Jim Redman was one of the greatest of all the Honda works riders in the golden age of Grand Prix racing. Facing the toughest of factory opposition, Redman won six World Championships, six TTs and was the first rider to win a 500 GP for Honda. He also managed the Honda team – whilst leading it on the track.
In a period of racing when riders died at almost every GP, and serious injury was no more than just a normal aspect of racing life, Redman was also the hardest in a legion of hard men.
These riders were not only physically as tough as nails but had a mental stoicism that today would look as if it was borderline psychotic.
Fancy riding 200 yards across a grass paddock as the total of your pre-season testing before you start a Grand Prix?
Here’s how Jim Redman became a Honda works rider in his own words.
“The 1959 season had been good for me. I rode all year and didn’t get badly injured, or killed, and when I looked at my accounts in January I had made £1000 profit. This was great, getting paid to do what you love doing cannot get much better than that.
“My problem was that although I could maintain my 350 and 500 Manx Nortons, which I was racing in Grands Prix, I was never a tuner. My 500 Norton only gave 45 or so horsepower. The best ones had another three or four horsepower than this and four horsepower is 10% more.
“I remember being beaten by Tom Phillis at Brno in the 1959 500cc GP after a race long duel. Tom was a straight shooter and he was man enough to say: ‘If you’d had my Norton you would have been sensational. That bloody bike of yours is so slow it can’t get out of its own smoke.’
“Tom and I always got on well probably because we were both from the colonies. Tom was an Aussie and I lived in Rhodesia so we both felt a bit like outsiders with the English riders.
“At the end of the season, we had both seen how well the Hondas went at the 1959 TT, winning the team prize, so we both made our plans. I decided that I needed to show Honda that I could ride a 125cc bike.
“I had a particular problem because I was tall for a 125 rider – 5’ 10” – and a bit heavy too. So, I decided to get a 125 Desmo Ducati and show all the factory teams that I could ride a little bike.
“I bought a Desmo Ducati from Ken Kavanagh, at Imola. It was a good little bike. Ducati were really pleased because they’d got a decent GP rider on it not only for free but who’d paid for his own bike. How good was that?
“But I did get a bonus. They went right through the bike for me, making it really perfect and they also let me park our caravan outside the Ducati race shop while they worked on the bike.
“They did not quite finish the bike that evening so they let me drive my van and caravan right inside the Ducati workshop and locked us in for the night. This was great because we then had showers. Marlene, my wife, and I loved it.
“I went well on the Ducati but didn’t win a GP. The 125 class was very competitive with some quick bikes and good riders. Carlo Ubbiali, Bruno Spaggiari and Gary Hocking were the men to beat on the works MVs and Ernst Degner and Fugner were always there, or thereabouts, with the factory MZs – although they were fragile and always blowing up. Honda were really the best-of-the-rest after the MVs.
“In 1960, there were no Honda factory riders with contracts but Tom Phillis had gone one better than me. He approached Honda directly during the winter and secured a ride in the 1960 TT on their 125cc machine. The TT was the first race meeting they attended that year.
“Bob Brown, another top Australian rider, was given a 250cc for the TT, after being recommended by Tom. The rest of the Hondas were ridden by Japanese riders.
“Then at the Dutch TT at Assen Mr. Kawashima, the Honda Team Manager – who was the first university educated engineer to be employed by the company – decided that Tom would ride the 125 and the 250 would be ridden by John Hartle.
“At that time I had come to the Dutch TT still riding my own Nortons, and there was no sign of a works ride from anywhere.
“Then Tom Phillis crashed in practice, riding the 125 Honda, and broke his collar bone. I went across to see him in his caravan and asked him how he was. He said it was nothing – just a broken collarbone and injured pride. Then I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry but I’ve got to go and get in line and show my face to try to get your ride.’
“We were good mates but he knew that someone was going to ride the Honda and that I wanted it to be me.
“He was really good about it. He said, ‘It’s okay. I’d do the same thing. Anyway, it’s not a problem.’
