In case you don’t know who this legendary fellow is, he’s one of the most recognized former Grand Prix moto racers. One can only wonder what the footage would’ve looked like if he had the best motorcycle helmet camera mounted while racing in his prime. To this day, his legacy stands tall as the first human to win the 125, 250, and 500 cc world championship titles.
Phil Read’s Early Years
Born on the 1st of January 1939 in Luton, UK, Phil Reed first worked as an apprentice at a manufacturer of industrial machinery called “Brown and Green.” His first motorcycle was a Velocette KSS, which he started riding at the age of 16, all the way back in 1955. Back then, that was the minimum legal age requirement for riding motorcycles.
Not long after, he got a BSA Gold Star DBD32. He started racing with it in amateur short-circuits in 1958, at just 19 years of age. In 1960 he would go on to win the Junior Manx Grand Prix, and in 1961 he would also win the Junior TT race in the 350cc category. That same year, he went on to compete in the North West 200 competition that was held in Northern Ireland.
He won second place at that competition, in both the 350cc and 500cc categories. Other people would have been discouraged, but not Phil. He persisted in training himself until he would eventually get better at motorcycle racing. And his hard work paid off tremendously in the two years that followed the North West 200 competition.
While riding a Norton Dominator 650SS, he won the Thruxton 500 endurance race in two consecutive years. That was the moment when he established himself as a serious contender. Many people were amazed at how far he managed to get at his rather fragile age. But he wouldn’t get to compete for himself for too long after this.
He was temporarily drafted in the Scuderia Duke Gilera Grand Prix team as a replacement for Derek Minter, who was involved in a nasty accident in the month of May that same year. He scored 3rd place in his team in that event. Not his best performance, but things would only improve for him from here on out.
Racing through the 60s
During the 1960s, he was one of the most prolific figures to race on the now world-famous Yamaha motorcycles. But just how much of an impact did he have on that brand? Well, he won the 250cc class championship on one of their bikes in 1964. It was the first time that a Yamaha bike helped someone win a world title.
The following year he would go on to take that championship once again. In 1966, Yamaha would go on to introduce a brand new four-cylinder 250cc bike. Of course, Read would once again accept riding Yamaha’s bikes, since they helped him win so much credit.
However, unforeseen engine problems cost him the championship that year, with Hailwood taking his place. In 1967, determined to one-up Hailwood, he would go on to compete against him and his six-cylinder Honda. Sadly, they would end up with a tie in the final ride, and Hailwood took the championship since he had five wins, unlike Read, who only had four.
Still, he managed to further win the crowd’s respect in 1967, when he took over as representative of the Grand Prix Riders’ Association. But his collaboration with Yamaha would soon come to an abrupt end once Read decided to disobey them. He didn’t care about corporate partnerships. He just wanted glory.
The Yamaha leadership wanted Read to focus on taking the 125cc title, while his teammate, Bill Ivy focused on taking the 250cc one. This decision didn’t go well with Read, as he basically disobeyed them and took his teammate head-on for the 250cc title. He won the championship, but Yamaha chose to cut all ties with Read and they would never offer him a motorcycle again.
The 1970s, glory, and retirement
Read sat out of the racing scene for the most part of 1969 and 1970. This was because of all the major Japanese motorcycle companies bailing out of Grand Prix races. He had no other option but to consider looking at alternatives. He would go on international meetings during this time, which even earned him a place on a Yemeni postal stamp.
In 1972, Read received an offer from the MV Agusta factory. They proposed to him to ride for their motorcycle team in the 350 World Championship. Needless to say, he accepted. Then in 1973, he participated in both the 350 and 500cc World Championships, where he broke another record – he was the first man to win the 500cc title using Lockheed disc brakes.
In 1974, an event that later became legendary – the Italian mark – took place, where Read successfully defended his championship. Not only would this go on in moto racing history as one of the biggest events, but it would also be the last time a four-stroke motorcycle would win a world title until the rise of the MotoGP class almost 30 years later, in 2002.
After this phenomenal achievement, he would go on to race Agostini for the 1975 500cc World Championship. Even though he gave his competitor a rough race, Read fell just shy of winning the title. He realized that four-stroke motorcycles were going nowhere and decided to race on a Suzuki motorcycle in 1976, after which he retired from moto racing.
He had a short run in the Formula 1 racing league, after which he decided to completely retire from the scene. But before ending the talk about his career, it is also important to mention one lesser-known aspect behind the legend. He competed in the 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans and he won the Thruxton 500 endurance race in ‘62 and ‘63.
Phil Read as a businessman
An even lesser-known fact about Phil Read is that he had a great entrepreneurial spirit. In 1967, he had a business selling boats. But it wasn’t just a regular business. He relocated to Guernsey, an island in the English Channel that was practically a tax haven. So he made huge profits. Read also licensed his name to several businesses.
He even participated in marketing the “Phil Read Replica”, a full-face helmet that imitated the design he used to wear when racing. He was also responsible for opening a Honda dealership in Hersham, Surrey, in 1979, just after retiring from the scene completely. As of March 2020, he still visits race tracks across Europe.
Phil Read left a huge mark on the moto racing industry, as well as the motorcycle industry as a whole. Yamaha would’ve probably never gotten such a boost in popularity if it weren’t for him. It’s truly outstanding how a single person can change the face of an industry so much. Just think about how popular Yamaha is today – you can thank Phil Read for that.
Not only that, but it’s truly amazing that he resisted several 24-hour endurance races. Just think about how much that can affect a person’s health. Seriously, think about it. Not only did those participants get no sleep for 24 hours straight, but they also had to maintain focus on the race track. And Phil Read managed to do all that without having a single accident.
Suzuki is yet another brand that greatly benefitted from his name. Since he was the first to open one of their dealerships in Hersham, it is quite self-explanatory that they wouldn’t have expanded so much in the United Kingdom. You can see why he earned the FIM’s “Grand Prix Legend” title in 2002.
As of the time of writing this article, Phil Read is currently the oldest 500cc and MotoGP World Champion to still be alive today. This honor was granted to him because of the death of John Surtees on March 10th, 2017, who died at the age of 83. Phil Read is currently 81 years old and living in Luton, the United Kingdom along with his family.
The YoungChoppers team celebrate this great man and wish to recognize his legendary status. We hope you liked this article and that you’ve found out things that you didn’t know before.