“Says Red Molly, to James, ‘Well, that’s a fine motorbike.
A girl could feel special on any such a like.’
Says James to Red Molly, “My hat’s off to you.
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952”
I have never ridden a Vincent Black Lightning, and I suspect I never will.
The fact that I’ve never been on what was once the fastest motorcycle in the world is not due to a lack of will. Anything on two wheels that has Vincent written on it is expressly for the caviar crowd these days. If you’re very lucky, you may see one trailered around Pebble Beach or some other such white-tie affair, but you won’t see a greasy-haired roughneck on a Black Lightning. In fairness, they have always been a high-dollar item. Although they were never the everyman bike, the current owners are a far cry from the originally intended audience.
There was a time when the Black Lightning was seen as more ghoul than motorcycle. It was always highly coveted, but not by the old boys who “have people for that.” Riding a Vincent Black Lightning required quite the tall order of bravery.
“Says James, to Red Molly, ‘Here’s a ring for your right hand.
But I’ll tell you in earnest I’m a dangerous man;
For I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen.’”
See, in 1948, when the Black Lightning debuted, powerful engines had been worked out, but brakes were still in the process. This means that riding the Black Lightning to its full potential required the rider to hit the bike’s top speed of 150 mph with brakes that offered less friction than a WASPy dinner party.
The Vincent Black Lightning was the fastest motorcycle in the universe (as far as we know)
Although the Black Lightning was faster than greased lightning, that isn’t what makes it great. As Noted by Silodrome, the Black Lightning wasn’t developed for street use (though they could be tagged for the road); they were intended for racing and land speed record attempts.
From the beginning, these bikes were never made for mediocrity. The Black Shadow was strictly and unquestionably for those who had a deep desire to kick ass. The highly-tuned 998cc twin cylinders bore 70 horsepower, over 20 hp more than the closest Vincent machine.
“‘I’ve robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine.
And now I’m twenty-one years; I might make twenty-two.
And I don’t mind dyin’ but for the love of you.
But if fate should break my stride, then I’ll give you my Vincent, To Ride.’”
The 150-mph record was set by a man named Rollie Free (can’t make that up), who rode his modified Black Lightning at the Bonneville Salt Flats in nothing but a skull cap, short shorts, shoes, and a smile. Rollie Free is pictured below in his iconic riding form displaying the exact amount of courage needed to ride such a bike at full tilt.
The Vincent Black Lightning days are over
Vincent’s racing division only ever made 33 examples from 1948-1952. These light-weight, stripped-down, black and gold couriers of the carefree were rarer than hen’s teeth when they were being produced. These days, most experts believe that only 19 numbers-matching Vincent Black Lightnings are still lurking in the shadows of billionaire’s garages. One of the more recent Vincent Black Lightnings that went to auction crossed the blocks at Birmingham, Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park. The bike was valued at $500,000, although one had previously sold for nearly $1,000,000.
Said James, “In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world
Beats a ’52 Vincent and a Redheaded girl.
Now Nortons and Indians and Greevses won’t do.
Oh, they don’t have a Soul like a Vincent ’52.”
What makes the Vincent Black Lightning the greatest motorcycle of all time isn’t its mind-bending speed or its impossible rarity. What makes it so undeniably great is despite its lofty prices and extremely low production numbers, it mattered. This rare bike was well known and revered although very few have ever ridden one.
Maybe I’m just a motorcycle dork, and the Black Lightning matters to me for those impressive speed figures and how it affected motorcycle production for the rest of time. However, I think the better argument for its greatness comes from Richard Thompson’s song. This bike was such an immense force for the time that even art and culture had to bend to its greatness.
Richard Thompson’s song, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, beautifully depicts the force with which that bike hit the earth. Red Molly knew that the bike James was riding was not only special, but it likely was telling about its rider. Anyone who was whipping a Black Lightning through the streets is a hard individual, indeed.
Machines are just machines. We know that, but we still can’t help but assign them “souls.” By Richard Thompson’s anti-hero logic, all the other greats of the time simply didn’t have a “soul like a Vincent ‘52”.
“And he gave her one last kiss and died.
And he gave her his Vincent
to Ride.” – Richard Thompson
I may not ever get to ride a Vincent, but I have driven a 1996 Porsche 993 C4S and you can read about it.