A new documentary illuminates the tempestuous life of a creative genius behind the legendary Vincent motorcycles, whose designs influenced the development of motorcycles across the world
A number of people have said a number of things about Vincents, but no one captured its visceral appeal as well as Hunter S. Thompson. This is how Thompson describes the Vincent Black Shadow in his batshit crazy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “The fucker’s not much for turning, but it is pure hell on the straightway. It’ll outrun the F-111 until take-off.”
The motorcycles made by the British firm, which began operations in 1928 with the purchase of HRD Motors, have an almost mythical appeal for classic motorcycle enthusiasts.
Vincent pioneered several innovations, including frame designs that would inspire the Japanese several decades later; it was also exceedingly well made, and the company produced a fraction of the output of Triumph or BSA. But the primary purpose of its sinister-looking motorcycles was to go fast, and the company revelled in proving its point repeatedly. It held several world speed records, and way back in the late 1940s, a Vincent Black Shadow, with its 55hp, 998cc V-twin, could do 125mph straight, it is said, out of the crate.
Men have also written songs about Vincents. Sample these lyrics from English singer and guitarist Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning:
Says James, “In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world
Beats a ’52 Vincent and a red-headed girl
Now Nortons and Indians and Greeveses won’t do
They don’t have a soul like a Vincent ’52”
The exploits of the motorcycles, though, obscure the story of the founder of the company, Phillip ‘Phil’ Vincent, who is the subject of David Lancaster’s Speed is Expensive, which premiered in June at the Barnes Film Festival in London. The documentary is narrated by Ewan McGregor and features Vincent owners such as television host and comedian Jay Leno, The Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and the late John Surtees, the only man to have won world championships while racing motorcycles and automobiles.
Born into wealth and educated at Harrow, Vincent’s eponymous firm attracted the best talent of the day — a kind of proto-Google of motorcycling — including the talented Australian engineer Phil Irving and Surtees, who apprenticed with the company. Everyone wanted to work for Vincent, says Lancaster, who inherited a Series B Rapide from his father.
The documentary, enriched by high quality footage of Phil Vincent’s private and professional life, which was provided by his family, burbles along the arc of his tempestuous life and locates him in the context of his time. The acquisition of HRD Motorcycles; the rush of racing at Isle of Man; WW-II; and his single minded pursuit to build, as a line in the film goes, motorcycles “nobody needed and few could afford.” Some of Vincent’s best motorcycles were made between the mid-1940s to the early 1950s, amid a massive post-WW-II government export drive.
“The rationing in Britain was worse during 1946 and 1947 than it was during the war. The government was really struggling. And it’s amazing they built these motorcycles under these circumstances. They planned the post-war motorcycles during the war,” says Lancaster who always pictured this “redolent” scene in which Vincent and Irving are plotting the post-war bikes even as bombs are falling on London. (The Vincent factory was located in Stevenage, about 45km from London.)
Phil Vincent might have made his best bikes after the war, but he never quite learnt how to make money out of them. A series of setbacks in the post-war years, including the dropping of a massive export order to Argentina, strikes at the plant and a high-speed crash suffered by Vincent, triggered the company’s steady decline. “The thing with Vincent is that even when they were doing well, they weren’t making a lot of money,” says Lancaster. “He was not the same man after the crash. Today it would be considered PTSD, but back then it was sort of dust yourself and get on with the job. The very people he depended on started leaving him.”
Vincent, who possessed an electric presence which animates the documentary, turned increasingly withdrawn and less accommodating of dissenting opinions. His one, big final gamble , the fully enclosed 1954 Series D tanked, but it did so because it was ahead of its time. (Large motorcycles today are fully enclosed.)
Vincent Motorcycles stopped production in 1955, but Phil Vincent, whose obsession had severely depleted his family’s fortunes, worked variously as a journalist and designer, but continued sketching away and inventing right until the end of his life in 1979. The motorcycles he made — about 8,000 survive — are still celebrated. In 2018, Bonhams sold a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning for $929,000, making it the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at an auction.
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(Featured Image Credits: John Edgar Photo)