Memorable Motorcycle: Vincent Black Knight

August 16, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Vincent Black Knight
Philip Vincent and Phil Irving built the Vincent Black Knight to be the ultimate motorcycle of its day.

This article comes with two very strong warning labels. First, don’t even think about buying a Vincent unless you:

a) Are a successful wholesaler of illegal narcotic substances.

b) Have discovered a large nugget of gold in your back yard.

c) Are willing to sell your house, and one kidney, to live out your dreams.

All Vincents are expensive: Vincent Black Knights inhabit a different planet in terms of cost.

The second warning is even more dire. Do not, under any circumstances, utter a word of criticism about any Vincent less you will be smote into the ground by a veritable pantheon of motorcycling deities. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is that Vincents are perfect. Well, maybe.

So, to the start. What is a Vincent? The answer is several books long but in essence the Vincent V-Twins were designed to be the best motorcycle in the world. Note the adjective “best”. Not nearly the best, or one of the best, but rather designed to be the ultimate motorcycle ever built. The facts support the claim too. Designers Philip Vincent and Phil Irving often did achieve the apogee of engineering excellence for their time and, for sure, they used the very best materials available.

Vincent Black Knight
Armed with unmatched engineering talent Vincent spared no expense constructing a 998cc V-Twin that was capable of 55bhp.

They were also confident in their talent. Philip Vincent was an engineering child prodigy and had a very clear view of his abilities. He noted: “I myself have ever been an inventive type of designer, always seeking to incorporate details which represent a worthwhile and big advance over previous designs.” Yes, Mr. Vincent did know he was good.

The heart of every Vincent Twin – the company did make a single cylinder engine too – is an extremely neat 50 degree angle V-Twin. To keep the engine compact the valves are opened by very short push-rods, rather than being an overhead cam design which is standard on modern engines. But the push-rod engine was not a cost cutting move. The valves are engaged part way down their stems which means that rockers and springs are distant from the heat generated by the cylinder head. The result was that the engine’s valve clearance was set at zero when the engine was cold, and so the motor ran with an elegant silence.

The 998cc Twin produced 55 horsepower – not a vast amount of power for such a large capacity unit but still hugely more than any of its contemporaries. However, that power is delivered with the effortless grace of a true king of the road. When new, a Vincent could comfortably run from 30 to 120 mph in top gear and was just as happy on back country roads as it was on the German Autobahns. Of the latter, more later.

The gearbox had only four ratios but these were ample to deal with anything from unmade tracks across deserts – and Vincents were regularly found on such epic journeys – to high-speed touring.

Vincent Black Knight
Adding to the Vincent Black Knight’s expenses were two drum brakes on each wheel, hydraulically damped girder forks and a self-servo clutch. 
Vincent Black Knight

The clutch was the most sophisticated design of its day. The unit is effectively two clutches – a conventional design was then supplemented with a self-servo clutch rather like a brake drum. This ensured total reliability – but at a huge manufacturing cost.

The cycle parts were just as clever – and equally expensive to produce. Vincents positively bristled with smart ideas – some of which were decades ahead of their time. The engine was a stressed member of an extremely clever frame, in which the top spine held 6 pints of oil, whilst the triangulated swinging arm pivoted through the rear of the crankcase giving an extremely short wheelbase for such a big bike.

To achieve perfect balance, there were twin drum brakes on each wheel. In practice, these worked no better than the best single brakes of their day – but they did cost twice as much to make.

Vincent’s own hydraulically damped girder forks provided impeccable lateral stability and good control via the long dampers – but, once more, the manufacturing costs were horrendous.

At a time when even a very good super sports bike was pushed to scrape over 100 mph, the touring Vincent would burble along all day at well over the magic ton. The sports version of the firm’s touring Rapide, the Black Shadow, was a genuine 125 mph Superbike and for the very, very brave a full race-spec Lightning piloted in the Superman position by Rollie Free reached 150 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Vincent owners did remarkable things with this amazing motorcycle. For example, theater manager Jim Kentish set off for Brooklands one morning on an early, and completely standard, Vincent Rapide tourer and ran off a batch of 100-mph laps to earn his Gold Star, and then nipped back to work at Kew Theatre for the evening performance. This was the Vincent legend writ large.

