Collecting Black Shadow motorbikes

The original superbike’s superior build, performance and exclusivity have put it in the premier league of collectable motorcycles, says Simon de Burton

A 1952 ex-works Vincent 998cc Black Shadow, sold for £113,500 at Bonhams
A 1952 ex-works Vincent 998cc Black Shadow, sold for £113,500 at Bonhams | Image: Bonhams

Health and safety were not high on the agenda when Rollie Free set out to establish a new motorcycle land speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats on September 13, 1948. Having ripped his leathers in a trial run, he opted to discard them altogether and, lying stiff as a board on the bike wearing just plimsolls and a pair of appropriately named Speedo trunks, he roared into the history books at 150.313mph.

And the machine he did it on? A  mighty Vincent 1,000cc V-twin, a model already advertised as “the world’s fastest standard motorcycle” following its launch by Cambridge graduate Philip Vincent, who established his eponymous marque in 1928.

The first significant Vincents were the Comet, Meteor and TT Replica, with single-cylinder, 500cc engines developed in-house by Australian motorcycle engineer Phil Irving – but legend has it that he was one day shuffling a drawing and a tracing of his new design when it dawned on him that, if he put the two together, he could create a 1,000cc V-twin. The Rapide model, in Series A and B forms, was built from 1936-1948 and offered a then unprecedented top speed of 110mph. It was the Series C, however, that gave Vincent its legendary reputation, thanks to an even more highly tuned version known as the Black Shadow, which could reach speeds of 125mph.

I was not only the Black Shadow’s sparkling performance that established its reputation. Important, too, were innovative features, such as adjustable controls, footrests and seat, an engine that formed part of the frame and an exceptional level of finish that pushed the price to around £400 – more or less double the cost of any rival machine.

Rollie Free breaking the world speed record on a Vincent in 1948 
Rollie Free breaking the world speed record on a Vincent in 1948  | Image: Getty Images

The Black Shadow’s status as the original superbike has put it in the premier league of collectable motorcycles, with one of the top prices to date standing at £124,700 – paid three years ago at Bonhams for the very last example to leave the production line in 1955. A restored, ex-works machine that had been part of a team of eight Vincents used to set speed records at the Montlhéry circuit outside Paris in the spring of 1952, meanwhile, made £113,500 at Bonhams in 2013, while the house also sold an ultra-rare White Shadow (one of 15 Black Shadows with unpainted engine cases) in January this year for £146,618.

And, according to Bonhams motorcycle specialist James Stensel, prices show no sign of slowing. “A Black Shadow’s superior build quality, unparalleled performance and, most importantly, its exclusivity are all factors. To own and ride one is an event and, to many, the realisation of a dream to tame one of the most elusive motorcycles of all time.”

It is thought that around two thirds of the approximately 1,850 Black Shadows built have survived – but according to Ian Savage, managing director of the Vincent Owner’s Club Spares Company, finding an original machine can be tricky. “About eight or nine years ago, £35,000 would be sufficient to buy a good, genuine Black Shadow,” says Savage. But values have since doubled and people have created Black Shadows using other Vincent models as a basis, so buyers need to be careful. Also, Vincents have a component frame rather than a conventional structure. The components were often replaced and swapped around, which can also compromise value.

“The main thing to look out for is that both the frame and engine numbers carry the extra letter B, which denotes the model. The Vincent Owner’s Club registrar has the factory records and will happily check numbers to confirm originality.”

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The good news, however, is that spares for the Black Shadow have never been more plentiful. More than 90 per cent of parts have been sourced or remanufactured by the VOC Spares Company, and many original components are available from sources such as the online classifieds site Thevincent.com.

It’s a fact appreciated by Anthony Godin, who estimates he has sold more than 40 Black Shadows during his 25-year career as a high-end classic car and motorcycle dealer. “Prices have really taken off as people have started to look at the investment potential of the most iconic motorcycles,” he says. “I currently have a Black Shadow on offer for £65,995 and I’d be very surprised if it stays here for long. These days, some buyers do not even ride motorcycles, but just want a Black Shadow because it is a milestone machine that they think will fit well alongside a classic car collection – and, with the going rate at £60,000-£80,000, they see them as still being good value.”

For long-term fan Ernie Lowinger, however, Vincents are not so much about investment value as the joy of riding one. The former architect bought his standard Black Shadow a decade ago having owned a less highly tuned Rapide model since the 1980s. “Any Vincent twin is simply an absolute pleasure to ride. You can potter along all day, every day at 70mph, which is quite something for such an old machine,” he says. “But it’s also a truly beautiful object and a very clever piece of engineering, with the engine acting as a structural part of the frame. I suppose the only drawback is that they have become ridiculously expensive – I bought mine for £17,000 after it had sat in a corner, untouched, for 40 years. It needed minor fettling, but since then I’ve ridden it a great deal, including on a 3,000-mile tour of Europe. It never missed a beat.”

Vintage motorbike lovers might also be interested in one man’s golden-era Triumph collectionor in finding out how the Brit bike renaissance is stepping up a gear.

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