Built for a world record speed attempt, used as leverage against Vietnamese communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, sold off to an arts student in Saigon, plucked out of a war zone by an Aussie fighter pilot, recommissioned and blasted around the hills of south-western Australia, and now in private hands in Queensland — this is one amazing tale about one amazing motorcycle. DANIEL TALBOT traces the fascinating history of a highly-modified factory-built Vincent Black Shadow that was once used by the French and American governments in an attempt to stem the spread of Communism.
As a young motorcycle enthusiast growing up in the South West of Western Australia, I occasionally heard mention of a mysterious Vincent Black Shadow that was known to exist somewhere in the hills outside the small rural town of Harvey.
At first, all I knew was there was a former fighter pilot who owned one the most exclusive motorcycles on the planet — and he lived somewhere nearby. As the years ticked by, I increasingly immersed myself in the culture of the Vincent and eventual ownership of the coveted brand.
Long before I became part of the Vincent illuminati, titbits of information about the Black Shadow from Harvey would filter through and were stored in the recesses of my memory for later recall and camp-fire discussions with fellow enthusiasts.
As I began to learn more about this particular Vincent, I became more intrigued. Like any good myth, this one had the promise of discovery and adventure. Except myths usually end with the trail of evidence going cold as one tries to seek out names and facts. In this case, there was a name and it was Murray Raynes. The ‘myth’ was true indeed, and the story behind it was more fascinating than I had ever imagined.
Murray discovered the Vincent in Vietnam and, in true Indiana Jones fashion, flew the thing out of Saigon as the city was falling into the hands of the Viet Chong. How the Black Shadow came to be in Saigon is an intriguing story that will one day make a great movie but, for now, we’re limited to print; so here’s the plot:
A Vincent is no ordinary motorcycle and the factory never lost an opportunity to prove it. In 1936 the twin cylinder Vincent Rapide debuted with the promise of a genuine, out of the crate, 110 miles per hour motorcycle. On the downside, they cost as much as a small house. Only 78 of those first Rapides were made before World War II disrupted things at Stevenage and the factory turned their skills toward the war effort.
Phillip Vincent and his Aussie side-kick, Phillip Irving, accomplished some pretty innovative designs during WWII but a discussion about drones and amphibians would lead far from the topic here. Evidently, they spent their spare time well because the company was in a position to begin churning out their famous B Series Rapides within a year of the close of hostilities.
In an empire seeking to re-establish itself as an industrial superpower, a superbike proved to be the perfect embodiment of speed and sophistication. Imagine, if you will, a machine that was guaranteed to slake the thirst of a Spitfire pilot wanting to experience the thrill of speed at ground level, or in our case, a Boeing 707.
After he left the Royal Australian Air Force, Murray joined Cathay Pacific. Based in Hong-Kong, Murray flew to US and European cities, as well as Asian cities, including Saigon. This would come in handy later on when it came time to spirit his Vincent out of the city.
The two Phillips, Vincent and Irving, were driven by a desire to produce the best motorcycle they could. Speed and reliability were important markers of success in the post-war, automotive world and, to this end, manufacturers would compete in speed and reliability trials to provide fodder for marketing and advertising brochures. Vincent was no exception. Their advertising would assert with ‘this is a fact, not a slogan’.
To maintain the rhetoric, in May 1952 the company took a fleet of specially-prepared Black Shadows and Black Lightning motorcycles, along with spare engines, to Montlhery in France for an attempt on the world 24-hour speed record.
Montlhery was chosen for a number of reasons. The banked, 2.4-kilometre circuit was home to the original, pre-war, Bol d’or motorcycle endurance races and was well suited to continued high speed running. More importantly, in 1951, Gustave Lefevre, the son-in-law of Parisian Vincent dealer Clement Garreau, set an unofficial record at Montlhery riding a Vincent Black Lightning supplied to Gerreau’s in October 1950.
As part of the effort, they took 11 works riders, including John Surtees, Ted Davis and Lefevre. Despite the successes Vincent would become known for, 1952 Montlhery wasn’t one of them. The machines suffered mechanical failures and the record attempts were abandoned early.
Surtees did manage to get one of the machines lapping the banked circuit at 129mph but apparently the conditions were too hot and the tyres began to shred themselves. Elsewhere in the fleet, one of the engines suffered a broken crankshaft. All in all, it was a bit of a disaster — but the team did come away with a record for sustaining over 100mph for six hours.
History indicates the motorcycles used for the record attempt were sent from France back to the UK where they were disassembled for post-mortem purposes. History also tells us at least one of the specially modified engines and a Black Shadow, modified to works racer specifications, either remained with or were returned to Garreaus.
