Many readers were quick to point out that the “Motorcyclist of the Century” story from our commemorative 100th-anniversary issue (September 2012) suffered one glaring omission—there was no mention of British racing great John Surtees, the only person ever to have won World Championships on both two wheels and four. Let us correct that oversight right now, and properly recognize one of our sport’s giants.
“Big John’s” racing career actually began on three wheels, competing alongside his father on a Vincent sidecar outfit. The son of a successful South London motorcycle dealer, Surtees was raised around motorcycles and began work as an apprentice at the Vincent factory in Stevenage in 1950, at the age of 16. Surtees first began attracting attention on the racetrack the next year, after nearly beating factory Norton star Geoff Duke in a contest at the famed Thruxton Circuit.
Surtees’ deep well of innate talent allowed him to be immediately successful on two wheels
By 1955 Surtees had emerged as Duke’s fiercest competitor, beating the then-five-time World Champion at both Silverstone and Brands Hatch that year. Surtees was also a factory Norton rider by that time, though he switched to MV Agusta for the 1956 Grand Prix season (continuing to race his beloved Norton Manxes in British events). That year, riding Count Agusta’s screaming 500 Quattro “fire engine,” Surtees won his first 500cc motorcycle World Championship, taking the checkered flag first in three of six events. Surtees finished third overall in the 1957 season, his MV outpaced by much-faster Gileras, but he returned with a vengeance in 1958—aided by the fact that Gilera and Moto Guzzi had both withdrawn from Grand Prix racing that year—winning both the 350cc and 500cc World Championships, and repeating that feat again in 1959 and 1960. Surtees’ performance during this period can only be described as dominant—he won 32 of 39 Grand Prix between 1958-60, and also became the first man to win the Isle of Man’s Senior TT three years consecutively.
Surtees had been toying with racecars since 1958, when he got his first ride around Goodwood in an Aston Martin DBR1 provided by his friend Reg Parnell. In 1960, despite the crushing demands of competing in (and winning) two Grand Prix classes, he still found time to occasionally race a Cooper-Climax F2 he purchased himself. He was immediately successful with cars—in his debut race at Goodwood he finished second to Jim Clark’s works Lotus. Surtees quickly rose through the driving ranks to join the premier Scuderia Ferrari factory team in 1963, and Big John won his first—and only—Formula 1 World Championship for Ferrari in 1964. Though he never won another World Championship, Surtees stayed active in automobile racing through the early seventies, winning a Can Am series title and numerous individual races, before retiring from competitive driving in 1972—the same year another famous motorcyclist, Mike Hailwood, won the European Formula 2 Championship driving for Surtees’ racing team.
Surtees remains active today in classics racing, and is still very fast on two wheels and four. Rumors of Casey Stoner taking up auto racing not withstanding, it’s quite likely that Surtees will remain for all time the only person to win World Championships in both sports. That’s a feat that certainly deserved a mention in our “Motorcyclist of the Century” roundup—if not a legitimate claim to that crown.