SpeedisExpensive: The Untold Story of the Vincent Motorcycle

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

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A documentary in pre-production

PITCH

SpeedisExpensive is the inside story of the amazing rise and the dramatic fall of Vincent motorcycles.

Prized by collectors today, the bikes were produced by eccentric visionary Philip Vincent in a modest factory in war-torn 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 by 1955 the firm pulled out of the motorcycle market through a toxic combination of a high-speed crash, poor industrial relations and Philip Vincent’s stubborn refusal to compromise.

The Vincent family’s fortune was spent and Vincent never designed another vehicle which would go into production.

Philip Vincent died in a council flat in West London in 1979, his achievements largely forgotten.

Now, for the first time, the true story behind the world’s most desirable motorcycle can be told.

SpeedisExpensive has secured access to over 20 hours of fully restored period film shot by Vincent himself which has never been seen before.

Years of research has unearthed other long-lost footage, audio interviews and period pictures. 

Contemporary interviews filmed include:

  • First-hand accounts of semi-official, illegal back street racing in 1940s America, to promote Vincents 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 11 men who built and designed the bikes in the 1940s and 50s
  • Friends, family of Philip Vincent and his biographer
  • Artist, Vincent enthusiast and musician Paul Simonon of The Clash 

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Rollie Free setting a new land speed record of 150mph on a Vincent in 1948 (Peter Stackpole/LIFE)

SYNOPSIS

The Vincent family fortune was exhausted in the pursuit of one young man’s dream’

Between 1935 and 1955 a small factory in rural England produced hand-built, complete motorcycles which gained more speed records than any other manufacturer – and cost the equivalent of a year’s wages to buy.

Racers and speed addicts lusted after the firm’s Black Shadow sports model, a 1000cc V-twin, 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 smashing 150 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948 – clad only in his swimming trunks, for reduced wind resistance. Then, on a public road in New Zealand in 1955, Russel Wright upping the motorcycle speed benchmark to 185mph. 

Unofficial speeds of 200mph were recorded.  

 

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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 at high speed left him in a coma for months.

The extent and consequences of Vincent’s injuries have never been fully revealed – until now.   

                   

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Philip Conrad Vincent, filmed in the late 1930s: now he is recognised as a mechanical visionary

According to John Surtees and others at the factory at the time, he was ‘a changed man’. He became a quixotic, autocratic boss, hiring the best in the business only to disregard their advice on a whim.

Key staff resigned in frustration and quarrels with directors, as well as a strike by draughtsmen, disrupted production.

But above all, it was Vincent’s stubborn refusal to compromise on the price or specification of his bikes that led to the end of motorcycle production in 1955.

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.

The family fortune, millions in today’s money, was exhausted in the pursuit of a young man’s dream.

 

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John Surtees tells SpeedisExpensive about life at the Vincent factory, setting records and working with Philip Vincent (Steve Read)

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Now, Philip Vincent is recognised as a visionary.

The company’s suspension innovations have been taken up by major Japanese manufacturers and their revolutionary use of the engine as an integral part of the frame is commonplace.

The Vincent 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. It’ll outrun the F-111 until takeoff.’

 

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‘The most iconic image in motorcycling’ – Rollie Free, stripped  to swimming trunks for reduced wind resistance (Peter Stackpole/LIFE)

Enthusiasts today seize on rumours of a new Vincent motorcycle to be produced. And 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 name Vincent had become the most expensive motorcycle ever sold. 

Philip Vincent – a man who ‘made wonderful motorbikes, but never made any money’ – paid a high price to realise his dreams. 

Was it worth it? 

‘Speed is expensive,’ he would say.  

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From the family archive: Vincent, right, visiting the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1950

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS

 Sometimes an automotive designer just hits a home run’

SpeedisExpensive is the inside story of the Vincent HRD motorcycle company – told by those who were there, who knew Philip Vincent and co-designer, Phil Irving.

The surviving factory veterans tell how, against the odds, the motorcycles – ‘each one built like a Grand Prix machine’ – were designed and produced in a leaky factory with antiquated equipment in a war-ravaged, post-war Britain.

American record-setter Marty Dickerson describes how his semi-official, illegal street racing in 1940s America, including a drag race with the Police, helped make the 1000cc Vincent the most talked-about motorcycle in the USA.   

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Marty Dickerson, centre, talks on camera to SpeedisExpensive about illegal back street racing,  meeting Philip Vincent and setting records

 

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 one 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 and sneakers for reduced wind-resistance, 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.

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On camera: Hans Edwards, factory draughtsman from 1949

UNSEEN 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. 

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Now fully-restored, this priceless archive chronicles Phil 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.

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The footage is supported by hitherto unseen photographs, factory drawings and Vincent’s own five volumes of press cuttings from around the world, plus hours of audio recordings of Vincent and his Australian co-designer, Phil Irving.

Period film, professionally shot for Avon Tyres, shows high-speed testing on public roads in 1947 and the upping of the world land speed record to 185mph in New Zealand in 1955.

Film and advertising footage featuring Vincent motorcycles includes the 1957 BBC feature film of Orwell’s 1984, in which the Thought Police ride the sinister, fully-faired Series D Vincents, through to the opening sequence of Batman Forever and the 2015 Yves Saint Laurent cinema campaign, with a Vincent ridden at the Inyokern Airfield in California.

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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. 

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Montlhéry, Paris 1952: the young John Surtees at 140mph, filmed by Philip Vincent

THE TEAM

The project has been developed, directed and produced by David Lancaster, former BBC Top Gear director and motoring editor of The Times (London), along with National Theatre and West End lighting director Gerry Jenkinson.

The introduction to Paul Simonon’s recent book of his motorcycle-themed paintings, Wot No Bike? was written by Lancaster. Both he and Jenkinson have owned Vincent motorcycles for over 20 years.

Additional photography and editing is by Steve Read: award-winning director-producer of Gary Numan: An Android in La La Land (BBC4 broadcast and general release) and director of photography on BBC4’s flagship series, The Summer of Love: How Hippies Changed the World, broadcast June 2017.

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All content © David Lancaster, 2017

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