Tom Phillis Remembered: World 125cc Champion 1961
It started with a letter. A personal but well-argued letter written late in 1959 by an Australian racer to the founder a Japanese motorcycle company.
The rider was Tom Phillis, then a private entrant on the Continental Circus with two years’ experience. In 1959 he’d recorded three 500cm3 international race victories.
Born in Sydney on April 9, 1934, he was 25 years old and married with a baby daughter.
The company owner was Soichiro Honda, who’d taken his Honda Motor Company from a $3000 venture in 1948 to an annual production of 750,000 machines – 20 per cent of the world’s total production.
Phillis’ reward ignoring the skeptics and playing a hunch that Honda machines would improve rapidly was a works ride with Honda in 1960 and a part in developing machines that soon swept the board in world championship road racing.
When Honda entered a team of twin-cylinder machines in the 1959 Isle of Man 125 TT, run on the 11km Clypse circuit, Triumph’s Edward Turner said he looked forward to the day when a Japanese motorcycle completed a single lap of the 61km Mountain Course. Some thought the Hondas looked well finished but quaint.
However, open-minded people like Phillis and Swiss ace Luigi Taveri (a future three-times 125 champion for Honda) appreciated their potential.
Turner for his arrogance didn’t have long to wait for the first full TT lap. In 1960, Honda returned to the Island with revised 125 twins and 16-valve 250 fours. Phillis had been named as a works rider in February 1960. Compatriot Bob Brown was added to the team at the TT. At the time he was the best-performed Australian rider in Europe.
Phillis had machines troubles in the 250 TT, but Brown finished fourth, becoming the first Westerner to score world championship points on a Japanese machine.
It seems no-one bothered to ask for Turner’s reaction when, in the 1961 IoM TT, Hondas whitewashed the field in two classes – first four places in the 125 TT and first five in the 250 TT.
Phillis meantime had written himself in Honda legend, recording Honda’s first world championship race victory at Montjuich Parc, Barcelona on April 23, 1961 and Honda’s first GP double at Clermont-Ferrand, France on May 21.
Phillis went on to clinch a drama-filled world 125 championship in the last round in on October 15 in Argentina, while Mike Hailwood won the world 250 championship on a machine supplied by the British Honda agent.
In fact Tom Phillis was a trend-setting international motorcycle racer. He was the first rider to win a world championship Grand Prix on a Japanese machine, the first Australian to record a Grand Prix double, the first man to lap the Isle of Man at 100mph on a push-rod machine and Australia’s second world motorcycle champion (third in any form of Grand Prix racing, two or four wheels). His record of six GP victories in the 1961 season wasn’t bettered by another Australian rider for 17 years (by Gregg Hansford in 1978).
Sadly, Tom Phillis was also a rider lost in his prime — at the 1962 Isle of Man TT. As was all-too-often the case in 1950s and 1960s motor racing, his one serious accident was fatal.