Tom Phillis: A bridge too far

Rider Profile

Classic style – Tom Phillis at Fishermen’s Bend, February 1959.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Charles Rice, Keith Ward, Tom Perry

The feeling of disbelief that followed the death of Tom Phillis on the Isle of Man in 1962 was palpable. How could Tom, fast but safe, overstep the mark with fatal consequences? Theories have been expounded since that fateful day, but a common thread is that he felt betrayed by Honda – the factory to which he had delivered their first Grand Prix win (the Spanish 125cc GP 1961) and the 125cc World Championship in the same year. He had something to prove, but it all went horribly wrong.

Phillis had come to Europe via the traditional ‘Kangaroo Route’ and was, by 1962, a five-year veteran of the Continental Circus. The road to Europe began with a 350cc Velocette that Tom rode in the Clubman classes at Mount Druitt and Bathurst; a mount that doubled as road transport. Married to Betty at age 20, the newly weds saved enough money to buy a modest house in Sydney’s inner western suburbs, but instead invested in more competitive racing tackle, a BSA Gold Star. That’s true love for you.

Left: Early days; on the 250cc Pouch he shared with Roy East in the 1955 Mt. Druitt 24 Hour race. Right: Collarbone broken, arm in a sling, but still cheerful. Tom prior to the 1959 Australian TT.

Prior to motorcycles, Tom had excelled at pushbike racing, reaching top level at the highly competitive Velodromes at Wiley Park and Henson Park in western Sydney. Ironically, he abandoned cycling after a heavy fall at Henson Park, opting for motor cycle racing. His first bike was a 500cc Sunbeam, and his racing debut came at Orange in 1952 – a debut that lasted less than one kilometre before his 350cc Velocette expired.

Tom was totally committed to racing in Europe, and particularly the Isle of Man TT, and reckoned their savings would be sufficient to get them there for the 1957 season. Then the Suez crisis intervened, so part of the money went on a 500cc Manx Norton purchased from Sydney patent attorney Barry Hodgkinson, who had been one of Australia’s official TT Representatives in 1955. On the Manx, Tom moved up a gear, developing a classic, smooth style that was to stay with him throughout his career. There was little racing in NSW at this time, so Tom and Betty hit the road often, competing at Fishermen’s Bend in Melbourne and Lowood in Queensland, where he scored his biggest success to date; a 350/500 double title at the Queensland TT in November. Four weeks later, Tom defeated Harry Hinton Junior and Jack Ahearn to win the International Grand Prix at Mount Druitt. Beating these two seasoned internationals cast the die for 1958; Tom and Betty were off to the big time in Europe. 

The life of a racing journeyman. Tom (singlet), Bob Lewis (striped shirt) and Tom’s father at work on Tom’s Nortons at Darley.
In November 1959, Tom (2) on the 125cc Ducati chases Allan Osborne’s Honda at Darley.

Selling up their entire possessions, they sailed for England, arriving in plenty of time to get ready for the season. An ex-British Rail two-ton light van, a pair of new Manx Nortons, and some letters of introduction set the tone for the year, and at just his second meeting in Britain on Easter Monday, Tom won both 350cc and 500cc races at the Thruxton circuit at Andover. Six months criss-crossing the Continent followed, as far afield as Scandinavia and of course, his long awaited debut in the Isle of Man. Riding to learn, Tom finished 32nd in the Junior TT at an average of 84.84 mph, and followed this with an impressive 18th in the Senior at 91.57 mph. At the end of the season, the Nortons were packed aboard ship and the Phillis’ sailed for home.

The plan was to dispose of the Nortons, for which there was a ready market, and secure an official nomination from the Auto Cycle Council of Australia as a representative for the 1959 TT. This would basically cover the cost of the return fare, but first he needed to reassure the home fans of his credentials. The Australian TT that year was scheduled for Albany, Western Australia – about as far west from his parents’ home in Hurstville as it was possible to get. To begin the journey with his father Tom Senior acting as mechanic, they journeyed to Melbourne to the pocket-handkerchief track at Darley, near Bacchus Marsh. Uncharacteristically, Tom fell off, breaking a collarbone, so it was a mighty uncomfortable trip in Tom Senior’s little Hillman, with the two Nortons cammed into a small trailer behind. It took four days and nights, driving through South Australian and across the Nullarbor, before they arrived at Albany, where the Australian TT would be contested on a circuit using the city’s streets. The day before the meeting, Tom further agrivated his shoulder injury while crank-starting the car, but with his shoulder heavily strapped, won both the 350cc and 500cc races, and finished third in the Unlimited TT. In March 1959, he competed in the Australian TT at Longford Tasmania, where he and Eric Hinton battled furiously for honours on the high-speed public roads circuit.

