Burns & Wright Vincent Black Lightning


Date Location Driver Driver Country Vehicle Power Speed over
1 Km
Speed over
1 Mile
2 Jul 1955 Swannanoa, New Zealand Russell Wright New Zealand Vincent Black Lightning IC   185.15  

It was with the introduction in 1948 of the fully race-prepared Vincent Black Lightning that Vincent produced the most legendary motorcycle of its time. The Black Lightning was advertised as The World's Fastest Standard Motorcycle - This is a fact, not a slogan! - a claim it could have made right up until the release of the 900 cc Kawasaki Z1, 20 years later in 1972. (This same claim had been made in advertising before, for the earlier fastest Vincents)

Around 32 Vincent Black Lightnings were built during 1949-52. They were available on special order, selling for $1,500.

The Black Lightning had magnesium alloy brake backing plates, racing tires on lightweight alloy rims, rear-set pegs, a solo racing seat and aluminum fenders. All these helped trim the Lightning's weight to 380 lb. (The Black Shadow was 458 lb)

The Black Lightning had higher lift cams, stronger connecting rods, bigger inlet ports, polished rocker gear, steel idler gears, racing carburetors, a manual-advance magneto and could be ordered with compression ratios from 6.8:1 to 12.5:1. The engine was rated at 70 hp (52 kW), and was said to propel the Black Lightning to 150 mph.

The proof of the advertisement's claim came in 1948, when an Indian Motorcycle dealer, Rollie Free, riding the very first Vincent-HRD Black Lightning built, raised the motorcycle speed record to 150.313 mph (241.905 km/h) on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Initially wearing full leathers, he could only achieve 147 mph (237 km/h), and his leathers had been flapping so violently at that speed as to tear. He removed his riding apparel, and wearing a bathing cap, speedos, and a pair of sneakers, set out for another attempt, and set the new record. A fast car with photographer aboard followed, and took the famous "bathing suit bike" picture.


Russell Wright set a 1954 New Zealand speed record of 140 mph (230 km/h) on a Black Lightning at the Tram Road Speed Trials. At the meeting he met Rapide owner Robert "Bob" Burns who had built a streamliner shell for a sidecar record attempt. They formed a partnership for Bob to supply a streamliner shell for Russell's solo world record attempt, if Russell let him use the Black Lightning for his sidecar world record attempt. In December 1954 Bob Burns went first and set a new F.I.M. World Sidecar record of 157 mph (253 km/h), up from 154 mph (248 km/h). On the 2nd of July 1955, Russell Wright set a new F.I.M. world speed record of 185 mph (298 km/h) on the Tram Road at Swannanoa, near Christchurch, while Bob Burns upped his sidecar record to 163.06 mph.

Despite successful record attempts, other publicity relating to problems with the gearbox selector camplate damped America's buying enthusiasm. A new shifting mechanism was incorporated for 1953, but the sales damage had already been done.

The English folk Musician Richard Thompson wrote a song called "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" about this motorcycle on the album Rumor and Sigh.

1956 Attempt

This is Bob Burns and Russell Wright in 1956. Burns and Wright made the trip in an effort to retake the world land spped record for motorcycles. In 1954 Burns and Wright had taken the record to 185MPH only to see the German factory team of NSW go to 210 MPH one year later. Unfortunately Burns and Wright's Bonneville trip ended in disappointment with their best run being 198MPH. Later Burns would learn that they had been too conserative by limiting their nitro mix to 20%.

It happens that some still footage of the Burns & Wright machine at Bonneville in '56 appears in a Videotape entitled "The Hot Rod Story", produced by Alex Xydias of So Cal Speed Shop fame, and still available from Alex at P.O. Box 11316, Burbank, CA 91510. Just a short bit of the bike standing in the pit area, no info is given. The person on the camera may well not have known he was looking at the Official World Record bike.


Burns & Wright Bonneville 1956
Source: Big Sid
Burns & Wright Bonneville 1956
Source: Big Sid

The Black Lightning today

"The star of a private collection is the Burns & Wright Vincent Black Lightning that Russell Wright rode to a world land speed record in New Zealand in 1955 at 185.15mph. They then took the bike to Bonneville in 1956 and it was left pretty much untouched after it was pulled off the salt - it even still has the same tyres."

This is it . In a private collection somewhere... I guess in the United States?

"He was over here a few years ago and was reunited with his bike.That is the Sterling Silver Trophy that NZ gave them for setting the record. They raced at the Salt Flats and then they were broke and sold the bike to the then US Distributor, Harry Bellville.The fairing was loaned out and lost."

Source: The Jockey Journal

The 1955 World Speed Record Trophy presented by the government of New Zealand

Vincent Black Lightning Land Speed Record New Zealand/Pendine Russell Wright - Avon Tyres Nostalgia

Uploaded on Feb 22, 2011 Russel Wright and Bob Burns on a Vincent Black Lightning setting a Motorcycle Land Speed record in 1955 in Swannanoa New Zealand; both the solo and the chair record. Then Vic Willoughby taking the outfit for a run on Pendine Sands. Remember this record was set in 1955 on a near standard Vincent which achieved 185mph. We're not going much faster now....


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