The ex-Tony McAlpine, Jack Ehret, Australian Land Speed Record Breaking, 4 owners from new,1951 Vincent 998cc Black Lightning
Bonhams Motoring Magazine
Winter Edition

Motoring

Bonhams Motoring Magazine Winter Edition

Page 4

GREASED LIGHTENING

It was the motorcycle that took the land-speed record in 1953 in memorable style. Simon de Burton looks at its track record

It is probably the most famous image in the history of motorcycle milestones. A black-and-white photograph from September 1948 shows Rollie Free scorching along Bonneville Salt Flats - head down, pelvis pressed to the rear mudguard of his motorbike, legs stretched out behind him – and his body clad in nothing but a pudding bowl helmet, plimsolls and a pair of swimming trunks.

Free had chosen to discard his leathers after ripping them on a trial run, a decision that may have helped him race into the record books at a speed of 150.313mph. The bike he did it on was a prototype of what soon came to be recognised as the fastest motorcycle in the world: the mighty Vincent Black Lightning.

Cambridge graduate Phil Vincent established his eponymous marque in 1928, having bought an existing manufacturer called H.R.D. for £450 (hence early models were designated 'Vincent H.R.D.'). The first notable machines to emerge from the venture were the single- cylinder, 500cc Comet, Meteor and T.T. Replica bikes, bikes that were developed in house by the Australian Phil Irving, an engineering genius who went on to design the V8 powerplant that made the Brabham Grand Prix Team both driver's and manufacturer's champions ot 1966.

The story goes, however, that Irving's greatest legacy to Vincent came about almost by accident. According to legend, he had been shuffling around a drawing and a tracing of a new 500cc, single-cylinder engine design when he realised that, by marrying the two, he could create a 1,000cc V-twin with potentially twice the power.

The first machine to carry the new engine was dubbed the 'Rapide'. Launched in 1936, it offered genuine 110mph performance in Series A form; post- war, the Series B model then gave rise to the ultra high- performance, 125mph Black Shadow.

While the Black Shadow was the quickest street-legal object on wheels, there were calls from the racing community for something even more powerful, more lithe and faster. That 'something' proved to be the rare and uncompromising Black Lightning.

Tuned to produce 70 horsepower (15 more than the standard Shadow) at 5,700rpm, its engine had larger inlet valves, 'hot' camshafts, stronger, lighter con rods, polished ywheels and a high, 13:1 compression ratio designed to enable the use of methanol fuel that would be fed in through twin Amal TT carburettors.

To make the most of this re-breathing powerplant, the Lightning was trimmed of close to 100lbs in weight over the stock 458lb Shadow, thanks to the use of Elektron brake plates, alloy rims, a solo seat, alloy mudguards and lightweight, rear-set foot rests. The Shadow's famous 150mph speedometer went, too, its place taken by a rev counter.

Available only to order, a mere 30 or so Lightnings were built at Vincent's Stevenage factory between 1948 and 1952 – one of which is the example pictured: a 1951 model, numbered 7305. This motorbike was imported new into Australia by well-known racer Tony McAlpine and subsequently sold to fellow competitor Jack Forrest.

But it was 7305's next owner who realised the bike's full potential. His name was Jack Ehret and, in January 1953, he successfully appealed to a local judge to close a two-mile stretch of public road near Gunnedah, New South Wales, so he could attempt to set a new Australian land-speed record.

With officialdom (but little luck) on his side, Ehret claims to have managed a run of 149.6mph on day two, but faulty timing equipment meant it was not recorded. His next attempt ended with gearbox problems but, undeterred, Ehret soldiered on with a makeshift x. He eventually managed two clean runs, at an average speed of 141.509mph, to achieve his record-breaking goal.

Ehret continued to race 7305 successfully for many more years, last competing on it in 1978 but retaining ownership until 1999, just two years before his death. Now this most celebrated of Vincents is destined for the limelight again, when it comes under the hammer at the Bonhams Las Vegas motorcycle sale in January. It will be offered in perfect running order, having been recommissioned by French marque guru Patrick Godet.

Note that the word here is 'recommissioned' rather than restored – because 'preservation' enthusiasts will be delighted to see that this magni cent machine is not polished, painted and gleaming like a new pin, but stained, rubbed, dulled and chipped in testament to its hard-riding years in Ehret's loving ownership.

In fact, it looks for all the world as though it has just left the Gunnedah asphalt and is standing by to break another record. Which, if bidding is as brisk as expected, it may very well do.

Simon de Burton has been a reporter for the FT's How to Spend It since 1999, specialising in rare and exotic cars, motorcycles and boats.

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