Sep 17, 2023

'Speed Is Expensive' full of high

What is the motorcycle that inspired guitar troubadour Richard Thompson to write a song? It was a Vincent Black Lightning. What motorcycle sold in 2018 for almost $1 million at Bonhams Auction House? A Vincent Black Lightning. Philip Vincent, 1928-1955-era creator of the Vincent Black Shadow and its heir the Lightning once said, “My motorcycles will stand the test of time.”

A graduate of England’s posh Harrow School in London and a student of engineering at King’s College Cambridge, Vincent left university before getting his degree because he didn’t want to attend lectures about out-of-date techniques. Vincent, who drew motorcycles obsessively and apparently knew what was both on the outside and the inside, wanted to build a motorcycle unlike any before it.

With 450 pounds sterling earned from the sale of a family ranch in Argentina, Vincent bought a factory in Stevenage, 27 miles north of London, where technicians and engineers built unique motorcycles.

Narrated by motorcycle collector, long-distance rider and screen Obi Wan-Kenobi Ewan McGregor, “Speed Is Expensive: Philip Vincent and the Million Dollar Motorcycle” takes a close look at Vincent, his obsessions, colleagues, family and creditors. In 1935, Vincent, along with “the McCartney to his Lennon” Lee Irving, introduced the single-cylinder Meteor, a predecessor of the V-twin Vincent Black Shadow and Lightning. Vincent motorcycles had rear suspensions when most motorcycle still had primitive, rigid rear “hard tail” ends. Jay Leno waxes rhapsodic on the subject of his Vincents. They were lighter than other motorcycles with similarly-sized engines and power; they were also narrow. Because of their low center of gravity, they handled remarkably well. In order to reduce “drag,” a driver named Roland Free stripped off his leathers and rode lying flat on top of a Vincent into the world speed records in 1948 at the Bonneville Salt Flats (150.313 mph). The picture of Free on the Vincent in nothing except his swimsuit bottoms, slippers and wife’s shower cap is famous.

But Vincent, a bachelor having a long-term affair with his secretary, had problems. His motorcycles cost more to make than their competitors and were expensive. After World War II, buyers all over the world wanted cheaper, less complicated and hard to maintain motorcycles to get them to work.

A Vincent had the reputation of a “gentleman’s motorcycle.” Lawrence of Arabia might have owned a Vincent Black Shadow (and died riding it). But increasingly, “gentlemen” wanted four wheels. Motorcycles were the purview of the “ton-up boys” i.e., young people with a need for speed.

The funny thing was: Vincents were being “tuned” by expert mechanics and racers to go faster than ever. Vincent’s decision to take a chance and enclose his “moving sculptures” in fairings and cowls backfired. One observer calls them, “An old man’s wheelchair.” The company eventually was shut down. Vincent, his hard-working wife and daughter moved into a council flat in London. Used Vincents begin selling for peanuts in the 1950s and ’60s. But something strange began to happen. Connoisseurs began hoarding Vincents. Prices began to rise and have never stop doing so.

Directed by David Lancaster, making his debut, “Speed Is Expensive” makes certain that we hear that expression repeated at regular intervals. Lancaster makes good use of his archival material. I’m afraid that too many of his living interview subjects are septuagenarians at best. Where is the new generation of Vincent enthusiasts? James Dickey (“Deliverance”) once wrote a poem with a motorcycle in it that ends with the lines, “Wringing the handlebar for speed/ Wild to be wreckage forever.” Ride on.

(“Speed Is Expensive: Philip Vincent and the Million Dollar Motorcycle” contains nothing objectionable, except that obscenely expensive motorcycle)

Not Rated. On digital and DVD. Grade: B+