Speed is Expensive director David Lancaster’s interview with one-time Vincent apprentice John Surtees would prove to be one the racer’s last. To mark the release of unseen footage from the award-winning documentary, here is David’s account of meeting the only man to win World Championship titles on both two and four wheels:  Surtees won seven motorcycle championships between 1958-60, and one F1 title, in 1964.

The contemporary portraits of John Surtees were taken by Steve Read.

Director David Lancaster interviewing double World Champion John Surtees. [Steve Read]
There can be few to whom the Vincent-HRD marque meant so much as it did to John Surtees, OBE. The company supplied his father Jack’s race bikes – and his family business, selling the machines from his South London motorcycle dealership in Forest Hill. Vincents provided John with his first – and only – formal employment, his early technical education and his first exposure to working away from home. In the mid-1950s John Surtees built what he claimed to be the first Norvin “to take on the Gilera 500”. Yet before beginning his apprenticeship at Vincents on his 17th birthday on February 11, 1950, the firm loomed large in his life also. A young John would visit the factory in Stevenage as passenger in a Vincent Rapide sidecar outfit ridden by his mother, Dorothy, to pick up parts. “Vincent was a nice company,” he recalls. “You went in there and it was relaxed. We would sit down, meet up with Phil Irving. It was all very natural.”

John’s father Jack Surtees was a London Vincent dealer, seen here in his shop coat with a Series C Comet. [David Lancaster]
To the man who has ridden and driven for the most charismatic men and marques in motorsport – Agusta, Honda, Ferrari – Philip Vincent’s vision and the company he founded in 1928 resonate to this day. “At Honda, they talk about dreams,” he says, over 65 years after he began work at Stevenage. “All of us have our dreams. And I’ve worked with many people who went a good way to achieving them: Honda, Ferrari, for example. But that small team down there in Stevenage, when they created the post-war Rapide, this must apply to them, too. There is something special about the Vincent – it has stood the test of time.”

Young John Surtees (with gloves) participated in Vincent’s 24 hour record attempt at the Montlhéry autodrome with a Series C Black Shadow. [David Lancaster]
Yet such reminisces are tinged with sadness and regrets: such as his participation in the ‘frustrating’ speed record runs at the banked racetrack at Montlhéry in 1952. Eight world records were claimed, but the 100mph aimed for, over 24 hours, proved out of reach [It took a 500cc single-cylinder Velocette Venom to finally crack the 24hr / 100mph record – ed]. Surtees is particularly insistent that Philip Vincent’s high speed crash at Grandsen airfield in 1947 “changed the course of the company for ever. He was a changed man.” Too many wrong choices, Surtees feels, marred the company’s growth: wrong choices in oil in competition, in personnel (Vincent came to surround himself by “yes men”) and in design and engineering. However, nothing can detract from the brilliance of the early years. The customers at his father’s shop, he recalls, would “mortgage their lives to own one”, such was the machine’s appeal.

Jack Surtees driving the racing Vincent outfit, with young John acting as ‘monkey’ in the sidecar. [David Lancaster]
So, when it came to John learning his trade at a motorcycle factory, “Dad just wouldn’t have thought of me being at another manufacturer. No. It was Vincent HRD.” ‘Dad’, Jack Surtees, was three times British sidecar champion and the pre-war star of the then grass-track Brands Hatch (it was only hard surfaced in 1950). Both his mother pre-war, and then John post-war, took on duties in the chair of Jack Surtees’ racing outfit at British circuits and in trials events. “A great training, if in at the deep end,” John says. The family skill and thirst for speed was shared by both parents too. Factory worker Ernie Allen, tool-maker contemporary and friend of John’s, relates that a few years before he joined the firm, he was riding to a race circuit on his Rapide, when he was overtaken at speed by a Vincent sidecar rig. By the time Ernie arrived in the car park the rider was dismounting, taking off a crash helmet – to reveal that it was a young woman at the helm, Mrs Surtees, with John and his sister clambering out of the sidecar.

Racing was the family business: here the Surtees family attends the racing outfit of Jack Surtees: a mechanic, Jack Surtees, his wife Dorothy Surtees, and John. [Dave Martin]
Surtees’ later transition from two wheels to four can be traced back to this early familiarity with life in the fast lane – but especially to his time racing with his father. Jack Surtees’ Black Lightning spec-sidecar outfit would easily spin the back wheel and so could be drifted in and out of turns at will. Surtees’ friend, multi-motorcycle champion Mike Hailwood (who won the Formula 2 Championship in a Surtees car) said the most challenging part of his transition from two to four wheels was getting used to the vehicle sliding: “On a bike, it’s the last thing you want to have happen.” But not only did the teenage Surtees get used to this happening on virtually every lap – but the pilot was his father. Hence, an ability to drive and ride to the maximum level in both disciplines: two and four wheels.

