Vincent 1928-55 UK
Born in London to wealthy parents whose main income came from a partnership in a large Argentinian cattle ranch, Philip Conrad Vincent, PCV to many, was educated at Harrow and then went up to Cambridge in 1926 to read Mechanical Sciences.
Having already decided to become a motorcycle manufacturer it was only a matter of time before he dropped out of university. During his teenage years PCV, like many young men, spent many hours designing and discussing ideal motorcycle concepts including spring frame design.
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While still at Cambridge, Vincent secured enough capital from his father to build an ohv 350cc MAG-powered prototype, which was satisfactorily tested for more than 10,000 miles. Keen to get started as a motorcycle maker, Vincent was persuaded by a journalist friend to buy the HRD brand, which had been bought months earlier by Black Ernie Humphries of OK Supreme. With further finance from his father, HRD Motors Ltd and a pile of frame lugs, were purchased and former agricultural engineer Frank Walker installed as MD by Vincent senior, probably to keep a tight rein on the young blood PCV.
Vincent's timing couldn't have been worse as the 1929 Wall Street Stock Market crash, severe unemployment, financial disasters and worse were just round the corner. However, premises, which had served renowned carriage builders Offords – later of London – were secured in Stevenage, Hertfordshire circa June 1928 and Philip Vincent was soon busy at his drawing board. His famed pivoted, triangulated rear fork was readied for the British Patent Office and awarded British Patent No 290375/28.
Reports of how many motorcycles PCV designed and built in his first year vary, but probably amounted to no more than 24 of which it’s believed all but eight were sold to his close friends. Despite having faith in his own frame design many early machines marketed as HRD with Vincent added in small letters to the transfer were of more conventional diamond frame style, built with left over HRD lugs, but of course still featured the pivoted rear fork suspension design. By 1934 PCV had designed 24-plus models (eg 1928 Model B – 350cc ohv JAP, 1928 Model E – 600cc sv JAP, 1929 Grass Track Model – 350cc ohv long stroke JAP, 1931 Model DP – 500cc ohv Rudge Python, 1932 Model L – 250cc ts Villiers etc) of which only four reached double figures in production terms. In addition, the Stevenage works built about 30 Bantam three-wheeled delivery vehicles.
During these formative years, Vincent used Blackburne, JAP, MAG, Rudge and Villiers engines plus one Cross rotary valve unit. Australian engineer Phil Irving joined the business as an engineering draughtsman to clean up designs and Vincent had to secure further finance from the bed-ridden Captain Clarke, father of one of his friends, Bill, as his father couldn't help.
Tales vary as to why Vincent senior was strapped for cash at this time but include losing out in the cattle ranch sale deal to his business partner or simply the difficulty of moving large sums of money out of Argentina. As part of the finance deal, Captain Clarke insisted Bill (later Squadron Leader) joined the board. Young Vincent had to convince him the worth of his ideas. Some designs like the duo brake systems (not a PCV idea) and the Vincent patented pivoted pillion seat, both of 1933, were accepted, other concepts weren't.
Vincent wanted to build top quality advanced motorcycles but unfortunately there was a lot of resistance to his sprung frame design in some quarters. However, none could doubt the finish of his machines, which included early use in motorcycle manufacturing of stainless steel, initially for tank panels, and more aluminium than many makers favoured. To maintain high quality durable finish standards, PCV established his own rust proofing and stove enamelling plant, capable of taking all frame and sheet metal components.
Although favouring the Rudge Python engine, Vincent was persuaded to often employ JAP power, including for the three-man Senior TT entry for 1934. All machines retired with stated mechanical failure but at least he won praise for the handling of his sprung frame motorcycle. PCV's unhappiness with most proprietary engines and the cessation of manufacture of his favourite, the Rudge Python unit, led the two Phils, Irving and Vincent, to design an upright ohv high camshaft 500cc single cylinder engine.
