Mystery bike surfaces in New Mexico
Vincent Black Lightning
Years produced: 1948-1954
Claimed power: 70hp @ 5,700rpm
Top speed: 150mph
Engine: 998 OHV air-cooled 50 degree V-twin
Fuel capacity: 3.4gal (15.25ltr)
Price then/now: $1,800 / $150,000
Hollywood would love this story. Two guys bolt a strong box into the floor of a van and fill it with $150,000 in cash. They leave Florida and head west — way west. The pair enters a small, dusty New Mexico adobe home where they lay eyes on their prize; the pieces of a very unique Vincent motorcycle just inside the doorway. But this isn’t Hollywood; it’s reality.
New Hampshire Vincent enthusiast David Dunfey says he’s unearthed the last Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle ever made. And to make the story even more interesting, there is evidence that legendary builder and race tuner Jimmy Hill of Indian motorcycle fame assembled the Black Lightning — on American soil at the old Indian factory in Springfield, Mass. Here’s how the story goes.
Tracking down the last Vincent Black Lightning
David is a well-known Vincent Grey Flash enthusiast. The Grey Flash is a very rare motorcycle (it’s estimated only 31 were built), and to help him keep track of it and other obscure Vincent machines David sat down with the entire library of MPH magazines, the newsletter of the Vincent H.R.D. Owners Club. As he read articles, he made notes on various bikes.
From one article David learned about a man in Boston, Mass., who, years ago, had his Vincent Comet in his storefront window. The Comet lured Frank Russo, a local truck dealer, into the shop. Frank told the Comet owner about a Vincent Black Lightning he once owned. There ensued some debate about whether it was actually a Black Lightning, so to prove he wasn’t telling a tall tale, Frank produced the Certificate of Origin of his Vincent Black Lightning, which showed the machine had been assembled at the Indian factory. Also noted in the MPH article was the bike’s serial number, which, to Vincent aficionados, was an “odd” number. David made a note of this number.
“The reason it was odd was because it was just the upper frame member number,” David says. “There was no engine number on this bike.” Vincents were marked from the factory with three identification numbers; one on the upper frame member, one on the rear frame member and a third on the engine. But this Black Lightning wasn’t from the U.K. Vincent factory; it was from the Indian factory, which assigned its single frame number. This starts to make sense when you learn that Indian, starting in 1948, was a distributor of numerous British brands, including A.J.S., Matchless, Norton, Royal Enfield and, of course, Vincent.
Filling in the blanks
In late 1960, Frank Russo decided he wanted a fast, new motorcycle. He went to the Indian factory to look at a Matchless but was captivated by a Vincent Black Lightning tucked away in a corner.
The story goes that Indian brought in the pieces of the Black Lightning from Vincent some time in 1954 to fulfill a standing order. A substantial $1,000 deposit had been paid on the $1,800 motorcycle. Indian’s race tuner Jimmy Hill assembled the bike, but the buyer never returned to claim the Black Lightning and the motorcycle was kept on the Indian premises. Frank offered $800, and the Vincent was his.
According to David, Frank kept the Vincent for just under a year. The motorcycle was then sold to a mechanic, who moved from Massachusetts to New Mexico and took the Vincent with him. In 1964, the Vincent traded hands one more time, passing to an enthusiast who lived just south of Albuquerque. The Lightning stayed with its new owner until David decided to start playing detective.
In 2007, David got a call about a Vincent in New Mexico that was purported to be a Lightning. The serial number didn’t sound right, but it struck a chord so David checked his detailed notes, where he discovered the bike’s serial number was the one reported in MPH to belong to the Indian Vincent Black Lightning. “I’d kept track of that odd number, hoping the bike would pop up,” David says. “And lo and behold, it popped up.”
The Vincent Black Lightning was essentially a made-to-order motorcycle, designed to race. As such, it was equipped with various go-fast goodies, including rearset foot controls, alloy rims and special lightweight brake backing plates. These machines did not leave the Vincent factory equipped with road-going equipment such as lights or kickstarters. What makes the Lightning special is the 998cc engine, specially assembled with hand-selected racing components, including modified heads with larger intake ports and polished valve rockers, beefier connecting rods, a Lucas racing magneto, Amal TT carburetors and straight-through exhaust pipes. In all, it is thought there were only 30 “real” Black Lightning motorcycles produced.
“Some of the Vincent guys might give you a hard time about the Indian Vincent, saying it’s not a real Lightning because it wasn’t made in the special engine department at the Vincent factory in the U.K.,” David says. “All of the British guys have records of their machines — but this one was made in America, and it has all of the Lightning components.”
Upon hearing about the Lightning for sale in New Mexico, David told friend and fellow Vincent enthusiast Pat Manning about the bike. Pat wanted the bike, so he cashed in some stocks and scraped together the $150,000 cash asking price. To safely carry that much cash from Florida to New Mexico the pair really did bolt a strong box to the floor of David’s 15-passenger Ford van and hit the road.
When they arrived in New Mexico they went to the door of the adobe house where the owner lived. “The bike was apart, and it was stored in the entryway of a four-room house,” David recalls. “There was a kitchen on the left, and a washing machine and Vincent parts on the right.
“I looked and saw the front end and wheel with the Lightning brakes, and the engine was sitting there with the Amal 32mm 10TT9 carbs and the Lucas KVFTT magneto. Anyplace you looked, it was Lightning parts, and you see all these parts and it didn’t happen by mistake — it’s a real Lightning,” David says with conviction.
According to David, the owner had taken the bike apart and was struggling to get it back together: “He had a dream, but realized he just wasn’t going to get there.” The $150,000 was taken from the strong box and handed over, and the Vincent and the parts were loaded in David’s van.
The pair headed back to Pat’s in Florida, where the machine was loosely assembled — just in time for the 2007 North American Vincent rally in Ascutney, Vt. The Indian Vincent Black Lightning had its debut at the gathering, and Frank Russo, the man who owned it all those years ago, was on hand.
“We invited Frank to come to the rally,” David says. “He looked the bike over, took a bunch of pictures, and reminisced about the bike. At the rally, Frank presented Pat with the cancelled check he had given to Indian when he bought the Vincent.”
The Black Lightning is not a runner at present, as Pat is waiting for some new high performance parts such as an 8,000rpm crank and Carillo rods to build up the engine (it currently has the correct Vibrac connecting rods).
Pat’s been riding Vincent motorcycles since he was 17 — and he is now 66. “I want to make the bike bulletproof, and let my friends ride it,” he says. “And of course, I want to snort around on it, too.” Now that will be a Hollywood ending. MC