A brief history of the Vincent 998 cc V-twin brings us to the Ehret Vincent, arguably the most important Black Lightning in existence and one of the world’s most famous, and expensive, motorcycles
Photos by: Kel Edge, Jack Ehret Archives
Seventy years ago, the Vincent Black Shadow delivered the most performance from a street-legal vehicle that money could buy, on two wheels or four. Officially timed at 122 mph, it outsped the Jaguar XK120 two-seater sports car, which was then the world’s fastest production car, making the Shadow the first true superbike of the modern era. Vincent’s countless road-racing and speed-record successes testified to the inherent performance wrapped up in the British firm’s 50-degree V-twin engine – so much so that attempts to run a 1,000 cc Clubman’s TT in the Isle of Man floundered after just three races, all won by Vincents, with the others nowhere in sight. Indeed, in the final 1950 edition, only Vincents took part; nothing else on two wheels could compete with the vivid performance and exceptional handling by 1950s standards delivered by the 998 cc motorcycle created by legendary Australian engineer Phil Irving.
Vincent’s Most Famous Model
The ultimate Vincent was the Series C Black Lightning, a production version of the bike on which Rollie Free had broken the AMA’s Land Speed Record in 1948 on the Bonneville Salt Flats, with a similar engine specification. First exhibited at that year’s Earls Court Show in London, England, and available only by special order, the standard Black Lightning was supplied in racing trim, with tach, Elektron magnesium-alloy brake plates, special racing tires on alloy wheel rims, rear-set foot controls, a solo seat and aluminum fenders. This reduced the stripped-out Black Lightning’s dry weight to 172 kg, against the road-going Black Shadow’s 208 kg. Its 998 cc air-cooled engine was upgraded with higher-performance racing components, including Mark II Vincent cams with a higher lift and more overlap, stronger 85-ton Vibrac connecting rods with a caged roller-bearing big end, polished flywheels and Specialloid pistons delivering a 13:1 compression for methanol fuel. The combustion chamber spheres were polished, as were the valve rockers, and streamlined larger inlet ports were fed by twin 32 mm Amal 10TT9 carburetors. The four-speed gearbox was beefed up to transfer the extra power, amounting to at least 70 hp at 5,600 rpm (compared with a road-going Black Shadow’s 55 hp), and a top speed of 150 mph.
The Black Lightning’s genesis is the stuff of legend for Vincent enthusiasts, and it essentially began with London Vincent dealer Jack Surtees, the father of future world champion and Vincent factory apprentice John Surtees. Jack had been racing a Norton sidecar with some success, and in 1947 ordered a Rapide from the factory with some special tuning parts. This engine was built at Vincent’s Stevenage plant alongside a second such engine, which was then loaned to George Brown, the firm’s experimental test rider since 1934, who gave the ensuing bike its competition debut at Cadwell Park in 1947. For the unlimited capacity Hutchinson 100 race at Dunholme later in the year, Brown’s special Rapide was further improved, enabling him to finish second in the race to Ted Frend’s works 500 cc AJS Porcupine – a bike that would win the inaugural 500 cc World Championship in 1949.
An Unlikely Moniker
However, unlike the AJS, the Vincent could be refitted with silencers for Brown to ride it the 120 miles back to the factory after the race! In this guise, it was tested soon after by journalist Charlie Markham of Motor Cycling magazine, who was ecstatic in his praise for the special Vincent, pinching the title of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din” to describe it. In this, a British army officer’s life is saved by a lowly Indian water bearer, prompting him to remark, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” Markham’s inference was that the Vincent’s capabilities far exceeded his own, and the nickname stuck, so that Brown’s increasingly successful bike henceforth became known as Gunga Din (see Motorcycle Mojo April 2011).
Gunga Din’s specification was largely adopted on Vincent’s new production Black Shadow – the uprated version of the Rapide that famously needed a special 150 mph Smith’s speedo instead of the standard 120 mph item. The engine of the new model, at first produced in very limited numbers, was stove-enamelled black, and to assist with publicity, Gunga Din also had its engine painted black.
Smashing a Record
Phillip Vincent agreed to sell a specially prepared Black Shadow to wealthy American enthusiast John Edgar – the machine to be ridden by Rollie Free at Bonneville Salt Flats in an attempt at the AMA’s Land Speed Record, which at that time was held by Harley-Davidson. To meet the scheduled September 1948 date for the attempt, much midnight oil was burnt at the factory to produce the necessary go-faster bits, and Edgar’s engine was run-in on the test bed before being installed in a Black Shadow chassis and tested at Gransden airfield. With Brown aboard, it ran easily to 143 mph, and would have gone faster had the runway been long enough. In Utah, Free, famously clothed in just a pair of swimming trunks and lying on his stomach aboard his Vincent with his legs stuck out behind him, succeeded in smashing the AMA record, leaving it at 150.313 mph over the measured flying mile.
The idea of producing a special racing model based on Free’s record-breaker was a logical progression in what was to be a very big year for the Vincent HRD company. London’s Earl’s Court Show, which had not been held since 1938, owing to the outbreak of war, was revived in November 1948, to tremendous support from British manufacturers. There, Vincent launched its new Series C V-twin models, now fitted with the company’s own Girdraulic forks and hydraulic rear damper, alongside the thrilling Black Lightning production racer, details of which were kept secret until just before the show, mainly because it was still being built right up to the day before the show.
A Star Is Born
The completed Black Lightning caused a sensation at Earl’s Court, despite its then enormous £400 price tag (plus a hefty £108 purchase tax). It’s generally accepted that only 33 complete customer versions – all Series C except for one Series D model – in addition to Free’s first 1948 Series B prototype, were ever built (together with possibly up to 13 engines for installation in racing cars) before production ended in 1952 because of Vincent’s financial problems.
Today, the Vincent Black Lightning is perhaps the most coveted production motorcycle ever built. Nineteen of the bikes are believed to still exist, so the astronomical values achieved at auction on the rare occasions when one comes on the market makes the unrestored ex-Jack Ehret three-owner bike with a glorious unchallengeable racing history a rare and immensely desirable slice of motorcycle history.
The first two “Lightningized” engines for Surtees’ and Brown’s Gunga Din were numbered F10AB/1A/70 and F10AB/1A/71, respectively, and the special Shadow sold to Edgar in July 1948 was F10AB/1B/900. Subsequent Lightnings all carried the “1C” middle number, and the third of these to leave the factory, F10AB/1C/1803, was sent to Sydney, Australia, in March 1949 and purchased by champion sidecar racer Les Warton. In the four years from 1949 to1952 beginning with Warton’s machine, six complete Black Lightnings plus one engine went to Vincent agents in Australia, the company’s second-largest export market after the United States, with two more privately imported, one via Singapore. One of the eight such bikes imported was raced in 1949 by flamboyant Sydney rider Tony McAlpine, who became virtually unbeatable in the Unlimited-class events, winning 12 major races out of 13 starts. Only sheared rear sprocket bolts prevented a perfect score when he had the…