John Surtees: The beginning of competition

John Surtees may have had his first taste of riding a motorcycle at the age of 12 on the Wallace-Blackburne speedway bike, but it wasn’t until the lofty age of 14 that he took his first step into motorcycle competition.

Jack the driver, John the passenger but both are using their bodies to counter the effects of the big Vincent’s torque.

John said: “I was 14 when I first entered a race. It was as a passenger to my father in his 1000cc Vincent sidecar outfit at Trent Park in London when his usual partner couldn’t make the race.”

In a set of his father’s old leathers, the young John became adept at providing traction by shifting around the outfit, but his early taste of action was curtailed when officials discovered his age, and promptly disqualified him for being underage!


He was bitten by the bug though and just before his son’s 15th birthday Jack Surtees let John loose for an impromptu blast along a public road at Warlingham Heights on the North Downs: “It was a glorious moment. Although the bike was too big for me I took to it immediately. I remember my father warning me to take it easy but once I was on the bike and had the open road in front of me I was away. It was a life-changing moment.”

Naturally, John Surtees was to find his way to a solo race and this was in 1948 aboard a 500cc B14 Excelsior-Jap, pretty much following in his father’s footsteps. That first outing at Eaton-Bray grasstrack in Luton had many more downs than ups and after a clutch of falls Jack stepped in and said that his son had better try out something smaller and more manageable.

As it was, this coincided with a piece of historical significance. Brands Hatch had just been given its new paved surface and in April 1950 John Surtees took to the solid surface with gusto on a Triumph Tiger 70, a prewar 250cc motorcycle.


“At the start of the race it wasn’t raining but it started soon after we got going. One moment I was up and the next I was sliding on the track without the bike underneath me. It was a lesson learned that day though, I couldn’t just try to win by going fast, I had to be more aware of what was happening around me.”

It wasn’t long before the unreliable
Triumph made way for something bigger
and more robust – a Vincent – which, in turn, was moved aside for the first 500cc Manx Norton.

That was in 1952 when John made his debut in his first World Championship race, finishing sixth in the Ulster GP.


The thrill of domestic racing had lost its glare, in the wake of Les Graham winning the inaugural 500cc World Championship in 1949, John Surtees had found a route to global competition…

Read more on John Surtees’ incredible life in the May/June issue of CR – on sale now!


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