Jim Redman The Godfather at 80

Before there was Mike Hailwood, Barry Sheene or Valentino Rossi there was Jim Redman, the playboy genius to whom everything – be it women or world championships – came easy. But his world was very, very different to theirs…


What’s The Story?

He was the man who helped to guide Honda, now the world’s most successful racing manufacturer, into grand prix racing. But more than that, Jim Redman has led an extraordinary life – orphaned at 17, winner of six world championships, married and divorced three times, and now a star of classic festivals worldwide. MCN catches up with the Godfather of GP racing.


It’s Thursday and 80-year-old Jim Redman is getting restless. The weekend is approaching and he wants to be at a racetrack – just as he did in the wild, wild ’60s when he was in his 30s and helping Honda to amass the first of their 60 world championships and more than 650 grand prix race wins. “I’ve got itchy feet,” the six-times world champion says. “I’ve been doing this so long, if I’m in Europe I feel I should be at a race meet. We do a deal with the organiser, who provides a hotel, food and money, and I ride all kinds of bikes. I’m still a gypsy at heart.”

We’re walking into Littlehampton on the Sussex coast, where Redman has a base during his latest Europeantour. What would he prefer to eat? “I’ve been on the continent for a while, so I’dreally like a British roast meal.”

We see a pub where they’re putting up pork and apple pie with vegetables and roast potatoes for just £4.99. Redman may be used to the high life, but he’s not pompous. Is there an exercise regime that he follows to maintain fitness for this endless round of travelling, riding and reminiscing?

“Moderation in everything except girls,” Redman laughs, supping on a pint of bitter shandy. “Screwing is one of the best exercises. I’m a Scorpio, and sex and money is all we worry about.”

This is not how I envisaged the interview unrolling, but I’m learning to be surprised by nothing in the extraordinary world of the Godfather of grand prix racing. The Godfather is how I’ll always picture Jim Redman, after spending a day with a man who seems to have packed 50 lifetimes into one.

Orphaned at 17
Redman’s parents were running a newsagent’s and tobacconist’s shop when he was born in West Hampstead, London, in 1931. During World War II his father was a despatch rider and drove ammunition lorries in North Africa, but the experience broke him and in 1949 he committed suicide by laying his head on a railway line.

Twenty-seven days later, Redman’s mother died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Jim and his sister Jackie, one year older at 18, were left with to bring up a brother and a sister, who were 11-yearold twins. The local authority wanted to take the twins to an orphanage, but Redman rejected the attempt. “My reaction was most violent – I told them to get out and leave us alone,” he says.

But how did the two teenagers feel about the sudden loss of their parents? “I think that, in a way, the pressure that both of us were put under from the authorities took away from our sadness about the deaths,” Jim says. “One second we’ve got parents, the next we’re fighting for our existence.”

In 1952, at the age of 20, Redman emigrated to Rhodesia, then helped his three siblings to join him. Redman’s first bikes in ’40s England were a 350cc Matchless and a 500cc Vincent Comet. In 1954 he finished seventh in his first bike race, on a 500cc Triumph Grand Prix twin in Rhodesia.

By 1957 he had won the 350cc South African championship on an AJS 7R single, and left for his first season in Europe in 1958, after investing £800 in a pair of Manx Norton singles, then the racing troubadour’s equivalent of the rock star’s Fender Stratocaster. By 1960 he was scoring regular top six placings in grand prix races, and looking for a works ride…

World Titles with Honda
Redman was Honda’s most successful rider in the factory’s early period in grand prix racing, winning 45 GPs in four classes – 125, 250, 350 and 500cc. He developed the strategy of winning at the slowest possible speed, yet also fought wheel-to-wheel when he had to. In 1963 he beat Hailwood and the MV in the 350cc class, and Tarquinio Provini’s super-quick Morini single in the 250cc category.

Redman and Phil Read had an epic confrontation on 250s in 1964, with Read giving Yamaha their first world title, and becoming the first 250cc champion on a two-stroke. In 1965 Honda got a shock when the 23-year-old Giacomo Agostini produced searing speed on MV’s new 350cc four-valve triple, but Redman secured his final world title.

Redman was so much more than just a rider. Reg Armstrong, an ex-rider, had been handling Honda’s negotiations with organisers, but Redman was dismayed at the wealthy Irishman’s tactics. “He would dine with the organisers and ask them what they would like to pay us,” Redman says. “When we tried to persuade him to fight, he said: ‘It’s not gentlemanly’. But I said: ‘We’re not gentlemen – we’re racers’.” Redman became a fearsome negotiator. He threatened to quit Honda unlessthey elbowed Armstrong. Honda conceded and Redman became team manager in 1963.

In those days, riders were paid ‘start money’ to race – around £100 per race for factory riders, £70 for privateers. Organisers figured that factory riders would have to appear, but Redman twice refused (with the factory’s backing) to allow the Honda team to appear at the US GP. At the Spanish GP one year, riders were going out for 125cc practice before the organisers finally buckled under Redman’s pressure.

“I gave the thumbs-up to Honda, and suddenly our riders were flinging their clothes off and getting into their leathers,” he says. “I was renowned as a hard negotiator. It was a game of poker – whoever bluffed best.” From being a race-to-eat privateer on the breadline, Redman became one of the sport’s best-paid riders. His Honda salary was £3500 in 1961, and peaked at £15,000 in ’65 and ’66 – around £230,000 at today’s values.

Death on the tracks
Around 50 riders died in major European motorcycle races from 1958-66, the nine years in which Jim Redman competed on the continent. That’s an average of five or six a year, or almost one a month during the racing season. In the savage ’60s, circuits were dangerous and medical facilities often slapdash. Riders raced in thin leathers with no back protection and wore primitive ‘pudding basin’ helmets. How did they cope with the relentless culling of their colleagues?

