Memorable Motorcycles Vincent Rapide

February 18, 2003
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The design goal of the Rapide was to offer a big-twin that provided outstanding acceleration with high-quality handling and weight of a then modern 500cc machine.
The design goal of the Rapide was to offer a big-twin that provided outstanding acceleration with high-quality handling and weight of a then modern 500cc machine.

Discussing the Vincent big Twins in normal motorcycling terms is rather like referring to Mount Everest as a high part of the Pennines: Comparisons simply do not do justice to one of the most remarkable motorcycles ever put into production.

At a time when even a very good super sports bike was pushed to scrape over 100 mph, the touring Vincent would burble along all day at well over the magic ton. The sports version of the firm’s touring Rapide, the Black Shadow, was a genuine 130-mph superbike and for the very, very brave a full race-spec Lightning piloted in the Superman position by Rollie Free reached 150 mph on the Bonneville salt flats.

Vincent owners did remarkable things with this remarkable motorcycle. For example, theater manager Jim Kentish sent off for Brooklands one morning on an early, and completely standard Vincent Rapide tourer and ran off a batch of 100-mph laps to earn his Gold Star, and then nipped back to work at Kew Theatre for the evening performance. This was the Vincent legend writ large.

The post-war Vincents positively bristled with clever ideas – some of which were decades ahead of their time. The engines were stressed members of an extremely clever frame, in which the top spine held 6 pints of oil whilst the triangulated swingarm pivoted through the rear of the crankcase giving an extremely short wheelbase for such a big bike.

Vincent Rapide

The riding position was almost infinitely variable, the dual front brakes balanced for relatively good stopping for the day, and the front forks beefy. In fact, on paper, the Vincent had everything of which the experienced motorcyclist could ever dream. Except for one thing: the price. In 1951, a Black Shadow was a stunning £402.10s ($650 US) when a BSA Gold Star was considered to be a luxury purchase at £253 ($400 US).

Not only was the price against the Vincent but so was its unique nature. To the eyes of some motorcyclists, the Vincent, with its irregular lines, was ugly. And though it might have been a technical tour de force, it also demanded a lot of mechanical sympathy. At a time when anyone could get on a Triumph Thunderbird, start it with one kick and look like Marlon Brando, the Vincent required experience and planning to coax it into life.

The famed 100-mph cruising was also very much a paper blessing. In 1951, British magazine road testers reported that: “No airfield or stretch of road could be found which would allow maximum speed to be obtained.” In post-war Britain, 120 mph was reserved for the Grand Prix circuit, not for the public road.

Riding a Vincent today is still a remarkable experience – but most definitely an acquired taste. It’s worth riding a Vincent, if only once, and then returning to more mainstream bikes for a more easily digestible motorcycling meal.

Price: £15,000 ($23,000) for a nice, restored Rapide. A little more for a Shadow.