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Leno’s Black Shadow

Vincent 253A

Built in Stevenage, England, in the 1950s, the 1,000cc Vincent V-Twin was billed as “The World’s Fastest Standard Motorcycle.” Expensive, exotic, loud, and very fast, with a shiny black stove-enameled engine, two into-one faired exhausts, dual Amal carburetors, four sets of finned brake drums, knock-off wheels, and a 150-mile-per-hour Smiths speedometer, the Black Shadow was, and still is, the stuff of legends. Singer-songwriter Richard Thompson sang about a Vincent in his song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and a contemporary rock band goes by the name “The Vincent Black Shadow.”

Rollie Free

An American racer named Rollie Free took a stripped version of a stock Shadow, called a Black Lightning, and topped 150 miles per hour at Bonneville in 1950, wearing only a bathing suit and sneakers to cut wind resistance.

These fabulous bikes still appeal to people who’ve never even seen one in the metal. Roll up at a Harley gathering on a Vincent and you get instant respect. Today, they command six-figure prices, and as luck would have it, they’re still turning up.

Vincent 253BTonight Show host Jay Leno loves Vincent motorcycles. At last count, he owned more than a dozen. Here’s the story of one of them:

“One day, I was going down the road on my Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle, and I see a guy stopped by the side of the road on some kind of Kawasaki. So I stop and ask him if he needs any help and baaaaammmmm!!!!, I get nailed from behind by another guy on a bike. So I dented up the gas tank on my Vincent. I came out on my crutches on the Tonight Show, and I say, ‘a guy hit me on my bike. If anyone out there’s got a gas tank for a Vincent Black Shadow, gimme a call.’

“Sure enough, I get a call from an old guy in Florida who says, ‘I won’t sell you a tank, but maybe you’d like to buy a whole Vincent? I have a very early 1947 Vincent Series B Black Shadow that I bought as a G.I. in England at the end of the war, and then I shipped it back here. It was one of the first ones sold. The bronze idler gear stripped a few years afterward, and I never got around to repairing it. It’s still in my garage. And I’m really too old to ride it.’”

“I say, hmmm, a B Shadow, huh? They only made a few of those.

Vincent 253C“It wasn’t a bad price. So I ask him to tell me the serial number, and he does, and it’s the correct F10AB/1B prefix with a really low chassis number, like 003. But I gotta double check, so I call the Vincent Club Registrar in England—this club knows where almost every Vincent ever made is, and they even have a ‘spares scheme’ that ensures that many critical replacement parts are still available, even cylinder heads. The Vincent Club guy says, ‘Oh yes, that’s the correct number, but that machine has disappeared. We think it left England in the hands of an American G.I. in 1947, but no one’s heard of it since.’

“When he told me his name, I said, ‘That’s the guy who called me. I think I know where it is.’

“I quickly call the guy back and tell him I want the bike, and we work out a pretty fair deal over the phone. It’s been languishing in his garage for decades, but it’s all there. I tell him I’ll send someone to pick it up and I’ll call in the next day or two with the arrangements. There’s a pause and he says, ‘What will you have to pay to ship the bike to California?’ I say, oh, probably about 800 bucks. So he says, ‘Would you pay me 800 bucks if I deliver the bike in my truck?’

“So I say, sure, what the heck. Three days later, this battered pickup shows up in my driveway; he’s got the Vincent and it’s an early B Shadow, all right, and there’s this bleary-eyed old guy, with his dog, who’s practically driven straight through from Florida. I gave him $1,100 bucks and considered myself lucky. I had the gear repaired, cleaned it up, and the bike is a real beauty.

“I have a lot of Vincents, but this one’s a favorite, as much for how I found it as for what it is.”



By Ken Gross. This story originally appeared in Tom Cotter’s The Vincent in the Barn.

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  1. Slim Chance

    Jay Leno is he actually uses his “stuff”. Besides being a heck of a collector he’s not afraid to ride or drive any of them. There’s a lesson a lot of folks should learn. You may stash it away but I guarantee that when your mail starts coming via the Ground Hog that somebody some day will ride your (ex) bike or drive your (ex) car. Might as well be you, NOW.


  2. Foxxy

    This is a great story. Mr Leno is a hero of mine for two reasons, one is that he has a very nice well kept time capsule to show the different era’s of automobiles and motorcycles. The second reason is that he keeps his collection in working condition and actually drives his cars and rides his bikes. I would love to see his collection in person and meet Jay, but I doubt that will ever happen. -peace-

    Like 1
    • Dolphin Member

      There was a story on TV a couple of years ago about a young man about 12 years old who tracked down where Jay’s garage was in Burbank, and knocked on the door. Someone opened the door and the young man said he was a fan of Jay’s and was a car nut and asked if he could just look inside. Jay was there at the time and gave him a tour of the garage.

      Sometimes good things happen to those who ask…..