Tom (1) battling with Eric Hinton in the 1959 Australian TT at Longford, Tasmania.

There was heavy competition for the TT Reps grant between Tom, Bob Brown, Ron Miles (who had won the Unlimited TT at Albany) and Eric Hinton. Although he missed out on the local gong, Tom secured a financial package from the ACU of Great Britain on the basis of his promising 1958 TT debut. There was just one snag; the arrival of daughter Debra, which pretty much ruled out the idea of Betty returning to Europe with Tom. With the cash from the sale of his Nortons, Tom ordered a new pair of Manxes and set sail. Another season of marathon mileage followed, and there was sufficient success to further add to his growing reputation as a top international racer.  The TT however, proved tough work. While holding an excellent tenth place in the Junior, his Norton broke a conrod on the final lap, then in the horrendous Senior TT run in torrential rain, he soldiered on to finish a sodden, freezing 16th. The six months away from his wife and new daughter had also been difficult for Tom, and he admitted to harbouring thoughts of retirement from racing at the close of the 1959 season. But Betty put that right, saying she was quite prepared for another nomadic year in Europe, along with one-year-old Debra, so Tom purchased a caravan prior to sailing for home.

Once again, the Australian summer season saw Tom clocking up the miles between meetings. Mount Druitt was now closed, so racing meant interstate trips, of which there were quite a few. On New Year’s Day, 1960, he was at Phillip Island aboard his soon-to-be-sold Nortons and on Jack Walters’ 125cc DOHC Ducati.

Left: A wonderful Charles Rice portrait of Tom of the grid at Fishermen’s Bend, February 1959. Right: A graphic shot of Tom flat out on the 125 Ducati, New Year’s Day 1960 at Phillip Island.

One important task Tom completed while at home was off-track. At the 1959 TT, he, along with the rest of the western establishment, had witnessed the nascent steps of the Japanese Honda team with their funny looking lightweights. It’s history now that the Honda squad garnered the team prize in the Ultra Lightweight, and were clearly serious in their quest for top honours. He penned a carefully-worded letter to Soichiro Honda himself, offering his services for the 1960 season, and it paid off. Tom became only the second non-Japanese rider – American Bill Hunt was part of the 125cc squad for the 1959 125cc TT – to join the Honda factory team in the 125cc and 250cc classes. Fellow Australian Bob Brown was recruited during the TT practice week to ride alongside Phillis in the 250cc squad.

In the TT, Tom’s 125 needed a plug change during the race, dropping him from sixth to tenth, while in the Lightweight TT, run this year on the full Mountain Course, gearbox failure put him out. One week later at the Dutch TT at Assen, Tom crashed during practice and broke a collarbone, and on his recommendation, Jim Redman was given the ride. Honda gave the Belgian GP a miss, preferring to spend the time updating their 4 cylinder 250 for the German GP at Solitude on July 24. For some unfathomable reason, Brown had been refused a start in the 250 race at Assen, but was back in the team in Germany on the revamped 4 cylinder model. During practice, the engine developed a misfire and Brown was riding back to the pits at a reduced pace when it suddenly cleared onto four cylinders again, catching him unawares and dumping him heavily onto the track. Brown died hours later from a fractured skull.

Tom (1) with Jim Redman (46) and Bob Macintyre (45) at Brands Hatch, all on four cylinder 250cc Hondas.

Phillis’ collarbone was sufficiently healed for him to race at Thruxton, one of his favourite circuits, in August, where he won the 350 race on his Norton. Then it was off to the Ulster GP to re-join the Honda team. It didn’t start well, with a crash in the 125 race when the fuel tank sprung a leak, but he covered himself in glory on the 250, chasing World Champion Carlo Ubbilai’s MV Agusta all the way and finishing just 2 seconds behind – Honda’s best-ever GP result. Before sailing for home Tom wrapped up his season with a triple victory (125, 350, 500) at Tampere, Finland, and three more 125 wins at meetings in England.

As well as giving him the opportunity to sell his Nortons, the return trip to Australia allowed Tom to thrill local audiences with the sight and sound of the works 250cc Honda, which he rode to devastating effect at Phillip Island on 2nd January, 1961 and at Hume Weir, where he suffered the only defeat on the Honda to Ken Rumble in a very wet 500cc race. He also rode his Nortons at Ballarat Airstrip two weeks later, and fronted for the opening meeting at the new Calder circuit soon after. Importantly, Tom had a Honda contract in his pocket for the full 1961 season in Europe.

Tom’s only defeat on the 250 Honda in Australia came at the wet Hume Weir meeting to Ken Rumble’s Norton in the 500cc race.

