John Surtees tribute: The island life

With six TT race victories and a total of 13 replicas to his credit, Surtees outscored other such legendary figures on The Island as Geoff Duke (five and nine respectively) and Jim Redman with five and 17, including several in the lightweight classes which neither Duke nor Surtees contested.

Words: Alan Cathcart Pictures: Mortons Archive

Only the legendary Mike Hailwood with 14 wins and Giacomo Agostini with 10 (tying with the great pre-Second World War maestro Stanley Woods), were more successful in the big-bike classes.

John Surtees after the 1959 Senior TT

Considering the honours he was later to gain there, Surtees’ Island debut could hardly have been less auspicious. Already identified as a star of the future by virtue of his growing success as an 18-year-old short circuit rider, plans to ride in the Manx GP of 1952 fell through when, as a Vincent apprentice, he was called on to assist the factory in a series of record attempts at Montlhery in September that year.

However in 1953 John and his father obtained the promise of a Manx Norton from Norton boss Gilbert Smith, and entered for the TT. Imagine John’s astonishment when legendary Norton race boss Joe Craig then came up with a brace of Norton factory machines, on which to make his Island debut!

“To say I was both astonished and overawed would be an understatement,” recalls John. “Here I was, a lad of 19, still an apprentice, with a history of some success on short circuits but absolutely no experience of the TT course, being entrusted with two of his pet machines by the most famous man in British racing. I was absolutely terrified at the responsibility.” In the end though, fate interceded, for Surtees had also agreed to ride a 125cc EMC two-stroke for Dr Joe Ehrlich in the Ultra-Lightweight race, before the offer of the works Nortons came along.

“I reasoned that any extra mileage I could get in would be worthwhile,” says John, “and though Joe Craig was very unhappy about my riding the EMC, I’d promised Ehrlich and felt I had to see it through. Unfortunately, the front forks collapsed on the long left-hander after Ballaugh Bridge, called Ballacrye, and I ended up on my ear with a broken left wrist. I was so disappointed and upset I took the next boat home. It took nearly a year for Joe Craig to bring himself to speak to me again, he was so angry.”

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