The first superbike in history is arguably still the best superbike in history, and it’s the Vincent Black Shadow. Iconic is an understatement for this British motorcycle.
A World War II Superbike
When this motorcycle hit the market in 1948 during World War II, it represented a whole new world of motorcycles in the midst of a chaotic world. With an original top speed of 122 mph, it was truly a marvel in its time. In fact, it’s still a marvel in this time. There were three different, distinct series produced of this brand of motorcycle, which unfortunately went out of production in 1955.
Produced out of England, it is so iconic in part because of its place in World War II. A British bike for British people who were defending themselves against the Nazis. It doesn’t get much more poetic than that.
Historic Motorcycle with Iconic Parts
The engines for the Vincent Black Shadow mainly came from production parts that came from Rapide. Everything on these bikes was selected by hand, with Rapide cam shafts and other engine parts.
One iconic aspect of these superbikes was their distinctive black engine. The owner of the company insisted that all of the engines were painted black, which lent itself both to mystique and stealth. This isn’t some schoolboy’s scooter, it’s meant to be a beautiful and distinctive piece of machinery that is unlike anything else on the road. The suspension uses a cantilever system, and the rear frame has a distinctive triangular shape. The chronometric speedometer was mounted basically vertically from its second year of production. A Lucas magneto starter finishes out this powerful bike.
Safety seemed to be an actual concern for Vincent HRD, the manufacturer. Other models of American motorcycles only had rear brakes at the time, but Vincent had four brake drums. That meant that this motorcycle could not only go, it could stop as well.
Altogether, these iconic parts make this first superbike a remarkable one, not only for looks but for speed and power as well.
Evolution of the Black Shadow
The Vincent Black Shadow rolled off the line in three series during its production.
The first, the Series B, was one of the first racing superbikes. Following that, Series C and Series D were each faster and with a few improvements.
Notably, Engineers Phil Iriving and the head of the shop disobeyed owner Frank Walker to create the C and D models, as Walker initially refused to move forward with their production.
A Favorite of the Famous
The Vincent Black Shadow is beloved by not only by historians, but also by collectors. Comedian and Tonight Show host Jay Leno famously calls the Vincent Black Shadow his favorite motorcycle. That’s meaningful considering he’s known for his incredibly passionate love of automobiles and motorcycles.
The Vincent Shadow was a favorite of author Hunter S. Thompson, who mentioned it repeatedly in his classic 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He once wrote of the bike “”If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the Vincent Black Shadow Society.”
Why are these bikes still so loved today? The answer is craftsmanship. Vincents were made mostly by hand, especially prior to 1951. However, that kind of attention to detail and love for the crafting process just couldn’t keep going. Vincent HRD shut its doors in 1955. Luckily, this prolific superbike lives on today with collectors and passionate motorcycle enthusiasts.