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Stories about slightly odd iconoclasts make for great documentary fodder and that is true of Philip Vincent — the iconic bike designer and manufacturer behind Vincent Motorcycles — the subject of new documentary Speed Is Expensive.
Born into wealth (his mother travelled by boat from Argentina to the UK when she was pregnant so he would be born in England before returning straight home), Vincent was creating and manufacturing motorbikes by the age of 19. But by the time he died in 1979, he was penniless and living in council housing in West London.
Fascinated by the story – and fuelled by the record-breaking sale of a Vincent Black Lightning in 2018 – writer/director David Lancaster decided to explore the designer’s life in documentary Speed is Expensive.
Narrated by well-known bike nerd Ewan McGregor, what makes Speed is Expensive different is the incredible access to a trove of movies shot by the subject himself, as well as a raft of cassette recordings of him that had barely been heard before.
“I knew the family had a lot of films made by Philip Vincent,” Lancaster tells Yahoo. “He had this very expensive Bolex camera that he was filming on, from the Thirties onwards.
"It gave us this very rich flavour of the times. I sort of badgered [the Vincent Family to use them]. They were in a storage facility in Sheffield.”
The audio came from interviews Vincent had done with an author for a book.
Watch a trailer for Speed Is Expensive
“That was quite something for the Vincent family because Dee his daughter had never heard them,” says Lancaster.
“[Dee had] never heard Philip Vincent speak [since his passing in 1979]. And his grandson Phil had never met him.
"It became a family detective story as well as a motorcycle story.”
Alongside people who worked with Vincent, several of whom have died since the film was completed, Lancaster spoke to celebrity fans such as Jay Leno and The Clash’s Paul Simonon, the latter of whom describes the bikes as “moving sculpture”.
A portrait of a unique man emerges — arrogant, brilliant, stubborn — and some of those attributes might well be due to a story that emerged during filming.
“He had this [bike] accident and it wasn’t evident from many of the books and articles just how badly he’d suffered from that,” explains Lancaster. “He was in a coma – people’s recollections varied, but it was certainly a number of weeks. He was a changed man.”
He was also someone who seems to have understood that his work might take some years to be recognised.
“They had this wonderful golden period from the late Thirties to the late Forties and then it was really crisis management,” says Lancaster. “He did everything differently from the way the bikes were designed and built. [The factory in] Stevenage is not Birmingham.
[Vincent Motorcycles are] revered, they’re beautiful to look at, you can see why they never made money. They’re complicated, they’re different.David Lancaster
"He’s like Bugatti – he saw a different solution to an engineering problem. They wanted it to look great and go fast and work. What it cost [to make] seemed to be secondary!”
Vincent had been obsessed by bikes since a mechanic came to fix his father’s Model T Ford on an Indian motorcycle. But by the end of life, he was likely somewhat frustrated.
“Why weren’t his talents harnessed by Honda or Triumph? The bikes did become a bit old-fashioned and the others caught up,” says Lancaster.
“I think he was never going to sit on a board – that was anathema to him. He did build some railway crossings and things like that, but after the bikes were discontinued in 1955, nothing of his was put into production.”
Still, his name continues to live on.
“I thought this was amazing – Philip Vincent ended his life in poverty, in council housing and thirty years later, a motorbike with his name on broke all the records again,” laughs Lancaster.
“The one that sold for over a million dollars broke and set the Southern Hemisphere record. In the early Fifties, it became the fastest vehicle in Australia and New Zealand. It was a Black Lightning, which is their race machine, though some of them did ride on the roads.
“For people who own the bikes now, you’ve got this quite pure expression of geniuses’ work.”