The undisputed star of Bonhams’s sale at the Classic Motorcycle Mechanics Show in Stafford on October 19 will be the only supercharged Vincent Black Lightning ever made. Built to break the world speed record, the machine has been kept in totally original condition and is expected to sell for $400,000-$600,000, a feat which would break records of a different kind.
Britain’s most charismatic manufacturer, Vincent, began production in 1928 and built several hundred machines a year until 1955, when – to universal disappointment – the company went out of business. They were very much in their prime after WWII when they introduced what became the most frequent choice of machine for the Blue Riband of Motorcycling, the 1000cc Black Lightning.
In the late 1940s, American rider and former Indian racer Rollie Free had gained the World Speed Record for Unstreamlined Motorcycles at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, USA, on a modified Vincent. Famously, the last few mph had proven elusive until Free stripped down to his bathing trunks, whereupon he thundered through the traps at a mean magical two-way average speed of 150.31 mph. This achievement prompted Vincent to introduce the Black Lightning model, incorporating a similar engine specification, of which barely 30 examples were ever produced, a machine that is today regarded as the Holy Grail of post war motorcycles.
Traditionally, by its very nature, Record Breaking is the most demanding of arenas, with few true contestants. In 1949 however The Motor Cycle, Britain’s leading 2-wheel publication, offered a Trophy, plus a generous £500 prize [more than the price of a new ’Lightning, already the country’s most expensive bike!] for the first successful all-British attempt on the absolute World Speed Record, held since 1937 by BMW at 173.54 mph. In the same year Reg Dearden, a popular high profile motorcycle dealer at Chorlton-cum-Hardy [Manchester], purchased a Black Lightning expressly for the purpose, direct from the factory. He returned the bike to Stevenage early in 1950 to have a purpose-built supercharger fitted, together with other extensive modifications. This included strengthening and lengthening the main frame by about 6 inches. The work was undertaken under the personal supervision of Phil Vincent, MD, and took several months to complete. Public appearances of the Vincent, thereafter, were infrequent, and while NSU upped the Speed Record to 180.29 mph in 1951, the modified Vincent lay dormant.
In 1953 it was announced the intended rider for the Record attempt would be 500cc World Champion Les Graham, but tragically he was fatally injured in the 1953 Senior TT, causing yet another reduction in enthusiasm for the Record Breaking project.
The setting by NSU, in 1956, of a new Speed record at Bonneville, at 211.40 mph, seemed to rekindle Dearden’s interest, for it was reported he would now fly the bike to the Salt Flats in his own Cessna airplane, for one last serious attempt. Yet again it came to nought when the CAA refused to certify the aircraft for this type of transportation. The Vincent thus stayed unused and neglected at Dearden’s premises over the next decade until sold to a friend of his, Eric Biddle, in 1970. Biddle never used the machine, eventually selling it to Michael Manning, a scientist, who lived in Pennsylvania, USA. Manning took it to a Vincent Owners Club Rally in Canada, in 1977, where it was allegedly started but not ridden, and after returning to his home in Philadelphia it again remained in storage until acquired by the present owner, a Texan collector, in 1987.
An aficionado for the Stevenage product who has had a lifelong association with Vincents, the owner was struck by the obvious originality of the Reardon Supercharged Vincent, following a gentle re-commission of the bike.
He has started the bike on several occasions, confirming the racket emitted by those huge open pipes resembles no other. In 1999 well-known UK photojournalist Mick Duckworth sampled the Vincent on a remote Texas highway for a 7-page feature in Classic Bike. Reaching a speed close to 100 mph in bottom gear he bravely engaged second, at which point he remembered precisely what a precious artifact he was riding. Happily the test ride concluded safely, with the owner saying, “You’ve probably ridden this further than anyone in living memory!”
Today this extraordinary Black Lightning reposes in all its visual potential, slightly oily, yet with original HT leads, fitted with its first-fitted OE Avon tires, and even the factory’s black rim paint remains in place. Original low mileage ’Lightnings are rare, supercharged ’Lightnings are rarer still. This one is unique!