The miss­ing link


Motorcyclist - - Contents - BY AARON FRANK PHO­TOS BY YVE AS­SAD

We ride the mo­tor­cy­cle that bridged rac­ing great John Sur­tees’ dual ca­reers


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 four­wheeled 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 cold­drawn 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.

A view his com­peti­tors are used to see­ing. Dave Roper, who has been road­rac­ing con­sis­tently since the early ’70s, re­mains a force to be reck­oned with, hav­ing won AHRMA’S 350 GP and500 Pre­mier Cham­pi­onships in 2017.

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