For this year, the Phillis family based themselves in the Isle of Man, where their second child, Thomas Braddan, was born during the TT week. Tom had the services of Australian mechanic Bob Lewis, two Nortons and two Hondas, all of which were carried in a Ford van. There was a further Norton for the TT – the works twin cylinder ‘Domiracer’ that Development Engineer Doug Hele had put together. As became their style, Honda decided to dominate the smaller classes by sheer weight of numbers, providing works-replicas machines for a large number of selected riders (including Mike Hailwood and Bob Macintyre) entered via local importers. The official works team was Phillis, Redman and Luigi Taveri, with Kunimitsu Takahashi in some events. The weight of Honda’s responsibility in servicing the needs of all these riders worried both Redman and Phillis, but both went about their jobs diligently, and with four GP victories, Tom became World Champion in the 125cc class. He also scored two GP wins and finished second to Hailwood’s “private” Honda 250-4 in the Lightweight class. At the Isle of Man, he rode to a brilliant third place in the Senior TT on the Domiracer, recording two consecutive 100 mph  laps – the first ever for a pushrod engine machine. He also finished second in the Lightweight and third in the Ultra Lightweight TTs.

A classic Keith Ward shot of Tom on the Honda 250-4 at Phillip Island, 1961.

On the strength of these performances, Tom could be excused for thinking that he was to be Honda’s blue-eyed boy for the 1962 season. Instead, he became embroiled in a confusing game of politics within the team. Despite being too big for the tiny machine, Honda ordered him to contest the new 50cc class instead of allowing him to defend his 125cc crown, plus the 250cc category. In the Spanish and French GPs which opened the season, Phillis was ordered to slow down while leading both 250cc races, allowing Redman through for the win.

Screaming through Union Mills in the 1961 125cc TT, with Honda team mate Taniguchi close behind.

By the time the Isle of Man rolled around in June, Tom was in a different state of mind, and determined to prove a point. Honda had entered him in the 125cc, 250cc and 350cc races – the latter on a 285cc version of the 250-4. Tom’s race week began with the Lightweight, where a misfire slowed him to third. Another third followed in the 125cc race, held in the morning. Later that day, he lined up on the 285cc job for the Junior TT.

Tom was hard to beat at Phillip Island. Here in 1962, he leads Ken Rumble and Trevor Pound.

In his new book ‘Being there’ New Zealand World Champion Hugh Anderson made critical observations of that fateful race. “Jim Redman accompanied Tom to the starting grid and they chatted for a while. Before leaving, Jim wished Tom well and added, ‘If you take it easy you can have this one away.’ Tom replied in his laconic drawl, ‘you can’t have it both ways.’ They were to be his last words.”

At the opening meeting of the Calder circuit in January 1962, Tom and the works Honda starred.

Phillis started number one, with Hailwood 10 seconds back at number 3, and Mike’s MV team mate Gary Hocking a further 10 seconds back at number 9. Anderson continued, “Although he was the current 125 World Champion he (Tom) was being used as a support rider only by Honda. Being a very determined and serious competitor, Tom was obviously out to prove a point in the 350cc TT riding a virtually untested, new, poor handling 285cc Honda in its first race. Hailwood (MV) caught Tom just 11km from the start, then Hocking caught and passed both of them on the Mountain. At the end of the first lap they screamed through the start as one. Just 2.8 seconds covered them. Obviously Tom was trying very hard to stay with the two brilliant MV riders. But they were on vastly superior machines. My race number was 16 so I started 1 minute 10 seconds after Tom. On the second lap I rode past an accident at Laurel Bank. The marshals had yet to arrive. It was Tom. He was still partially on the bike, his right leg draped over the seat and his head under the front wheel. A small puddle of oil had formed under the Honda’s engine and a trickle of blood ran from under the front wheel. Tom was dead.” It was a shocking day for the ANZACs, with Kiwi Col Meehan killed instantly when he crashed his AJS at Union Mills in the same race.

Left: After a successful day in Europe; Jim Redman, Bob Lewis, and Tom. Right: Tom’s final resting place on the Isle of Man.

When the news was relayed over the public address system to spectators, veteran commentator and former TT star Graham Walker broke down inconsolably. Australia’s pioneer post-war TT rider Eric McPherson said in an obituary in the Motor Cycle Clubman magazine, “Yes, Tom will be mourned by all sport-loving motorcyclists throughout the world, and we can only hope that the Phillis family will accept this blow knowing that Tom was highly respected in the motorcycling world.” Editor Peter Newey went further, questioning the ethics of the long-established practise of funding Australians to race in Europe, given the appalling record of fatalities. Apart from Phillis, Ron Miles, Bob Brown, Keith Campbell, Gordon Laing and Ernie Ring had all met their maker. But as Newey concluded, “ Would riders like Bob Brown and Tom Phillis want others to stop racing on account of their own mishaps? Have their great achievements been in vain?”

This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 54.