Director David Lancaster opens up on Speed ââis Dear, a film about Phil Vincent, the flawed genius behind Vincent Motorcycles.
Posted Jul 31, 2022 10:00:00 AM
In 2018, Bonhams sold a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning for $929,000, making it the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction. Setting records is a very Vincent thing, and so are inspiring superlatives. The Black Lightning, a racing version of the Vincent Black Shadow, the very first “superbike”, was the world’s fastest production motorcycle in the post-war years. In 1948, American motorcycle racer Rollie Free reached an average speed of 150.313 mph (241.905 km/h); two years later he would return to erase his own record, hitting an average speed of 150.58 mph (242.335 km/h). In 1956, in New Zealand, a Vincent set a new speed record at 186 mph (299.338 km/h).
Rollie Free stretched out on a factory-tuned Vincent Black Shadow at the Bonneville Salt Flats, en route to a record 150 mph. Courtesy of William Edgar Archives
Vincent Motorcycles advertisements in the early 1950s proclaimed: “The fastest standard motorcycle in the world”. This is a fact, not a slogan. Vincent may have made some big-bore, high-performance bikes, but they weren’t all about speed. The motorcycles were also built to exacting standards, using materials such as magnesium alloy; Vincent’s innovations included cantilever rear suspension (an early version of the monoshock) and the frameless construction of the post-war B-series Rapide, which inspired engineers such as John Britten a half – century later.
Compared to Triumph and BSA, the company produced very few bikes per year, but they cost twice as much as products from other British motorcycle manufacturers.
If you are an enthusiast, especially a lover of classic motorcycles, you probably know all about its history which began with the takeover of HRD Motors in 1928 and ended in 1955. But what about Philip Vincent , the engine of motorcycles? In âSpeed ââis Expensive,â which premiered at the Barnes Film Festival in June, David Lancaster takes an unbending look at a wayward and headstrong engineering genius who was born into wealth and educated in Harrow and made, as the movie says, “Motorcycles no one needed and few could afford.”
The documentary is narrated by Ewan McGregor and features Vincent’s owners such as TV host and comedian Jay Leno, The Clash bassist Paul Simonon and John Surtees, a former apprentice to Vincent and the only man to win championships. of the world by piloting motorcycles and automobiles.
David Lancaster with Phil Vincent’s grandson, Philip Vincent-Day, and Jay Leno
Here, Lancaster, who teaches journalism at the University of Westminster, talks to Autocar India about making the film and gets to know Phil Vincent better.
When did Vincents come to dominate your life?
Probably soon enough. My dad owned a Vincent Series B Rapide, which is the bike I own now, and so did my parents, several trips to Europe. The Vincents weren’t worth that much money or super specials in the 1970s; they were just old fast motorcycles, but just motorcycles.
What did directing a film about the life of Phil Vincent teach you about him? What kind of man was he?
He was â I came across this phrase a few years ago â an âentrepreneur emperorâ. Due to his fairly wealthy background, he was able to purchase the rights to HRD. He was making motorcycles when he was 19 and he never really worked for anyone else. He went to Harrow and had this incredible self-confidence and determination to develop his own ideas. If you look at a Vincent, you know he’s built very differently. Vincent and his design partner Phil Irving created motorcycles without worrying about what would cost money and where they would make money. It was completely different from BSA and Triumph, for example, which had this hierarchical structure, with a board of directors and all that. But after his accident in 1947, he was a changed man. John Surtees says today it would be called post-traumatic stress disorder, but back then it was kind of dusting off and getting on with the job. He was also a bit of a player. He bet his family’s money on bicycle development in the 1930s and again bet significantly on the fully enclosed D-series, which was a resounding flop. The irony is that most big bikes today are fully enclosed. He was way ahead of his time. The trajectory of his life after 1955 has been said enough. He never designed another vehicle that would go into production. But he always had ideas. He had the idea of ââmaking a rotary engine from ceramic materials and he built a prototype. He knew emissions from standard piston engines would be a problem and saw rotary as the way to go. In a way, Vincent, the company, was a lot like Bentley. When Warrant Officer Bentley was in charge, they weren’t distracted by making money. They just wanted to build nice cars.
It attracted top talent. Was he a charismatic man?
He clearly had the ability to inspire people. Vincent never paid the highest salaries, but people wanted to work there because it was an interesting bike to produce. It was not a BSA Bantam. John Surtees worked with the likes of Enzo Ferrari and Soichiro Honda, and he put Phil Vincent among those men. He may not have had the impact like Ferrari or Honda, but what he did was completely different.
Follow @speed_is_expensive on Instagram for updates on the documentary’s release.
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