Black Shadow of the Vincent/Falls on a Triumph line
I got my motorcycle jacket/But I’m walking all the time
This is England, The Clash, 1985
A documentary in pre-production
SpeedisExpensive is the inside story of rise and fall of the Vincent motorcycle – and the dramatic human tales behind it.
Prized by collectors today, the bikes were produced by eccentric visionary Philip Vincent in a modest factory in rural England.
Faster than anything on the road, two or four wheeled, they took on the world, and won – gaining more speed records than any other manufacturer.
But in 1955 the firm stunned racers and enthusiasts and pulled out of the motorcycle market. A toxic combination of a high-speed crash, poor industrial relations and Philip Vincent’s stubborn refusal to compromise meant the bikes which bore his name shone brightly, but all too briefly.
The Vincent family’s fortune had been exhausted – and Vincent himself never designed another vehicle which would go into production.
He died in a council flat in West London in 1979, his achievements largely forgotten.
Now, for the first time, the true story behind the the Vincent can be told through eye-witness accounts and unseen archive.
SpeedisExpensive has secured access to over 20 hours of fully restored period film shot by Vincent himself. Years of research has unearthed other long-lost footage, audio and period pictures.
Interviews filmed include:
- First-hand accounts from American record-setter Marty Dickerson on his semi-official, illegal back-street racing in the 1940s, putting the Vincent on the map in the USA
- The late John Surtees – uniquely, world champion on two and four wheels – on his apprenticeship at the factory, setting records and his relationship with Vincent
- The remaining 12 men and women who built and designed the bikes in the 1940s and 50s
- Friends and family of Philip Vincent
- Artist, Vincent enthusiast and musician Paul Simonon of The Clash
THE INSIDE STORY OF THE VINCENT MOTORCYCLE
‘The Vincent family fortune was exhausted – all in the pursuit of one young man’s dream’
Between 1935 and 1955, the small Vincent-HRD firm produced hand-built motorcycles which cost the equivalent of a year’s wages to buy.
Racers and speed addicts lusted after the firm’s Black Shadow: a 1000cc V-twin, which was capable of 125 mph out of the crate in 1948.
Fast, ground-breaking, avant garde, world records soon fell to the factory.
Firstly, American Rollie Free smashed the 150 mph barrier on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948 – clad in swimming trunks, for reduced wind resistance – and then in New Zealand in 1955, Russel Wright upped the motorcycle speed benchmark to 185mph.
Unofficial speeds of 200mph were recorded.
The man behind it all was Philip Conrad Vincent – a mechanical genius, a man in a rush – who walked away from his studies at Cambridge University to build the world’s fastest standard motorcycle.
But just as his machines were beginning to set the world alight, a serious accident testing a Rapide model of his own design left him in a coma for months.
The extent and consequences of his injuries have never been fully revealed – until now.
According to those who knew and worked with him, Vincent was ‘a changed man’ – he became a quixotic, autocratic boss, hiring the best in the business only to disregard their advice on a whim.
A ‘child-like adult’ according to friend and biographer Roy Harper, radical ideas never ceased to flow from Vincent’s restless mind – but he would never again design a vehicle which would go into production.
Now, Philip Vincent is recognised as a visionary.
The Black Shadow, right up until the early 1970s, remained the fastest motorcycle the public could buy. In the words of Hunter S Thompson, it was… ‘Pure hell on the straightaway,’ a bike which could ‘outrun the F-111 until takeoff.’
In 2011, a final record fell to the marque when Rollie Free’s record-setting Black Lightning sold in California for circa $1 million.
A bike bearing the Vincent name had become the most expensive motorcycle ever sold. Philip Vincent – a man who ‘made wonderful motorbikes, but never any money’ – paid a high price to realise his dreams.
His career never recovered. His family’s millions were spent and from the late 1950s until his death in 1979, his ideas were spurned by the car and motorcycle establishments.
Was it worth it? ‘Speed is expensive,’ he would say.
‘Sometimes an automotive designer just hits a home run’
SpeedisExpensive is told by those who were there – who built the bikes, knew Philip Vincent and his co-designer Phil Irving, and saw the struggles and challenges they went through.
The surviving factory veterans tell how, against the odds, the motorcycles were ‘built like Grand Prix machines’ in a leaky factory with antiquated equipment.
American record-setter Marty Dickerson describes how his semi-official, illegal street racing in 1940s America – including a victorious drag race with motorcycle cops – helped make the 1000cc Vincent the most talked-about motorcycle in the USA.
Motor-racing legend John Surtees goes into candid detail about his career as an apprentice at Stevenage; his heroic efforts to help win speed records at Montlhéry – and how his father predicted the early demise of the company after the crash that robbed Vincent of the ability to ride a motorcycle.
Motorcyclist, artist and musician Paul Simonon talks about his love of the bikes – ‘works of art, moving sculpture’ he calls them – and how Joe Strummer came to include them in a Clash song.
