Vincent HRD Racing History : Post-War


Post Hostilities : 1946-48
While the Second World War was in progress, all Vincents production was switched over to the manufacture of essential equipment to support the war effort. However, while doing this, Phil Vincent and Phil Irving also looked at re-designing their Series 'A' Twin, ready for when the hostilities ended. The result of these efforts culminated in the first Series 'B' Rapide going into production in 1946.
Designed to run on 72 octane 'Pool' quality petrol, all that was available after the war, the Rapide was still capable of touring at speeds up to 100mph and an extremely impressive maximum of 110mph.
It was no suprise that before long the Rapide was being used by many customers as a sporting machine, and was entered in many early post-war races, particularly the Clubmans TT with numerous riders making excellant performances, including J.Daniels who won the 1948 Clubmans TT and Ted Davis who was 5th.

J.Daniels - 1948 Clubmans TT

1948 Clubmans


Gunga Din02

Early picture of Gunga Din, Brown brothers, Phil Irving and Mike Eggington

Gunga Drive Side Drive Side View of Gunga Din (Note flange fitting TT Carburettors)

Rene Milhoux
Rene Milhoux and Phil Irving, Belgium 1948



Supr Nero
George Brown and Super Nero at Elvington. @200mph!


The Forerunner of the Black Lightning
Among Phil Vincent's workforce after the war were two brothers, George and Cliff Brown. ( George went on to become a legend for his campaigning of two Vincent sprint bikes, Nero and Super Nero, two awesome sprinters, with which he held numerous sprint records over a 20 year period. See footnote). Anyway, in 1947 Cliff, George and Phil Irving had got hold of a Rapide that had been rejected from the test department because it was generally regarded to be a rattler, with poor performance to boot.
Christened 'Gunga Din', they meticulously stripped and rebuilt this bike in their spare time, until eventually it was ready to race. Over the next two years this motorcycle was raced (mainly by George) at many road races and sprints, it being so successful that at some races, attempts were made to ban it to ensure someone else would stand a chance of a win!
Amongst many other great successes, George took the bike to Shelsley Walsh in 1948 and broke the course record with a run of 37.13 seconds, which took many years to beat.
In September 1948 Gunga Din was taken to Belgian, where ridden by Rene Milhoux it was used to break the Belgian National speed records with a run of 143 mph. It was also able to set new sidecar speed records in the standing start kilometre and standing start mile class of 80.49 and 91.95mph respectively.

It was due to the success of Gunga Din that when Phil Vincent returned from America at the end of 1947, he was so impressed that he saw the great potential of a sports version of the Rapide, and it was from this that the immortal Black Shadow was born.
The Black Shadow went into production in early 1948 and with a slightly higher tune of engine than the Rapide, was timed at 122mph on 72 octane petrol. Major changes were concentrated around the engine/gearbox where a 7.3-1 compression ratio was used, slightly larger 1.125s carburetors and what would these days be termed 'Blueprinting' of most mechanical components.
Add to this the slightly better finned brakes, a beautifully striking black finish (as opposed to polished alloy) and of course that wonderful 5 inch Smiths speedometer and it is no surprise that eventually the Black Shadow eventually went on to outsell the Rapide.

* Footnote:
Unfortunately I was not old enough to see Super Nero being ran by George in its hayday. However, many years later when sprinting my own Norton, I was fortunate enough to watch Tony Brown (George's son) running both bikes in 'demo' runs, the site of which was amazing, particularly the supercharged bike, Super Nero.
On one occasion I helped hold down the rear wheel of Super Nero on its starting rollers, powered by their transit van, (which were used to turn the big supercharged engine over, it being impossible to bump start). Unfortunately I had not fitted ear plugs beforehand, so when the engine finally roared into life, the resulting ear splitting bellow left me deaf for almost 10 minutes! Having heard hundreds of exotic racing engines I can confirm that that engine is still the most deafening and glorious noise I have ever heard!

The First Black Lightning
The first real Black Lightning came about as a result of a trip to California by Phil Vincent in 1948, where he was introduced to a wealthy journalist with an interest in fast motorcycles by the name of John Edgar. It transpired that John Edgar had an ambition to own a motorcycle holding the American speed record and Vincent Martin, the local Vincent dealer pointed out that the current Black Shadow was already capable of 120+mph speeds, so John realised it might not take much tuning to make his ambition a reality.
Phil Vincent realising that Gunga Din had already been tuned to a much higher state of tune than a standard Black Shadow, offered to provide John Edgar with a machine capable of attaining the record, if John was prepared to pay an additional £50 over the cost of a standard Black Shadow.
So it was that Phil Vincent wrote to Phil Irving giving details of the bike he wished Irving to prepare in readiness for the record attempt. Phil Irving spent some considerable time preparing special cams for this motorcycle, which later became known as the famous MKII cams. Equuiped with these cams and running on Methanol, George Brown was able to test the bike up to 143mph before having to shut off due to lack of road.
This machine, known as the Black Lightning was sent to America for Rollie Free to ride on John Edgars behalf, it being received on August 27th 1948.
Having removed a number of items such as lighting gear, front brakes and such, the machine was ran on September 13th and having made two runs Rollie was successful in taking the record at an average speed of 148mph.
However Rollie himself was keen to crack the 150mph barrier that Phil Vincent had promised the machine was capable of, so stripped down to just his bathing trunks (his leathers had been torn in the previous attempt) he tried again. This time he was successful, becoming the first person in America to crack the 150mph barrier, with an average speed of 150.313 mph!

Rollie later went back with his own Black Lightning, it being fitted with a fully streamlining shell. Unfortunately it seems that the enclosure's aerodynamics were not particularly good, which resulted in Rollie losing control of the machine at high speed and him and the bike sliding end over end for a 1000 feet before coming to a stop. Amazingly, Rollie was able to walk away from this crash with little more than salt burns.

That was not the end though, the shell was removed and in 1953 Rollie was eventually to manage an average two way run of 160.73 mph and a fastest one way time of 163.54 mph. He never achieved his ambition to better 180mph though, which with the correct aerodynamic shell fitted he felt the bike was capable of.

Rollie Free

Rollie Free and Black Lightning at Bonneville 1948

1948 Lightning
First Production Lightning 1948

1949 Earls Court
1949 Earls Court Show

Production Black Lightning's
As far as I can tell there never really was a standard production Black Lightning as such! According to Phil Vincents own recollections in Roy Harper's well known book The Vincent H.R.D. Story, only 20 or so Vincent Black Lightning's were produced in all, from John Edgars first bike in 1948, to the last one produced in 1955. However, later accounts put the figure closer to 33 bikes, not including the likes of Gunga Din. If you visit the excellent web site you will see that they have put together a very comprehensive list of the complete machines, including engine chassis numbers and first owners.

In Dennis Minnet's notebook (an excellent journal from a the man who was in charge of the Special Engine Department), the first 'shakedown' engine is shown as being worked on in February 1949, with the first actual reference to a Lightning being engine number 1803 in March 1949. The last production Black Lightning seems to have been engine number 9818, which according to the list compiled by , was purchased in 1956.

It seems difficult to define exactly what the 'standard' Black Lightning specification consisted of, as supposedly each one was subtly different. That said, although not conclusive, I have listed below the generally accepted major changes that made the Black Lightning different from road going Vincent twins.

VP 1949 BL
Vic Proctors Black Lightning (1949?)

Large Tanked BL
Vincent Badged Lightning
(Note sidecar engine plates and large tank)

· Stronger 'Vibrac' connecting rods
· High compression pistons (different ratios dependant on fuels used)
· Caged roller big end, in place of road going crowded roller version. (I know that some alloy pinned big ends were fitted into Grey Flash's but I don't think these were tried in twins).
· MKII cam profiles
· Steel idler timing gears
· Highly polished internals, including flywheels, conrods, cam followers inner crankcases
· Bigger inlet ports (early bikes were fitted with a front and rear heads but later bikes were fitted with two rear heads as these were easier to bore to 32mm)
· Close ratio gear cluster, with some gears being double backlashed for quicker changes
· Lightened gear selector plate and gearchange emechanism
· Lightened clutch drum and components. Solid Ferodo primary clutch plate fitted. Clutch cover with centre opening (mine has additional cooling holes like many I have seen)
· Primary sprocket lightened? (seems to have been done on some bikes)
· Kickstart mechanism removed
· Twin start oil pump fitted (this does not seem to have been done originally but is a very common modification with racing twins in later years)
· Racing TT/GP carburettors. Early machines seem to have been fitted with more standard stub fitting TT carburettors (with associated racing inlet stubs), while later machines were fitted with a special batch of clip fitting GP carburettors.
· Lucas KVFTT manual advance racing magneto
· 2 inch bore straight through exhaust pipes, normally 44" long and of thinner gauge than standard pipes. Narrower exhaust nuts.

Wheels and Brakes
· Alloy wheel rims instead of steel
· Alloy brake plates with cooling scoops instead of pressed steel plates
· Ribbed brake drums
· Brake cams drilled through the lobe for lightness
· Brake securing arm on rear brakes drilled for lightness
· Different axles without tommy bars (I have fitted tommy bar axles as I just like them better!)
· ¼" inch rear sprockets and chain instead of 5/16" inch.

Chassis/Cycle Part Differences
· Forks - It seems these were identical to road going twins. Grey Flash's were fitted with the main blades lightened on their inner faces but I don't believe any twins had this modification originally (presumably as most were intended for sidecars where greater strength was necessary)
· Petrol Tank with different cutaway for racing carburettors (and racing fuel taps)
· Drilled rear swinging arm mounting plate (not sure if this was carried out on all Lightning's)
· Rearset gearchange and brake mechanisms, fitted on alloy plates.
· Normal 'bolt' chain adjusters, instead of Vincent alloy knobs
· Competition mudguards and stays
· Shortened chainguard
· Competition Feridax seat (I have seen quite a few different varieties of these, the earlier ones always seem slightly thicker and in some photographs, more brownish in colour)
· 3.5 inch Smiths 0-8000 rev clock with yellow numerals (as far as I am aware, this type of rev clock was only ever fitted to Black Lightnings's and is certainly one of rarest parts to find, face is marked RC115)
· (Optional) 3.5 inch Smiths 180mph speedometer with yellow numerals (I have only ever seen one photograph of these and never one in the flesh - obviously I am looking for one!)


George Formby
George Formby on Gunga Din at Kings of Oxford (Note 'Big Port' heads fitted)


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