Rollie Free and the Bathing Suit Bike

The Vincent legend started here

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    Rollie Free's Vincent Black Shadow Bathing Suit Bike today.
    Photo by Phillip Tooth
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    The most famous motorcycle photo of all time: Rollie Free stretched out on the Bathing Suit Bike, Bonneville Salt Flats, Sept. 13, 1948.
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    Owner Herb Harris of Harris Vincent Gallery with the Bathing Suit Bike, the pride of his collection.
    Photo by Phillip Tooth

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It is just before 8 a.m. on the morning of Monday, September 13, 1948. Rollie Free lays stretched out on a stripped-down Vincent Black Shadow wearing nothing more than a bathing suit, a pudding-bowl helmet and slip-on beach shoes as he streaks across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

He is on his way to an astonishing 150.313mph two-way average, and about to head into the record books as the man who blitzed the American absolute motorcycle speed record. A photographer leans out of the window of a car tracking the Vincent at the start of the run and captures Rollie in one of the most iconic motorcycle images of all time.

Beginnings of the Bathing Suit Bike

The story of the Bathing Suit Bike had started months earlier when Philip Vincent was touring America and meeting his dealers. While at V.L. “Mickey” Martin’s shop in Burbank, Calif., he was introduced to John Edgar, a well known West Coast journalist and sportsman with a liking for fast motorcycles. Edgar appreciated that the Black Shadow had the potential to take the American speed record from Harley-Davidson and rider Smokin’ Joe Petrali. The record had stood at 136.183mph for 11 years, but a Black Shadow had been clocked by Cycle magazine at an astonishing 128mph, complete with Burgess silencer and lights. If he could get a specially tuned Shadow, Edgar could be riding the fastest motorcycle in America.

Vincent explained to Edgar that his factory test rider and racer George Brown, along with chief engineer Phil Irving, had already improved on the stock Black Shadow. Brown’s racer, Gunga Din, now sported Amal 10TT racing carburetors with 32mm chokes, bigger inlet ports, racing high-lift cams (soon named the MkII cam) and straight-through exhaust pipes that ran past the rear wheel spindle. George had been clocked at more than 135mph at a race meeting at Dunholme Lodge, an old RAF base in Lincolnshire. He could have gone faster, but the track was too short. Edgar replied that there would be no such problem on the Salt Flats.

For the rest of the story, featuring large full-color photos of the Bathing Suit Bike, purchase the November/December 2010 issue of Motorcycle Classics. Order it by contacting Customer Care at (800) 880-7567 or by email.

Jewel Hendricks
9/11/2012 10:40:27 PM

Rollie used to visit my shop in Van Nuys Cal back in the 70s. I have a signed photo to me of his swim suit run at Bonnieville. My favorite story was in his days as a boardtrack racer. I seems he didnt have leather pants at the time and after crashing had to go to the hospital and have splinters removed from his backside. I cant imagine what it would have been like to crash on the salt wearing only a swim suit! Jewel Hendricks

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