John Surtees’ 1957 BMW 507 racing champion’s personal favourite

2018 Charlie Magee & Drive-My

On the road in the racing champion’s personal favourite. John Surtees’ BMW 507 One careful owner. A very special car for a very special man: this BMW 507 was gifted to John Surtees in 1957, and he’s cherished it ever since. Words Mark Dixon Photography Charlie Magee.

‘It’s not a race car – but it’s a very drivable car. In the late 1950s, whistling from here to Italy and back on the roads that existed then – with hardly any traffic, of course – I could average over 70mph door-to-door. I’d set off in the morning from Gallarate, near Malpensa airport in Milan, and be in Bromley by the afternoon. And at more than 20 to the gallon!’

John Surtees’ 1957 BMW 507 racing champion’s personal favourite

John Surtees’ 1957 BMW 507 racing champion’s personal favourite

John Surtees, OBE, is reminiscing about his BMW 507, a car that he has owned since it was brand new. It was a gift – well, sort of – from Count Agusta himself, of motorcycle marque MV Agusta, after John won the 500cc World Championship for the ‘bike maker in 1956. He won three more 500cc world titles in 1958-1960 (plus the 350cc titles in the same years), and went on to take the Formula 1 World Championship for Ferrari in 1964, which means that he’s still the only man ever to have won world titles on both two wheels and four. The BMW represents a very significant period in his life.

‘The 507 is a nicely balanced car and, to a degree, forgiving – not like my Mercedes 300SL’

‘I think Count Agusta had been feeling a little bit guilty after I won the championship for them because Ubbiali, their successful 125cc rider, was being paid more than I was’ says John. ‘But he did gulp a little bit when he asked what I would like as a gift to show his appreciation, and I told him about the 507. So I chipped in and we did a 50/50 deal.’

John’s choice of the BMW was no whim. He had been a fan of the marque ever since he was evacuated as a child from the family home in Elmers End, Croydon, to Yorkshire during World War Two. The young John’s imagination was fired by a box of magazines that his father brought with him when they moved. ‘Towards the top was a copy of Motorcycling with a photo of George Meier, the BMW works rider, standing on the footrests of his 255 compressor BMW and winning the TT. That fascinated me – so much so that many years later I tracked down and bought the actual bike I’d fallen in love with as a youngster.’

If circumstances had been different, John might have become a BMW works rider himself. ‘They asked me to ride their bike during the 1955 German Grand Prix. Alex von Falkenhausen, who looked after bike and car development at the Niirburgring, wanted me to race for them, but the directors could only afford to run one works bike, and they already had their own rider, Walter Zeller. What was perhaps a little bit disappointing for them was that in 1956 I won the World Championship, and Zeller came second!’

John Surtees’ 1957 BMW 507 racing champion’s personal favourite

John Surtees’ 1957 BMW 507 racing champion’s personal favourite

Nevertheless, John remained on good terms with Alex von Falkenhausen, and when the two met at Hockenheim for the 1957 German Motorcycle Grand Prix, Alex promptly offered John a go in the new 507 in which he’d arrived. The car appealed enormously but there was a long waiting list. Alex suggested that John should have a word with BMW’s press officer, Karl Hopner, to see if he could help.

In July 1957, John received a letter from BMW stating: ‘We have secured for delivery in the middle of August a 507 in metallic grey with removable coupe top in the same colour… We would be extremely happy to know you as a famous motorcycle champion drive our model 507, and we are sure that the car will meet your most exacting requirements.’

So John travelled to Munich to collect the car and drive it to MV Agusta’s headquarters in Gallarate. But as he put some miles onto his new BMW, he realised that it didn’t have quite the ‘punch’ that he remembered from von Falkenhausen’s example. It turned out that his friend Alex’s car had been slightly modified: ‘Normal engines put out about 150bhp but this one had been taken up to 170… So I asked them to do the same to my car [by changing the Zenith 32 carburettors to 36s, upping the compression ratio, porting the heads and altering the valve timing], and also to fit a full- length undershield. I was given the option of having Rudge wheels with knock-off hubs, but because of the way the spinners projected, there was some doubt about their legality on the Continent. And the last thing you wanted to do at a race meeting was chop someone’s leg off while trickling through the paddock…

‘Before I officially imported the car to the UK, I ran it on its export plates; and when I did come to register it in England, they gave me a couple of choices for the registration numbers – and 22 was my father’s racing number. If you see any pictures of him in his sidecar outfit, it’s always 22. So it seemed quite appropriate.

‘Because I was travelling so much to and from England, I ended up doing a bit of development work for BMW. At the time they were contemplating fitting disc brakes to cars, working with, I think, ATE, who in turn were working with Dunlop; and von Falkenhausen invited me to take part in their development programme. So I took the 507 to Dunlop in Birmingham and they fitted it with disc brakes all-round – it’s the only 507 that had them on the rear as well as the front.

‘Oddly enough, the rear discs were originally a bit bigger than the ones on the front, because Dunlop was worried about whether the handbrake would work properly on the rears. But they were later made the same diameter.

‘Another mod I tried, to take advantage of the greater horsepower, was to install a higher rear axle ratio. It did raise the maximum speed but the car was easier to manage with the standard ratio, especially in traffic, so I went back to the standard one.’

