Motoring: The fastest man in swimming trunks
50 years ago Roland Free stripped off to take a motorbike to new heights.
The rumbustious 1,000cc motorcycle, a Vincent Black Lightning, shone for a week this summer in the shopfront of Louis Vuitton, purveyors of leather goods to the rich and fashionable, before starring in a similar role at the upmarket Hurlingham Club.
The machine now belongs to HS Harris III, a giant but very gentlemanly lawyer, marksman and motorbike rider and restorer from Austin, Texas.
He has made the machine once again presentable, knowing that it has a fair entitlement to a party; just 50 years ago, on 13 September 1948, the Lightning charged across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to prove itself as the world's fastest production motorcycle and the first to exceed 150mph.
The small and always struggling Stevenage factory from which the Lightning came took justified pride in making the world's fastest standard motorcycle.
Every successive post-war Vincent model - the Rapide, the Black Shadow and then the Lightning - had earned the title, and, if such things could be quantified, might also have been declared the world's best-quality and best-detailed motorcycle.
To Roland Free, who bought this first Black Lightning for immediate shipment over to the United States, the speed was attraction enough.
A racer before the war, and a Colonel in the USAF during it, he had returned to two-wheelers with a searing conviction that he ought to be faster than anybody else. He evolved his own riding style, which demanded that once the "bike was in top gear he should stretch himself out prone on the saddle, so as to present the minimum wind resistance".
Back in Stevenage, Mr Vincent himself - urbane Philip C Vincent, more a slide-rule engineer than a businessman - had calculated that the Lightning ought to reach 150mph on the salt, which would make it emphatically the fastest production motorcycle anywhere.
Try as he might to penetrate it, Mr Free (they called him Rollie) kept running into a barrier at l48mph.
Not at all a bad speed: fast, but not memorable. Wondering how he might grease the wind to better purpose, Free thought about the torn leathers he wore, and how they flapped in the wind.
Promptly he stripped: this time he would ride in nothing more than swimming trunks and sneakers. Bystanders shook their heads in anxiety as he set off; they applauded in relief as he returned.
He had done it. He had done 150. The record was won.
So, did he but know it, was 50 years of history.
There are production motorcycles now that can go a lot faster than 150mph, and the Vincent firm has long disappeared, like almost every other element in the British motorcycle industry; but the fastest man in swimming trunks may yet be Roland Free, and the machine he rode is still in good original condition, in good hands and in good health.
Life & Style blogs
Guest post by Richard Sexton, business development director of e.surv chartered surveyors
Plus lateral thinking and living on London's waterways
Other popular areas include Didsbury, Clifton in Bristol, central Cambridge and West Bridgford
- 1 Man and woman arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to murder victim of Woolwich machete attack, named as Drummer Lee Rigby
- 2 'Sickening, deluded and unforgivable': Horrific attack brings terror to London’s streets
- 3 Grace Dent: I’m not sure how these people can avoid being called ‘bigots’. And the more ‘civilised’, the worse they are
- 4 Woolwich murder: They killed, then they performed - these men should be starved of our attention
- 5 Woolwich attack: The EDL will seek to exploit this evil crime for their own evil ends
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Nook is donating eReaders to volunteers at high-need schools and participating in exclusive events throughout the campaign.
Get the latest on The Evening Standard's campaign to get London's children reading.
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.