With insufficient money, machinery and manpower to complete full engines in readiness for the November 1934 London Show, the stand displayed three units which although visually complete, weren't quite so complete internally. This fact didn't stop Vincent claiming his new engine in racing trim could top 100mph. Stand staff cringed at this near arrogant claim, but as often happened PCV was right – during early season 1935, Pat McIver riding a racing HRD with the new engine, secured a Brooklands Gold Star for his first 100mph-plus lap. And of the seven machines entered for the 1935 IoM Senior TT, four had the new engine of which three finished with a best place of 7th for one CJ Williams. A sound start for Vincent's new engine.
Sales-wise the new engine was offered in three models, the standard trim Meteor, the sporting Comet with a claimed top speed of over 90mph and the racing guise TT replica.
All three proved tough models with, for the period, superb handling, which appealed to hard, fast riders. At about this time PCV became disenchanted with the approach of some dealers so took over direct sales for a percentage of new machines and he handled trade. As a result, the Stevenage factory was unpopular in some quarters but it must have improved their profit share.
As happens with many motorcycle designs, customers demand more power. Usually his own man, Vincent allowed himself to be convinced supercharging was the way forward, for the 1936 TT at least. This led to factory entries for two supercharged and two normally aspirated models. By IoM time the supercharged models weren't going well enough and they were converted back to normal aspiration for the race. Unfortunately three retired in the race leaving Jock West to push in eighth with a broken chain in a race won by Jimmy Guthrie. At least Jock was the only finisher not mounted on a Norton or Velocette!
PCV still wanted more power leading to another pre-London Show rush job. Experimenting on his drawing board Irving discovered by tracing the timing side crankcase half, turning it over and superimposing it on a single cylinder engine drawing, once he'd lined up the crankshaft centres, he'd the makings of a 47-degree V-twin (although many engineers consider a 90 degree V-twin the ideal, most makers were settling for 50-55 degree configurations to get the engine into a conventional motorcycle frame).
Since many top end parts were stock Vincent 499cc components, extra tooling needs to make the 998cc (84 x 90mm) V-twin were minimal. The thought of 'easily' and 'cheaply' (relative terms) had PCV’s eyes firmly set on unveiling the new model to be named the Rapide at the London Show in November 1936. Phil Irving completed the drawings for the new engine and saw the project into the first prototype before resigning. The stunning model debuted at the London Show and during the 1937 Brooklands season posted many rapid performances! PCV soon claimed it the fastest standard motorcycle in the world, others disagreed but with 100-110mph on tap without tuning it was certainly a quick cycle. Unfortunately, proprietary Burman four-speed boxes weren't designed for such power and torque. Nonetheless about 77 Series A twins were built, the majority have survived and are now extremely sought after and expensive.
Although a depot at Chesterfield was opened in 1938, the gathering war clouds led to the Vincent factory being readied for non-motorcycle military contracts for the duration. Vincent military work is outside the scope of this inclusion but they were busy and it did see the return of Irving to Stevenage and Matt Wright (ex New Imperial and AMC) joined the team.
With the basic designs in place for their post WWII V-twin, the two Phils gave different accounts as to when the decision was made to do without a front down tube and make the engine the main chassis stress member. Whatever, the new Series B Rapide, with Brampton girder front fork weighing 455lb and with a wheelbase of just 56.5in, was unveiled in prototype form to the press in April 1946.
Despite this being another rush PCV style job, Motor Cycle and Motor Cycling were impressed and orders soon rolled in. Filling them was another problem due in part to the poor supply of raw materials. Although Vincent could obtain enough aluminium, steel was limited to pre WWII usage. The first production model went to Argentina, which opened up a useful export market to earn valuable income for Vincent.
With the winter of 1947 being severe, the Labour government bizarrely decreed a ban of electricity supply to commercial factories. The instant ban, which was promised to last only days but ran into weeks, caused mayhem. Vincent used the time to relocate to other premises and once power was returned the Vincent factory was ready to resume production but it was an unhelpful break in manufacture, which hit many firms including Vincent financially.
