[by Philip Vincent-Day]

Web exclusive: To accompany another on-location report from the producers of the Vincent documentary SpeedisExpensive, we’re showcasing the first of a series of short films sponsored by AVON Tyres giving some clues to what will be in the final film.

The Jack Ehret Vincent Black Lightning, currently the #1 most expensive of our Top 100 list having sold at $929k by Bonhams in 2018. [SpeedisExpensive]
In this first installment, Philip Vincent-Day – Vincent’s grandson and Associate Producer of the film – gets up close and fast with a stunning Irving Vincent on a racetrack in Australia. Plus, as Philip writes below, on the same trip the production team also got to shoot the Jack Ehret Black Lightning (the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction) and research the inside line on Vincent’s co-designer, Australian genius Phil Irving.


Readers may recall the post from last year in which Mike Nicks detailed our filming in and around LA (https://thevintagent.com/2018/11/03/speedisexpensive-the-la-shoot-road-trip/). We hooked up with Jay Leno to talk Vincents and reunited Marty Dickerson with his record-setting Blue Bike. In April, we embarked on another major trip: this time crossing the world to capture some of the most exciting Vincents in Australia and meet key figures in the story of my grandfather and his machines down under.

Director David Lancaster and Phil Vincent-Day join an eyewitness to the original Jack Ehret record runs, Bruce Jaeger, to watch the Lightning fly past once again. [SpeedisExpensive]
Much the same crew were along: Director David Lancaster; US-based Producer James Salter; and Director of Photography Steve Read – this time with his assistant and drone-pilot, Robbie Douglas.

Director David Lancaster on the Jack Ehret Vincent Black Lightning in a typical Australian landscape. [SpeedisExpensive]
I’d never been to Australia before. But the country plays a key part in the story of the bikes which were produced in Stevenage all those years ago. It was a major export market, for starters, with around 600 machines being sold there, mostly between 1947 – 1953. Only the USA bought more bikes, some 1,070 models going Stateside.

The Jack Ehret Lightning at Broadford, with the Irving Vincent racers, plus several other road bikes and racers: a full set on display. [SpeedisExpensive]
One of the machines which took that long journey south was one of our target vehicles: the Jack Ehret Lightning. This factory-tuned special became the fastest vehicle in the southern hemisphere – two wheel or four wheeled – when racer Jack Ehret fired it up to an official 141.5mph on a back road north-east of Sydney in 1953. We were to film the bike in action on the same road, along with interviews with Ehret’s son John, his life-long friend, riding and drinking buddy Bill Molone – and its new owner, Peter Bender.

Vincent motorcycles co-designer Phil Irving. [SpeedisExpensive]
We would also be on the trail of the great Phil Irving. My grandfather, without doubt, would not have been able to produce the motorcycles he did without his friend and colleague, the Aus-born Irving. So, through the good offices of long-term supporter of our film Bill Hoddinott and Ken Horner of Irving Vincent fame, we’d arranged to meet and interview Phil’s widow, Edith, at the house where she and Phil lived for many years. David Lancaster had met Phil and Edith several times during the 80s, but I’d not – so I was greatly looking forward to the meeting.

Edith Irving and Philip Vincent-Day: compelling details emerged over lunch about how the ‘two Phils’ worked together. [SpeedisExpensive]
A Union Jack flag fluttered on a mast as we approached – ‘That’s in honour of you guys’ we were informed – and the house had a warm, inviting air with pictures of Phil and his designs stealing any petrol-head’s attention. Over lunch, Edith and I began to discuss the two Phils and within minutes of talking to this charming, intelligent, strongly-opinionated lady, we were exploring what we both knew of both men and how they worked together.

