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Where are they now? Phil O’Brien | Columns | Gassit Garage

Phil O’Brien was a level-headed Aussie talent of the late 1960s

Phil O’Brien had a great time on the Continental Circus in 1968-69. He returned with a son born in the Isle of Man, a swag of stories and the inspiration to start a business. Among the anecdotes is this one on budget accommodation.

“When we were heading east, [my wife] Joy and I usually stayed in Vienna with Werner Bergold. This particular night there was no space, so he took us a place on the banks of the Danube,” he recalls. “The next morning I noticed a guy stark naked, watering his garden. I thought he was just a local odd-bod. But back at the van, working on the bikes, more naked people gathered. No wonder it was cheap – it was nudist area!”

O’Brien was a printer by trade. One of his early mounts was a white-tank Velocette roadster previously owned by Australia’s 1961 world champion Tom Phillis. Locally, he raced a Norton-framed Triumph.

O’Brien bought Aermacchi 250 and 350 racers in Europe, but when he saw Swiss racer Marly Drixl’s frames and he helped make two Drixl-Aermacchis – with Baroni suspension and Fontana brakes. Another chassis he helped make in 1968 went to compatriot Kel Carruthers for his 350.

For 1969, O’Brien added a Francis Beart Matchless G50 500. The season produced some memorable results. He was third in the non-championship Austrian 350 GP at Salzburg, 19th in the IoM 500 TT, scored a championship point with sixth place in the East German 500 GP, and was 11th in the Czech and Italian GPs.

He also finished second in the 350 class at the Freiburg hillclimb, one of the most prestigious in Europe, and fourth on Monte Generoso in Switzerland.

“It rained for much of the day at Freiburg. I had the fastest 350 time until the road dried and a German just pipped me,” he said. “Things were going well towards the end of the season. I won a couple of provincial meetings in France and Hungary. Those races in little towns were fabulous.  They gave you the cash to get your stocks and your confidence up. At the end of August, I was third in a 350 international at Karvina in Czecho, behind two works CZs and ahead of Frantisek Stastny on the works Jawa.

“The Italian GP organisers had an agent there and their attitude towards me changed, with an offer of very reasonable starting money for the following weekend’s GP at Imola.

“The 500 race was one of those days when it seemed you can’t do anything wrong. Godfrey Nash (Norton) was the top private 500 rider. I passed him around the outside with both wheels sliding on the big curve after the start-finish. I was up to fourth when the throttle wouldn’t shut properly. It was dangerous, so I pulled in. The top of the carburetor had come loose. We screwed it back and put and elastic band on it to finish 11th. It would have been the icing on the cake to be top four in a GP.”

It was the end of the four-stroke single era and O’Brien headed home, intending to learn about two strokes and go back.

“I made enough to travel Europe for two years. I was not a star, but I didn’t embarrass myself. Being in Europe you had to make a living, so it sharpened you up.”

Based on his work with Marly Drixl, he began making frames and exhausts, and pipe bending. A Europe return was postponed and then abandoned.

Phil had his last race in the rain-lashed 1981 Coca-Cola 800km at Oran Park, finishing second with Bill McCulloch on a Suzuki. His pet project in recent years was a gorgeous Velocette café racer, aka the Philocette.

In 2015, O’Brien visited the Isle of Man TT and met new partner Monika in the Crosby Hotel. A year ago, he moved to Cawongla (population 200) in northern NSW. Son Grant was already there and built him a house and workshop. Phil is 80 in October and still riding.

“The good part as far as my future was concerned after Europe was people saw the frames and pipes I was making and wanted copies. The work I did with Drixl really inspired me. Overall, I had a great time in Europe. I had reasonable results, I didn’t spend a fortune and I had almost no accidents. You can’t ask for more than that,” O’Brien said.

By Don Cox