1952 Vincent 998cc Black Shadow

The ex-works, Montlhéry speed record attempt motorcycle

Registration no. LOW 458
Frame no. RC/10656B
Engine no. F10AB/1B/8756

His motorcycles' design innovation and engineering excellence notwithstanding, Philip Vincent well understood that it was performance that grabbed the headlines and stimulated sales. Season-long racing was prohibitively expensive but a one-off speed record attempt was more affordable and the latter was the obvious choice for cash-strapped Vincent, all the more so because it was already producing the world's fastest production motorcycle: the Black Shadow.

The most famous and spectacular Vincent record attempt is that undertaken by Rollie Free, who rode journalist John Edgar's special factory-prepared Black Shadow to a speed of over 150mph on the Bonneville salt flats in Utah in 1948, the first time that an un-supercharged motorcycle had surpassed that figure. The photograph of Free, lying prone on the Vincent wearing only swimming trunks and running shoes, is one of motorcycling's most reproduced images.

The next significant factory-backed record attempt was made four years later, in May 1952, when a team of specially-prepared Black Shadows was despatched to the banked Montlhéry track in France. On this occasion it was Philip Vincent's aim to have one of his motorcycles be the first to average 100mph for 24 hours. Although 'PCV' was quite happy to have the Black Shadow engines tuned beyond the production specification, for some reason he insisted that the big-end bearings be left standard, a decision that would have unfortunate consequences. Other alterations included dispensing with both front brakes and one of the rears, and the provision of an oversize (5-gallon) fuel tank. One of the fitters entrusted with building the record-attempt bikes, and who went to France with them, was Jack Lazenby of the Special Engine workshop, whose detailed account of the build process, machine modifications and the attempt itself is in the history file (perusal recommended).

Also on file is a copy of this Shadow's original Works Order Form, signed by Jack Lazenby, which lists various departures from standard including a racing screen, 5 gallon tank (racing cap), long reach foot rest (rear), no front brakes and a racing sprocket. 7/8 pistons together with a modified gearbox main shaft and clutch carrier are non-standard engine components listed. Lightning cams are listed on a subsequent WOF issued after the record attempt, in September 1952. Copy road test reports dated April and September 1952 are on file also, the former noting that engine 'F10AB/1B/8756' was 'stripped and refitted as needed for record attempt', while the latter describes 'RC/10656B' as a 'rebuilt Montlhéry machine'.

The Montlhéry team comprised four Black Shadows, two Black Lightnings and a road-registered Black Shadow practice 'hack' ('NRO 365'). Philip Vincent himself headed the support staff while the line-up of riders consisted of employees Ted Davis (chief tester), John Surtees (apprentice) and Danny Thomas (tester) plus Cyril Julian, Phil Heath, Denis Lashmar, Gustave LeFevre, Bill Petch, Robin Sherry, Johnny Hodgkin and journalist Vic Willoughby of Motor Cycle magazine.

The first day of the Castrol-sponsored record attempt - 13th May - ended in disappointment after six hours when a big-end bearing seized. The following day - 14th May - would turn out to be very hot (approaching 26°C in the shade) and after 11 hours the big-end failed again. Nevertheless, by then Vincent had no fewer than eight records in the bag, including the 6 hours at 100.6mph, and some decent publicity material for next week's motorcycling papers. The following day an attempt was made with one of the Black Lightnings to set some short-distance records, but after John Surtees had circulated at over 129mph for a couple of laps the rear tyre started to de-laminate, bringing proceedings to a halt. Once again the exceptionally high temperatures were to blame.

Back at the Stevenage factory the bikes were rebuilt and then two of the Black Shadows, one of which is that offered here, were sold to the Southampton Vincent agents, Lawton & Wilson. Of the four Montlhéry Shadows, two are in the UK and the others in Australia, and it is probable that the two Lightnings are still in existence too.

