Go Back to Marques and Men PageVincent HRD

The Vincent-HRD company was formed when Philip Vincent purchased the remains of the HRD motorcycle company in 1928. Howard Raymond Davies had only begun manufacturing motorcycles in 1924, targetting a similar market to Brough Superior – high performance, with excellent reliability. Also like Brough Superior, Davies was cherry picking the best components (such as engines from JAP) rather than doing everything in-house. He achieved some racing success on his own bikes, and production had remained exclusive.

Vincent was a trained engineer, though only 20, and able to make the purchase with help from the family – Argentinian beef farmers. The new company was called The Vincent HRD Company, and followed a similar path, albeit on a slightly more commercial footing. It was based at Stevenage, north of London. The motorcycles are correctly known as “Vincent HRDs” sometimes shortened to Vincent (and in America the HRD was deliberately dropped from around 1944, to avoid brand confusion with Harley Davidson). In 1949 the HRD was dropped from all machines, but confusingly many periodicals continued to call the “Vincent-HRDs.”

In 1934 the company started building its own engines. These were developed by chief engineer Phil Irving, who had joined the company in 1931. In 1937 he would leave for Velocette, then to AMC (working alongside Norton legend Joe Craig) before returning to Vincent in 1943. He would return to Australia in 1949, where he would again play a key part in the air-cooled story when Cooper cars eventually followed.

Vincent motorcycles were built to the same high standards as the Superiors, and were similarly expensive. In an austere post-War Britain bikes like the legendary Black Shadow were beyond all the very rich, and the business model was always fragile, with production of only 200 or so bikes each year to maintain cash flow. A string of moderate problems hit the company through 1954, and the company was unable to survive. Motorcycle production ended abruptly before Christmas 1955.

The 500cc Engines

The first in-house engine, in 1934 was named the Meteor, and all Vincent engines would be based on it. It was a single cylinder ohv, 2-valve motor, with the cylinder canted forward. A sport model was known as the Comet. The engine had alloy head and barrel.

Due to Colin Strang a Vincent Comet TT engine was part of the debut of the 500cc category in 1946. On methanol, Colin extracted a confirmed 45bhp from his engine, enough to warrant a visit from Philips Vincent & Irving to find out how he was getting more than the works.

In 1949 the race version was launched – the Grey Flash. This engine basically attached half of a Black Lightning motor (see below) to the Comet bottom end. On petrol, the 499cc engine produced 35bhp at a fairly leisurely 6,200rpm (other engines were capable of over 7,000rpm).

Being handbuilt, even hand polished internally, Grey Flashes were expensive and rare, so their appearance in Formula III was unlikely. In 1954 Henry Taylor fitted a Vincent in his Cooper Mk IV, and this was probably a Comet. He was successful in the Junior races, but opted for a JAP when he upgraded to a more contemporary Mk VIII in 1955. The Kieft prototype was fitted with a Vincent engine in 1950.

The 500cc engine certainly had the potential to compete against the dominant Norton. It was Colin Strang who first introduced the megaphone exhaust, which suited the free-revving Vincent. Unlike some other engines, the combustion chamber was not compromised when upping the compression ratio for methanol fuel, and an over-engineered bottom end assisted reliability at high revs. Scarcity and cost did for it in period, and in historic racing it now offers an interesting alternative to the Norton.

The 1,000cc Engines

The Rapide engine appeared in 1936. It basically married two Meteor engines on a large crankcase (legend has it that Phil Irving accidentally laid two engineering drawings over each other and saw the potential fit).

As motorsport returned post-War a few JAP-twin powered hillclimb cars appeared, and it is said to have been Spike Rhiando who first suggested dropping one into the Cooper Mk II. Even before the JAP-engined prototype was finished, George Abecassis and John Heath of HWM decided to do the same with the chassis they had ordered. Abecassis placed an order for the 1948 Series C Rapide engine – in sport specification known as the Black Shadow. This 998cc engine produced 54bhp at 5,700rpm on petrol (about the same as the 1,000cc JAP). Construction of the Abecassis car was delayed, not being seen until September, by which time the engine spec had been upgraded to pretty much the racing Black Lightning specification.

JAP and Vincent twins proved to superbly complement the lightweight Cooper, and the cars could embarrass many 2-litre Formula 2 cars on the twistier tracks – more so on the hills when 1,500 and 1,100cc classes became the norm. JAP were better focussed on the racing car market, and delivered an 1,100cc variant and much more competitive pricing, but the Vincent was never truly outclassed. Its life was extended when it, like the JAP showed that it could take to supercharging.

The Black Shadow twin in David Cooper’s early car (shown at right, in 2005).

The Irving Vincent

Back in Australia, Phil Irving teamed up with Lex Davison, owner of a Cooper Mk IV. Irving too saw the potential of a supercharged Vincent Twin, and Davison debuted just such a Black Lightning motor in November 1954. When in 1957 the engine was transferred to a modified Cooper Mk V, the Cooper Irving proved unbeatable, winning the Australian Hill Climb Championship.

Vincents were already being used by Keith Rilstone and Murray Trenberth in their small specials, and they too would supercharge their cars to produce potent racers.

The supercharged Irving-Vincent engine in Lex Davison’s restored Cooper Mk V (as seen below, in 2007). A lot of power in a light chassis made for a very effective hillclimb car.

Go to 500 Owners Home Page