Phil Read – ‘The Prince of Speed’ – has died aged 83

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Britain’s most successful motorcycle racer, Phil Read MBE has died at the age of 83. He was one of the greatest motorcycle racers ever to come out of Great Britain – and with 121 Grand Prix podiums to his credit, he was certainly the most successful. But he was also one of the most controversial.  

A statement released by his son, Phil Read Jnr, on behalf of the family said: “It is with incredible sadness that the Read family reports the passing of Phil Read MBE while peacefully asleep on the morning of October 6th, 2022, at his home in Canterbury, England. 

“Phil is best known for winning Yamaha’s first world championship title in 1964 with four more Yamaha-mounted titles including one fought as a privateer, plus two premier class 500cc world championships in 1973 and 1974 for the Italian MV Agusta marque.  

“Often a controversial and outspoken figure, his prolific racing career included 52 FIM Grand Prix wins and eight wins at the iconic Isle of Man TT Races. In 2002 he was granted the status of ‘MotoGP Legend’ by Dorna. 

“Phil is survived by his sons Michael, Graham, Phil Jr, Roki and daughter Esme.” 

For all his eight world championships and eight TT wins, he will also be remembered for defying gentlemen’s agreements with manufacturers, having bust-ups with team-mates, and for boycotting the TT and helping to deprive it of world championship status, only to later return.  

Whatever your opinion of Read as a person, there can be no denying his talents on a motorcycle and the achievements that made him one of the all-time greats. He was the first man to win 125cc, 250cc and 500cc world championships, the first man to win a world title for Yamaha (250cc, 1964), the first man to win a TT on a Yamaha (Lightweight 125 TT, 1965), the first man to win a world championship as a privateer (250cc, 1971) and the last man to win a world title for MV Agusta (500cc, 1974). With a total of 121 podiums to his credit, Phil Read remains the most successful British GP rider of all time. 

Impressive as they are, Read’s accomplishments would undoubtedly have been even greater had his racing career not happened to coincide with that of Mike Hailwood. Regarded by many as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, Hailwood was a constant thorn-in-the-side to Read and Read himself openly acknowledged that he would have won more world titles and TT races if he’d not had Mike to deal with. The fact that he did win 8 world titles and 8 TT races – often against Hailwood – is testament to Read’s own brilliance as a rider.  

Born in Luton, Bedfordshire, on New Year’s Day, 1939, Phillip William Read was an apprentice fitter at an industrial machinery company when he started riding on the road at the age of 16 in 1955. He started club racing in 1958 and enjoyed his first major success by winning the Senior Manx Grand Prix in 1960. His progression from there was rapid as he took victory in the Junior TT less than one year later.  

In 1964 Read signed for Yamaha and delivered the firm’s first ever world title with victory in the 250cc GP world championship. Yet he later remembered being amazed at just how poorly prepared the Japanese factory seemed to be in those early years. “I didn’t realise how inexperienced and perhaps naive the Japanese were about racing back then” he said. “They were great engineers, but as far as racing was concerned they were learning as they went along. I should have had more time at the factory and spent longer trying to improve things. They were new to the game and were going Grand Prix racing at the highest level and yet they didn’t understand about chassis and suspension.” 

But Yamaha must have been doing something right as Read successfully defended the 250cc world title in 1965, though he lost out to his nemesis, Mike Hailwood over the next two years. In 1968 Read lifted both the 125 and 250cc world championships for Yamaha – albeit in the most controversial of circumstances.  

With Yamaha – and most other manufacturers – withdrawing from racing after the 1968 season, Read opted not to contest GPs, choosing to focus on major British and European international meetings. When he did return to the Grand Prix scene in 1971 it was on a production Yamaha – albeit a rather special one – developed by Ferry Brouwer (who went on to found Arai Europe). On it, Read added a fifth world title to his collection and became the first man to win a world championship on a privateer machine. Jon Ekerold equalled this feat in 1980 when he won the 350cc world title as a privateer but it’s safe to say it will never happen again. 

After signing with MV Agusta to race its 350 machine in 1972, Read then took the 500cc world championship for the Italian marque in 1973 and again in 1974. This would prove to be both Read and MV Agusta’s last Grand Prix world championship success and the last for a four-stroke machine until the advent of MotoGP in 2002.  

Realising that four-stroke machinery was on the way out, Read left MV Agusta to contest the 1976 GP season on a privateer Suzuki RG500 – the customer version of the bike that Barry Sheene won that year’s world title on – but could only manage 10th place in the championship and decided to hang up his leathers. 

It wasn’t to last. In 1977 Read made a hugely controversial return to the Isle of Man TT (see separate story) and won the one-race Formula One world championship. As an officially sanctioned FIM world championship, Read now had every right to call himself an eight-times world champion but even he would have agreed that this one-race event was not the equal of a hard-fought season on the Grand Prix trail.  

Read also won the Senior TT in 1977 but that was to be his last hurrah. He returned in 1978 and again in 1982 (where he finished a very respectable fourth in the Senior) but the glory days were over. Read’s very last race on his beloved TT Mountain Course was in the Classic Senior at the Manx Grand Prix in 1998 at the ripe old age of 59. He finished 16th on his G50 Matchless after suffering machine gremlins throughout the event.  

In 1979, Read was awarded an MBE by the Queen for services to motorsport. He turned up at Buckingham Palace dressed in top hat and tails and riding the revolutionary Quasar – a semi-enclosed motorcycle with a feet-forward riding style. Read was involved in promoting the project but only 21 bikes were ever made. 

In retirement, Read was involved in various business ventures, from selling boats to distributing Premier helmets and opening a Honda dealership in Surrey, and still competed in the occasional classic race.  

Love him or hate him, Phil Read was a force of nature on a racing motorcycle and he remains Britain’s most successful Grand Prix racer of all time. Motorcycling has lost a true legend and a man who refused to live his life on anything but his own terms.  

Our sincere condolences go to the entire Read family. 

Phil Read: A career in numbers  

World Titles 

  • 125cc Grand Prix World Champion, 1968 
  • 250cc Grand Prix World Champion, 1964, 1965, 1968, 1971 
  • 500cc Grand Prix World Champion, 1974, 1975 
  • Formula TT World Champion, 1977 
  • GP starts: 152 
  • GP wins: 52 
  • GP podiums: 121 

TT & Manx Grand Prix Wins 

  • Senior Manx Grand Prix, 1960 
  • Junior TT, 1961 
  • Lightweight 125 TT, 1965 
  • Lightweight 125 TT, 1967 
  • Lightweight 125 TT, 1968 
  • Lightweight 250 TT, 1971 
  • Lightweight 250 TT, 1972 
  • Formula One TT and Senior TT, 1977 
Stuart Barker

By Stuart Barker