Still Setting Records

Story by Alan Cathcart// Photos by Kel Edge, Jack Ehret Archives
March 14 2018

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

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-ehret-vincent-black-lightningThe 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

ehret-vincent-in-bike-shopPhillip 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

Ehret with passenger John Coleman ar Oran Park 1964The 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 1950 Australian TT at Bathurst in the bag.

A Special Lightning Emerges

In 1951, McAlpine decided to try racing in Europe. Between races, McAlpine worked at the Vincent factory at Stevenage, and with the factory’s blessing, assembled his own Black Lightning with engine number F10AB/1C/7305, and frame number RC9205. The bike was completed on June 5 and tested on July 19 at Great Gransden airstrip alongside Gunga Din, achieving a speed of 130 mph in third gear and, according to McAlpine, out-accelerating Gunga Din by a clear 30 yards on each standing-start sprint run. McAlpine’s final race appearance in Britain in 1951 before sailing for home was at Boreham Aerodrome, a very fast circuit, in a program that included an Unlimited race. For the meeting, Phillip Vincent invited McAlpine to ride Gunga Din, and he did so with great verve, sliding speedway-style through the turns to demolish a field that contained riders of the calibre of Geoff Duke on a factory Norton.
McAlpine then returned home, taking with him the new, unraced Black Lightning. He had no plans to return to Europe, but after receiving a generous sponsorship offer from Shell, plus the nomination as Australian representative for the TT, he decided to return for the 1952 season. To save money and stay clear of injury, he didn’t race while in Australia, and put his Vincent – still unraced – up for sale.
The £500 price asked for the Black Lightning would have bought a couple of nice houses in Sydney at the time, and buyers were scarce. One of the few riders with sufficient funds to buy the Lightning was car dealer Jack Forrest, a talented rider who always had competitive machinery, including a Vincent Black Shadow.

Clawing at the Sky

Forrest realized that a well-tuned Vincent on a fast circuit was still superior to even the best Norton, so when the opportunity to acquire McAlpine’s unraced Black Lightning came along, it proved irresistible. At the Australian TT at Bathurst one month later, Forrest was again spectacularly quick in practice, reportedly topping 140 mph down Conrod Straight. In the program-ending Senior Unlimited TT, Harry Hinton made a slick getaway from the push start and led over the mountain on the first lap, only to have Forrest blast past his Norton single on the first run down Conrod Straight as if he were standing still. Across the line to complete the first lap, Forrest had the front wheel pawing the air, and rocketed up Mountain Straight with Hinton trailing in his wake.
But a few hundred yards later, at Quarry Bend, it all went wrong, and Forrest and the Lightning clouted the fence, without serious injury and with mainly superficial damage to the bike. The experience seemed to break the love affair with the Vincent, for Forrest set out to acquire a new Manx Norton, and placed the Lightning for sale. It was eventually bought for the same £500 price Forrest had paid for it by Jack Ehret, 29, who himself had two suburban Sydney motorcycle shops. With a fledgling business to run, Ehret wasn’t exactly flush with funds, but knew that if he didn’t buy the Lightning, one of his racing rivals would. And so F10AB/1C/7305 found a new home, where it would remain for the next 47 years.

7305’s First Official Record

“Black Jack” Ehret’s experience as a crowd-pleasing daredevil at Mascot Speedway and elsewhere stood him in good stead when it came to controlling the Lightning. At that time, the Australian Land Speed record was continually under attack, usually from Vincent riders, so in January 1953, Ehret selected a remote stretch of road to challenge Les Warton’s Vincent record of 122.6 mph. Despite minor mechanical problems, he averaged an officially timed 141.509 mph to smash the record. Ehret claimed the attempt had cost him in excess of £1,000, but he considered it well worth it in sales promotion for his business to earn the coveted certificate from the Auto Cycle Council of Australia – even if on his way back to Sydney he was booked by the police for travelling at 38 mph in a 30 mph zone on his Vincent record-breaker. Must have been the kilometre speedo!