Jack Ehret after setting the Australian national speed record on his Vincent Black Lightning. [SpeedisExpensive]
Irving and Vincent met in the early 1930s and it’s clear it was a meeting of minds from the first – Irving’s employment by the Vincent HRD company was, in his own words, ‘the kind of job I had dreamt of before leaving Australia.’ In his autobiography, he also notes the pairs’ ‘similar scholastic backgrounds’ – plus a shared faith in rear springing. Remember, a common view in the early 1930s was that rear suspension was neither necessary nor safe. The combination of Vincent’s bold ideas and theoretical engineering knowledge, along with Irving’s by-then hands-on experience at Velocette and elsewhere, meant the pair could ‘approach a problem from both sides.’

Drone pilot and camera operator Robbie Douglas capturing the Lightning on the road again. [SpeedisExpensive]
My grandfather and Irving were true innovators of their time. They would work and talk late into the night, over glasses of whiskey, throwing ideas back and forth, both fascinated by new materials, ideas and designs. The relationship forged between the two men will form a key part of our film and it was amazing just how much new ground Edith and I were able to cover, compared to more traditional discussions of a motorcycle and the people behind its design and production. But this is what director David hoped to achieve when a man with Vincent in his name and a woman with Irving in hers, sat down to talk on camera over lunch.

Former Vincent factory hand David Bowen and Phil Vincent-Day compare notes [SpeedisExpensive]
It was on a high, then, that the next day we rocked up at the Broadford Bike Bonanza north of Melbourne for our appointment with brothers Ken and Barry Horner – plus their families, race team and eye-watering motorcycles. The race bikes – designed around later cylinder-head work by Phil Irving, and retaining the short-pushrod architecture of all Vincent HRDs – have proved to be a winning-formula right into the 21st century. The automotive sector is littered with the corpses of efforts to re-ignite high-end brands. The Irving Vincent is the exemption.

Phil and the winningest modern iteration of his grandfather’s motorcycles, the Irving Vincent. [SpeedisExpensive]
By now we’d also hooked up with one of few remaining workers from the Stevenage factory, David Bowen. A young 80-something, David retains an amazing wealth of information about his time working alongside a young man who would become his lifelong friend, one John Surtees, as well as the manufacturing and life at the Works.

This is the modern world: the Irving Vincent has four valve cylinder heads that significantly improve airflow and raise horsepower mightily. The aluminum cylinder head is cast around a bronze ‘skull’ for stronger valve seats with less space required between the valves.  It’s a solution Norton adopted in the early 1930s, when aluminum cylinder heads were relatively new, and still works! [SpeedisExpensive]
For the first hour or so at Broadford, David and I had a good look around before machines began to be made ready and I was called to attend the riders’ meeting. I was, as I hoped, to take to the track in the chair of an Irving Vincent. By 12:30 I was suited and booted in Irving Vincent leathers and began my training session with the brilliant Noel Beare, psyching myself up for some laps with the genial but super-fast, Beau Beaton.

Was I mad? Did I need to do this?

The tool of choice: Australian Pro Twins champion Beau Beaton at the helm as Philip Vincent Day prepares for some fast laps. [SpeedisExpensive]
No, of course, I didn’t need to – but I wanted to. From then on, it was a blur. A fast blur. Maybe we did six laps? Maybe we did seven? I’m still not sure. Either way, it was impossibly hard work and I managed to last most of the session without a major mistake. But Beau pulled in at the right time, sensing I was getting tired, and I confess it was getting harder to hold on, to move around, to get to the right place for each corner.

Phil Vincent-Day just after his laps on the Irving Vincent sidecar outfit. [SpeedisExpensive]
I got off the bike pumping with adrenaline and feeling like my arms were about to fall off. Wrestling the G-forces while perched on a small platform and going at speeds like nothing I’ve experienced so close to the ground before, was incredibly thrilling. And what an honour, too. TT-winner Cam Donald and his wife Kaz Anderson were also out on the track at the same time and we grabbed wonderful footage with our Go Pros on both outfits, cameras on the ground and drone in the air. The Avon sponsored short which debuts here on The Vintagent showcases just a fraction of what we filmed.