Despite these annoying problems, Vincent were again starting to perform well on the sporting front with George Brown and Rene Milhoux riding a tuned Rapide – later named Gunga Din. Vincents cleaned up in the 1948 1000cc class of the IoM Clubman TT and American Rollie Free, clad in only his bathing trunks, set a new US record at over 150mph. Against this background, more models were introduced: Series B models all with Brampton front fork comprised the existing Rapide, 55bhp 998cc Black Shadow and 26bhp 499cc Meteor. However, all wasn't plain sailing, as while PCV was away, the board cancelled orders for tooling which pegged production levels until the tooling arrived.
Next, Vincent replaced the Brampton girder front fork with their Vincent Girdraulic fork, which appeared later in 1948. Coded the Series C models they included the Rapide, Black Shadow, Meteor, a faster 499cc the Comet, the racing 998cc 70bhp Black Lightning and in 1950 a racing 500, the 499cc 35bhp Grey Flash. Although most models were offered with polished guards almost from launch, black enamel valanced mudguards were an alternative for the Rapide to give the Touring Rapide and c1952 this option was made available for the Comet to give the Touring Comet.
Finally Phil Irving returned to Australia leaving CJ Williams, his replacement, directly under PCV's supervision. A Ministry contract to develop the 70bhp Black Lightning engine into the 73bhp Picador motor for target planes, briefly added extra income and Vincent looked at other projects to keep the factory viable. Unfortunately the Ministry contract was terminated and the Stevenage firm took over the manufacture of the Miller designed Firefly cycle attachment in an effort to boost income. Although the Firefly was a sound concept the cyclemotor movement was coming to the end of its natural life and would soon be replaced by the moped craze limiting total production to around 3000 units.
Seeing the growing popularity of mopeds PCV secured the import agency for German built NSU machines including the popular Quickly moped, 125cc two-stroke Fox and 100cc ohv Fox 100. Using established Vincent outlets and also finding new ones for the NSU lightweight range, the Stevenage factory started to earn welcome extra income. But bad luck plagued the firm again. Once a successful dealer network was in place, thanks to hard work by the Vincent factory staff, NSU took over the operation and Vincent's income again suddenly dropped.
The next move of full enclosure was a brave one indeed, considering motorcyclists' inbuilt prejudices; something PCV had experienced decades earlier with his spring frame designs. Designated the Series D much development work was carried out by racer and development engineer Ted Davies. Launched at the autumn 1954 London Show, a sizeable number or orders were taken but it took many more months before at production level, the glass fibre panels were of a high enough quality to market; a delay which led to many cancelled orders.
There were a number of other revisions to Vincent design for the Series D range including a single tube in place of the top frame member and the use of an Armstrong combined spring and shock absorber unit for suspension. The enclosed models were the 998cc Black Knight and 499cc Victor. As an interim while the glass fibre problems were solved, the Rapide and Black Shadow were built in naked Series D trim. Despite records set by privateers in summer 1955, with Bobby Burns driving an outfit at 162mph and Russell Wright hitting 185mph solo, the writing was on the wall.
Selected factory stalwarts, including renowned record breaker George Brown (who set up his own Stevenage motorcycle shop) had already left the works and complete motorcycle production ended in December 1955.
Development of a three-wheeled car powered by a 998cc engine came to nothing but the works continued for some years making spares to keep the large throng of dedicated Vincent enthusiasts going. They also made industrial two-stroke engines, garden tillers, go-karts and the Amanda water scooter.
Philip Vincent's career and his machines are fascinating to research. In some quarters it has been and probably always will be the done thing to knock the man and his products, jibes included the plumber’s nightmare slur cast at the Series A twin and some couldn't take to PCV's perceived arrogance – but this could have been a mask for shyness.
Whatever, there is no doubting the popularity of Vincents today resulting in high current prices, their durability and the fact that the press tested the Shadow at well over 120mph, a figure no other standard production motorcycle exceeded until the reign of the fast Japanese multis began in the Seventiess, 25 years after the first Black Shadows left the Stevenage factory.
Love them or hate them, there has for years been an enthusiastic market eager to pay top dollar for any of the Stevenage built machines.Enjoy more The Classic MotorCycle reading in the monthly magazine. Click here to subscribe.