Vincent Black Knight
The Black Shadow required tremendous effort to run at high speeds, so Vincent shrouded the bike in bodywork – rechristening its base model as the Black Knight.

The riding position was almost infinitely variable, the bike easy to maintain, utterly reliable and impeccably finished. In fact, on paper, the Vincent had everything of which the experienced motorcyclist could ever dream. Except for one thing: the price. In 1951, a Black Shadow was a stunning £402.10s ($600 US) when a BSA Gold Star was considered to be a luxury purchase at £253 ($380 US).

This pricing needs putting into perspective. In 1951, the average British wage – manual through clerical and on to professional – was a shade over $10 a week. This meant 65 weeks’ wages were needed to pay for a Vincent.
In modern day terms, the Vincent was a $38,000 bike – and the line for purchasing motorcycles at this cost is always a short one – regardless of the era.

Not only was the price against the Vincent but so was its unique nature. To the eyes of some motorcyclists, the Vincent, with its irregular lines, was ugly. And though it might have been a technical tour de force, it also demanded a lot of mechanical sympathy. At a time when anyone could get on a Triumph Thunderbird, start it with one kick and look like Marlon Brando, the Vincent required experience and planning to coax it into life.

The famed 100-mph cruising was also very much a paper blessing. In 1951, British magazine road testers reported that: “No airfield or stretch of road could be found which would allow maximum speed to be obtained.” In post-war Britain, 120 mph was reserved for the Grand Prix circuit, not for the public road.

You could reasonably ride at 100mph on German Autobahns but in the immediate post war years Germans had more pressing issues on their minds than purchasing $38,000 motorcycles.

This brings us to the Black Knight which is featured in this story. Philip Vincent was well aware that hammering along at speeds of which the “Shadow” was capable was a tiring experience so, in his typically direct manner, he fixed the problem by clothing his iconic Superbike in a very practical set of protective gear. Did it work? Yes, like every other part of a Vincent it was a perfectly functioning solution – especially when the new super material, glass fibre, was wrapped around the updated “Series D” Shadow. Did customers hate it? Again, the answer was staringly obvious. Who wants to pay half the price of a house for a bike and then have it covered up so that no-one can see it?

Vincent Black Knight
Originally selling for $600 in 1951, the Black Knight would cost approximately $38,000 after adjustment for inflation.

Vincent had to quickly reverse his marketing strategy and defenestrate as many Shadows as he could before they became Black Knights.

Riding a Vincent today is still a remarkable experience – but most definitely an acquired taste. It’s worth riding a Vincent, if only once, and then returning to more mainstream bikes for a more easily digestible motorcycling meal.

Now for the punch line. Black Knights like the one featured in this story make unicorn horns look positively freely available. When they are in such an impeccable, honest condition they become a seriously expensive motorcycle and that’s why Bonhams’ Auctioneers recently sold this Black Knight for an eye-watering $59,000.

As for Vincent Motorcycles, the company ceased trading in September 1955 – just six months after the introduction of the Black Knight and the rest of the Series D range. Once more, the idea that discerning motorcyclists would pay for the very best bike in the world had been laid to rest, joining a long list of heroic failures.

However, there is a fascinating post script to the Vincent story. Today, it is actually possible to build a brand-new Vincent Shadow, or Rapide, so good is the service provided by the Vincent Owners’ Club spares service which has virtually every single part needed to make a new bike available from stock. Now that is living proof of the loyalty the marque attracts.

Our thanks to Ben Walker of Bonhams for the loan of this bike. Bonhams are the world’s leading auctioneers of motorcycles and can be reached on:

United Kingdom:
Ben Walker
+44 (0) 8700 273 616.

United States of America:
Mark Osborne
(415) 503 3353