What you see: A 1951 Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle, one of 19 with full matching numbers [same numbers on both the frame and the engine]. Bonhams sold it in Las Vegas in January 2018 for $929,000–a record for any motorcycle at auction. (Also, scroll all the way down for news of another Vincent Black Lightning, estimated at $400,000 to $500,000, which Bonhams will offer in early October in Birmingham, Alabama.)
The expert: Ben Walker, international department director for collectors’ motorcycles at Bonhams.
Vincent Black Lightnings are rare–fewer than three dozen exist. How often do they come to auction? Before this, one came up in October 2008, a supercharged example, which was also at Bonhams. [It sold for £221,500, or about $294,149.]
Was that an auction record for a motorcycle? It was an auction record for a Vincent Black Lightning. Not overall.
The lot notes say that when this bike’s first owner offered it for sale for £500 in 1951, the sum would have bought “a couple of nice houses in Sydney at the time.” What did the buyer get for his money? He got the ultimate, the best that money could buy. If you look at the bike, this was based on the Vincent Black Shadow, which was the quickest thing you could buy. It must have been like something out of space. A sedan averaged 45 mph. The bike was capable of 150 mph. It’s phenomenal. The bike had ingenuity, it’s a beautiful object to look at, and it was extremely expensive. He got an incredible luxury product.
What did luxury mean in the context of buying the best motorcycle that 1951 had to offer? Power. Comfort. He got something that had suspension. The majority of bikes that got you to work were two-stroke things, very utilitarian. They were not designed with the ability to cover big distances at great speeds in comfort.
What makes the Vincent Black Lightning a holy grail for motorcycle collectors? Rarity, speed, and the fact that this was the fastest thing you could buy on two wheels. It was a competitive motorcycle, and people want to win. They don’t want to be at the back of the grid–they want to be at the front of the grid. This is a bike you could do that on.
The bike is described as being in “original condition.” Can you point to a specific detail on the bike that shows how original it is? The paint, the paint. I don’t want to see something that’s perfect. I want to see something that has a patina. That look is so exciting when you can find it, and so exciting when you see it. It’s as good as you can possibly get. There are Vincent Black Lightnings, and then there’s this bike. It’s high up purely on the basis of its condition. It’s not messed-with.
So it’s the best of the Vincent Black Lightnings? I have to place the Rollie Free [Vincent Black Shadow] above this. I have to. I know it’s not a Vincent Black Lightning, but it does get bracketed into the Black Lightning numbers. It’s the top of the tree, something extraordinarily special. [Free made his Black Shadow famous when he set an American land speed record on it at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1948. This photo of him attempting the record while dressed in a Speedo-like bathing suit is regarded as the most famous image in all of motorcycling.] That bike sold privately in 2012 to an American collector for $1.2 million. Whether or not the bike is still worth that price or a bit more, I don’t know, but the market has changed dramatically since 2012.
But if we’re talking strictly about unambiguously counted Vincent Black Lightnings, is this one number one? It’s got to be top three. I know of other bikes. I’m fortunate enough to go to a lot of collections and see a lot of motorbikes, a lot of Vincent Black Lightnings. I can’t talk about them without betraying confidences. But this one is definitely up there.
What markings do I see on the side of the tank? It’s the Australian land speed record, which Jack Ehret set on this bike. I don’t think he held it for very long, but he had to make the point about making the Australian land speed record. [Ehret reached 141.5 mph on the motorcycle in January 1953. The inscription on the tank is visible in one of the many shots Bonhams included with the lot. You may have to scroll down to find it.] It’s a really cool little touch. To paint that bike would be sacrilege. It would be taking value off it, because it would take off the notation.
Have you ridden this bike? Sadly not, but if you look online, on YouTube, for “Patrick Godett Vincent,” you can see a video of it being tested. It was ridden pretty extensively in the run-up to the auction.
This bike has had five owners over 66 years. Is that an exceptionally low number of owners, or is that about what you’d expect? Does it matter? Few owners, traceable history–it’s a big benefit. You can have a vehicle with nine or ten or maybe more owners, and that makes tracing things harder. For this one, we have every owner on record up to the point of sale. It’s unusual. Each owner held the bike in high esteem.
It has fewer than 9,000 miles on its odometer. Is that unusual for a 66-year-old elite motorcycle? It’s unusually low, but maybe not for a racing bike. Racing bikes have a shelf life. They’re not really built to last more than two or three seasons, after which they’re not that competitive anymore. They become obsolete. Jack Ehret [its third owner] campaigned it for a long time and got results with it. It is low mileage, but you’re going to have limited use in racing. It’s [the low number is] not that unusual.
What was your role in the January 2018 auction? I wasn’t watching. I was on the phone to the vendor [the consigner], who could not be there. I relayed what was going on. He relayed a lot of expletives to me, but not in a bad way. [Laughs.] I’m not going to imitate a French accent–he said “sacre bleu!” but not “sacre bleu”, it was something else. The auction was quite exciting. I kept my cool. Malcolm Barber [Bonhams’s co-chair and CEO of Bonhams Asia] sold the bike. In the YouTube video, I’m pacing around in the background. [Walker is behind the Bonhams desk to the left of the stage.]
When did you know you had a new world auction record for a motorcycle? Only afterwards. You’re so focused on what’s going on. I was telling the client what was happening with the motorcycle. I was not surprised, to be honest. It deserves to be the record-holder, and it deserves to be beaten. I think there are bikes out there with potential.
What motorcycles are out there that could challenge the record? The Rollie Free Vincent Black Shadow? If it came up at auction, yes, it would, but I don’t think it will come up at auction. Thinking rare bikes again, I think Mike Hailwood’s comeback bike for the 1978 Isle of Man TT. Maybe a Lawrence of Arabia-owned Brough Superior. Two, possibly three of those survive. Steve McQueen adds value–he had some exceptional bikes. An AJS Porcupine from the mid-1950s is a potential world record. Steve McQueen’s Triumph from The Great Escape, if it ever came up. What would be interesting about that is the Triumph was used by a fictional character, versus a bike ridden by Lawrence of Arabia, who was not a fictional character.
On October 6, 2018, Bonhams will offer an early Vincent Black Lightning at an auction scheduled during the Barber Vintage Festival in Birmingham, Alabama.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.