Kurt Carlson Resurrects the Vincent-Bonneville Legend | Ride The Lightning

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Getty Images, Rob Haynes, Steve Burton & Life Pictures

In a world awash with replicas, re-stamps and more than a few outright fakes, Carlson’s Black Lightning is the genuine, numbers-matching Real Deal. Carlson even has a handwritten "works order form," dated March 27, 1950, signed by George Brown and detailing each original component and spec. It’s one of two Black Lightnings imported to his native country of Denmark that year, for the original purpose of dirt-track sidecar racing. Carlson has owned the bike since ’84, when he rescued it from a loft where it had sat, disassembled and in boxes, for more than two decades.

Carlson waited another 20 years before restoring his Black Lightning, but he always knew he would one day race it. “I heard all the stories about the famous Black Lightning, and how it was so very fast,” Carlson says. “I knew I wanted to experience that myself. At my 50th birthday party, my friend Reimer said, ‘Why the hell not take your Black Lightning to Bonneville?’ The plan was hatched.”

Carlson delivered the Black Lighting bits to another ex-pat Dane, Paul Jensen, who operates Bishop Choppers in Bishop, California. “Paul put a nice big butcher’s block in his kitchen, and we put the bike together there, piece-by-piece,” Carlson says. Rather than just seeing how fast the bike could go, Carlson wanted to recreate exactly what a Vincent racer could do at the time.

“Except for the tachometer, there’s nothing that didn’t exist in 1950,” Carlson says. “This bike is just how it left the factory. It was born with 2-inch pipes; straight, exactly like that. It was made to run on methanol, with 13.5:1 compression. We have the correct special light pistons in it from that era, and the original Mark II cams. Paul even managed to make those hopeless Amal carburetors work!”

The aptly named Vincent Vikings team first raced at Bonneville in 2007, running just 116 mph. In ’10 the team set a vintage fuel record at over 132 mph. This past year, with a new saddle, low-mount handlebars and a custom carrier to fit a 41-tooth rear sprocket, Carlson upped his 1000-Modified-Vintage Fuel record to 145.804 mph—ever closer to Free’s speed of 63 years ago, on a remarkably similar bike.

Carlson has since sold his other Vincent, a Rapide. “It sounds snobby,” he explains, “but once you’ve ridden a Black Lightning, anything else is tame!” To underline this point, Carlson offered me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to suit up and make a pass at Bonneville last summer.

Jensen uses rollers to fire up the bike, and “fire” is exactly the right term—the methanol-burning twin crackles with the crisp report of a proper fuel-altered dragster. Of course, I promptly stall it—the bike is geared tall enough to go 100 mph in first. Jensen lights it up again and, with a few foot-paddles and more throttle this time, I’m soon roaring across the salt.

I’m relieved to be traveling in a straight line. Though a production Vincent is a fine-handling bike, this one—with extremely narrow bars located a foot forward of the steering head—offers virtually zero steering leverage. It races ahead straight and true, however, and the Girdraulic fork and twin cantilevered hydraulic rear dampers give a surprisingly smooth ride over the rough salt pan. This doesn’t feel like a 61-year-old machine, especially when you screw on the throttle.

No other engine makes power quite like a Vincent V-twin. It has the same stout low-end torque of a long-stroke, big-flywheel Harley-Davidson, combined with an unexpectedly lively top-end rush. Short pushrods and tiny, low-inertia rocker arms give the Vincent a surprisingly revvy character, and let it pull fiercely to my conservative, 5800-rpm shift-point without running out of breath like other OHV twins. Carlson says this bike once dynoed 73 horsepower and 75 lb.-ft. of torque with a bad magneto; he estimates that running properly like it is on this day, both numbers are closer to 80. Jensen had the Amal carbs tuned perfectly for Bonneville’s 4200-foot altitude and the Black Lightning charges through forth gear as strongly as first, sounding unbelievably fierce in the process. Carlson is absolutely right—anything else is tame!

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