Monday, August 08, 2016


Blackie Bernal on his reverse-head Triumph Thunderbird, which averaged 144mph at Bonneville in 1952.  Blackie is wearing long underwear, hi-top tennis shoes, gloves, a helmet, and nothing else!
I purchased a 1952 copy of Cycle magazine at the flea market last weekend, which included a tremendous cover photograph of Blackie Bernal's Triumph Thunderbird record-breaker, ready to be foot-shoved off the starting line at the Bonneville Salt Flats.  The pusher's foot sneaks into the photo, but most dramatically, Blackie is wearing nothing that might be called safety equipment, barring a 1930s era 'pudding basin' helmet.  As Rollie Free proved in his 1950 Vincent 150mph 'bathing suit' speed record, less clothing means less drag, and no doubt less heat under the Utah sun.  While the Salt Flats sit at 4200', and temperatures are rarely above 90degrees, the blinding white salt and utter lack of shade on the dry lake bed can be punishing.
Note the large intake funnels - free supercharging?  Also note the significant ding in the tank - that was courtesy Tommy Smith, which led to skin grafts.
Blackie Bernal is best known for his use of a 'reverse head' on his Triumph, with the carburetors facing forwards, presumably in the interest of free 'supercharging' of the incoming fuel/air mix.  To this end, he fitted huge metal funnels to his carbs to focus the incoming wind, which presumably included a measure of salt spray as well! He ran and re-ran the black-line course for a full 8 days to reach his goal. While the engineering philosophy behind his work is questionable, there's no doubt his machine was very fast; he averaged 144.338mph over two runs, giving him the 40 cubic" Class A American speed record.
Blackie Bernal being 'footed' by another rider to start his Triumph Thunderbird, at the starter's scaffold.
That speed was purchased at the expense of a considerable swath of skin from Bernal's rider, Tommy Smith of Turlock, CA.  He'd come off at over 140mph, and according to Cycle, "had a spellbinding spill. When he had finally stopped grinding bodily across the salt, Tommy arose and waved to the crowd that he was all right, before sinking back to the ground."  Racing on the salt was then suspended for 4 hours, while the ambulance was away with Smith, who required several skin grafts.  One shudders to think of a near-naked bodysurf across the surprisingly rough surface of the salt flats - rubbing salt into the wound indeed!
Doing the 'Rollie Free' aboard a supercharged H-D Panhead; Jack Dale running Bus Schaller's machine, which didn't set a record...
The fastest time of the meet in 1952 according to the organizers the Southern California Timing Association (then only 3 years old!) was 168mph, achieved by the 80 cubic" Harley-Davidson Knucklehead of CB Clausen and Bud Hood.   The Knuck had no fairing and no supercharger, but probably ran special fuel - a respectable speed in any era!

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André Smit said...

Imagine all the salt being sucked in, would it improve the flame front and was this Bernal's secret weapon?
Great pictures!

Jon Dudley said...

Whilst the image and achievements of Rollie are indelibly etched on my memory, this performance by a much smaller capacity 'Trumpet' is sensational! Thanks for reminding us Paul.

Max Paganetti said...

Love seeing vintage pictures such as these ones, thanks for the share!

Rent a car Bucuresti said...

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Krazedkrs said...

I have a stack of cycle magazines unopened . ....I've been concidering putting the whole case on eBay or Amazon, but I just don't have the time . I have a list labeled by mo. & year. Ive been holding onto them mostly because these are such a gem!! I'd rather do business with fellow enthusiasts , and I appreciate your article featuring cycle magazine. please let me know if you're interested. Thank you

Stewart Graham said...

Very cool. I have actually done quite a bit of study on The "Brute". in 1952 I believe it was running 30% nitro. Were there any pictures of The "Brute" in that issue?

Krazedkrs said...

I'll see if I have that issue available for viewing . Most of them are
still in plastic. Do u recall the month ?