peered down at plenty of oil. Evidently the bike was not puking at an alarming rate. Though uneasy, I spun around and headed home on the interstate.

I learned that it was normal during break in to encounter copious seepage. You just keep going over the hardware until the bike buttons up. What Sid, of course, wanted to know was if the rings had seated. The only way to discern this is to ride behind the bike.

Later that day I talked Sid into rolling out his Shadow to follow me. When we stopped for lunch, he informed me that Lex was still smoking. Modern oils are so good that even the cheapest crap refuses to break down and that is what you need: the rings have to cut through the oil film to fit with the cylinder wall. I encouraged him to think positive thoughts. At the first stoplight, Sid rode up alongside me and said, “The rings seated. Pulling out of the gas station. Since then no smoke.” Then he gave a thumb’s up. With a wave of his hand, he said, “It's green, go!” And go I have—over 7,500 miles of year-round use, the aesthetic satisfaction deepening with each ride.

III. Conclusion

To explain the appeal of motorcycling in this way, as an expression of the pastoral, and then to convey that insight via story, is to improve upon tidy explanations that fall back on brittle, abstract notions of either “freedom” or “danger.” Motorcycling links the pastoral to the technological because the experience allows you to tenuously and artificially feel connected to the natural world via a man-made object. Yes we feel that the gods have left us and we want to re-establish that connection, while knowing all too well that human consciousness blocks us so long as we remain in life. Therefore it is into the cold pastoral we ride, as I do, on Lex, my Black Shadow.[4]


Figures 7-8: (left) A young Matthew Biberman poses with an Egli-Vincent Special. (In 1968 Swiss designer Fritz Egli began selling a modern sport chasis for use with a Vincent engine.) Photo: Sid Biberman. (right) Some thirty odd years later. Matthew Biberman, and daughter Lucy, with his Black Shadow. Photo: Martha Greenwald. (Click to enlarge)


1 For an example of the ad campaign, see Motorcycling, 6 April 1953: 5.

2 Readers familiar with Vincents will note that in this instance I am drawing off a report of the 500cc single and not the Black Shadow, which is, of course, the 1000cc twin. I do so because I was unable to resist the grand language. A much lighter bike due to the lack of the second cylinder, the Comet comes equipped with the same duo-drum braking system and consequently brakes better. The initial brake test for the Black Shadow (reprinted in Ayton 24-26) records that the bike came to a stop from 30 mph in 26 and a half feet, a full five and a half feet further than the Comet. Contemporary claims concerning Vincent brakes continue to be greeted incredulously. Vincent Works Tester Ted Davis performed the road test on the Comet and describes it (rather coyly to this reader) as having “left the writer on crutches for two months and riding my ‘B’ Rapide to work with my aching left leg supported on a steel bar jammed in the lower front sidecar attachment point” (qtd. in Bowen 29). (At that time the standard configuration among British motorcycles had the rear brake lever actuated by the left foot.) While not declaring the report false, Davis’ comments would seem to suggest that this performance was unusually good and not achieved as the result of a controlled stop. It is also important to note that another aid to braking in these tests is the surface, described as coarse dry even granite chipping, and selected, no doubt, for its friction characteristics. Regardless of the details, Vincent brakes are justly recognized as far and away a better set-up than anything else offered at that time.

3 For an example of this ad see Motorcycling, 22 October 1953, 47.

4 Sid Biberman wishes to thank all those pals who have worked with him over the years, most especially Mac McGowan, Bill Hoddinott, Ronnie Barrale, Stan Ellefson, Ed Dotson, Benny Daughtrey, and of course, Bill Jean.

Works Cited

Ayton, Cyril, ed. “The 998cc Vincent H.R.D. Rapide.” Vincent From 1938: Road Tests and Features from The Motorcycle and Motorcycling. Bideford: Bay View Books, 1988: 18-20.

Bowen, Jeff, ed. “Another Ten Years: A Collection of Technical Articles Submitted to MPH by Club Members.” Great Britain: The Vincent Owners Club Publishing, 1988.

Carrithers, Tim. “Road Test: Buell XB9R Firebolt.” Motorcyclist, August 2002: 48-58.

Clay, Mike. Café Racers: Rockers, Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Coffee-Bar Cult. London: Osprey, 1988.

Creasey, Royce. “Classic Test: 1000cc Vincent Rapide and 500cc Comet.” Classic Bike, February/March 1980: 39-44.

Egan, Peter. “To Ride a Vincent.” Cycle World, September 1998: 50-56.

Ferry, David. “Introduction.” The Eclogues of Virgil. Trans. David Ferry. New York: Farrer, Straus, 1999. ix-xv, xiv.

Keats, John. “Ode on A Grecian Urn.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Eds. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy. New York: WW Norton, 1996. 848-849.

Irving, Phil. “Plucking at the Cords of My Memory.” Rich Mixture: A Motorcycle Miscellany Published by Phil Irving. Melbourne: Research Publications, 1976. 60-61.

Ixion. Reminiscences of Motorcycling. Reprint. Menston: Scholar Press, 1973.

Motorcycle Industry Council. Media News Bureau. www.mic.org/content/mediacenter/ mediacenter3.html.

Remington, Steve. “What’s So Great About a Vincent?” Motorcycle World, March 1970: 38-43.

Richardson, Paul. Vincent Motorcycles. 3rd ed. Great Britain: Vincent Owner’s Club Publishing, 1996.

“Road Tests of Current Models: The 499c.c. o.h.v. ‘Comet’ Model Vincent.” Motorcycling, 26 January 1950: 33-35.

Siegel, Margie. “Vincent Black Shadow: 1950 Series C.” Motorcycle Collector, February 1994: 28-34.

Vincent, Philip. The Autobiography of Philip Vincent. Reprint. Essex: F & M Nash, 1976.

Wilson, Steve. Down the Road: Genuine Mileage on Classic Motorcycles. Sparkford: Haynes, 2000.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Vrrrooom With a View.” Washington Post, 30 April 1997: D02.



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