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Auction house Bonhams is busy getting ready for the 2019 Las Vegas motorcycle auctions. Bonhams’ one-day auction takes place on Thursday, Jan. 24, at the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino.
Highlighting Bonhams’ Thursday auction is the second-ever Vincent Black Lightning. One of the most important Vincents ever offered for sale, it’s expected to hammer for as much as $500,000.
1949 Vincent 998cc Black Lightning Series-B
Frame no. RC3548
Engine no. F10AB/1C/x1648
Crankcase mating no. O 100• Delivered new to Switzerland
• Raced in period by first owner, Hans Stärkle
• Matching numbers
• Never accident damaged
• Restored between 2000 and 2005
• Paraded extensively at historic motorcycling events
Rollie Free’s capture of the ‘world’s fastest production motorcycle’ record in 1948 on a tuned Series-B Black Shadow led directly to Vincent marketing a racer of similar specification to Free’s machine: the Series-C Black Lightning.
His motorcycles’ design innovation and engineering excellence notwithstanding, Philip Vincent well understood that it was performance that grabbed the headlines and stimulated sales. Season-long racing was prohibitively expensive but a one-off speed record attempt was more affordable, and the latter was the obvious choice for cash-strapped Vincent, all the more so because it was already producing the world’s fastest production motorcycle: the Black Shadow.
The most famous and spectacular Vincent record attempt is that undertaken by Free, who rode journalist John Edgar’s special factory-prepared Black Shadow to a speed of over 150mph on the Bonneville salt flats in Utah in 1948, the first time that an un-supercharged motorcycle had surpassed that figure. The photograph of Free, lying prone on the Vincent wearing only swimming trunks and running shoes, is one of motorcycling’s most reproduced images.
To enable Free to reach 150mph, the power of the Shadow engine (‘1B/900’) had been boosted from 55 to around 70bhp by means of – amongst other things – a raised compression ratio, Mark II (Lightning) cams, Amal TT carburettors, and 2″-diameter, straight-through exhaust pipes, all of which found their way on to the production Black Lightning. First exhibited at the 1948 Earls Court Show, the Lightning came equipped for racing with rev counter, alloy wheel rims, Elektron (magnesium alloy) brake plates, and a gearbox modified for quicker changes. For many years it had been assumed that around 20 examples of this, the ultimate Vincent v-twin, had been built between 1948 and the end of production in 1955, though more recent research has established that the total was a little over 30, while a further half-dozen-or-so engines were supplied for use in racing cars.
This Vincent Black Lightning – frame number ‘RC3548’, engine number ‘F10AB/1C/1648’ – was completed in January 1949. The accompanying copy order form shows that this machine was built with ‘HRD Brampton ’46 pattern forks’, Amal TT10 racing carburettors, alloy brake plates, Dural mudguards, ‘long s/car’ handlebars, ‘3 frame springs s/c’, gearbox with intermediate ratios, and 21″ front/20″ rear wheels. ‘Show finish as far as possible’ was specified. To accommodate the 20″ rear wheel and racing tyre, the longer of the two available rear frames was standardised on the Black Lightning. The Earls Court machine and ‘RC3548’ (the second Black Lightning) have rear frames with a single brake abutment; all subsequent examples have two abutments. In a letter on file, former Vincent employee Jack Lazenby, who was one of the select band charged with Black Lightning assembly, says that he cannot recall any numbers being stamped on the rear frame, and the one fitted to ‘RC3548’ is blank.
‘RC3548’ was tested by Vincent’s famous works rider and Chief Tester, George Brown, prior to delivery. It had been ordered during the Earls Court Motorcycle Show in October 1948 where the first Black Lightning was displayed on the Vincent Stand, and is the second of its kind to be sold. The Black Lightning had been ordered by Vincent’s agency in Switzerland, Kämpfen & Hieronimy of Zurich for their customer, Mr Hans Stärkle, a rider for the NSU works team in pre-war days, who had already won three European Championships for NSU. Back then, this was the nearest you could get to being a World Champion, as that series was not inaugurated by the FIM until 1949.
