Monday, March 11, 2013


Coming to the Bonhams Stafford auction April 28th; the Montlhéry Vincent Black Shadow
The Montlhéry race circuit, just 15.5 miles south of Paris, holds a place much like Brooklands in England in the hearts of European speed-fans, but the track isn't a fractured memory from pre WW2, its a living thing in continuous usage since constructed in 1924.  Today the track is regularly pounded by automotive companies, being engineered to withstand 5,000lb racing cars traveling at 150mph - a far-sighted vision for 1920s engineers.  But then, French engineers of the early 20th Century were exactly that, out on the exploratory limbs of technology, making double overhead camshaft four-valve multi-cylinder motorcycles even in the 'Teens.  What Montlhéry became best known for, though, was long-distance record-breaking; while nearby Arpajon was an excellent spot for Land Speed Record attempts in the 1920s and 30s, Montlhéry was a perfect venue to circulate for hours around its steeply banked oval, being relatively smooth (well, smoother than Brooklands...) and amenable to 24-hour full-bore, unsilenced riding.
The most visible modification from 'standard' spec is the large capacity racing fuel tank.  The Shadow is a matching #s machine with History...
On May 13 1952, a pair of mildly modified 1,000cc Vincent Black Shadows arrived in Paris to attempt a new 24-hour speed record, with a slew of Vincent factory employees (including 18 year old apprentice John Surtees), a few pressmen, plus a French team contingent of riders, the record-attempt team manager, and timing officials from the FIM.  One of the machines was a 'test hack' which circulated for hours during testing, on which modifications were made for an average/acceptable riding position for the 11 riders participating; Phil Heath, John Surtees, Robin Sherry (AMC factory racer), Cyril Julian (TT rider), Vic Willoughby (infamous writer for The Motor Cycle), Dennis Lashmar,  and Danny Thomas, plus four French riders; Ken Bills was team manager.  All the riders save Danny Thomas were able to keep up the 100mph pace, so he was relieved of duty.
The Montlhéry Vincent Black Shadow in 1952, at the track
 Paul Richardson, the Vincent-HRD Service Manager, described the record-breaker thus:
"The record breaking machine is a standard Black Shadow with 8:1 compression as supplied to the American market. ... We used 1-5/32" T.T. Annals in conjunction with two inch open pipes, the fuel being non-leaded 80 octane... Lightning cams... We removed our front brakes and rear flap, fixed rearward foot rests were fitted... special five Gallon petrol tank and a Feridax perspex flyscreen. Modified handlebars gave a very flat riding position and riders lay on a Sorbo 'mattress' fastened to the tank top...Avon...Standard 300 x 20 front racing and 3.50 x 19 rear racing tyres..."  His complete (and delightful) account of the attempt can be found here on the VOC site.

Ted Davis, the Vincent competition manager, originally built the Montlhéry racers with a caged big-end bearing, an improvement over the standard crowded-roller item, but Philip Vincent insisted the standard item was good enough, and ordered them changed back to standard, 'to demonstrate the reliability of the standard Black Shadow', which of course it did, but not with the intended outcome!  It didn't help that France was having its hottest May on record - so hot that the Avon rear tires on the pair of Black Lightnings (brought over for high-speed records) shed their treads at high speed, and the Castrol XL oil was described by Davis (read here) as 'dirty hot black water' when drained from the engines.  

After ten hours forty minutes, the standard big-end of the Vincent crankshaft failed, and a deafening silence rang in the speed bowl; the team ran to the far side of the track (a mile!), and waited 20 minutes to push the bike over the 'line' to take the 11hour record.  While a Vincent never took the 24hr/100mph record (it took a Velocette for that one), the Vincent team still took and impressive eight World Records, including the six-hour record at 100.53mph and 1,000km at 100.67mph, and 10 hours at 99.17mph.   Other records were 7 hrs @ 99.73mph, 8 hrs @ 99.73mph, 9 hrs @ 99.40mph, 10 hrs @ 99.17mph, 11 hours @ 91.98mph, and 1,000 miles @ 99.20mph.

I mentioned above that TWO Black Shadows were taken to Montlhé a 'test mule' and the other used in the attempt; both were tuned and prepared for the attempt, and both machines survive.  One is coming up for sale at the Bonhams Stafford sale on April 28th.  Apparently there is no record of 'which bike was which', but both can rightly claim to be part of the attempt at Montlhéry...


Anonymous said...

Years ago I brokered a Norvin for a friend in Perth who had owned it for 30 years or so. The engine had an overstamped number and the crankcase halves had an unusual pair of letters so it became difficult to sell. Eventually David Bowen of Adelaide bought it although it may have passed through Franc Trento's hands first. I can't remember as I brokered several Vincents to them at the time. David did his appenticeship at Vincent with John Surtees and they remain strong friends. David is a committed Vincentisiti and was able to tell me that it was one of the Montlhery engines which had to be overstamped when the Vincent factory was wound up. The seller of the Norvin still had a copy of the ad (and contact number) from one of the English comics. The former owner still lived in the flat in Reading 30 years later. I can't remember if the engine was a Rapide or Shadow.


The Vintagent said...

Mitchell, as far as I understand from reading Ted Davis and Paul Richardson's letters, there were four Vincent twins present at Montlhéry in May 1952; two Black Shadows, and two Black Lightnings. So, if the cases you describe were indeed used for the record attempts, it could have been any one of the four?

One of the Montlhéry Shadows (restored by Herb Harris) was found in Vietnam!

The Bonhams machine pictured has matching #s, and appears to be the original stamping. I've seen overstamped Vincent serial #s, and was party to the sale of a 1950 Black Lightning a few years ago in Las Vegas. It was a genuine Lightning, which had been stamped with Rapide #s, for the convenience of registering a racer on the road - the owner of the Lightning at the time (a policeman!) also had a disassembled but road registered Rapide, and stamped his Rapide #s over the Lightning #s. Crazy, but forensic metallurgy proved it was true.
This is the Lightning I rode over the Grossglockner Pass, which is a really spectacular motorcycle.

Arthur said...

Funny stuff all this.

2 Black Shadow bikes only are authenticated by the VOC who hold the works records as being prepared for Monthlery.

I think the bike being sold is owned by George Petch. If so it is correct but not sure where he got the tank from. Not seen in Vincent circles since 2002. Does it run well now?
I own the other fully certified Monthlery bike KTR 479 which has been widely seen at Vincent Club events in the last 10 years. I am fed up with people asking me if I am auctioning my bike. I'm not, but pass me a bag of cash the size of a small planet and you can have a go on it!! She has a fully restored engine by Glynn Johnson and wears the dented tank as seen in the Monthlery pictures and proper Black Lightning carburettors. Blinkin great bike and very usable as use on the closed roads VOC lap in 2007 showed.
I fail to see how Mr Harris can claim his bike is a Monthlery one just because the bare engine alone was supplied about the time to the French Vincent importer. Please show me the works record for the Engine. Show me also the records for the cycle parts...what did they come from ?
Whatever happens I hope the new owner has fun...but WHY paint the top of the tank with 1952 blah blah blah.Not very tasteful, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I have been asked to display KTR on the Footman James stand at the Stafford classic bike show in April 2013 when the other one is auctioned so if you want to check it out please do so.

God save the queen (and my pistons!)

Anonymous said...

under a photo it says: "The most visible modification from 'standard' spec is the large capacity racing fuel tank. The Shadow is a matching #s machine with History..."
to me it looks like the only modification, all the rest looks stock: it has front brakes, the seat, speedo and headlight are not lowered, muffler, fenders, and other small details, like the special fittings on the back for a factory paddock stand to permit quick wheel changes.
As for history......well every Vincent has a history that starts in Stevenage......

Anonymous said...

Looks pretty boring doing the roundy-round on the oval for 24 hrs. I'm guessing they'll be filling those things with "erl" at pit stops. The bikes'll be smeared with it, as well.

German race bikes as far back as the 30's ran clean and were immaculate at race end, compared to the British bikes that finished behind 'em.

I changed a rear tire on a Vincent way back for a service customer. Me? I'd rather have a Rotax-powered Buell 1125R with a 72 degree V-Twin. Erik Buell's cool, I went on a ride with him back in '00 during a H-D new model intro they put on in Arizonaland.

But wishin' for a Buell (or a Vincent) is for someone that likes bikes that require a fair amount of fixin' on a regular basis, and I've sure outgrown that kind of thing!


The Vintagent said...

Mark, while indeed relatively oil-tight, there was no all-conquering German racing motorcycle, except for the NSUs of the mid 1950s, and then only in the smaller capacities. Honda dominated GP racing in all capacities in the early 1960s, then quit, having proved their point. The Japanese companies went on to dominate global motorcycling, while all the German factories went bust, except BMW.
Those leaky, poorly made Brit bikes went head to head with the rest of the world, and acquitted themselves well. Vincent twins were, after all, the fastest production motorcycles you could buy, for nearly 40 years!

Anonymous said...

The actual 11hr record breaking machine still exists and is in its record breaking trim . After the records were broken it was tidied up by the factory and used in bike shops to promote Vincents and the records achieved. It was sold to a factory employee and shipped out of England. Other modifications where made which are not listed . There was only one French rider ,Gustave LeFevre.

Wilbur C Stump said...

Arthur does indeed own one of the two consecutively numbered Shadows prepared for the mid-May 1952 record attempt. The other is the one owned for decades by George Petch. They were both rebuilt in August 1952 by the works and sold through Lawton & Wilson of Southampton. The story about shipping abroad is as unlikely a tale as the Vietnam engine. Gustave Lefevre was the son-in-law of French importer Garreau and his antics on a Lightning at the circuit inspired the factory attempt on the 24-Hour record.

Anonymous said...

Arthur may well indeed own one of the consecutively numbered shadows .
which was owned by the late John Wright and the late Tigger Aldus. The last time
I saw the bike was in terrible condition and well done to Arthur for bringing it back
to respectable condition. Wilbur, there are a few things you have to take into account:
1) There were four shadows at Montlhery . (11 riders) 1 hack bike NRO 365.
2) The factory sold two of the shadows which Arthur and George (now sold) own not long after the records in 1952 and kept two. The 11hr record bike was later sold to a factory employee in early 1953 and shipped abroad in 1954.
Wilbur do some more research and you will find there are no tales or stories here. With factory
documents and accounts from four people who were at Montlhery in 1952 and of course the bike still in original record breaking trim ,this is no tale.

Anonymous said...

It is no tale, there is definitely more than the two Montlhery Black Shadows documented as I have just have the fortunate experience of seeing one of them and the paperwork!