top of page

"A man's life in all its vivid colour" Ten Questions for Speed is Expensive's, David Lancaster

I came across Speed Is Expensive in late 2019 when it was a work in progress and I reached out to its Director David Lancaster to express our interest. We've been in contact ever since and after a few stops and starts due to the pandemic, in 2022 we were honoured to be one of the few festivals to screen what is certain to be the definitive documentary on Philip Vincent and Vincent motorcycles.

We were doubly-lucky to have had David Lancaster and Producer James Salter join us in Toronto for the screening and our opening reception, complete with a very rare "Lost Singapore" Vincent Black Lightning on display. It came as no surprise to us that the film went on to win not only our Best Feature Film award, as chosen by our judging panel, but also the People's Choice award, as selected by our audience.

Director David Lancaster (L) and Producer James Salter (R) at TMFF 2022
Director David Lancaster (L) and Producer James Salter (R) at TMFF 2022

Since then, the Ewan McGreggor-narrated documentary has garnered international recognition, receiving four awards from various film festivals, and picked up in North America by Virgil Films who were also representing its sales in most International markets at this year's Cannes Film Market. Quite an accomplishment – and a well deserved one.

I asked David ten questions about the making of the film and he shared with us his motivation, some behind-the-scenes info, and what he hopes the audience will take away. After reading David's responses to the questions, and reflecting back on the film, it's clear the instrumental role he played it's making. Like the film, David's answers are rich in detail and full of honesty, providing a lot of insight into his passion for telling this side of the Vincent story.

While we were incredible lucky to have screened Speed is Expensive at TMFF 2022, we know by the sheer volume of inquiries that many of you still haven't, and can't wait to see it. We'll keep you posted on its release schedule as we get the details. Meanwhile, here's what David had to say.

What drew you to make a film about the life of Philip Vincent and his motorcycles?

It started way back after both my parents, Alan and Audrey Lancaster, had passed away. I was looking through some of the 35 mm slides they had taken of their Vincent trips to France, Italy and even Yugoslavia in the 50s and early 60s. My folks’ slides were from just 10 or so years after the second world war ended in 1945 – and they were pioneering taking a bike that far Europe at the time. No phones back then – no credit cards and major currency restrictions; you were only allowed a certain amount in or out of each country.

I’ve always read history, and there was a genre emerging that history could – or even should – be told from the shop floor as much as the directors’ office; that as much wisdom, maybe more, would emerge if you could sit for an hour in the workers’ canteen as in the directors’ restaurant. So, I began thinking: what must this group of cool, young British men and women on their 1000cc Vincents have looked like to someone working the land in Italy or Yugoslavia just 10 years after the war had ended?

It was a vanished age, but the bikes remain. Around this time, I hooked up with co-producer Gerry Jenkinson at a Vincent Owners Club meeting near Manchester. Gerry was already making videos – and as one of the top lightning directors in the UK theatre (lighting shows for people like playwright Harold Pinter and director Peter Hall) was very tech proficient. He could work a camera, I could ask questions, so we decided to track down as many people who worked at the factory, and knew Vincent and Irving, as we could.

How did you research and gather the material for the film, including the period film shot by Vincent himself?

It became a mission, perhaps an obsession. We used social media, VOC and Vincent contacts plus research on sites such as Ancestry. Lots of leads went nowhere; some factory workers had passed away just a month or two after we reached out. In the end, we filmed 14 men and women who worked at Stevenage.

From our research, we think there are maybe four left: two women and two gents.

The most famous was John Surtees, who was an apprentice there. His father, Jack, had known Vincent since before the war and raced a tuned Shadow with a sidecar – which is there John got his first race track experience. It was John’s only ever normal job in fact – pay-slip at the end of the week, day release for college with the other apprentices. From then on, he freelanced for factories or ran his own teams becoming, of course, the only man to win world titles on two or four wheels. An amazing man with crystal clear recollection of events 70 years ago.

Through my parents, I’d known the Vincent family for many years: Dee, PCV’s daughter, her husband Robin and then young Phil as he grew up. I’d met Phil Irving a good few times at Vincent events, but sadly I’m not sure I met Vincent before his death in 1979. But I may have done. So, Gerry and I asked – badgered, might be more accurate, but that’s documentary-making – to look over and perhaps restore the films shot by Vincent which were in their care. And it was a revelation: home life, race meetings, travel in the USA meeting dealers, some of it on 16mm, filmed on his Bolex camera. The quality and extent of Vincent’s films was a milestone.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the production of the film, and how did you overcome them?

There was a lot to do – interviews, film restoration, planning, fund-raising as we went along. Gerry and I did nearly everything: research, writing, production, much of the early filming of interviews, then to travel to the USA, Montlhéry in France, and Australia. We were both busy working, too – Gerry lighting shows and me lecturing in journalism at the University of Westminster in London.

So, a major challenge was keeping track of so much material – which Gerry was much better at than me; he graduated to light some of the biggest shows in London so he’d keep track of lighting diagrams, actors’ movements across the stage, music, dialogue. Those skills transferred to our film.

