Behind the “Bathing Suit” Picture

Uncovering a historic moment caught on film

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Few motorcycle photographs are as iconic as that of the famous Bonneville “Bathing Suit Picture.” While you have undoubtedly seen this image before, you may not know the story behind it. The scantily clad and debatably crazy rider was a man by the name of Roland “Rollie” Free.

The bike, often thought by many to be a Vincent Black Shadow, was in fact a Black Lightning – the fastest Vincent ever to see production. The Black Lightning was available by custom order from the factory and weighed 100 lbs less than the Shadow while offering 25 more horsepower.

Determined to break the land speed record in the Flying Mile, Free’s first pass hit 148 mph. After breaking the record, Free was still not satisfied and set his next goal – 150 mph. Before his next pass, he noticed that his riding leathers had come apart at the seams from the force of the wind. Realizing that this, along with his helmet and riding boots would create even more drag, he made the historic decision to shed his clothes completely in favor of a bathing suit, cap and tennis shoes. With this increase in aerodynamics, Free topped out at 150.313 mph.

Taken from a speeding car that attempted to run alongside Free and his Black Lightning on the Salt Flats of Utah, the image from Sept. 13, 1948 would document a momentous occasion. Not only did Free break his own record set minutes earlier, but he also created one of the most famous photographs in motorcycling history.

Free was posthumously inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

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  • watcycle

    I wonder if he was attempting to break a record today would they let him were his unique streamlined friction reduceing suit or would they be looking to have him committed either way you have to admire his determination to go faster on what was already recognised as the fastest machine of its day

  • http://www.vincent-motorcycle.com Rapide

    Iconic – yes. But so was the machine – an amazing Vincent Black Lightning – the world’s fastest motorcycle at the time, even in factory trim.