When the Black Knight burned out

Innovation can be a risky flightpath. Just ask Chrysler about the 1935 Airstream, light years ahead of its time but an abject sales failure. Or Kaiser, whose 1954 Manhattan’s supercharger and advanced padded safety interior couldn’t save the company from insolvency. Or British bike maker Vincent, with its full-bodied Black Knight. Based on the successful 998cc Rapide, the Black Knight (and its sibling the Black Prince, based on the high-spec Black Shadow) turned out to be Vincent’s last gasp too.

From 1948 to 1951 Vincent was riding high, but by the early 1950s the firm was experiencing financial troubles as it struggled to adapt to postwar market conditions and evolving competitive designs. The latest Vincent twins, the so-called the Series D, had superior seating comfort, better electrics and carburetion, improved monoshock rear suspension and an easier-to-use center stand than the previous Series A, B and C machines, but they remained adaptations of the original prewar design.

Needing something of a Hail Mary pass to reenergize itself, for 1955 Vincent daringly fitted the Rapide and Black Shadow models with fiberglass bodywork, a newer technology at the time. Organically shaped panels provided protection from rain, cold and muck, enveloping the front wheel, engine, rider’s cockpit, and rear wheel and suspension. It was a solid idea, as today’s modern touring rigs accomplish exactly the same mission – a cleaner and more refined travel experience for discerning riders.

Defining features of the Black Knight included more than a half-dozen fiberglass pieces including a voluminous front fender, protective handlebar muffs, a multi-gauge instrument panel, left- and right-side engine covers, and a rear tub that hinged up for easy access to the wheel, drive chain and brake. A tall acrylic windscreen afforded excellent wind protection, making the bikes truly comfortable to ride – albeit with one’s legs bowed, equestrian-style, around the side panels. The bodywork and affiliated bracketry added an estimated 30 pounds to the machine.

Of course, the Black Knight was a Rapide at heart, which is to say a pushrod air-cooled V-twin proudly related to the mighty Black Shadow, known as “the world’s fastest standard motorcycle” of its time. (Interesting, with the Black Knight and Black Prince in the lineup for ‘55, Vincent simultaneously offered three models containing the word “Black.” And it had also previously sold a racing model named the Black Lightning….)

In hindsight, Vincent’s full-bodied design was prescient, and other companies eventually followed suit, including Triumph with its pretty “bathtub” styled 1957 Twenty One, Ducati via the 1986 Paso 750 and Honda with the 1989 PC800 Pacific Coast. Unfortunately, Vincent’s brave experiment was ineffective. Production delays and a mixed public reception sealed the fiberglass-clad bikes’ fates, and only an estimated 100 Black Knights were built before the factory shuttered.

The end came on Dec.16, 1955, when the last production bike rolled off the line. Befitting the day and like most Vincents, it was painted a deep, luxurious black. But proving that in car and motorcycle circles, it’s better to burn out than to fade away, like the Black Knight and other Vincents, it’s now worth an even deeper stack of green.

If you’d like one of your own Gooding and Company have you covered in Scottsdale.

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