John’s 507 was always his preferred method of travelling between Italy, Germany and England. ‘From Gallarate, I’d take the Simplon tunnel into Switerland and then through the French Jura mountains and up through France – or, if I wanted to have the car checked over in Germany, I’d come through the Brenner pass into Austria and then drop down into Munich.

Once at the Channel, I’d put the car onto Silver City Airways, hop over to Lydd and drive up to Bromley – fantastic!

‘I don’t remember ever having mechanical trouble – the worst thing that happened was that someone tried to break into the car when it was parked overnight at Gallarate. You did have to be a bit careful in very hot weather, however, because if you got caught in a traffic jam the engine would suffer from fuel vapourisation. Then you might have to stop and let things cool down a little. But in those days you generally didn’t get much in the way of jams, unless there’d been an accident.

‘There were also no speed limits outside of built-up areas! You could maintain over 100mph for hour after hour because there just wasn’t the traffic. I did have one hairy moment, though, when I was driving with my team-mate John Hartley through Sweden. It was one of those straight up-and-down roads where the telegraph poles run alongside – and then the poles continued straight on beyond a crest, but the road turned sharp left… I’m not sure that John came with me so often after that!

‘But the 507 is a nicely balanced car and, to a degree, forgiving. It’s not like my Mercedes-Benz 300SL W198, which you have to drive in a different way. That has a bit more ultimate performance than the 507, but it also demands a lot more attention when you’re driving quickly. I had in fact tried out an SL before I got the 507 but while I was driving it, with my mother’s doctor in the passenger seat, it started to rain and I ended up travelling up the road sideways – which rather frightened him, and frightened my mother when he told her later.

The 507 is a user-friendly car, in contrast. Neutral would be a good word to describe the handling. Depending on how you drive it, you can make it understeer a bit; you can make it oversteer. Even though it’s not a race car, I think it’s one of the reasons I was very prepared when I jumped into that Aston Martin DBR1 [in 1958, at the invitation of Reg Parnell] and had my first ever drive of a race car.’

In 1960 John made his Formula 1 debut, racing for Lotus; for the 1962 and ’63 seasons he joined Reg Parnell’s Yeoman Credit (latterly Yeoman-Bowmaker) F1 team, before moving to Ferrari in 1963. Not surprisingly, Enzo took a dim view of John driving a BMW…

‘The Old Man said “Ah, macchina Tedesca – you can’t drive a German car!” So the 507 was parked up in England. A friend of my dad would give it the occasional run, and that’s the only time it’s actually been out of my hands.’

Other than a repaint in the original silver, carried out in 1981, John’s car has never been restored. Its interior is untouched and looks virtually new, after 70,000 miles and 55 years. And, although he doesn’t use it much these days, it’s kept ‘on the button’ and ready to go – as John proves when he fires it up and eases it out of its motorhouse for our driving shots.

What a wonderful, wonderful sound! It’s pure muscle car, fast idling with a gorgeous rump-rump-rump-rump V8 beat, as liquid and dark as melted chocolate, oozing into a mellow growl as John gooses the throttle slightly. Following John and photographer Charlie in the 507, I have to work Charlie’s Saab Turbo pretty hard to keep up – the BMW was always a quick car, and John has had over half-a-century to get to know it.

The 507 is one of three classic BMWs in John’s collection, the others being a 503 convertible that used to belong to AFN boss ‘ Aldy’ Aldington’s wife, and a 3200CS. He also has a 300SL Gullwing. But surely the 507 must be the favourite of all the cars he’s owned?

‘Unfortunately, there are lots of things I’ve owned that I’ve not been able to keep – including some of my motorcycles. When I look at my house, and the restoration of it, I can think “that driveway represents a Ferrari”, “that roof is a Honda Formula 1 car”, and so on. But the 507 came along at the time of my first World Championship, and for that reason it will always be very special.’

THANKS TO BMW Classic for its help with this feature. For further information on BMW Classic service available in the UK via BMW Park Lane, visit www.bmwparklane. com or call +44 (0)20 7963 5650.

Left and above Red-and-grey interior trim is all original – in fact the car has never been restored, only repainted; external mirrors were never fitted because John rarely had to worry about anyone overtaking him… Above and left John Surtees’ BMW 507 is special for several reasons: it has a rare factory hardtop, disc brakes all-round, and an engine tuned to give 20bhp more than standard – and he’s owned it since it was new.


ENGINE 3168cc all-alloy V8, pushrod 0HV, two Zenith 36 NDIX carburettors

MAX POWER c170bhp (standard car 150bhp @ 5000rpm / SAE gross)

MAX TORQUE N/A (standard car 173lb ft @ 4000rpm / SAE gross)

TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

STEERING Pinion and sector

SUSPENSION Front: wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle located by A-frame, Panhard rod, torsion bars, telescopic dampers

BRAKES Dunlop disc brakes all round (see text)

WEIGHT 1330kg


Top speed 120+mph.

0-60mph c11sec

{module John Surtees’ 1957 BMW 507}


How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 1

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Additional Info
  • Year: 1957
  • Engine: Petrol V8 3.2-litre
  • Power: 170bhp at 5200rpm
  • Torque: 187lb ft at 4200rpm
  • Club:

    {module BMW 507}