“Tom then asked Betty (Tom’s wife) to ask Mr. Kawashima to come across to his caravan. As soon as he arrived Tom said, ‘I think Jim is the right man to ride the 125 in my place.’
“Mr. Kawashima turned to me straight away and said, ‘Nice to meet you Mr. Redman. Please would you ride our machine?’ Simple as that!
“I didn’t know what to say, because five minutes earlier I was thinking, who do I have to kill to get this ride, but I quickly recovered and accepted!
“At that time, in Tom’s caravan, there was no talk of money – just will I ride and me smiling and saying yes.
“Mr Kawashima left and I could not thank Tom enough.
“I didn’t know what to say. Mr. Kawashima was not only the Honda Team Manager, and Mr. Honda’s first graduate engineer, but when Soichiro Honda retired, aged 60, Mr. Kawashima became Honda President. It was like talking to God – except that Mr. Kawashima was more important!
“Tom filled me in on the money arrangements. Everyone got paid the same amount – £100 ($125) a race. That doesn’t seem very much but it was worth around £2000 ($2500) today.
“Then, Honda riders did well with GP organizers and got an extra £100 start money for each class and you hoped to make a few quid prize money too so you could get the equivalent of £5000 ($6,000) in today’s money for a GP ride – which was top money.
“You also have to remember how cheap things were. You could get a really nice house in England for £2000 so you could get 10% of the price of a house for riding in one class in one GP. Two rides in a day and you owned nearly a quarter of a house!
“Petrol was 23p (30 cents) a gallon so £100 was okay – even if the GP organizers were the ones who really raked it in.
“£100 to ride the factory 125 Honda Twin was incredible. I was so excited and so grateful I could hardly speak.
“We’d lost all of Thursday practice and this just left one session on Friday morning because it was a Saturday race. This didn’t bother me at all. I was a professional motorcycle racer, paid to race motorcycles not make a big fuss about everything.
“I hung around the Honda pit not saying anything, just trying to stay out of everyone’s way and keeping my head down. They adjusted the handlebars, and a few other bits for me, but the truth was I didn’t care. I would have ridden the bike with square wheels.
“No-one gave me any advice or instructions before practice and I said as little as possible. I sat on the bike and two mechanics pushed me down the pit lane. After a couple of paces, I dropped the clutch and caught the engine as it fired and that was it. I was off in practice. Like I said, I was a professional rider and I was expected to be able to ride motorbikes.
“My Nortons revved to a bit over 7000 rpm so it was a shock with the Honda which went straight to 13,600 rpm. But by the end of the pit lane, I’d got the hang of it.
“I came back and the Honda mechanics were all smiling so I knew that it must have been okay. They asked me if everything was alright but I didn’t want to bother anyone so I said it was great, which it was.
“Mr. Kawashima had instructed me to be careful, which I promised to do, but I also thought yeah, you only get one chance like this so I really went for it and when the times were posted I had taken third position on the grid in front of Spaggiari and the third MV. This was pretty good on a bike I had never ridden before and after just one practice session.
“I kept my mouth tightly shut because there was a lot of trouble in the team. John Hartle, a superb rider, had been signed to ride the 250 Honda, but he was contracted to Mobil and the Hondas were running on Castrol and neither oil company would give way – so Hartle suddenly couldn’t ride the bike.
“Bob Brown was the second choice, because he had ridden it in the TT, but as he hadn’t practiced on a Honda the organizers wouldn’t let him ride the 250.
“Mr. Kawashima said. ‘That’s it then!’ but the organizers said, ‘There is one rider who can ride the bike and that’s Jim Redman. He has qualified on the 125cc Honda which is a similar bike to the 250cc Honda.’ – which it wasn’t really. The 125 had a twin cylinder engine. The 250 was a four and of course, the bigger bike was much faster – but I wasn’t going to object.
“I just said absolutely nothing and stood at the back while the arguments went to and fro. Then Mr. Kawashima came across and asked me if I would ride it and he would try to get me a couple of laps of practice early on Saturday morning.
“The 250 was a four cylinder bike – and fast too – and the thought of racing it with just a couple of laps of practice was a bit worrying but I wasn’t going to miss the chance so I agreed. I’d just learn how to ride it in two laps and that was that.
