Any motorcycle that graces the cover of a Bonhams sales catalogue is going to be something rather special. For the upcoming Bonhams Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction that honour goes to a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning with a seriously impressive pedigree.
We saw the bike in the flesh at the Bonhams Stafford Sale back in October last year where it was on display.
Here’s the full history of lot 131.
The ex-Tony McAlpine, Jack Ehret, Australian Land Speed Record-breaking
1951 Vincent 998cc Black Lightning
Frame no. RC9205
Engine no. F10AB/1C/7305
• One of approximately 33 made
• Full matching numbers
• One of an estimated 19 matching-numbers examples still existing
• Five owners from new
• Re-commissioned by Patrick Godet
More than six decades 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 122mph, it outpaced the Jaguar XK120 two-seater, then the world’s fastest production car, making the Shadow the first true Superbike of the modern era.
The ultimate Vincent was the Series C Black Lightning, a production version of the bike Rollie Free rode to break the AMA’s land speed record in 1948 on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Available only by special order, the standard Black Lightning was supplied in racing trim with a tachometer, Elektron magnesium alloy brake plates, racing tyres on alloy rims, rear-set foot controls, a solo seat and aluminium mudguards. This reduced the Black Lightning’s dry weight to just 360lb/172kg versus the Black Shadow’s 458lb/208kg complete with lights and a horn. The Lightning’s 998cc air-cooled, overhead valve 50º V-twin engine was given higher-performance racing components including Mark II Vincent cams with higher lift and more overlap, stronger, highly polished Vibrac connecting rods with a large-diameter caged roller-bearing big end, polished flywheels and Specialoid pistons delivering a 13:1 compression ratio for methanol fuel. The combustion chamber spheres were polished, as were the valve rockers and the streamlined larger inlet ports, which were blended to special adapters and fed by twin 1¼-inch Amal 10TT9 carburettors. The Ferodo single-plate clutch’s cover featured centre and rear cooling holes, while the four-speed gearbox was beefed up to transmit extra power of at least 70bhp at 5,600 rpm (versus the Black Shadow’s claimed 55bhp) and a top speed of 150mph.
The Black Lightning’s genesis is the stuff of legend for Vincent enthusiasts, and essentially began with London Vincent dealer Jack Surtees, the father of future World champion and Vincent factory apprentice John Surtees. He’d been racing a Norton sidecar with some success, and in 1947 ordered a Vincent Rapide with special tuning parts. This engine was built at Vincent’s Stevenage plant alongside a second such engine, which was loaned to George Brown, Vincent’s experimental tester, whose ensuing bike became famously known as Gunga Din and was the test bed for the Black Shadow and Black Lightning.
First shown at London’s 1948 Earls Court show, the production Black Lightning caused a sensation despite its then-enormous £400 price tag plus a hefty £108 purchase tax. It is generally accepted that only 33 complete customer versions – all Series C except for one Series D model – plus Rollie Free’s first 1948 Series B prototype were ever built (together with anything up to 13 engines for installation in racing cars), before production ended in 1952.
Today, the Black Lightning is perhaps the most coveted production motorcycle ever built. It is believed that 19 matching-numbers Lightnings still exist, making the cosmetically un-restored ex-Jack Ehret five-owner example, with its glorious racing history, a rare and immensely desirable slice of motorcycling history. The first two “Lightningised” engines for Surtees and Brown’s Gunga Din were numbered F10AB/1A/70 and F10AB/1A/71, respectively, and the special Shadow sold to US dealer John Edgar in July 1948 was F10AB/1B/900. Subsequent Lightnings all carried the “IC” designation, and the third of these to leave the factory, F10AB/IC/1803, was sent to Sydney, Australi, in March 1949 and purchased by sidecar racer Les Warton. From 1949-1952, six complete Black Lightnings plus one engine went to Vincent agents in Australia, the company’s second-largest export market after the USA, with two more privately imported, one via Singapore. One was raced in 1949 by Sydney rider Tony McAlpine, who became virtually unbeatable in Unlimited class events aboard the Black Lightning, winning 12 major races from 13 starts.
