HST on the Vincent Black Shadow

Writer and gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was a connoisseur of fine machinery, especially the Vincent Black Shadow. Here are some passages from his work that discuss the Vincent. Generally the good doctor is referring to the Courage Vincent, which was released about the time these books were written.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1970)

[At the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, planning to cover the Mint 400 Desert Race in Las Vegas]

"Well," he said, "as your attorney I advise you to buy a motorcycle. How else can you cover a thing like this righteously?"

"No way," I said. "Where can we get hold of a Vincent Black Shadow?"

"Whats that?"

"A fantastic bike," I said. "The new model is something like two thousand cubic inches, developing two hundred brake-horsepower at four thousand revolutions per minute on a magnesium frame with two styrofoam seats and a total curb weight of exactly two hundred pounds."

"That sounds about right for this gig," he said.

"It is," I assured him. "The fucker's not much for turning, but it's pure hell on the straightaway. It'll outrun the F-111 until takeoff."

"Takeoff?" he said. "Can we handle that much torque?"

"Absolutely," I said. "I'll call New York for some cash."


[At the entry desk for the Mint 400]

"What's the entry fee?" I asked the desk-man.

"Two fifty," he said.

"What if I told you I had a Vincent Black Shadow?"

He stared up at me, saying nothing, not friendly. I noticed he was wearing a .38 revolver on his belt. "Forget it," I said. "My driver's sick anyway."

His eyes narrowed. "Your driver ain't the only one sick around here, buddy."

"He has a bone in his throat," I said.


The man was getting ugly, but suddenly his eyes switched away. He was staring at something else . . .

My attorney; no longer wearing his Danish sunglasses, no longer wearing his Acapulco shirt . . . a very crazy looking person, half-naked and breathing heavily.

"What's the trouble here?" he croaked. "This man is my client. Are you prepared to go to court?"

I grabbed his shoulder and gently spun him around. "Never mind," I said. "It's the Black Shadow -- they won't accept it."

"Wait a minute!" he shouted. "What do you mean, they won't accept it? Have you made a deal with these pigs?"

"Certainly not," I said, pushing him along toward the gate. "But you notice they're all armed. We're the only people here without guns. Can't you hear that shooting over there?"


Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 (1973)

After Miami the calendar shows a bit of rest on the political front -- but not for me: I have to come back out to California and ride that goddamn fiendish Vincent Black Shadow again, for the road tests. The original plan was to deal with the beast in my off-hours during the California primary coverage, but serious problems developed.

Ten days before the election -- with McGovern apparently so far ahead that most of the press people were looking for ways to avoid covering the final week -- I drove out to Ventura, a satellite town just north of L.A. in the San Fernando Valley, to pick up the bugger and use it to cover the rest of the primary. Greg Jackson, an ABC correspondent who used to race motorcycles, went along with me. We were both curious about this machine. Chris Bunche, editor of Choppers magazine, said it was so fast and terrible that it made the extremely fast Honda 750 seem like a harmless toy.

This proved to be absolutely true. I rode a factory-demo Honda for a while, just to get the feel of being back on a serious road-runner again . . . and it seemed just fine: very quick, very powerful, very easy in the hands, one-touch electric starter. A very civilized machine, in all, and I might even be tempted to buy one if I didn't have the same gut distaste for Hondas that the American Honda management has for Rolling Stone. They don't like the image. "You meet the nicest people on a Honda," they say -- but according to a letter from American Honda to the Rolling Stone ad manager, none of these nicest people have much stomach for a magazine like the Stone.

Which is probably just as well; because if you're a safe, happy, nice, young Republican you probably don't want to read about things like dope, rock music and politics anyway. You want to stick with Time, and for weekend recreation do a bit of the laid-back street-cruising on your big fast Honda 750. . . maybe burn a Sportster or a Triumph here or there, just for the fun of it: But nothing serious, because when you start that kind of thing you don't meet many nice people.

Jesus! Another tangent, and right up front, this time -- the whole lead, in fact, completely fucked.