Hans Stärkle raced ‘RC3548’ in the ‘Unlimited Class’ with a sidecar attached (see documents and photographs on file). It was Stärkle that fitted the Series-C Girdraulic forks, a much more robust design better suited to the stresses of sidecar racing than the original Brampton girder type. He confirmed to the present owner that he never had an accident on the Black Lightning, which was sold in May 1952 to a Mr Amrein of Basel, Switzerland, its second owner.
Mr Amrein rode the racing Lightning to the works at Stevenage to have it converted for road use, obtaining lights, silencer, pillion seat, footrests, etc (photograph on file). He sold the Vincent to its third owner, a Mr Duffner of Weil am Rhein, Germany, in 1955. In an article in Germany’s then only motorcycling journal, ‘Das Motorrad’ (February 1955), ‘RC3548’ was extensively featured, and the name of the city was changed to ‘Vincent Stadt Weil am Rhein’ (copy on file). Even today, this article is remembered by Germany’s older motorcyclists.
In 1961, the Black Lightning was sold to its fourth owner, a Mr Kuttler, also from Weil am Rhein. After encountering engine trouble, Mr Kuttler took the engine apart but never completed the repair, and in 1968 sold the machine to its present (fifth) owner, Ernst Hegeler. Ernst rebuilt the Vincent and had it road-registered in 1971. From then onwards, until 1999, he covered approximately 30,000 accident-free miles on long-distance trips all across Europe.
By 2000, Ernst Hegeler had decided to return the Black Lightning to former glory and original racing specification. This project was completed by 2004, and ‘RC3548’ returned to the racetrack in 2005 at Schleiz. Ernst Hegeler and a few close friends rode the Black Lightning exclusively on non-competitive demonstration runs, with no accidents or technical failures whatsoever, until 2017 at Lorsch where Ernst decided to call it a day.
Between 2005 and 2017, ‘RC3548’ was ridden at German tracks such as Hockenheim, Schottenring, Hamburg Stadtpark, Lorsch, Itzehoe Airfield, Kassel-Calden Airfield, Solitude, and St Wendel; at the Ilmenau hill climb and Schwanenstrat in Austria; and at Varano in Italy and Dijon in France. Photographs of the Vincent participating in these events, together with programmes, badges, machine numbers, documents, etc, may be found in the extensive history file.
Some deviations from factory specification have been made to make the Vincent more practical to use. These include newly manufactured cylinder heads with equal-length inlet tracts (as fitted to all Black Lightnings after the first two built); Erich Kruse MkII cams; a three-spring Norton-type dry clutch, which delivers quicker gear changes (necessary for circuit racing) than the original centrifugal design; 19″ flanged alloy wheel rims (for modern racing tyres); modern replica cast brake anchor plates; a kick-starter (for convenience); and electronic ignition, powered by a small modern 12-volt battery. Electronic ignition makes the engine much easier to start and smoother running when compared with the less reliable manual racing magneto, while the kick-starter means that the rider is able to start the machine even if a paddock starter is unavailable. The minimal increase in weight makes no difference to performance.
Bing 32mm carburettors are fitted currently (for smoother running over a wider rev range) while a pair of racing-type Amal TT10s (made by Erich Kruse) is included in the sale. Also offered with the machine are the original cylinder heads (rebuilt); original Vincent clutch (complete and in good condition); an original magnesium-bodied Lucas competition magneto (like new); original Smiths 5″ speedometer; original Brampton girder forks; original 20″ and 21″ wheel rims; new-old-stock tyres; and the original magnesium brake anchor plates (for museum use only). Should the fortunate next owner wish to reinstate all the original parts, which are in ‘like new’ condition, they would have what is probably one of the most original Black Lightnings still in existence.
Now, after 50 years of enjoyable ownership, Ernst has decided to pass this magnificent machine, which is still in pristine running condition, to the fortunate next owner. None of the Black Lightning’s owners, except Ernst Hegeler, is still alive, but Ernst is the one responsible for returning ‘RC3548’ to its present beautiful condition. He has offered to pass on any advice required by the next owner should the latter so desire.
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