      • f

        I’ve read a few stories like this one. I read one where someone was out riding and Jay rode up to where they were gathered and talked to them for a while. The group was asking him Q’s like how many bikes he had and did he ride them all. He not only answered the Q’s he offered them a tour of his bike collection. He’s not a just a TV star who has cars and bikes. He’s a gearhead like us, that just happens to be a TV star. great guy. I would rather see him buy these cars or bikes than some rich dude that don’t like the cars, just the money they are worth. I used to restore bikes ride them a while and then sell them and find another. I never considered myself a flipper, I just love bringing them back for long sleeps, enjoying them for a few thousand miles then sell them and find another. I also did a lot of carburetor work on the jap bikes. When they sit for years everything flammable evaporates, or sometimes dries to a powder plugging the small jets. I have always been a carb guy cars bikes, anything . I guess I have a way of tearing them apart and getting the order right going back together. I got a call from a guy one time who got my name from someone. He had a Triumph Bonnie, a great looking bike with hardly any miles on it. I went to look at it and when I got there I could tell this guy was not a bike type. When I talked to him he talked to me like the kid mowing his grass or something. I ask if he had tried to start it and he said no. I ask if he had just started being a bike guy, it was the 90’s an there was a few years there that everyone wanted to be a bike guy. Anyway He kind of got pissed or something about my questions. I ask him if he planned to ride it. He told me that he was not then started to tell me what he thought of “those people” after he got done. I grabbed my tools and headed for my bike. He ask me where I was going. I said I was going home and that he should learn how to deal with folks and that I was born ” one of those people” I guess I have an attitude. -peace-

  3. rancho bella

    I sure do like the idea that Leno drives his cars. On youtube it has some nice runs of his Lotus cars and his master wrench is building an Elan to die for.

    • Foxxy

      Jay also has a great web site where he has hours of videos where he shows the car or bike and tells how he got it why he wanted it and has guests from the auto world that might have worked on it. He also does road tests on new cars coming out and drives and evaluates them. I love it. I love his Duesenburg’s , and his’s the link

  4. Robin McQueen

    Okay, this is the first time I’ve ever had a negative thought concerning Jay Leno. The article states that these bikes are commanding six figure prices. Yet millionaire Leno offers a dirt-poor WWII veteran a mere $1100 bucks for this bike? Obviously, he took advantage of this old guy’s ignorance of the bike’s current value. To add insult to injury, he pays him a mere $800 to deliver it all the way across the country! Hello Jay: the guy delivered it because he needed the money! Heck, he sold the bike, after keeping it for what? 50 years? because he needed the money! Shame on you Jay.

    • Jesse Mortensen Jesse Staff

      I assume that amount was just for the shipping.

    • Skip Middleton

      The $1100 was to bring it to California, he paid the guy $300 MORE than he agreed to originally. That puts Jay farther into the “good guy” column, as far as I’m concerned!

    • Arnolda

      Try reading the article again…

    • Gazzer

      Reading is sooo hard…

    • Marc Lawrence

      That was kinda what I was thinking. Of course he was buying it sight unseen. He did say he negotiated a fair price. How long ago was that? He has been on the show for 20 years. We don’t know all the facts and Jay doesn’t really talk to much about price.

    • Foxxy

      You should read the article a few more times. it states that an agreement was made on a price, but it does not name the price. It also states that leno told the old man that he (mr Leno) would arrange shipping. The old man then stated that he would deliver it himself for 800 dollars. When he arrived Mr Leno saw the shape his truck was in and decided to give him 1100 dollars, which was 300 more than they agreed on. You really seem to have some contempt for Leno and see what you want. It is your right to think what you want about whoever you choose, but that does not give you the right to create your own version to make him look bad. If you want to hate someone why not try to use it on the rich car and bike flippers that do it purely for the profit and have no idea what it means to be a car or bike guy. They are the folks that are ruining our hobby, love , sport, what ever you would call it. Mr Leno is a car /bike lover. He uses his great talent to preserve the automotive history of the world. He actually gets his hands dirty which in my eyes makes him the best. -peace-

      Like 1
  5. geomechs geomechs Member

    Jay Leno is another of those who is able to do something he loves. He knows the history on many vehicles in his collection. That is a very important part of the hobby.

    Like 1
  6. Dolphin Member

    That’s a famous photo of Rollie Free on a Vincent on his way to 150 MPH at Bonneville in bathing trunks and sneakers. It’s a good thing he stayed on the bike. You don’t want to slide around on salt dressed like him at those speeds. That guy must have been fearless.

    I knew a guy who owned a Black Shadow years ago. He loved everything about it….the power, speed, and look, but not the articulated frame, which had a pivot behind the engine/gearbox. He said the handling could get squirrily. I don’t know whether that was typical of all Black Shadows or whether his bike needed some work.

    Because of their small production numbers, rarity, unique design, and speed potential, the Black Shadow seems to have achieved legendary status as one of the most collectible bikes ever made.