And celebrated sculptor Jeff Decker describes the men behind the bikes as ‘geniuses… automotive designers who hit a home-run’ – and lifts the lid on Rollie Free’s amazing world record run in 1948. The picture of Free at 150mph, clad only in swimming trunks, has been called ‘the most iconic image in motorcycling’.
Vincent emerges as a brilliant, smooth-talking evangelist for his ground-breaking motorcycles, but someone whose dreams out-stripped the reality of business at nearly every turn.
UNSEEN FILM ARCHIVE
‘It includes the factory team at the 1935 TT and record-setting visit to the banked Montlhéry circuit in 1952′
The documentary has the full support of the Vincent family, giving access for the first time to some 20 hours of footage shot by Vincent himself in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Now fully-restored, this priceless archive chronicles Vincent’s private life and international travel as well as the factory’s ground-breaking entry to the 1935 TT and record-setting visit to the Montlhéry autodrôme near Paris in 1952.
The footage is supported by unseen photographs, factory drawings and Vincent’s own five volumes of press cuttings from around the world, plus hours of audio recordings.
Period film sourced includes professionally shot high-speed testing on public roads in 1947 and the upping of the world land speed record to 185mph in New Zealand in 1955.
Cinema footage featuring Vincent motorcycles extends from the 1957 BBC feature of Orwell’s 1984, in which the Thought Police ride the sinister, fully-faired Series D models, through to the opening sequence of Batman Forever.
Vincents were known as the ‘Bentley of motorcycles’: fast, expensive, exclusive, lusted after by the cognoscenti at the time, collected by bike-riding celebrities today.
With exclusive footage, interviews and access SpeedisExpensive tells the inside story of these remarkable motorcycles and the remarkable man behind them.
David Lancaster: Director & Co-Producer
David began work on SpeedisExpensive four years ago. Formally the motoring editor of the Times (London) he regularly contributes to the Wheels and Waves and The Vintagent websites..
David wrote the introduction to the 2016 book of Paul Simonon’s motorcycle themed paintings, Wot No Bike? and has contributed to publications The Drive, The Ride 2nd Gear and Paul d’Orleans’ Café Racers. He has been a researcher, director and script-editor for both Channel Four and the BBC, including the automotive series Ride-On and Top Gear.
Steve Read: Director of Photography & Associate Producer
Co-director of Gary Numan: Android in La La Land (BBC4 broadcast and general release 2016) Steve was also director of photography on BBC4’s 2017 flagship two-parter, The Summer of Love: How Hippies Changed the World.
His directorial debut, Channel Four’s Knockout Scousers, was broadcast in 2012. Variety dubbed Android in La La Land a ‘slick music documentary’ – Rolling Stone magazine called it a ‘must see’ film and it gained a 4/5 star rating from the Guardian.
Gerry Jenkinson: Co-Producer
Like David Lancaster, Gerry Jenkinson has been a Vincent owner for over 30 years. His career spans music, video and theatre, the latter as lighting director to Sir Peter Hall and Harold Pinter in London, New York and Moscow.
Gerry has directed several short films of record-setting at the Bonneville Salt Flats, featuring Max Lambky’s twin-engined Vincent and the world’s fastest battery-powered motorcycle, Eva Hakansson’s 270mph KillaJoule.
Mike Nicks: Associate Producer
A former editor of Classic Bike and Classic Racer magazines, Mike has covered MotoGP racing for the Guardian, the Observer and Independent newspapers.
He is the co-author of John Surtees’ autobiography, My Incredible Life on Two and Four Wheels and executive producer of the 2017 documentary John Surtees: One of a Kind, for Yesterday TV, broadcast September 2017.
CONSULTANTS to SpeedisExpensive
The family of Philip Vincent
Vincent’s only daughter, Deirdre, grew up close to her father; firstly in Stevenage and then London, witnessing first-hand the highs and lows of his career. Her former husband, Robin Vincent-Day, is an expert on the marque and assisted Vincent during the 1970s to develop his rotary-engine project.
Their son, Philip Vincent-Day, preserves the archive and heritage of his grandfather and his motorcycles. He is an Associate Producer of SpeedisExpensive.
Dr Andrew Nahum
Andrew is the Principal Curator of Technology at the Science Museum in London and active classic motorcyclist.
He was responsible for the museum’s acclaimed exhibition Inside the Spitfire, and the director the technology for its Making the Modern World exhibition. His books include Issigonis and the Mini and Frank Whittle: Invention of the Jet.
Frenchman Patrick Godet restores Vincents and is the only Fritz Egli-sanctioned builder of the famous Egli-Vincents. His collection of bikes, and immaculate atelier near Rouen, will be used for action and assembly footage for the final filming of SpeedisExpensive.
All content © David Lancaster, 2017