Surtees needs no introduction. The only person ever to have won World Championships on both two wheels and four, “Big John” is one of the greatest racers who ever lived—revered for what he won and how he did it. No racer ever climbed to the top of either sport as quickly as Surtees did. He was that good.
Surtees’ racing career began on three wheels, competing alongside his father—a successful South London motorcycle dealer—on a Vincent sidecar rig. Surtees even worked at the Vincent factory in Stevenage for a spell as an apprentice in 1950 when he was 16. He made his solo racing debut the next year, announcing his arrival by nearly defeating factory Norton star Geoff Duke in a contest at the famed Thruxton Circuit.
By 1955, Surtees was stationed alongside Duke on the factory Norton team, though he switched to MV Agusta for the 1956 Grand Prix season. That year, riding Count Domenico Agusta’s screaming 500 Quattro “Fire Engine,” Surtees won his first 500cc World Championship. He finished third overall in the 1957 season but returned with a vengeance in 1958, 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 called dominant—he won 32 of 39 Grand Prix races between 1958 and 1960, and also became the first man to win the Isle of Man Senior TT three years consecutively.
Although under contract with MV Agusta in 1960, Surtees wanted a simpler machine to supplement his racing opportunities for non-World Championship events where it wasn’t possible—or profitable—to field the exotic and expensive-to-run multicylinder MVs. For that, he turned to AJS, but the development of this British bike was not well-received by his Italian employers. In many ways, this motorcycle’s arrival hastened the end of Surtees’ two-wheeled Grand Prix career and brought on his second act as a four-wheeled racing star.
The “Surtees Special” began with a one-off frame commissioned from Ken Sprayson—the famed “Frame Man” at Reynolds Tube Company in Birmingham, England. Sprayson, who led Reynolds’ special-projects skunk works, built the frame from the firm’s legendary cold-drawn 531 manganese/molybdenum blend. Surtees rejected the first frame Sprayson provided, citing vague handling; this is the second version, with a different bracing arrangement around the steering head for more precise steering character.
Surtees installed a 348cc four-stroke single lifted from an AJS 7R. Nicknamed the “Boy Racer,” the overhead-cam 7R was famously underpowered in factory form, producing barely 30 bhp. When properly tuned, however—in this case, by Jack Williams, who led the Associated Motor Cycles (then the parent company of AJS) race shop—the 7R single was fearsomely fast, superior to even the dominant Norton Manx.
Even though every aspect of this bike is custom-tailored to John Surtees, he never raced it. He tested the bike at Brands Hatch and Cadwell Park, where he allegedly stated, “I don’t need an MV to win in the 350 class anymore.” Indeed, the competitiveness of the Special was what ultimately kept Surtees from competing with it. As soon as Count Agusta got wind of Surtees’ times on it, he forbid the champion from racing the bike. It opened a rift that eventually led Surtees to abandon MV Agusta and motorcycle racing entirely to devote himself to auto racing.
Surtees finished second to Jim Clark’s works Lotus in his debut auto race at Goodwood, driving a Cooper-Climax F2 he purchased and prepared himself. He never looked back. By 1963, he was a member of the premier Scuderia Ferrari factory team, where he won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1964.
This wasn’t the end of the Surtees Special, however. The bike was eventually sold, first to Rex Butcher, and then to tuner Tom Arter, who used it to win many races with a variety of talented riders. Mike Duff set a lap record with it at Brands Hatch in 1964 that stood for many years. Peter Williams—Jack Williams’ son, widely considered one of the best racers never to win a World Championship—took over after Duff left Arter’s squad to race for the factory Yamaha team. In his autobiography, Peter Williams: Designed to Race, Williams called the Surtees Special “one of the nicest bikes I have ever ridden.” Push-starting the bike was “like pushing a bicycle,” Williams recalled, and he affectionately called the bike his “little 500,” since, on the racetrack, it was faster than many 500s. It was the Surtees Special that gave Williams his first-ever national win, at Mallory Park in 1965.
This bike was essentially the prototype for a long line of AJS-based Arter Specials that remained competitive in Grand Prix racing well into the ’70s, long after any British single should have had a chance. All of these borrowed heavily from Surtees’ original formula. Brooklyn-based classics specialists Team Obsolete acquired the Surtees Special directly from the Arter collection, which was put up for auction shortly after Tom Arter Sr. died in 2000. Team Obsolete’s Rob Iannucci owns more Arter Specials than anyone else in the world, but Iannucci says this is the most special—for obvious reasons. The bike was originally acquired in pieces, and it wasn’t until 2016 that Iannucci was ready to commit to a yearlong, ground-up restoration. We were there at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway on the day when the Surtees Special lapped a racetrack for the first time since 1970—and we were lucky enough to take a few laps ourselves.
The Surtees Special is beautiful. The frame wraps tightly around the distinctive, gold-toned AJS engine—it’s not an easy bike to service, Team Obsolete’s Josh Mackenzie reports. Topped with a gorgeous fuel tank hand-formed by Evan Wilcox and surrounded by a slim, dolphin-nose fairing molded by Avon, it’s a remarkably elegant and striking racing machine.
Dave Roper, Team Obsolete’s lead technician and a legendary vintage racer himself, made the honorary first laps and walked away very impressed.
“This is the bike we have the least experience with in our collection,” Roper reported trackside, “but I’m very impressed. Duff and Williams both raved about this chassis, and indeed, it steers very well, is quite light, and has very good performance compared to our many other 7Rs. I can’t wait to ride it more.”
It was my turn next, and I approached the Surtees Special with a mix of unfettered excitement and utter respect. It feels like the quintessential classic European roadracing machine. Long, low, and very narrow between the knees, the Sprayson-framed Surtees Special isn’t a short-circuit scratcher. It feels tailor-made for the very fast, very flowing circuits that defined roadracing in the ’50s and ’60s. Big John’s bike loves swoopy lines, and it’s a special joy to bend it into a long corner, then crack open the throttle and let the strong, torquey four-stroke single hustle you away from the apex. You can tell this bike is built for long, hard races. It’s a really easy, calm machine to ride at speed, even on a short, stop-and-go track like Thompson Speedway.
It was Rob Iannucci’s dream to reunite John Surtees with the very special AJS he designed—and that dream nearly came true. Surtees remained active in classics racing until recently, and he remained quite fast. Iannucci and Surtees were in frequent contact during the course of this restoration, with Surtees providing valuable input and insight right up until the day the British racing legend passed away in London on March 10, 2017, at age 83—just two months before the restored machine’s Thompson Speedway debut.
Rumors of Valentino Rossi taking up auto racing notwithstanding, it’s quite likely that John Surtees will remain for all time the only person to win World Championships in both disciplines. And so, we wonder, “What if?” What if Count Agusta didn’t interfere, and what if John Surtees had gone on to race his Special AJS 7R? Might it have changed the trajectory of his career? Might it have kept him from switching to cars and realizing his historic double achievement? Although it’s doubtful that Surtees wouldn’t have gone to the car side eventually, there’s no doubt that this all-too-capable roadracing machine helped push him in that direction sooner than otherwise would have been likely.