Rollie Free Record Breaker

Rollie Free: Record Breaker

Rollie Free during his record run
Rollie Free during his record run

On a cool Monday morning on Sept. 13, 1948, Rollie Free lifted from Harley Davidson the US national motorcycle speed record by riding the first Vincent HRD Black Lightning racing motorcycle to a speed of 150.313 m.p.h. When Rollie's leathers tore from early runs at 147 mph, he discarded them and made a final, heroic attempt without jacket, pants, gloves, boots or helmet. Aboard the motorcycle owned by the California sportsman, John Edgar, this final run resulted in the most famous photograph in motorcycling, the "bathing suit bike" shot taken from a speeding car on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Rollie lay flat out on the motorcycle wearing only a speedo bathing suit, shower cap and a pair of borrowed sneakers. The AMA certified Free's record. The Lightning remained in California and was raced as well as seeing duty on the street until it's owners moved to Michigan in the 1960's. Out of sight for decades, the bike has re-emerged recently in the hands of it's new owner in Texas. Special features included the first-ever Vincent use of a rear shock absorber, the first Mk II racing cams and horizontally mounted racing carbs still in place today on the Lightning. Seldom has a racing bike survived virtually intact for almost 50 years.

The JOHN EDGAR/ROLLIE FREE "Bathing Suit" bike has just returned to Texas from a trip to California for the photography in an upcoming story in CYCLE WORLD magazine. Since the Vincent HRD works named it's racing model in honor of this particular motorcycle, the handful of subsequent Black Lightnings built have set racing records around the world and built the legend that is Vincent's alone as the fastest motorcycle of it's time. No wonder that the JOHN EDGAR/ROLLIE FREE Black Lightning has been named as the most famous motorcycle in the world.

text by Herb Harris