Lawton & Wilson registered the Vincent (theirs is the first name listed in the accompanying original logbook) and sold it in December 1953 to one Jim James of Totton, Hampshire. Some six years later 'LOW 458' was back at Lawton & Wilson who sold it for the second time, on this occasion to one Rex Grattan Flood of Berryfield, Wiltshire, in January 1960. Mr Flood kept the Vincent only a few months before selling it to Kenneth Skuse in April of that year. Ken Skuse was serving in the RAF and his postings took him to several different addresses, the last one listed being in Lincoln (1969). He was stationed at nearby RAF Waddington when he sold the Montlhéry Black Shadow to Grimsby motorcycle dealer, George Petch (its current owner) in June 1970.

A lifelong Vincent enthusiast, he joined the owners' club in 1962 and has owned 20-or-so at various times, George rode the Black Shadow for a few years before dismantling it for restoration around 1977. As is so often the case, the project was consigned to the 'back burner' and would not be completed until 2002, in time to celebrate the record attempt's 50th anniversary at Montlhéry's Coupes Moto Légende event.

The man instrumental in getting the Vincent back in action was Rowland Mettam, of Mog-Vin and Morgan racing fame. Quoted in The Classic MotorCycle (November 2002 edition, copy on file) Rowly had this to say about the project: 'I knew about the Vincent and who had it, but we'd never met until George asked me if I'd rebuild it with a view to it being used. I almost had second thoughts as it was really rough, and the first task was a mammoth cleaning session. Once we got the muck out of the way, it was easy to see the engine had originally been built by someone who knew what he was doing. Everything had been lightened, balanced and polished, a real tool room job not just someone with an electric drill. The only things I didn't have to touch were the bores and the big ends, though I did re-ring the pistons. I had to put in new cams, Mk3 ones rather than Lightning, and new idler wheels as well as replacing all of the bushes, spindles and bearings throughout.'

Subsequently it was decided to have the engine re-bored and fitted with new pistons. Restoration of the cycle parts was entrusted to various other specialists including Steve Lomas (wheels), Ken Waller (stove enamelling) and Mick Rowan (tank paintwork). In an effort to maximise usability, the Shadow was upgraded with 12-volt electrics and Kirby Rowbotham electronic ignition, while Amal Type 276 carburettors were fitted in place of the 10TT version.

When purchased by George, the Black Shadow came with a standard fuel tank, the oversize original having disappeared, and it was in this form that the Vincent was displayed at Montlhéry in 2002. Miraculously, an original tank turned up a few years later in Canada and was fitted to 'LOW 458'. The tank's owner, Richard Lobb of Sydenham, Ontario, had bought it in the 1960s in London from a policeman, previously serving in the RAF, who said that he had sold the bike to one of his service colleagues. The policeman in question could have been Rex Grattan Flood. Richard Lobb had the tank stripped and restored, in the process of which the filled-in dents on either side, made by the factory to improve handlebar clearance, were mistaken for accident damage and removed! Richard Lobb's letter recounting the story of the Montlhéry tank is on file.

Unfortunately, on its first trip back to Montlhéry in 2002, the Vincent had not been out on the track, sidelined by a detached clutch lining, but in 2003 George was able to enjoy two 20-minute sessions. The Vincent has not been ridden on the road for the past 3-4 years though it has, of course, been kept up to scratch. In addition to the aforementioned documentation, the machine comes with an old-style continuation logbook, current Swansea V5C document and a detailed illustrated report on the 1952 record attempt.

Unlike its larger and better-financed rivals, Vincent could not afford an extensive racing programme, so factory prepared and entered competition machines – or record-attempt motorcycles such as that offered here – are extremely rare. Presented in beautiful condition and possessing impeccable provenance, 'LOW 458' has not been offered for sale for over 40 years and thus represents a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a motorcycle that played an important part in creating the Vincent legend.

It sold recently for £113,500 (AU$ 219,968) inc. premium