For the 1951 European season, McAlpine decided to try his hand overseas, securing an AJS 7R for the 350cc class and finishing 13th in the Isle of Man Junior TT. In 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. This was completed on June 5th 1951, and tested on July 19th at Great Gransden airstrip alongside Gunga Din, hitting 130mph 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 in Britain before sailing for home was at Boreham Aerodrome, a very fast circuit, in a programme that included an Unlimited race. For the meeting, Phillip Vincent invited McAlpine to ride Gunga Din, which he did with great verve, sliding speedway-style through the turns to demolish the field. McAlpine then sailed home, taking with him the new, un-raced Black Lightning. He had no plans to return to Europe, but after receiving a sponsorship offer from Shell, plus the nomination as Australian representative for the TT, he decided to return for 1952. To save money and stay clear of injury he didn’t race during his brief return to Australia, and put the Vincent up for sale.
The £500 price asked for the Black Lightning would have bought a couple of nice houses in Sydney at the time. One of the few riders with funds to buy the Lightning was car dealer Jack Forrest, a talented rider. At the 1951 Australian TT held at Lowood in Queensland in June, Forrest was the star of the show, winning the Junior race on a Velocette KTT and the Senior on a Manx Norton. He also raced a Vincent Black Shadow in the Unlimited class, and he was out in front in that race before a split fuel line sprayed methanol on the rear tyre. Although he controlled the resulting skid, his race was over. Forrest had now seen that a well-tuned Vincent on a fast circuit was superior to even the best Norton, so when the opportunity to acquire McAlpine’s Black Lightning came along, it proved irresistible. He bought the bike and raced it in the Australian TT at Bathurst in the Senior Unlimited TT, but crashed during the race, without serious injury and with mainly superficial damage to the bike. Nonetheless, the experience seemed to break the love affair with the Vincent; Forrest set out to acquire a new Manx Norton and placed the Lightning for sale with Sydney dealers Burling and Simmons.There it sat for months until bought by Jack Ehret, who owned two Sydney motorcycle shops. Ehret wasn’t exactly flush with funds, but knew that if he didn’t get hold of 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.
“Black Jack” Ehret’s first major outing on the Lightning was the Australian TT at the Little River circuit on Boxing Day 1952, where he finished second in the Senior Unlimited TT. At that time the Australian Land Speed record was constantly under attack, so in January 1953, Ehret selected a remote stretch of road in western NSW to challenge Les Warton’s Vincent record of 122.6mph. Despite a few problems, he averaged an officially timed 141.509mph to smash the record. Ehret claimed the attempt cost him £1,000-plus, but considered it well worth it in sales promotion for his business to earn the coveted certificate from the Auto Cycle Council of Australia.
Over the next five years, Jack Ehret and the Black Lightning were regular fixtures at Australian road race meetings, with the Vincent appearing in both solo and sidecar guise, often in the same day, with Stan Blundell in the chair. Ehret and the Lightning wound up Australian Title points leaders in 1954 ahead of a host of famous names. Undoubtedly its proudest moment as a solo came at the much vaunted international meeting at Mount Druitt in February 1955, where 500cc World Champion Geoff Duke visiting from England 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, Jack then bolted on the chair for him and Blundell to win the Sidecar race!
One win that had eluded Ehret was the Australian TT at Bathurst, but he put that right in Easter 1956, winning the Sidecar TT with passenger George Donkin. Perhaps with this goal achieved, Jack and the Vincent became less frequent competitors, and when Mount Druitt closed in 1958 the Black Lightning was mothballed for 10 years. In 1968, Ehret made a comeback of sorts at Oran Park, with the Lightning now fitted with 16″ wheels and John “Tex” Coleman in the chair. Despite the long layoff, Ehret didn’t disgrace himself, finishing 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 Ehret demolished the field to win both his races by almost a complete lap. Its last appearance was at the Eastern Creek circuit in 1993, where Ehret lapped the entire field, winning both Historic Sidecar races passengered by his son John, then removed the chair for John to ride it in two solo races. According to Jack, the Vincent finished on the rostrum in 80% of the races he entered during his 40 years of racing it.