John Ehret, son of record-breaker Jack, is reunited with his father’s racer for the film. [SpeedisExpensive]
In a calmer moment a little later, David and I mused on what my father – who’d passed away just a few weeks before – would have made of it all. A lifelong Vincent rider, an unstinting supporter of our film and the man who’d helped my grandfather draw up his ideas for his ultimately unsuccessful rotary engine project, we both agreed we could hear Robin’s gruff, but always positive west-London drawl: ‘Fucking brilliant, Phil – just brilliant…’

The awesome Irving Vincent back at the factory after its laps at Broadford. [SpeedisExpensive]
The second day at Broadford was more chilled – how could it not be? – and it was spent enjoying the bikes, meeting riders and soaking up the atmosphere. Peter Bender arrived with the Ehret Lightning, Edith pitched up with her friend and we got more interviews.

How the Aussie press reported Jack Ehret’s Lightning record in January 1953. [SpeedisExpensive]
Rider Bill Irwin was one, telling us about the many miles he’s now racked up on one of the re-creation Series A Rapides built from scratch by Rodney Brown and Neal Videan. We talked to Rod and Neal about their endeavor – and it became evident how just how staggering the project was: a full, from scratch build of what is surely one of the most complex engines ever to drive two or four wheels… it was called the ‘Plumber’s Nightmare’ after all. Yet, with a mix of passion, doggedness, skill and intelligence, Brown and Videan are now building the last three bikes of the batch of 12.

Original patina! The Ehret Lightning is perhaps the only unrestored record-breaking Vincent in the world. Other unrestored Lightnings exist (one in San Francisco, one in Germany with an original supercharger!) but none was used in competition as far as we know. [SpeedisExpensive]
Once again, the Australians provide ground-breaking motorcycles in the Vincent HRD sphere, and they use them properly, too. My mind mused on just what my grandfather, and Irving, would have made of bikes such as this and the Irving Vincents being produced over 80 years after the first models rolled out of the factory. Is the Vincent V-twin the longest-lasting engine, if modified, still in production? Could be. The last part of the day we went to the event dinner where David and I said a few words on stage about our film and said our thankyous to Ken and Barry Horner, their families and team.

Bill Malone: friend and co-worker and drinking buddy of Mad Jack Ehret. [SpeedisExpensive]
On the Sunday David Bowen and I spoke on camera – I understand his third interview for the film. But as before with Mr Bowen, yet further nuggets emerged – on why the change came about from ‘Vincent HRD’ to just ‘The Vincent’ and yet more background on how the accident my grandfather suffered, testing a Rapide at speed without a helmet, contributed to the future trajectory of the company.

The production team story boarded key scenes prior to the shot. Artwork by Portland Lancaster. [SpeedisExpensive]
Then we were off on the long trip up towards Gunnedah in NSW – teaming up with Peter Bender on his A twin, ‘Lightning Mike’ on a B Rapide and the van and trailer – with the Ehret bike tucked inside – driven by passionate Kiwi Vincent guy, AJ.

Ehret Lightning owner Peter Bender: he’s doing all he can to make sure the bike is seen and heard across Australia. A national treasure. [SpeedisExpensive]
It was Gunnedah that Jack Ehret chose to make his attempt at the national speed record back in 1953. The full story of why, and how he did this, emerged over the next couple of days through our interviews. Suffice to say, the brave, difficult, driven Ehret wasn’t known as ‘Mad Jack’ for nothing – and the tale of how he swung the permits and leant on the officialdom required to set a national record through last-minute court hearings, overnight drives and major political juggling will be told in our film.

US Producer James Salter talks to one-time Ehret Lightning custodian, Franc Trento at Broadford. [SpeedisExpensive]
First stop was the local museum and an interview with an historian who’d watched the record attempt as a young lad – the first of two eyewitnesses to the event Peter and AJ tracked down – before heading to the local airstrip to get in some practice runs on the Lightning. The drone wouldn’t work at the airport due to signal jamming, but Robbie Douglas filmed some great footage hanging out of the boot/trunk. John Ehret, Jack’s son, took to being back on the bike he later raced with great success, without a pause. We also mounted Go Pro cameras front and rear and James Salter hung some very sophisticated audio recording equipment on the bike, capturing the full majesty of those Lightning straight pipes on song.

