In 2018, an Australian collector paid $1.2 million at auction to own a Vincent Black Lightning motorbike, making it the most expensive motorcycle ever sold. Yet the company that once manufactured it no longer exists, and its inventor died in poverty. What happened?
Speed Is Expensive: Philip Vincent and the Million Dollar Motorcycle, a documentary directed by David Lancaster and narrated by motorcycle enthusiast Ewan McGregor, explores that question, delving deep into the history of not only Philip Vincent, but also motorcycle culture across the ages. The past comes to life through extensive photographs, video footage, and newspaper and magazine scans from the early and mid 20th century, when the Vincent motorcycle had its heyday. And, through a decades-old audio interview, we hear from Vincent himself. Sincere and enthusiastic interviews with Vincent’s family, friends, and former employees add layers of emotion and nostalgia for a bygone era.
The film begins with a portrait of the young Vincent, a mechanical engineering prodigy with the privilege and resources to make his visions come true, throwing in a few interesting anecdotes — such as how a phrenologist predicted that Vincent would be a great inventor by feeling his head. The documentary then details how Vincent, with the help of his friend Bill Clark and prestigious engineer Phil Irving, built the small factory in Stevenage, a town north of London.
What happens next is the stuff of inspirational biopics — eccentric yet brilliant designs, including an exposed engine, heady motorcycle races, guerrilla marketing… all pursuing an insatiable need for speed. Past and present collide as Vincent’s grandson interviews figures from those bygone days, such as Irving’s widow and motorcyclist Marty Dickerson, who set a record on a Vincent in the 1950s.
Much of the documentary is shot in black-and-white, with present-day interviewees rendered in nostalgic hues in a way that blends into the archival footage and photos. Later footage and interviews are done in color, giving a vivid transition from one era to another.
I’ll confess, I know next to nothing about motorcycles and hadn’t even heard of a Vincent until I saw the description for this documentary. Yet I found myself captivated by this detailed look at a cultural history I wasn’t even aware of before. The film does a great job of conveying Vincent’s obsession with speed, at almost any cost, and single-minded dedication to his invention. At the end of the day, it was no secret why the Vincent couldn’t survive from a business perspective: Like any great artist, Vincent cared more about creating something great than being profitable. As the sleekness of the early 20th century faded into the colorful rebelliousness of the mid-century, the motorcycle, like Old Hollywood, became dated. And like Old Hollywood, it wasn’t able to evolve with the times. Yet that frozen-in-time character is what makes the Vincent so valuable to motorcycle fans today.
Flowing seamlessly between contemplative looks at a brilliant yet flawed genius and exciting flashbacks to the world of racing and record-setting, Speed Is Expensive provides a vivid and mesmerizing look at both the engineer and his creation. At 80 minutes long, it’s a tightly edited film, never getting bogged down, yet also never feeling rushed. Vincent’s motorcycles were a labor of love, and, while watching, one can feel that this film was as well.
‘Speed Is Expensive’ will premiere September 20 and be available on DVD and Digital September 26.