It would come as no secret to many readers that the motorcycles used by companies to set speed records in the post-war era were not simply pulled from the production line and taken to the track.
Instead, they were tweaked and tuned to better than blue-print specifications to ensure every chance of success. The result left a finger-print on the engine every bit as indelible as that of the specialists working on them, and those finger-pints are all over the engine of a certain Vincent Black Shadow that would later be discovered in Saigon, Vietnam.
The Saigon Shadow was dispatched by the factory in 1952 to motorcycle dealer Garreaus in Paris. Evidently Garreaus had a busy year. They sent Lefevre’s (unofficial) record-breaking Black Lightning to Kallin Motors in Adelaide, Australia. They also took delivery of at least one Black Shadow engine (F10AB/1B/9203) bearing Lightning cams, 32mm carburettors and many other factory, hand-fabricated parts.
We know this because that engine was in a box consigned to Vietnam (or Indochina as it was then known) in 1952 and has since been authenticated by the Vincent Owner’s Club records as being sent to Garreau’s as an engine only. The records show the engine as being of the race pedigree specifications detailed above.
How the race engine, the Saigon Shadow, a series B Rapide and a series A Rapide came to be in Vietnam is a bit of a mystery. In his book Raynes: A Fighter Pilot with Attitude, Murray Raynes writes the motorcycles were sent to the High Commissioner of Indochina in 1952 which, at that time, was Mr Jean Letourneau who had earlier taken up a diplomatic appointment in French Indochina and moved there in 1949.
In 1950, upon the death of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, Letourneau became High Commissioner, then, in 1952 he added Minister for the Associated States to his portfolio. It is not known if Letourneau purchased the motorcycles or if he facilitated their transport to the colony to be used as leverage. What is known is Letourneau’s tenure as Minister ended prematurely; so swiftly in fact he fled the newly named Vietnam leaving the cache of Vincents behind. In an extraordinary twist of events, they fell into the hands of Vietnamese royalty.
Bao Dai was considered the last emperor of Vietnam and ruled over Annan, which made up the greater portion of what is known as modern-day Vietnam. Recognising the influence Bao Dai had over the emerging power of Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, the French, and later the USA, courted the man with gifts and even a four-month sabbatical to Paris where Dai earned the epithet “Night Club Emperor.”
Ten years before the Vietnam war, the US were in Vietnam seeking to assist the French in negotiating the “Bao Dai Solution.” The so-called problem was that Ho Chi Minh’s movement for greater autonomy was gaining traction across Vietnam.
Ho was a French-educated revolutionary who was increasingly turning to the Communists to back his cause. America saw this as a threat, or the domino effect as it became known, whereby communism coming from the North would eventually infect the entire South East Asia. In the ultimate expression of beads and trinkets diplomacy, the solution was found in plying Bao Dai with exotic gifts, including, it would seem, the cache of Vincent motorcycles.
The emperor clearly had a penchant for exclusive goods. A Rolex watch purchased by Bao Dai in Geneva during a 1954 leaders’ summit holds the record for the highest ever price paid for a timepiece. Twice. In 2002 it went for $US235K, then again in 2017 for a cool $US5M.
It’s not known if Bao Dai wasn’t interested in classic British motorcycles or perhaps he had no chance to unpack the boxes of Vincent, before he too fled to the sanctity of France where he remained Head of State of Vietnam for a short while before being deposed in 1955 by his Prime Minister.
With the demise of Bao Dai, his treasures, which included classic European sports cars, a yacht, the motorcycles and other trappings of power were gathered up by the state and sold at auction as bounty of the revolution. The Vincents were still in their original packing crates.
The motorcycles were purchased by Nguyrn Van Nhon who was at the time an arts student at Saigon university. Subsequent to becoming a Vincent owner, the young artist was awarded honorary membership to the Vincent Owners Club. The club news booklet MPH has photographs of Nhon enjoying the delights of his Rapide however the Black Shadow was never reassembled.
This is probably due to parts being removed over the 20 years the motorcycle spent in Saigon. Lee Klancher, writing in the Vincent in the Barn (2009), describes the motorcycles being kept in a basement which flooded every year, allowing water and organic material to enter the engines of the motorcycles which were still sitting in their crates.
By 1975 the writing was on the wall. Ho Chi Minh was going to take Saigon so Nhon advertised the motorcycles in MPH and eager buyers started to make contact. Enter Murray Raynes.
Unlike other suitors, Murray was relatively close by. Living in Hong Kong meant the Australian pilot was a mere puddle-jump away. Murray arrived in the city amidst the turmoil of invasion. He had set aside two days to pack the parts of the Black Shadow and kudos to the man as the sounds of shelling from Ho’s troops didn’t dissuade him from packing the Vincent for the next leg of its life journey.