But first things first. We were talking about motorcycles. Jackson and I were out there in Ventura fucking around with a 750 Honda and an experimental prototype of the new Vincent -- a 1000-cc brute that proved to be so awesomely fast that I didn't even have time to get scared of it before I found myself coming up on a highway stoplight at ninety miles an hour and then skidding halfway through the intersection with both wheel-brakes locked.

A genuinely hellish bike. Second gear peaks around 65 -- cruising speed on the freeways -- and third winds out somewhere between 95 and 100. I never got to fourth, which takes you up to 120 or so -- and after that you shift into fifth.

Top speed is 140, more or less, depending on how the thing is tuned -- but there is nowhere in Los Angeles County to run a bike like that. I managed to get it back from Ventura to McGovern's downtown headquarters hotel, staying mainly in second gear, but the vibration almost fused my wrist bones and boiling oil from the breather pipes turned my right foot completely black. Later, when I tried to start it up for another test-run, the backlash from the kick-starter almost broke my leg. For two days afterward I limped around with a golfball-sized blood-bruise in my right arch.

Later in the week I tried the bastard again, but it stalled on a ramp leading up to the Hollywood Freeway and I almost broke my hand when I exploded in a stupid, screaming rage and punched the gas tank. After that I locked it up and left it in the hotel parking lot -- where it sat for many days with a MCGOVERN FOR PRESIDENT tag on the handlebars.

George never mentioned it, and when I suggested to Gary Hart that the Senator might like to take the machine out for a quick test-ride and some photos for the national press, I got almost exactly the same reaction that Mankiewicz laid on me in Florida when I suggested that McGovern could pick up a million or so votes by inviting the wire-service photographers to come out and snap him lounging around on the beach with a can of beer in his hand and wearing my Grateful Dead T-shirt.


Song of the Sausage Creature (Cycle World magazine, March 1995)

Of course. You want to cripple the bastard? Send him a 130-mph café racer. And include some license plates, so he'll think it's a streetbike. He's queer for anything fast.

Which is true. I have been a connoisseur of fast motorcycles all my life. I bought a brand-new 650 BSA Lightning when it was billed as "the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine." I have ridden a 500-pound Vincent through traffic on the Ventura Freeway with burning oil on my legs and run the Kawa 750 triple through Beverly Hills at night with a head full of acid.... I have ridden with Sonny Barger and smoked weed in biker bars with Jack Nicholson, Grace Slick, Ron Zigler, and my infamous old friend, Ken Kesey, a legendary Café Racer.


Or maybe not: The Ducati 900 is so finely engineered and balanced and torqued that you can do 90 mph in fifth through a 35-mph zone and get away with it. The bike is not just fast -- it is extremely quick and responsive, and it will do amazing things.... It is a little like riding the original Vincent Black Shadow, which would outrun an F-86 jet fighter on the takeoff runway, but at the end, the F-86 would go airborne and the Vincent would not, and there was no point in trying to turn it. WHAMO! The Sausage Creature strikes again.

There is a fundamental difference, however, between the old Vincents and the new bred of superbikes. If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the Vincent Black Shadow Society. The Vincent was like a bullet that went straight; the Ducati is like the magic bullet that went sideways and hit JFK and the Governor of Texas at the same time. It was impossible. But so was my terrifying sideways leap across railroad tracks on the 900SP. The bike did it easily with the grace of a fleeing tomcat. The landing was so easy I remember thinking, goddamnit, if I had screwed it on a little more I could have gone a lot further.

Maybe this is the new Café Racer macho. My bike is so much faster than yours that I dare you to ride it, you lame little turd. Do you have the balls to ride this BOTTOMLESS PIT OF TORQUE?

That is the attitude of the New Age superbike freak, and I am one of them. On some days they are about the most fun you can have with your clothes on. The Vincent just killed you a lot faster than a superbike will. A fool couldn't ride the Vincent Black Shadow more than once, but a fool can ride a Ducati 900 many times, and it will always be bloodcurdling kind of fun. That is the Curse of Speed which has plagued me all my life. I am a slave to it. On my tombstone they will carve, "IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME."