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

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

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.

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.

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!

Carlson is certain that, with another season’s tuning experience, the Vincent Vikings will exceed the magical 150-mph mark next year, using essentially the same technology as Edgar and Free. “No longer do they allow the bathing suit; otherwise I would do that, too,” he laughs. I ask if he’s afraid of destroying this extremely rare and valuable relic, or of exposing it to the harsh, corrosive salt. “We take very good care of it,” he says. “The bike will be completely disassembled and cleaned when we return home. This is just what you do with a racebike.”

John Edgar’s Vincent wasn’t treated much differently, at least in the years immediately following Free’s record-setting run. He detuned the bike and often rode it around Los Angeles—sans headlight and seat—before loaning it to a series of local racers including Marty Dickerson (of Century Cycles fame) and future land-speed record-holder Don Vesco. The historic machine was eventually abandoned with an acquaintance of Edgar’s who sold it for $200—without a title—to a college student who relocated to Michigan. From there the story gets too complicated to detail here, though it’s explained fully in Basem Wasef’s excellent book, Legendary Motorcycles. Collector Herb Harris, proprietor of the Harris Vincent Gallery in Austin, Texas, acquired and then meticulously restored the Edgar bike in 2001, after essentially purchasing it twice: once from the Michigan owner to secure the bike, and once from the Edgar estate to nullify their claim of ownership.

The post-script of this saga was written in December 2010, when Harris sold the bike privately, to a very well-known car collector, for an astounding $1 million. Despite Kurt Carlson’s encouraging example, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see the John Edgar Vincent run in anger on the Salt Flats again, leaving it up to Carlson to keep the Black Lightning Bonneville legend alive.

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