Most people vividly remember their first car. For Greg Rathe, the memory is clear, but it includes only two wheels.
“When I was 6, I had a 1974 Honda MR50,” recalls Rathe, 56, who lives in Cold Spring. “It was 50 cc and made for little kids.”
That scooter was his first love, but his 1951 Series C Vincent Black Shadow is the love of his life, at least among motorized vehicles.
“I bought it in 2019 from the estate of a monster collector of vintage bikes in New Jersey,” Rathe said. “It is the one that I wanted to keep, the most special. I’m an industrial designer by education; I feel this bike is a piece of art. I have the honor to possess and care for it as long as I can.”
He declined to say how much he paid, but even in fair condition Black Shadows sell for more than $20,000.
The bike is not pristine, and Rathe likes it that way. It was restored many years ago, but the paint is peeling in places and it has scratches. “I’m happy with its condition because it looks like it’s been used,” he said.
He has made only a few alterations, such as upgrading a “notoriously complicated clutch” with a modern Australian replacement.
“I love most European motorcycles — Ducatis, BMWs — but this is the British bike I’m passionate about,” Rathe said. He said the motorcycle was ahead of its time. “It competed in displacement with the Harley Davidsons and Indians of the time,” he said. “But it was much more advanced in engine development and its suspension.”
The 1,000-cc, twin-cylinder engine is part of the frame, which is essentially just a bar that connects the front suspension to the rear suspension. “The engine provides the bike’s rigidity,” Rathe said. “It’s likely the first time that was ever done.”
The one-piece rear suspension, designed during World War II, was used in Vincent production models beginning in 1946. Twenty-two years later, when Yamaha replicated the design, it became the standard.
An innovative feature Rathe appreciates is the sprockets located on each side of the bike, which gives an owner the option of adding a sidecar. He also noted that the speedometer, which measures 6 inches across, is easy to read and accurate.
From 1948 into the 1960s, Vincent was the fastest motorcycle in the world. The Black Lightning, the racing version of the Black Shadow, held the speed record for 20 years.
Rathe said the odometer read 300 miles when he bought the bike but that it had undoubtedly been reset. He’s put about 500 miles on it since.
“It’s phenomenal to ride; it’s small, low to the ground and compact,” he said. “It’s very fast and very comfortable,” adding the Black Shadow has no trouble keeping up with modern bikes. He’s had his 72-year-old Vincent up to 95 mph.
He has shown his Black Shadow at the Bear Mountain Car Show and the annual Historic Festival at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. “If you show up with a Vincent, it gets noticed,” he said.
The Vincent brand, which ended production in 1955, was immortalized in British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson’s ballad, “Vincent Black Lightning, 1952.” American journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson also added to the mystique in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The latter wrote of the Black Shadow: “If you rode it at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die; that’s why there aren’t many life members of the Vincent Black Shadow Society.”
Manufactured: Stevenage, England
Production period: 1948-55
Total production: 1,774
Engine: 1,000 cc OHV twin cylinder
Gearbox: 4-speed, right foot shift
Top speed: 125 mph
Weight: 500 pounds
1951 Price: £451 ($564)