Speed Is Expensive (2023) – Film Review
Director: David Lancaster
Narrator: Ewan McGregor
By Liam Bird
I can remember my Dad telling me about being overtaken on the old A41 Chester bypass when he was once on his way to the Isle of Mann TT races. He was on a coach – more likely a Charabanc in those days – when he and his fellow passengers heard a motorcycle approaching on their right-hand side.
“He went by us like we were in reverse. Chest on the tank; his leathers all blown up like the Michelin man. He was on a Vincent. You just didn’t see ‘bikes like that where we lived. A Vincent would’ve cost a qualified engineer, working in a good job in London or somewhere else where the wages were much better than what I was on, the best part of years’ salary. He just flicked his wrist, opened the throttle, and he was past us and gone”.
The recently released, and oh-so appropriately titled, Speed is Expensive, tells the story of Phillip Vincent and the rise and fall of the motorcycles that bore his name.
Phillip Vincent was a visionary, an exceptional and eccentric engineer; he was also fortunate enough to have family fortune – made in, of all things, cattle ranching – to fall back on. Born in Argentina and educated first at Harrow, and then at Cambridge, Phillip soon developed the unwavering self-confidence, and arrogance, that only the most expensive of private schooling can provide. Claiming all his lecturers were looking back when all he wanted to do was look forwards, he quickly grew bored of reading engineering at Kings. Soon enough his peers told the by now motorcycle obsessed Vincent not to return to his “studies” come next term.
Not that it bothered the impetuous young Vincent one jot. With help from his grandfather, in 1928 Phillip Vincent acquired the “trademark, goodwill and remaining components” of the recently liquidated HRD Motors Ltd. The company was promptly renamed Vincent HRD Co., Ltd, and production moved to Stevenage. By 1955 Vincent motorcycles had broken every two-wheeled land speed record there was to break; they were the fastest in the World. They’d also cleverly convinced Rolls-Royce to let them call themselves The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles in all of their advertising.
The problem was, by then, Vincent was making a loss on every motorcycle it could make. When Vincent passed away in 1979, he was largely unrecognized, penniless, and living in council housing in West London.
“Free is wearing a helmet”
With narration by none other than Long Way Round (Down, and Up too) rider and light-saber wielder, Ewan McGregor, together with interviews with 1956 World Motorcycle Champion and ex-Vincent apprentice, John Surtees, serial vehicle collector and chat show host Jay Leno, Clash bass player Paul Simonon, plus various members of the extended Family Vincent, Speed is Expensive tells the story this most revered of motorcycling marques by piecing together first-hand accounts of what went on within the factory walls with glorious black and white home video footage of what went on outside them. The grainy footage of Rollie Free breaking the US motorcycle land speed record in 1948 on the Bonneville Salt Flats, on a Vincent Black Lightning, prone and wearing nothing more than bathing trunks and flimsy plimsolls is surely worth the streaming free alone. Fear not those of a health and safety bent, Free is wearing a helmet.
Ultimately, like so many other stories of the British motorcycle industry, this is a tale of what might have been. Nevertheless, to this day still, the allure of the Vincent remains; collectors are willing pay telephone number-type prices to get their hands on one. Owners include Brad Pitt and Ryan Reynolds; Jay Leno has more than just one in his collection.
With a running length of 80 minutes, this gently entertaining and informative feature documentary might just be the thing to watch with your Dad now that the nights are drawing in.
Speed is Expensive is available to own or rent in the UK & Ireland from Sept 25 via Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin Media Store, AppleTV and Google Play. A Collector’s Edition DVD, containing an exclusive 24-page booklet and over an hour of extra footage, is also available.
Collector’s Edition DVD pre-order: amazon.co.uk