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The Topsy Turvy History of a Record-Setting Motorcycle

Beginning with Rollie Free, the Vincent Black Lightning has left its tread marks through the decades.

Rollie Free Photo: Courtesy Herb Harris

 There’s no denying the power of the black-and-white image—a man clad in swim trunks and sneakers lying  at across a speeding motorcycle, his head down and his feet dangling far past the back wheel.

The man was Rollie Free, and the 1948 picture shows him setting the American motorcycle land-speed record of 150 mph (it has since been broken many times, including by Free himself two years later). There is arguing about the bike, however. Some say it’s a Vincent Black Shadow; others claim it’s a Vincent Black Lightning.

While the Vincent Black Lightning shares its lineage with the Shadow, which Hunter S. Thompson immortalized in his 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s a legend in its own right. Built between 1948 and 1952, the Lightning was the racing version of the Shadow, and it was the fastest production motorcycle of its era. Vincent built fewer than three dozen Lightnings, and of those, 19 matching-numbers examples survive.

Vincent Black Lightning

In January, Bonhams sold this 1951 Vincent Black Lightning for $929,000.  Photo: Bonhams

The price of a new Vincent Black Lightning exceeded £500, a sum that could approach purchasing a nice house in the mid-20th century. Today, vintage Vincent Black Lightnings still sell for sums that could purchase a nice house. In January 2018, Bonhams sold a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning for $929,000 and set a new world record for any motorcycle at auction. Owners of Holy Grail objects don’t give them up easily, if ever, but a fresh world auction record can change minds.

Less than a year after its triumphant Las Vegas auction, Bonhams will offer another matching-numbers Vincent Black Lighting on October 6, 2018, in a sale at the Bar- ber Vintage Festival in Birmingham, Ala. The January auction record convinced the owner of this 1949 motorcycle to consign.

Estimated at $400,000 to $500,000, the bike Bonhams will sell in October is not the first Vincent Black Lightning, but it is the earliest example with matching numbers. Like the one offered in January, it’s had  five owners total. Bidders who sit out this opportunity might be looking at an unknowably long wait. The last Vincent Black Lightning to appear at auction before 2018 came up a decade ago, also at Bonhams.

Will it beat the record? It’s impossible to say. This much is clear, though: The Vincent Black Lightning still captivates the imagination, and its legend is forever enmeshed with that gripping photo of Free rocketing into history.


A Brief Timeline of the Vincent Black Lightning

1908          Philip Conrad Vincent is born in southwest London.

1924          Vincent acquires his first motorcycle, a used 350cc BSA.

1928          Vincent launches his self-named motorcycle company.

1948          American racer Rollie Free sets a motorcycle land-speed record of 150 mph on a modified Vincent Black Shadow at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

1948–1952 Vincent offers the Vincent Black Lightning, a racing version of the Vincent Black Shadow.

1955          The Vincent company goes out of business.

1979          Vincent dies.

1991          English musician Richard Thompson embellishes the motorcycle’s legend by composing the  song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”

2018          Bonhams sells a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning for $929,000.

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