In the final stages, we hooked up with Russell Icke, through an introduction from one of our key supporters Colin Manning. Russell is another Vincent owner, but also one of the best editors in the country. He and Liz Deegan, another great editor, were invaluable in bringing so much texture, light and shade and emotion of the film. Our voice-over and structure were pretty much established – but that’s the bones: Russell and Liz put the flesh on the bones or, as I realised during weeks of editing with us all spending long days on the film: they ‘got us out of a hole we didn’t even know we were in.’

The film has won several awards and garnered recognition, including Best Feature Film and People's Choice awards at TMFF. How did it feel to win these awards, and what impact do you think they will have on the film's future success?

The awards matter. They give you confidence – but also prove the film can play in a theatre and hold people’s attention. And it is great to chat to people after the film has played – just to hear their take on it, on the Vincent story. While it’s playing through I’m a bit nervous; mostly I have skulked around at the back of the cinema… And the awards are for everyone who made the film happen: Gerry and myself, but US Producer James Salter was key; exec producers Harvey Bowden and Kris Waumans; Peter Grimsdale and Andrew Nahum; Colin and Wendy Manning; Tim Woodward… the list goes on.

You worked with a variety of high-profile figures, including Ewan McGregor, Paul Simonon, and Jay Leno, on the film. What was it like collaborating with these individuals, and how did they contribute to the film?

Well, Ewan heard about the project through our US Producers James Salter and Greg McBride – and due to emails going astray, I just got a call from an American phone number, out of the blue, and there he was, on the phone: ‘Sounds like a great project – tell me a bit more’ he said. He was great – of course his profile really helps, but it is his brilliant delivery which makes such an impact. He knows his bikes really well – ridden more miles than most motorcyclists – so brought that to the project, too.

Jay, equally, was wonderful – gave us a day of his time to film, helped with logistics, loves the Vincent story. I think they both could see we were putting our all into the project, and the story needed to be told on big canvass.

Jay Leno standing behind a Vincent HRD motorcycle

Paul Simonon I’d known at a few music and motorcycle pubs back in the late 80s; but not well. I reached out to him to write a piece, and after some months and riding the bikes, he asked me to pen the introduction for his book showcasing his very cool moto-themed paintings, Wot No Bike? The book came out, and an exhibition was put on at the Institute of Contemporary Arts – the same venue The Clash played at back in the day, as so many pubs and clubs in those days wouldn’t put on punk rock music. He’s a gent – runs a Hinckley Triumph around every day, had a late 60s Triumph when I first met him and his insight in the film on the aesthetics of the Vincent adds something significant I think. Artists really do look at things differently.

The film explores the tension between Philip Vincent's love of speed and his personal and financial struggles. What do you think the film reveals about the relationship between passion and responsibility?

Very good question. Vincent’s life turned on his high-speed crash in 1947. It’s rather brushed over in most history of the bikes. I think this is partly a generational thing: dust yourself off, carry on, stiff upper lip. But talk to Dee, his daughter, and those like John Surtees who saw him close at hand and, as John says to us, ‘he was a changed man’ from the crash. It would be called PSDT these days. So, his passion took him through the first part of his career, and money from his and his friend Bill Clarke’s family; and a certain stubbornness took him further during the late 40s and 50s.

Could he have built a simpler, cheaper, more popular motorcycle? There is a strong case to be made that he should have – look at one of the greatest record setters on the bikes, George Brown. George worked at the factory, was super-fast, and on leaving the Vincent factory built up Nero and then the super-charged Super Nero with AJS 7R forks and conventional rear twin shocks. This is a bike George took to an unofficial 200mph – dispensing with the complex, and heavy Girdraulic forks, and poorly damped (at the time) rear springing.

But could Philip Vincent have done this? The answer is no – he did things his own way, had utter faith in his ideas, and as Jay Leno says in the film: look at the bike now and you can see where the money was spent, and why they were so expensive. They are utterly different to other bikes: and a good one will cruise at 80mph in comfort and safety, stop really well for the time – four brakes – and last longer than any other makes. Brilliant, but doomed not to last as a manufacturer, putting one in mind of what was supposedly said of James Dean (though the phrase is maybe from the 1920s): they lived a ‘fast life, died young and left a beautiful corpse.”

The film also delves into Vincent's personal life, including his romantic relationships and his health. How did you approach this aspect of the story, and what did you hope to convey to viewers?

Part of the challenge of Speed is Expensive was trying to find out as much as we could about the characters more than the motorcycles. The bikes’ co-designer Phil Irving, as many will know, travelled to the UK from his native Australia on the back seat of HRD side outfit. Joining the Vincent HRD company in 1931, he brought a brilliant practicality to work alongside Vincent’s radical ideas.

With Vincent, we sought to look beyond the motorcycles which bear his name: to look very closely into where he came from, what formed him – and crucially, talk to those who knew him, worked for him and raced for him.