    • Foxxy

      You talking about Rollie Free reminded me of the movie “Worlds Fastest Indian” one of the characters in it was rollie free, I was really hoping he would ride the shadow in the film but he don’t. If the part was true to form he was a pretty crazy guy. Great movie by the way. -peace-

      • Dolphin Member

        ‘World’s Fastest Indian’ is one of my all-time favorite films. That and ‘Bullitt’. I didn’t remember that Rollie Free’s character was in it, so now I’m going to get out my DVD of the movie and watch it again…for about the 5th time. Thanks for the tip.

        Like 1
      • Foxxy

        he’s the guy that Munro sticks a toothpick through his cigar.

  7. Albert Hartman

    The barn finds post lists from the 1950’s. This “b” Shadow is from the late 40’s.

    • Foxxy

      So this story is too old??? It’s a great story, does it really matter how old the bike it?? -peace

  8. Trickie Dickie Member

    You can visit Jay Leno’s garage online and see ALL of his collection. Go to: He will even take you out on a test drive with a few of his cars, and probably give you a better experience than having visited in person !! And, then go back every few weeks, it all changes again, And next time it will be a drive out with other cars.

  9. jim

    another great story. i would be interested in more information on the rear wheel. in the 1st picture it shows a rear sprocket on left side but no chain. looks like the right side is the drive side. so is it a flip/flop rear wheel and is it stock/factory?

    • Foxxy

      Jim, if you look at the pic of rollie free the chain must be on the right. The wheels have brake drums on both sides so flipping the wheel would be easy to do. I went to an antique bike trials run one time in ohio, and an older guy rode in on a shadow, but he had a 1000 kawasaki front end on it and the rear wheel was kaw too. He was a great guy and said he rode the bike all the time. He said he had all of the stock parts put away, but he put the jap parts on it so it would handle better, and especially so it would stop. He said the brakes just didn’t do the job. It sounded great. I’ve had and heard a lot of twins but nothing I’ve heard sounds like a Vincent. -peace-

  10. GMAC

    Over 20 years ago I was going into Fat Daddy’s restaurant in Raleigh when an old Valiant pulled up. Out piled a local family and Jay Leno. One of the family was a young girl in a wheelchair. I learned later that Jay often “adopted” a family with a disabled child in cities that he visited often. Raleigh’s Charlie Goodnights club was a place he played regularly. Later I stood with him in line. He was very nice. I’ve been a big fan ever since. Turns out the next night was his first guest hosting for Johnny Carson as Johnny’s b-i-l had died.

  11. Cris

    Jim, it’s a flip-flop rear wheel. Drive side/secondary is on the right side of the bike.

    • jim


  12. Harit Trivedi

    A lesson for collectors and authorities. Be nice to simpletons who come up to you with not much knowledge and ask you questions about our hobby. You will never know what they will grow up to become or progress to be. I had started with no car, now have a collection of cars, bikes and automobilia. And I am very sure that I remember who taught me and who showed attitude. One can even carry this into personal life. The person who gave his Vincent to Leno must have left with a good feeling.

    Regards Harit

  13. Chris A.

    In addition to the cars, Jay is collecting priceless stories about cars from owners and people he talks to. Here’s one I’ve heard, but never read: Jay is out early in his Mercer T35 Raceabout (the brakes are almost non-existent and the Mercer isn’t something you’d drive in traffic) and pulls into a service station for gas. Teenager who’d probably just opened up comes out, looks the car over, and says “Nice kit car”. I can only imagine that Jay greatly expanded that kids automobile knowledge if the story is true.

    Jay is a throwback to the early fifties when the old car hobby was just getting started. My dad took me to Watkins in 1952 where there was a concours and car parade in addition to the races. You’d walk down the street, look at all the neat cars and be able to look at and talk to guys like Jim Hoe who had just driven a Deusenberg J from Connecticutt to Watkins and was cleaning and checking everthing over. Except for Jay, who else drives a Deusenberg on the road today?

  14. Trickie Dickie Member

    Yes, Jay is a great guy down to earth. I go to the Pebble Beach Concours d’ Elegance every year and have for over 45 years! Jay has always been there in recent years, usually with one of his Duesenbergs. He is so approachable and friendly to all. That car crowd is so COOL towards celebrities. Jay can walk around to see the cars and No One bothers him. My friends and I have way more than once shared beers with him after the show up on the deck of the Pebble Beach Lodge, Great guy!!

  15. Slim Chance

    I find it rude to ask someone what they paid for an item. Not my business. I didn’t write the check. If the seller wants to tell that’s up to him. If he does tell me I’m the last person who will know (unless he tells someone else).

    Ain’t nobody’s bidness.


  16. rusty

    What a great story, I’m not into bikes but this is a great bike story and a great collector who continually gets my respect from what I’ve read about him. Great Stuff.

    Thanks for this great site I’ve just found…damn I got a lot of reading in front of me…hee hee

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