Vincent is primarily known these days for one model – the Black Shadow. That legendary bike, however, was really just a reworked version of the Rapide, which was an impressive performer in its own right. Had the Black Shadow never even existed, the Rapide would still be a fondly remembered and highly respected design.
The Rapide can trace its roots back to the mid-1930s, when Vincent HRD (Vincent would eventually remove the HRD label to prevent confusion with Harley-Davidson), already known for building large singles, introduced a prototype Rapide with a 998 cc, 50 degree V-twin making 45 hp at the 1936 Olympia Motorcycle Show. The first Series A production version soon followed, although only about 80 were produced before the Second World War interrupted motorcycle production.
Immediately when the postwar model debuted in 1946, the much more cleanly designed Series B Rapide was hailed as the world’s fastest motorcycle at 110 mph, although feat would soon be overshadowed by Rapide’s 125-mph stablemate the Black Shadow.
The Series B Vincent Rapide of 1946 featured, rather than a conventional frame, a fabricated box that served as the oil tank and attached to the cylinder heads as well as the rear springs. With the Series C of 1948, Vincent also eventually replaced the old Girder fork with the company’s own “Girdraulic” front fork, which was basically the same as a girder fork but featured a hydraulic damper instead of a central spring. Other manufacturers had begun to use full telescopics, but the Girdraulic was good enough. Only in 1950 were all examples leaving the factory in Series C spec, as production tended to overlap. The Series C version also spawned the Black Shadow, and production ended with the Series D in 1955.
Another interesting feature was the Rapide’s cantilever rear suspension, which was similar to Yamaha’s monoshock but came decades earlier. The Series B Rapide also featured a gearbox integral with the engine, and braking was by dual drums front and rear while the wheels were designed to be quickly detachable in an age when tire punctures were more common.
Vincent never scrimped on quality, so as the market for expensive motorcycles failed to grow and Vincent’s prices remained high, the company faced insurmountable financial woes. By 1956, bike production had ended altogether and the factory turned to general engineering projects.
The Rapide will always live in the, well, shadow of the Black Shadow. The latter bike has the legendary status. It’s been written about more, it has the fabled performance numbers, and it’s been the more desirable version since new. Even so, any of the fast Vincent V-twins are gorgeous to look at and exhilarating to ride, and all of them are highly collectible. Visual differences between the two bikes are also minimal, and the Rapide comes at a noticeably lower price while offering nearly as much as the Black Shadow in both performance and historical significance.