Thereafter, the Lightning began a long hibernation in a Sydney shed while Jack Ehret started a different life running nightclubs in the Philippines, before it was put up for sale in 1999, not long before Ehret passed away unexpectedly on July 7th, 2001, aged 78. 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, 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″ front and 20″ rear wheels, and the very rare Elektron magnesium-alloy brake plates. Far from becoming a static piece, the Lightning was regularly displayed, including taking to the track at the Broadford Bike Bonanza in 2009 and 2010. In 2014, Trento sold the machine to the vendor, who shipped it to France where Vincent expert Patrick Godet re-commissioned it. The re-commissioning cost approximately €53,000 (invoices on file) and there is a video available of the machine being started for the first time. All removed parts, together with the original sidecar – including the fairing, seat, etc – are offered with the lot.
In its 66-year existence, Vincent Black Lightning, engine number F10/AB/1C/7305, frame number RC 9205, has so far clocked up 8,587 kilometres (the kilometre speedometer was fitted from new in “European” specification) and virtually every single metre has been covered in pursuit of glory. As far as the vendor was concerned, 7305 wasn’t ready to be tucked up in bed in a museum just yet – so he invited the author to come and ride it.
To be invited to ride a bike such as the Ehret Vincent was an act of huge generosity, as well as implied trust. My two dozen laps came at the Circuit Carole on the outskirts of Paris, to which the vendor brought the battle-scarred warrior, re-commissioned by Patrick Godet, for me to ride.
The impression you get on the Ehret Vincent is that of being pulled along by a huge bungee cord. Once you see the rev counter needle track its way to the 3,800rpm mark, the bungee cord releases and you’re swept to what must have been unimaginable speed by mid-20th Century standards. Nothing much happens below those revs, though, so you have to coax the engine into meaningful action with a dab on the Ferodo clutch’s light-action lever. Soon the tachometer is showing 6,000rpm, at which point you stab the gear lever downwards with your right foot for the next of four gears. There are such massive amounts of torque, even by today’s standards, that the Vincent just lunges forward when you get back on the throttle again.
In returning the Vincent to running condition, Godet has been at pains not to destroy the truth of time. “Once the vendor decided to preserve the machine in its current state, and not restore it – which was 100 percent the right decision – I wanted to make sure that any new parts I fitted were as unobtrusive as possible,” he says. “But to make it safe to be ridden took quite a lot of work, because the engine parts were very worn, and the crankshaft had been repaired in a funny way. We stripped the bike totally, and rebuilt it using the original spec parts we have manufactured using the original Black Lightning factory drawings that we’ve obtained. But they’re all inside where you can’t see them, so while the throttle and brake cables may look old, all the internal wires are brand new, to give a smooth action. We’ve also converted it to running on petrol rather than methanol – we have much better fuel available today than they did back then.”
The crankcases are the original ones, with the main bearings re-sleeved. New pistons, liners, valves, dual valve springs, Mark II Vincent cams, cam followers and oil pump are fitted to the bike. The original parts have all been saved. The original 20″ rear wheel has been replaced by a 19-incher, as 20″ racing tires are no longer available. Now shod with rear Avon GP rubber matched to a front 21″ ribbed Avon Racing tire, the Ehret Vincent tracked well through Carole’s infield section, with good grip delivered exiting both of its hairpin bends, which on most race bikes ask for bottom gear. Not the Lightnings, though, thanks to their reserves of torque and the way they break into a gallop very quickly in second gear once you’ve straightened up.
The ex-Jack Ehret Vincent Black Lightning is more than just an ultra-desirable collector’s item, providing a window on the refined but still raw-edged performance that Philip Vincent’s motorcycles delivered more than 60 years ago. How wonderful that its present owner rides and enjoys it, rather than wrapping it up as the mechanical objet d’art it undoubtedly is.