Over the next five years, Ehret and the Black Lightning record-breaker were regular fixtures at Australian road-race meetings, with the Vincent appearing in both solo and sidecar guise, often both in the same day, with Stan Blundell in the chair. Undoubtedly its proudest moment as a solo came at the much-vaunted International meeting at Mount Druitt in February 1955, where 500 cc World Champion Geoff Duke was the star attraction with his works four-cylinder Gilera. Duke had demolished the opposition in his previous starts on his Australian tour, but on his home track, Ehret was fired up for action, and fancied his chances in the Unlimited TT. Reporting on his tour in the British motorcycle press, Duke wrote, “Ehret made a poor [push] start in the Unlimited event, whereas I was first away, and piled on the coals from the beginning. Thereafter I was able to keep an eye on the Vincent rider approaching the hairpin as I accelerated away from it. Although he was unable to make up for his bad start, Ehret rode to such purpose that he equalled my fastest lap, and we now share the honour of being the lap record holders.” After this scintillating performance, Ehret then bolted on the chair for him and Blundell to win the sidecar race!

Finished on a High Note

After achieving a win at the 1956 Australian TT at Bathurst in the Sidecar TT with passenger George Donkin, Ehret and the Vincent became less-frequent competitors, and in 1958, the Black Lightning was mothballed for 10 years. In 1968, Ehret made a comeback of sorts at Oran Park, finishing a fighting third in the sidecar race. But a further decade passed before he brought the Black Lightning out for one more outing, again at Oran Park. By this time, the Vincent was in a different class – Historic – and Jack showed all his old fire to demolish the field to win both his races by almost a complete lap. Its last appearance was at the then new Eastern Creek circuit in 1993, where Ehret lapped the entire field in winning both Historic Sidecar races passengered by his son John, then removed the chair for John to ride it in two solo races, thus fulfilling a promise he’d made to him. According to Ehret, the Vincent finished on the rostrum in 80 per cent of the races he had entered during his 40 years of racing the bike.

Thereafter, the Lightning began a long hibernation in a Sydney shed while Ehret started a different life running nightclubs in the Philippines, before it was finally put up for sale in 1999. The new owner was Franc Trento, owner of Melbourne-based Eurobrit Motorbikes, and a noted Vincent enthusiast who fortunately determined that the Lightning would not be restored and retired to a museum, but would be kept in exactly the same “as used” condition he’d acquired it in. It had been returned to its original specification with 21-inch front and 20-inch rear wheels, with a very rare big-fin drum front brake and a double-sided rear one for sidecar use. Far from becoming a static piece, the Lightning was then regularly displayed, including taken to the track at the Broadford Bike Bonanza in 2009 and 2010. But in 2014, Trento sold the bike to French collector Nicolas Dourassoff, who shipped it to France, where local Vincent expert Patrick Godet had sympathetically recommissioned it to running condition.

In its 66-year existence, Vincent Black Lightning engine number F10AB/1C/7305, frame number RC9205 has so far clocked up 8,587 km (the kilometre speedo was fitted from new in European specification), and virtually every single metre has been covered in pursuit of glory. And as far as Dourassoff was concerned during his ownership of this famous bike, 7305 wasn’t ready to be tucked up in bed in a museum just yet!

Another World Record Shattered

On January 25, 2018, the highly documented and unrestored 1951 Ehret Vincent Black Lightning went under the hammer at Bonhams’ motorcycle auction in Las Vegas and broke yet another world record: it sold for a whopping US$929,000, making it the most valuable production motorcycle ever sold at auction.
Now the question is, will a motorcycle that commanded close to US$1 million continue to be ridden in anger on a racetrack, or will the new owner prefer to keep it under wraps in a museum or in a private collection? Whatever its destiny holds, hopefully it will be left in its current condition, warts and all.
NOTE: Special thanks to Old Bike Australasia editor Jim Scaysbrook for supplying the historical information in this article.

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