“We grew to live with it,” Redman says. “We knew that someone was going to die soon, and they did. I remember pulling up at Salzburgring and asking Peter Pawson (a New Zealander) how he had got on the previous weekend. He said: ‘I had a good ride, but Dickie had a bad one’. I said: ‘How bad?’ He said: ‘The worst’.

“And that’s how I learned that Dickie Dale got killed. We just said it in passing, as if it were an everyday occurrence, which it was.” (Dale had finished second in the 350cc world championship in 1955-56 on a factory Moto Guzzi single, and later rode the Guzzi V8).

The death of a friend, Australian Bob Brown, on a 250cc Honda four in practice for the 1960 German GP, opened the door for Redman getting regular Honda rides. “I picked him up, actually,” Redman says. “I saw a Honda smashed into the Armco. I thought it was one of the Japanese riders, and being new in the team I thought I would stop – we were doing everything we could to make Honda like us.

“I said to Bob: ‘How are you?’ He said: ‘I’m OK, but I’ve got a hell of a headache’. The ambulance came and I told his wife he was alright. Later I asked her if he was OK. She said: ‘He died.’ “I couldn’t believe it, because I’d been talking to him. But the surgeon said that when they took his helmet off, half his head came away with it.”

Mike: ‘Make a will’
Redman experienced his blackest year in 1962. Five riders – himself, Mike Hailwood, Tom Phillis, Bob McIntyre and Gary Hocking – were in contention for the 350cc world title, but partway through the season three of them were dead. Phillis, who had won Honda’s first world championship in the 125cc class in 1961, crashed in the Junior TT, McIntyre at Oulton Park. Hocking switched to four wheels, believing that it was safer, but died in a car race in South Africa later that year. That left just Hailwood and Redman.

“Mike said to me: ‘You know we’re on the shortlist now?’ I said: ‘What shall we do – stop?’ And he said: ‘No, make a will’. Redman raced on to claim his first world titles, in the 250 and 350cc classes that year. Hailwood won the 500cc title on an MV.

The Honda 250 Six
Honda created the six-cylinder RC166 250 – the most famous of all the bikes in Japan’s technology frenzy of the 1960s – to beat Yamaha’s fast-improving two-stroke twin. Redman was summoned to Japan to test the RC166 in 1964, and was amazed not only at the bike’s speed, but also its compact size. “I thought: ‘How the f*** do you ride this thing?’ It was in a tiny frame barely bigger than the 125. I told them I needed a three-inch-longer swinging arm. Aika San [the factory technician] picked one off the bench, and said: ‘I knew you would say that.’”

Redman wanted to debut the bike at the Italian GP, despite its unsorted handling. “There’s only five corners at Monza, I can do this,” he told Honda. “I’ll blast them so fast on the straights and take it easy in the corners.” The airline couldn’t guarantee the bike could be freighted to Italy in time, so Aika San and Redman bought five seats on a passenger flight and took the RC166 in the cabin as hand luggage, trundling the bike up and down the steps to the aircraft. “You’d never get away with it today,” Redman laughs. The bike overheated and Redman finished third at Monza, but he gave the six its first victory in the next round in Japan, making the most of bike’s 60bhp and 18,000rpm potential.

Crashing out of racing
Redman’s final crash illustrates the barbaric treatment of riders in the ’60s. His 500 Honda aquaplaned on water at the 1966 Belgian GP and he went down at what he says was “more than 250kph” (155mph). This extract from his autobiography tells the story: “As I hit the road, with my left arm down to save myself, I knew that the crack that I heard and felt was my left wrist breaking. As I slid backwards I began trying, by pushing with one hand and pulling with the other, to turn myself around, the idea being to slide feet first…

“The bike lifted off the ground and would have crashed down on top of me. I frantically lashed out with both fee and managed to give it a hard enough kick to send it sailing over my head, but caught it awkwardly with my right leg and felt intense pain shoot up my leg from my shin. Broken leg to go with the broken arm, I thought. “I finally came to a standstill half submerged in water. I could see a group of spectators running frantically towards me and knew the hardest part was yet to come: survive the well meaning but often panic-stricken first aid. I held up my good right hand in a fending-off gesture and yelled ‘Langsam!’ which is German for slowly.

It did the trick and the leading guy stopped dead in his tracks and held out his arms wide to ward off the rest of the mob. “I explained that my left wrist and right leg were broken and got them to drag me out of the water by my right arm and left leg. My man then took off his big leather coat and wrapped me in it as shock was starting to set in and I was wet through and shivering violently. I know this saved my life.

“It took forever for the ambulance to arrive. My good friend Frank Perris [a Suzuki works rider] had shouted for the helicopter from the pits to be sent for me. The answer he got was: ‘Do you know how much it costs to send this thing for him?’ Frank replied: ‘I don’t give a shit how much it costs, what’s it there for, a f****** ornament?’

“It was all to no avail, however, and I was finally picked up in the ambulance, which took me to the pits instead of rushing me to hospital.”

The Godfather today
That crash at Spa ended Redman’s racing career, at the age of 35. But now, as interest in the classic world mushrooms, this indefatigable track warrior is still on the road, giving talks and demonstration rides, and happily chatting to fans at the stall where he sells caps, T-shirts and memorabilia.

The never-ending Redman tour has dates this year in Austria, Finland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Holland and Japan. In Britain, you can catch him at the following events:

– October 20-21: Classic Motorcycle Mechanics Show, Stafford Showground
– October 26-27: Ballymena Classic Motorcycle Show, Northern Ireland.

“I love to talk to the fans about racing in the ’60s,” he says. Do it: you’ll be talking to the man who was in there at the foundation of modern GP racing.