The bikes of Phil Read's life – after 60 years in the saddle

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60 years ago this year, a teenage Phil Read got the keys to his first road bike. It kickstarted a life defined by motorcycles – of thrashing them, racing them, crashing them… And the small matter of eight world titles in 125, 250 and 500 GPs along the way…

The bike that got me started…

n my first road bike, a Velocette KSS 350, I felt king of the road and loved to out-ride Triumph Tiger 100s and BSA Goldstars. The rare Vincent Black Shadows, then the fastest and most expensive bikes, I loved to tease as most riders were wealthy and older so they wouldn’t dare risk damaging their prized machines.

At 17 years old I knew no better, since my previous riding experience had been on an old hand-change 250 side-valve Matchless with flat worn tyres and an open primary chain, sliding around my mother’s field. I could not understand why my friends told me I would soon kill myself by the way I was riding my Velo around Luton or why my factory boss told me to slow down and stop doing powerslides when entering his cinder car park.


…and convinced me to race

I soon learned a never to be forgotten lesson when I very nearly hit a car head-on when overtaking traffic on my return home from the south coast. This was my greatest scare, which told me that racing on the roads was dangerous, but racing on closed circuits – with everyone going the same way – was the only way to fully enjoy riding to the maximum against other people. It was also a big bonus to have first aid people on every corner and prize money for being the fastest.


The fastest Goldie in Norfolk!

The following year, in 1956, I collected my new sports/race machine from Bert England’s, the BSA agent. I entered my prized 350 Goldie in a Clubmans race at a new race circuit called Kirkby Mallory on May 13, to which I rode my bike, raced and rode it home again.

For future races I replaced some of the heavy parts alloy bits. Also I knew enough from reading “Tuning for Speed” to improve the carburation, doing speed runs on the road with different main jets to get the highest revs. (There was very little traffic in those days!) I now of course understand the weather conditions, the circuit’s height above sea level and exhaust system has an effect on all this. But as I was still being beaten by the pedigree Manx and 7R race bikes I designed and had made for me a full dustbin fairing. My Goldie then became the fastest 350 single down Snetterton’s long straight, but not so good on short and twisty circuits.

BSA was so nearly a winner

I changed my Goldie for an ex-Alan Rutherford 350 Duke BSA. It was lighter, revved more to produce higher power with bigger lighter valves, a slipper piston with higher compression ratio and a different crankshaft balance factor, all of which made it equal to the standard Manx and 7R’s at half the cost.  

My last race on the Duke BSA was at Silverstone in the wet. I soon got up to 3rd place behind two Manx’s and wondered why they were going so steadily. I was finally going to win my first race and at this famous race track where I had first watched my racing hero’s three years before. Wrong, I hit the bank at Stowe corner braking my wrist and destroying the Duke’s unique alloy head fairing and tank unit.

Speed Twin: “I shouldn’t have listened to Geoff Duke”

As I was still serving my five-year apprenticeship at a Luton engineering company when my Goldie was for racing only, I bought an old Triumph Speed Twin with girder forks. Riding to work one morning with my mother’s pick-axe handle to be sharpened in my backpack it went into a tankslapper. I remembered I had read that Geoff Duke had told riders to open the throttle to ride out of this situation. I did this, which made it worse, and was thrown off. When bouncing down the road I thought: ‘F**k Geoff Duke, thanks a lot’.

The most enjoyable bike

Of all the bikes I have ridden, the one I enjoyed the most was a K1100RS BMW. Although heavy, it was fast, comfortable and most convenient for a passenger, with or without luggage. I never had another bike stay ahead of me for long at high speed as they couldn’t withstand the wind pressure at 100mph-plus. The BMW only had a small windscreen but with a top spoiler which made all the difference. BMW had the aerodynamics right with that spoiler, and still not many benefit. And, importantly, I never needed to adjust a chain!

The MV F4 750 sounded like a Velocette!

In 1999 I helped launch the MV Agusta F4 in the UK at Mallory Park. It was £25,000 ‘Oro’ version, all carbon and magnesium. It still is fantastic and the most beautiful sports motorcycle ever seen, but I relayed two complaints to MV’s president the next day: It sounded like an LE Velocette and squashed one’s thumbs on full lock. 

I set about making my MV into a more beautiful and better machine during 2000. I designed and had produced a set of sports exhausts with carbon cans with a new chip. I had produced some carbon thumb recesses to fix in the air tubes, a carbon hugger I designed and fitted, together with some other carbon mouldings, an Ohlins shock and stronger multi-rate fork springs. It now sounded like the ‘Ferrari of Motorcycles’ and handled like a 250. I was very pleased with the results and as the MV factory did not produce any of these special parts at that time I did well selling many of my upgrade sets to happier MV owners.

I took my F4 to the MV factory and was told by the export manager: ‘Go away and don’t say anything about our machines’. The much more friendly factory service engineers then agreed to upgrade my F4 with improved parts, such as twin rads, new gear-change mechanism, new camshafts and pushers and a part to stop the oil filter unscrewing.”