Harry Lindsay, Irish land speed record-setter on Gunga Din, knew him better than most during his younger years. Lindsay, whose father ran the Vincent HRD dealership in Ireland, also knew Vincent’s later wife, Elfrida – she grew up on a village near Harry’s home in the Wicklow mountains, where Gerry and I filmed him towards the end of his life. His first impressions? ‘Take a student, wrap a long scarf around his neck, fill him full of smart chat,’ Harry records in his book, and told us on camera… ‘Give him boundless energy, give him a confidence that enables him to succeed. Then you have a type that certain colleges turned out for many years. His interest was not in tea planting, not in exploring the Antarctic – or in administering some problems in India.’

Vincent, before his major accident in 1947 testing an early B Rapide at high speed, inspired great loyalty: ‘I noticed that his staff treated him with reverence. And watched him with looks similar to what one sees on the faces of sheepdogs during sheepdog trials. A willingness to obey, a pleasure in doing so, and an eagerness to receive the next command.’ But as several witnesses for the effects of the crash relay, the result of brain damage – he was in a coma for some while – resulted in what John Surtees calls a ‘changed man’. The easy, upper class charm seemed to be replaced by a more stand-offish demeanor, and as is stated in our film ‘the man who attracted the most talented… seemed to later drive them away.’

This part of the film was perhaps the most challenging. We realised early on that the results of the accident had not really been reported much before; most reports rather brush over things, saying PCV had balance issues which was why he never rode a motorcycle again. Which is true, but there was much more to it: so, we trod carefully, making sure we had and checked our first-hand witness accounts of just how he changed he really was.

Philip Vincent standing in front of a crowd at Daytona Beach, Florida, 1949.
Philip Vincent at Daytona Beach, Florida, 1949.

For many Vincent owners, it might be difficult to see and hear his flaws, his challenges, especially in later life. He passed away living in very reduced circumstances.

I have to say the family, who one might think might be over-protective, were wonderful: his daughter Dee, son-in-law Robin, and grandson Philip were frank and honest – Robin, now sadly passed, drove Vincent a good deal after his later health issues, helped him drawing up later ideas, spent a great deal of time with him. One very moving moment was when Dee describes how, as a young girl, she asked her father: ‘Why don’t you ride a motorcycle any more?’ And he described his crash. As Dee notes, maybe he lost some passion?

The film features footage shot around the world. What role did these different locations play in the film, and how did you go about capturing the unique atmosphere of each place?

We lived from hand to mouth really, raising money as we progressed, so that is partly why the project took so long. But Gerry and I were working on our day jobs, too – yet we knew locations would give the film real texture: shooting a late-in-life interview with Marty Dickerson up at the Mojave Desert; Vincents on the track at Montlhéry, near Paris, where the factory took several world records in the early 50s…

And perhaps most adventurously and with a great deal of help from Peter Bender and other supporters such as Ken Horner at Irving Vincents, being able to re-create Jack Ehret’s record runs on a road in Gunnedah west of Sydney, right down to tracking down two older gents who’d watched the original Jack Ehret record runs as young lads. Gerry and I knew we wanted to make a film with more than a few bikes in a car park, and talking heads. Years later, I hope we’ve succeeded in that.

How does this film compare to your previous work, and what did you learn from making it?

I’d never made a documentary. My TV experience, on Top Gear as a director and later as script editor on a BBC show called Full on Food, was short items, compared to Speed is Expensive – 6,7,8 minute in length. So, the narrative arc was very different, more like a novel compared to a journalistic feature.

But like all such projects, you begin at the foothills, learn from and watch the best, and begin to craft your own story. One of our executive producers, Peter Grimsdale, brought a great deal to this, along with editors Russell and Liz. I’d met Peter through associate producer Andrew Nahum, a writer and exhibition curator, and between us all a great deal of clarity was brought to the story.

Fresh eyes are essential, giving insights into some key questions which the full-time teach can be easy to lose track of: What do the audience know at this point? What do the main protagonists know?

No-one launches a motorcycle thinking it’ll fail, so what was in their minds when they sent a team to Montlhéry, for example? Did Vincent think more world speed records would sell motorbikes, rather than building a cheaper, simpler machine to meet the challenge of emerging Triumph or Norton 650s? It’s likely he did – indeed, the bikes claimed the outright world speed record of 185 mph just a few months before they had to stop producing motorcycles. Quite amazing, quite tragic.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film, and what impact do you think it could have on the legacy of Philip Vincent and his motorcycles?

I hope it tells a story we’ve not seen before – Vincent’s struggles, his challenges, as well as his successes and triumphs. No life is a cruise; and Philip Vincent reached amazing highs, but also major lows too. The film hopefully lets us see in to the man’s life in all its vivid colour and I hope that enriches our appreciation of his and Phil Irving’s wonderful motorcycles. We’ll see nothing like them again.


Subscribe to our newsletter and get notified when and where you'll be able to see Speed is Expensive next.


bottom of page