John Surtees’ famous Vincent Grey Flash special racer, on which he took his first racing victories. [David Lancaster]
John Surtees’ surprisingly tall but slight frame is evident when you meet him, even years after his multiple wins. You wonder, how did he manhandle MV fours, Ferraris, Hondas at such speed for so long? The physicality might perplex, but light blue eyes hold your stare. The man who built a career on going fast takes his time answering questions yet the single-minded focus remains. Racing is about winning, not being popular. Surtees’ combination of ambition, bravery, skill and pure steel is surely the embodiment of Gilles Villeneuve’s observation that “finishing second just means you are the first person to lose”. He remains the consummate racer. A visit to the gents is a ‘pit stop’. Other forms of motorcycling barely detain him. Talking of what else might be included in our film, I outline others we’ve spoken to – factory hands, special builders… and “some tourers”.

A pictorial in the March 10 1960 issue of The Motor Cycle, celebrating John Surtees’ accomplishments. He’s photographed on a Norton Manx and a lot of silver hardware, with his mother Dorothy in 1955 after his factory racing job with Norton, and in the main photo from 1952 with the Vincent Grey Flash on which he made his reputation. [The Motor Cycle]
“Some what?’ he barks, half impatiently. “Tourists. Who toured Europe in the ’30s, ’50s and ’60s on Vincents.” “Oh,” he says flatly, moving on physically and mentally. Surtees is a man who can neither hide his enthusiasm, nor his lack of it. To this day he retains the highest ratio of wins in two-wheel Grand Prix history – 38 victories from 49 starts. More remarkable still is the crown of winning the blue-ribbon class for both motorcycles and cars: seven World Championships for MV Agusta on both 350cc and 500cc, and Formula 1 World Champion in the Ferrari 158 V8 in 1964. Such are the divisions and demands of modern racing, it’s unlikely anyone else will achieve such success in both classes of motorsport.

John Surtees aboard the Vincent Grey Flash at Cadwell Park. [David Lancaster]
Surtees has never been without his critics, both in and out of Vincent circles. An off-hand comment about the build standard of classic racers in the 1980s alienated some. “A monstrous egotist,” said one owner I spoke to. He once turned up at a Vincent Owners Club meeting in Kent with the engine numbers of his Black Lightning and Grey Flash meticulously taped over. Who wants to ask John Surtees to take the tape off? No one. Yet, in deep conversation, a very human south London motorcycle dealer’s son emerges – a “near London countryman” as he once described himself. There’s wit – not laugh-out-loud, but charming. Of his pioneering style of drifting the big 500 MV Agusta he told Australian journalists that the satisfaction this wrought was the next best thing to sex. The spoken voice is what we might call “1950s paddock posh” – a little shy of the rich, national-treasure tones of his friend Stirling Moss, but very much of its time.

Joh Surtees signing autographs behind the wheel of the Ferrari 158 monoposto on which he won his F1 World Championship in 1964. [Wikipedia]
And behind the enigmatic champion, self-knowledge was evident early on. Looking back at his win-at-all-costs mentality, which had brought money, titles but also animosity, he told writer Gerald Donaldson that, “I was a bit nuts, really.” In his 1963 autobiography Speed he acknowledges the risk to his reputation with other racers; that he was often seen as an aloof, standoffish loner. “I am sorry,” he wrote, “because it was not that I disliked their company, but simply that I had no interest in the social side-lines. I could not break myself of a lifelong habit, and my machines and the racing were the only things which concerned me.”

John Surtees aboard the MV Agusta four on which he took the 1960 World Championship, during the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2018. [Paul d’Orléans / New York Times]
At his funeral three years after our interview, attended with Vincent’s grandson Philip Vincent-Day, we chatted to one of John’s mechanics. “He never really learned to delegate,” he told us. Did he ever really let go? His remarkable family history grew in importance to him. “Things come back to you when you handle a part,” he said. “Memories of Dad, for example”. A heart attack in 2008 will have added to this – but it is surely the death of his son Henry just a year later at the age of 18, struck by a tyre in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch, which wrought deeper reflection on family, a long life, the wins, the losses – and a melancholy I detected when talking to him. Much of his final years were devoted the Henry Surtees Foundation, the charity he founded to improve trackside safety of young drivers. “Mum and Dad would approve of what we are doing with the foundation” he said, near the end of our interview.

Then, pausing, the blue eyes beginning to water: “And I know Henry would approve, too.”

John Surtees was buried at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Lingfield, Surrey, next to his son Henry.

The Speed is Expensive Deluxe edition download package features the full film – plus 50 minutes of extra footage with John Surtees, Jay Leno, plus friends and family of Philip Vincent and Phil Irving. Head to –


David Lancaster grew up in west London. After university, he worked for three years on MotorCycle International, was a researcher/director on Top Gear and spent two years on The Times (London). 
He lectures in journalism at the University of Westminster and is director-producer of SpeedisExpensive.  Follow him on Instagram and on Facebook.


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