“But the organizers wouldn’t have any of that so I wasn’t allowed even one lap. Mr. Kawashima was extremely polite and said that he understood completely if I didn’t want to ride the bike but if I would be so kind as just to ride round in last place, so that the bike could be seen, he would be very grateful.
“I didn’t need any persuading. I would have carried the bike round on my back rather than miss the chance so we agreed that I would ride round in last place, almost like a parade today. At least, that’s what Mr. Kawashima thought I had agreed.
“Then came race day. My dream in the 125 race was to split the three MVs of Bruno Spaggiari, Carlo Ubbiali and Gary Hocking. Ernst Degner was fast on the works MZ but the bloody things were always seizing so I was sure he wouldn’t finish.
“At the time, Assen was on public roads, as were most GP circuits. I stood well away from everyone in the Honda pit because I didn’t want to be a nuisance. I knew that I was on a Honda for a single race and the least trouble I caused everyone the better it would be. I backed right into a corner and went over the whole lap, over and over and over again until it was so clear in my mind that it was like being on the bike.
“I deliberately didn’t ask for anything and just told everyone that the bike was great just as it was.
“My dream was to stay on the bike just for one lap and pass the Honda pits looking as if I could ride a motorbike.
“I made a good start on the 125 and was holding third behind Ubbiali and Hocking on the works MVs, and then a fast Italian rider called Alberto Gandossi passed me on the factory MZ. I wasn’t bothered about this because I was sure the MZ was going to blow up but, bugger me, it didn’t so I finished fourth with Degner behind me.
“Giichi Suzuki finished sixth on the second Honda and Mike Hailwood was eighth so I was well pleased with the result.
“When I got back to the pits, the Honda team went crazy. They were prancing around, and there was even a little bit of very polite backslapping – but not much. They called me Jim San and I was very honored.
“I also had my brain in gear. I was very conscious of the huge cultural difference between us and the Japanese so I praised the bike as much as possible and played my riding right down. It was a bit different from how riders are today!
“There was a short break and then the 250 race. The Honda van was 200 yards from the pits so the first time I actually rode the 250 was across the grass. Even by the standards of the day, a couple of hundred yards of grass tracking wasn’t much practice.
“Because I didn’t have a practice time, I was put in last place on the grid, on the left-hand side, so I moved right over next to the pit wall. I knew that everyone’s attention was going to be on the first two rows and nobody cared what was happening at the back. Why should they? Nothing was going to happen there.
“The races always started thirty seconds after the orange light – always 30 seconds. So, I got Aika San, the chief Honda mechanic, to stand on the pit wall with a stop watch. I could see him easily. When it got to 25 seconds, he held out his five fingers and counted down. At 27 seconds, I was off down the outside of the grid (starts were by pushing) and by the time the flag had dropped I was level with the second row of the grid. I dropped the clutch and led the race for a few yards. Bloody brilliant!
“Unfortunately, or maybe actually fortunately because I would have killed myself by trying too hard, the Hondas didn’t run absolutely clean if they had been over warmed. So the bike coughed and missed a bit and I dropped back to mid-field.
“The bike wasn’t easy to ride – especially after my Nortons which handled superbly and were very forgiving. It was fast but felt as if it had a hinge in the middle and took a lot of learning to ride. I nearly fell off loads of times because I was racing flat out while I was still learning to ride it.
“I eventually finished seventh and Mr. Kawashima was overjoyed. I had delivered more than he expected and I finished in both races.
“I didn’t mention riding the bikes again, just kept my mouth shut. Marlene and I were both very, very careful because we knew that this was a big crossroads in my riding career.
“But Mr. Kawashima was all smiles and he said, ‘Thank you for a good day Jim San.’ But nothing about the next weekend at the Belgium GP in Spa Francorchamps.
I was hoping he would say you will have both the bikes to ride next week in Spa but nothing, not a word, so we all had to wait and see what would happen when we got there.
“And that’s how I became a Honda factory rider…”
Photos courtesy of Frank Melling