The motorcycle was probably what could best be described as a ‘basket-case.’ There was much work to be done in locating the various pieces, large and small and getting them into boxes for transport. There was a total ban on the export of manufactured items out of Vietnam, meaning the motorcycle had to go over the check-in desk as passenger luggage.
In his 2005 book, Regrets, Murray writes;
‘Troops were just outside, lobbing the odd missile into the city, from the time I was there getting the machine ready for export. The day I moved out, the airport departure hall was in a state of total chaos with passengers ten deep at the check-in counter. Into this chaotic mess, I arrived with this massive box that, because what I was doing was not quite kosher, had to go over the check-in counter as passenger luggage. I then stood by the box handing ten-dollar bills to anyone who looked like a customs officer until I had the bike in the hold of the Boeing 707.’
At this point, there was no going back. If Murray was unable to get the boxes into the aircraft, the Black Shadow would have to stay on the tarmac. When eventually Murray slumped into the aircraft seat, with the motorcycle safely in the hold, he celebrated his minor victory with a Cognac in hand and the Black Shadow petrol tank in his lap.
The motorcycle was flown first to Hong Kong then later back to Perth, Western Australia, where Murray set about commissioning what was essentially a brand-new, un-used motorcycle.
At that time, the engine had only test miles on it. A later examination revealed the sprockets showed no signs of wear, nor did the primary chain tensioner, as the primary chain actually wears groves in the spring steel tensioner this was also a good indicator that the bike had travelled very few miles.
In conversations with past owners, Murray revealed he had issues starting the motorcycle, likely due in part to high-performance specifications of the engine touched on earlier.
Murray installed an electronic ignition on the motorcycle that remains with it to this day but evidently it was still a difficult machine to live with as Murray once told the current owner he travelled less than 1,000 kilometres on the motorcycle.
The fact that the motorcycle was difficult to live with is not surprising. Although Murray spent a considerable amount of money recommissioning the motorcycle, as is often the case, the next owner also delved into the inner workings of the Saigon Shadow and discovered it carried all the hallmarks of the record attempt engines, including; polished valves and cam followers, original 9:1 compression Specialloid pistons, bearings as new, Mark 1 cams, lightened cam plate and clutch shoe carrier, Lightning pattern one-piece Ferodo friction clutch ring, polished ‘Vibrac’ conrods, heads ported and polished to suit Amal 32mm 10TT9 carburettors, steel idler gear, Lightning 22 tooth final gear sprocket. This was no ordinary Black Shadow but a highly tuned, 150 mile per hour motorcycle that was intended for a higher purpose than the normal sports touring domain of Vincent’s flagship motorcycle.
That the engine is so highly tuned, and therefore slightly difficult to live with can be viewed as both a curse, because such an appealing machine can’t be enjoyed as it should, and a blessing because it has been preserved in near perfect condition. With Murray being the last and only person to ever ride the Vincent, it is probably the lowest mileage Black Shadow in the world. This is supported by the advertisement placed in MPH by Nhon and by the three owners subsequent to Murray, none of whom have actually ridden this rare and highly modified example of the Vincent marque.
The true provenance of the Saigon Shadow may never be known. Ted Davies, in conversation with Prosper Keating in 1992 recalls, along with the Lightnings, the factory took two Black Shadows and a spare engine to Montlhery. Later, in the January 1993 edition of MPH, Davies said there were three record-specification Black Shadows and a slightly modified ‘hack’ Shadow. Two of the Black Shadows were returned to the factory and have been accounted for, as has the hack, but going on Davies’ account, there may still be a Montlhery-prepared Black Shadow that is whereabouts unknown, or perhaps not?
From the UK factory racing team via the French High Commissioner of Indochina to the last emperor of Vietnam and then a Vietnamese bohemian, the Black Shadow of Saigon was part of a cosmopolitan history of power, conflict and control that was rescued by an Australian adventurer.
Little did I know, the Vincent motorcycle I used to hear about running around the hills near my home in the South West of Western Australia was once used as an incentive by the US and the French to help stem the global spread of communism.
— Sincere thanks to Ms Jacqui RAYNES Mr Stephen CARSON and Mr John RANDEL for their assistance in compiling this article.
Murray Raynes did well at school except in academics; he joined a water polo club and became a great boozer; trained as an electrician and never wired a house; a fighter pilot and never fired a shot in anger; flew big jets commercially and has a host of stories relating to very questionable, and sometimes outrageous, practices and behaviour from that industry. He has snorkelled, skied, ridden horses in most parts of the planet and completed a solo circumnavigation of the globe in a yacht. (From ‘Raynes: A Fighter Pilot with Attitude’, 2005).