The road was closed for the day, allowing filming of the Ehret Lightning at speed. [SpeedisExpensive]
The following day we were out to the Old Tamworth Road to get set up for our homage to the record runs. John Ehret had persuaded the local authority to close the record-setting road for our visit – father like son, one could say – and the result was that over next few hours, in the hot sun with no traffic to worry about and the expanse of the Aus outback as our backdrop, we reveled in the sound and vision of a Vincent Black Lightning running fast and strong on an historic stretch of tarmac. And, boy, was it worth it. To see John, and Lightning Mike, expertly run the world’s most expensive motorcycle – and run it fast – was spine-tingling.

Jack Ehret breaking the Australian speed record on January 19, 1953. [SpeedisExpensive]
With the action footage in the can, John told us about his father’s exploits and his own racing of the bike; Jack’s friend Bill Moline filled in the gaps before John was born (from the races to the bar fights) and then Franc Trento, Vincent-riding owner of classic specialists EuroBrit, filled in more detail on the Lightning – he owned the bike for some 14 years. Finally, Peter Bender, a better custodian such a motorcycle could not wish for, talked through how he came to acquire what is now surely one of the most famous motorcycles in the world. Peter rides the bike and, since his purchase, has made sure as many Australian fans as possible see and hear it running.

Late afternoon ‘golden hour’ shooting with the Ehret Lightning. [SpeedisExpensive]
Our second eye-witness to the run was Bruce Jaeger. A lifelong and competitive motorcyclist himself, Bruce had an astonishing ability to recall the day the bike broke its record, in wonderful and vivid detail. David had been obsessing about getting a shot of an eye-witness to the original runs, watching our recreation of the event from the veranda of a typical rural Aussie porch. And we got it, after he and John Ehret sweet-talked a local family to let us shoot from their house.

Director of Photography Steve Read lines up shooting the amazing Irving Vincent sidecar. [SpeedisExpensive]
The next day, earlier than any of us would have wished, we were back on the road to return to Melbourne – a 1000km drive in one day – for our final filming at the Horners’ factory. The premises, and their lives, are dedicated to their bikes and you would hardly realise they are manufacturing air starters there – but this is the kit that bank-rolls the racing. We got extensive interviews with Ken and Barry, as well as Ken’s son Nelson, and filmed an engine on a dyno running up to 7000rpm. The noise was deafening even with earmuffs. A limited edition of the Irving Vincent was discussed as Ken and Barry have had numerous requests for a version of their bike to be sold to the public.

Applying the finishing touches: Franc Trento owned the Ehret Lightning for years. [SpeedisExpensive]
In the office, we watched CAD-CAM software assisting in the building of further developments of Irving Vincent engines and talked about how the Horners had forged a strong relationship with Phil Irving in his later years. There is an unashamed element of hero-worship in the way they talk about the designer. But why not? He’s the only man to have designed a world-record setting motorcycle – the Vincent – and Formula One-winning engine… the Repco Brabham. That night, James and I stayed on for dinner with Ken, Nelson and Phil Canning and then joined David and Steve back at the hotel to fly back the next morning.

Jack’s sone John Ehret back on the bike he raced after the record was set. [SpeedisExpensive]
Our Australian shoot was over. It was compelling and – for me – it was thrilling. Our ears were ringing for a few days after, from the filming fast and unsilenced V-twins. We’d also interviewed yet more people with insights into the untold story of those who raced, built and designed the bikes. Our next shoot? That would be at the banked circuit at Montlhéry, south of Paris, in early June. With the aid of my grandfather’s period footage of the factory’s visit there and our interview with the late John Surtees’ recalling his part in the runs, we would pay homage to the eight world records set on a hot day in May in 1952.

Jack Ehret and local policemen just after setting a new Australian land speed record at 141.5mph. [SpeedisExpensive]
Picture credits: Robbie Douglas, Philip Vincent-Day, James Salter and David Lancaster

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