Phillip Vincent was a determined man who had firm ideas on how a motorcycle should perform, and more importantly, how a motorcycle should be built.
He had studied mechanical science at Cambridge University and had a poor opinion of many features of the contemporary machines.
In the 1920s, he built his first motorcycle. Like all others, it had rear suspension with a triangulated pivoted fork and the springs were mounted beneath the saddle to work against the upper frame. It had a Swiss Mag engine, a Moss gearbox, Webb forks and Enfield hubs.
In 1927, at the age of 19, he decided to go into business making motorcycles. After taking advice from Arthur Bourne, he purchased the established HRD name from the OK Supreme Company.
The HRD name may have only been 3 years old, but the name Howard R Davies was well known, as he had tied for second in the 1914 Senior TT, been reported as killed in Action in 1917, and had won the 1921 Senior with his 350 AJS. After forming his company, he was second in the Junior and won the Senior in 1925.
With this background, the models were in demand and were brought out before the name went onto Vincent. Davies was rather surprised at the Motorcycle that resulted, as the fine rigid frame was gone, so resulting in a machine that was totally changed other than in the use of a proprietary engine. By 1930, Vincent HRD was known as makers of high class, hand built machines.
Thanks to the depression, the company could not have chosen a more inauspicious time to use rear suspension, as this was a major point against the marque. There was great prejudice against such things at that time, and the statement that all TT winners used rigid frames countered any engineering reasoning.
Vincent sales were minimal, and like the Brough, they were a club for the dedicated. They gradually improved and, in 1930 went to Olympia with a range powered by JAP engines. For touring there were the 490 and 600cc side valve engines, and for sporting use, the same size OHV engines. A pair of racing JAP engines cultivated the competition rider and finally there was the 350cc Grass Track racer. The latter was significant to Vincent sales, and in 1930, the sales were 36, which was up 50% on 1929.
This figure progressed to 48 in 1931 and in the same year, the company began to indicate Rudge Python engines as an option after experiencing a run of troubles with the JAP units.
In late 1931, Phil Irving joined the company and was immediately involved with the new frame. His knowledge was to complement the innovations that came from Vincent to produce good working motorcycles.
The new frame set the format for the pre war Vincent and had a single tank, seat and down tubes. The engine was part of the structure with small front plates and massive rear ones. The latter surrounded the gearbox and provided the mounting for the rear fork pivot and its taper roller bearings.
The rear suspension springs and dampers went beneath the saddle, and loaded by the triangulated rear fork. Damping was provided by friction material between the inner and outer spring box covers and could be adjusted by the external clamps.
In this frame, the customer had the choice of a 490cc JAP or a 499cc Python engine in standard or sports form. For those who preferred the older style, there were five further models listed, but hardly any were sold.
In 1933, a lightweight Model ‘L’ was added to the list and was powered by either a 247cc Villiers engine or a 245cc side valve JAP engine, but it never went into production. The prototype had the two-stroke power unit and was interesting as it was partially enclosed with panels around the crankcase and transmission. It retained the diamond sprung frame, as did the other models, which were all 500cc OHV. One had a JAP engine, and the others had the python engine in two states of tune.
The two-stroke was modified for 1934, and became the model ‘W’ with a water-cooled 249cc Villiers engine. The frame was new and unlike the others, except in its retention of a triangulated rear fork and spring unit under the seat. The main frame was a malleable iron backbone to which were bolted two downtubes. These were attached to a channel section, which ran under the engine and gearbox to another, acting as a seat stay and rear fork pivot support. Strip stays braced the construction.
Phil Vincent was let down in the 1934 TT, and with Rudge units becoming hard to get, he decided to make his own. He was to exhibit it at the next show; he had only four months to produce it. He succeeded, and the design set the style for all his future engines.
The valve gear was what set Vincent apart from the others, and began with a camshaft placed high up with push rods spayed out to run parallel to the valve line, which allowed the rockers to run straight across the head to the valves.
The news to make the headlines in 1937 was the appearance of the 998cc V twin Rapide that had tremendous performance. Unfortunately, it was too fast for the transmission, which was known to wilt under the torque. Phil Irving went to work for Velocette, but later returned in 1943.
In 1939, only three models remained, the Meteor, Comet and Rapide, and the Comet was known as the touring machine. Enthusiasts knew them as fast, faster and fastest.
Production ceased in 1939, and the company turned to war work with some special designs for the services but also with thoughts of a high-speed tourer for the years to come.
Following the war, motorcycle production resumed and for 1946, the company introduced the Series B Rapide, which was radically different from the A. The oil pipes were internal and the gearbox was part of the engine casting. It had a shorter wheelbase and its dimensions were more like a 500cc motorcycle.
1948 saw the introduction of the Series C Rapide, Black Shadow and Black Lightning models.
The Black Shadow was capable of 125mph, and was easily recognised by its back engine and gearbox unit, the Black Lightning was a racing version of the Black Shadow, with every necessary steel part on it that could be, remade in aluminium and anything that was not essential removed altogether, which reduced the weight from 458lb to 380lb. Every bit the racer, it had a single racing seat and rear set footrests.
With falling sales, Vincent tried building two new high-speed touring models, the fully enclosed Vincent Victor (an upgraded comet), the Black Knight (an upgraded Rapide) and the Vincent Black Prince (an upgraded Shadow). The public poorly received them and a short-lived unfaired version of the Black Prince was produced. There was still a Series D Comet.
Sales declined further owing to the availability of cheaper motor cars.
By 1954, Vincent was in an increasingly difficult situation. In the quest for solvency, Vincent looked for ways to improve their position, and the company revived the trike.
Sales fell further, and a one off prototype 3 wheeler powered by a Vincent Rapid 998cc engine was unofficially named “Polyphemus”.
After several more prototypes, the then named “Vincent 3 wheeler” was offered to the public in 1955 at £500, a high price for any vehicle at the time, especially for a vehicle with no reverse gear, self starter or hood. The company sold none.
Vincent HRD motorcycles were hand built and expensive. 11000 machines were sold post World War 2, and the sales slump in 1954 forced the company to manufacture NSU mopeds. Only forty of the two stroke NSU Vincent Fox were built. There was also the OHV four stroke NSU Vincent 98cc and Vincent sold the NSU Quickly moped which 20000 units were sold in one year.
At a Vincent Owners Club dinner in the summer of 1955, Phil Vincent announced that the company could no longer continue in the face of such heavy losses and that production of motorcycles would cease almost immediately.
Just one week before Christmas, the last Vincent motorcycle came off the production line. It was labelled “the last”.
The factory then turned to general engineering, the manufacture of industrial engines, and there was the Amanda water scooter, possibly the first personal watercraft. A Vincent engineer lost his life testing it.
Phil Vincent declared that Vincent parts would always be available, and indeed, they still are, through the Vincent Owners Club, and other sources.
The company went into receivership in 1959, but has since been bought and sold by other engineering firms.