Motoring: The fastest man in swimming trunks

50 years ago Roland Free stripped off to take a motorbike to new heights.

A MOTORCYCLE which looks as though it drinks fire and breathes shrapnel is not the sort of thing one expects to see displayed in an elegant shop window in London's Mayfair. However, a 50th-birthday celebration serves as some excuse.

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.

News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

    £26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

    Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

    £24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

    £22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence