It’s the most famous photograph in the history of motorcycling. The doughy figure, wearing just swim trunks, canvas sneakers and a pudding-bowl helmet, lies outstretched above a sleek, black motorcycle streaking across the white nothing of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Published in Life Magazine in September 1948, this iconic, almost whimsical image introduced millions to the daring pursuit of land-speed racing. It also introduced American motorcycle enthusiasts to the Vincent Black Shadow, one of the 20th century’s most magnificent motorcycles. When Rollie Free stripped to his skivvies and set a motorcycle land-speed record of 150.313 mph, a legend was born.
It all started with a serendipitous meeting between John Edgar, a wealthy Hollywood racing enthusiast, and Philip Vincent, the owner of Vincent HRD. Vincent was in California to generate interest in the all-new Black Shadow, a revolutionary post-war sport model powered by a 1000cc V-twin with distinctive, black-enameled crankcases that were allegedly cast from scrapped Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines. When Edgar casually mentioned his desire to own the fastest motorcycle in America, Vincent seized the opportunity to help Edgar achieve his dream and promote his new bike at the same time.
This is what a million-dollar motorcycle looks like: The legendary John Edgar/Rollie Free
A stock Black Shadow was capable of 125 mph—easily the fastest production motorcycle of its day—but Vincent wanted to break the mythical 150-mph mark. To make this possible, chief engineer Phillip Irving fitted a production Black Shadow with larger, 32mm Amal carburetors, high-compression pistons, hand-ground cams and straight-pipes. The heads were ported and polished, the crank and rods lightened and balanced, and a sturdier clutch installed. Vincent test rider George Brown certified the bike at 143 mph at Grandsen Air Base near the firm’s Stevenage, England, factory—he could have gone faster with more road, he reported—then shipped the bike to America.
Edgar wasn’t a racer himself, so he arranged for the righteously named Rollie Free to ride the bike. Free competed in his first national championship event, a 100-mile endurance race on Kansas City’s board-track, in 1923. Free also raced in the very first Daytona 200 in ’37—as well as the Indy 500, twice—and set several AMA Class C speed records at Daytona Beach in the late ’30s. He discovered Bonneville during WWII, when he served as an Air Force maintenance officer stationed at Hill Field in Ogden, Utah. By the late ’40s he was one of the fastest men on the salt, known for his unorthodox lay-down riding style that minimized aerodynamic drag and increased rear-wheel traction on the slippery salt. A former factory Indian rider who also raced Triumphs on the dirt-tracks, Free especially relished the opportunity to challenge the long-standing American Class A motorcycle speed record of 136.183 mph set in ’37 by Joe Petrali on a factory Harley-Davidson Knucklehead.
Free’s first attempt ended at 148.6 mph—crushing Petrali’s 11-year-old mark but still shy of Vincent’s 150-mph goal. Certain his ill-fitting leather suit was causing undue drag, Free bravely stripped down to a snug-fitting bathing suit, a trick he credited to California racing legend Ed Kretz. Now nearly naked, he achieved a two-way average speed of 150.313 mph, cementing his and Vincent’s position in Salt Flats history—and, thanks to Life Magazine photographer Peter Stackpole, in American pop culture as well.
Vincent quickly capitalized on Free’s remarkable achievement and advertised its Black Shadow as “The World’s Fastest Standard Motorcycle,” proudly stating “This is a fact, not a slogan.” Vincent also began building its legendary Black Lightning—an exclusive, race-only version of the Black Shadow—using Edgar’s motorcycle as the prototype.
Just 30 Black Lightnings were built between 1949 and ’52, and today these are among the most coveted and valuable motorcycles in the world. Only a handful still exist, mostly retired from service and squirreled away in museums or very private collections. Few are even regularly run—much less raced—which makes the Black Lightning featured on the following pages, owned by Reno, Nevada’s, Kurt Carlson, such a special machine. Hardly the typical connoisseur, Carlson is committed to honoring the Black Lightning’s Bonneville racing roots in the best possible way—by chasing Rollie Free’s ghost across the salt.