Tom Phillis – The first Honda World title
Thomas Edward Phillis was born in Sydney, Australia, on 9 April 1934. He started to work as a motor mechanic quite early, and then worked as message delivery in Sydney riding a 125cc Excelsior. He took part in his first races in 1953, and in 1958 he came to Europe with his wife and children. He raced in the 350cc and 500cc with Norton Manx machines. In 1959 a Honda team came to take part in the Tourist Trophy for the first time, and in 1960, Tom Phillis became the first non-Japanese – with Jim Redman - to get a contract to race in the 125cc and 250cc classes – still taking part in the 350cc and 500cc with his Nortons. He scored points in the 250cc class with a second place in Ulster.
The 1961 season was a very hard fight. In the 125cc, beside his teammates Luigi Taveri and Jim Redman, Phillis had to face the East German MZ squad headed by Ernst Degner. The fight lasted until the penultimate race in Anderstorp, Sweden, when Degner dropped his engine-broken MZ on the circuit and disappeared; Phillis took his little Honda to the second place, and then took his fourth season win in Buenos Aires clinching the title: it was the first of a long series for the Japanese factory. Phillis also won the 250cc race in Argentina, and finished runner-up to Mike Hailwood.
In 1962, Phillis scored points in Spain and France in the 250cc class, as well as in the Isle of Man in the 125cc and 250cc events. He aligned in the 350cc race on the 4 cylinder Honda machine bored up to 285cc. He was battling with teammate Bob McIntyre and MV riders Mike Hailwood and Gary Hocking when he crashed at Laurel Bank in the second lap and was killed. Just like his fellow country man Keith Campbell 4 years before, Tom Phillis died on the year following his world title. However he remains in history as the first rider to take a World Championship title on a Japanese motorcycle.
Text Marc Pétrier - Photo FIM/Maurice Büla Collection