Phil Schilling was a kid from a farm in the Midwest (Ohio, I believe he said), whose career goal was to be a History professor. He was on his way to doing that at the University of Wisconsin, and playing with motorcycles on the side, when the Editor of Cycle magazine called him up in 1970 and offered him a job, based upon a few stories Phil had sold to the magazine. How could anybody sane say no to that? The Editor was Cook Neilson, who had already or was about to uproot and move the whole operation from New York City to California.

From a few years ago:

MH: How had you known Phil Schilling before recruiting him to Cycle?

Cook Neilson: I’m not exactly sure how I found out about Phil. I think he submitted some work to us in the late sixties because he knew Jess Thomas, our Technical Editor. Then he did some other pieces, and it didn’t take a genius to see that he was a brilliant talent with an enormous background. When I found myself sitting in the Editor’s chair in the Fall of 1969, I called him up and asked him what he was doing by way of self-abuse, and that if he felt he was falling behind in this important area, he should join me in New York and become Cycle‘s Managing Editor. He gave in pretty quickly; he must have known I would make his life a living hell until he said yes. We were together from that date until I left Cycle in the summer of 1979, then he ran Cycle for another decade or so. I know there were other Editors after Phil retired, but I still think of Cycle as a magazine led by three people: [Gordon] Jennings, me, and Phil. Of the three of us, Phil was hands-down the best. In fact, Phil was not only the best Editor the internal combustion press has ever seen, he was also its best writer. I treasure our friendship; every time I see him or talk with him I am reminded how lucky I was that the two of us were able to spend so much time together, at such an exciting time. We saw Cycle’s circulation crest at about a half-million, we saw the advent of the first real Superbikes, we had a huge amount of fun building and racing Old Blue, we were a pair of young guys living and working in Southern California about a 20-minute ride from Malibu Beach. We had it all. We didn’t waste any of it.


Daytona, 1977: the late David Emde, Phil, Cook Neilson, Wes Cooley.

Old Blue was the Ducati 900 Supersport Phil tuned and Cook rode to victory in the 1977 Daytona Superbike race. Actually he did more than tune it, he built it almost from scratch. That project was well-documented in Cycle, and some people credit Phil and Cook with resurrecting the Ducati brand.

In 1979, Cook had the cool sense to retire at the peak and move back to Vermont. He handed the Editorship over to Phil, who carried on the fine tradition: While the crew was busy building racebikes in the Westlake Village, California, workshop downstairs, they were also busy hammering out Cycle magazine upstairs – until 1989, anyway, when Cycle was bought out by a rival publishing company, and Phil strapped into his golden parachute and left the building. He landed in Santa Barbara with a beloved Ducati Single or three, former Managing Editor Allyn Allaire Fleming, and a golden retriever or two – a situation which Phil said “beats a pointy stick in the eye.” And he kept doing what he loved to do, hammering out the occasional magazine story, editing an Alfa-Romeo magazine, being inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2011.

Several months before his exit from Cycle, though, Phil paid it forward, plucking another kid from Midwestern obscurity into the bright California sunshine and the wonderful world of ‘motojournalism.’ That kid was me, and I’m quite certain nobody else but Phil would’ve given me the opportunity – not that I wanted to work for any magazine but Cycle. Phil and Cook and Gordon Jennings had set a precedent, that the magazine’s job was more to serve the reader than the manufacturers, an idea that sometimes seems to have fallen back out of favor.

Without Phil Schilling, I’d probably be a disgruntled postal worker in Kansas City. What can you do or say to repay the guy who gave you a life? Godspeed, Phil, and say hello to Dr. Taglioni and the rest of them. We’ll hoist a Panigale in your honor soon.

  • Nice piece John! I remember talking to him on the phone while editing a web story for CW. Very gracious man.

  • Goose

    Wow, I can’t tell you the positive effect Schilling, Jennings and Neilson had on my life. Sure, they published information about bearing sizes and compression ratios like everybody else but they also managed to beat into my thick scull WHY the bearing was that size and WHY the compression ratio was what it was. Also, useful stuff like how to analyze and solve problems, what quality writing looked like, and that knowing the real answer was worth the effort and time it takes to find it even when most people are happy with an easy myth.

    In short, I learned a hell of a lot more important stuff from Cycle than I learned in school. I couldn’t afford a Ducati so no ‘ol Blue but I built, rode for years and loved almost an exact replica of the Gentleman’s Express CB500-4.

    OK Burns, Jennings is gone, now Schiller is gone and Neilson is somewhere between 99.99% and 100% retired. You’re the last one I know of carrying on the Cycle tradition clear, well written and well edited writing. I’l ask you to honor Mr. Schillings memory by keeping it going so we will be able to enjoy these anachronistic virtues.

    • john burns

      Well there’s that guy Kevin Cameron, he’s pretty good. Yeah, hats off to Phil. I feel about a decade older today. 26 years ago I drove to California in my Oldsmobile Cutlass diesel with all my stuff in the trunk. Mostly stereo. When I got lost, I thought nothing of calling Phil (from a pay phone) for directions. Didn’t occur to me he was a busy guy and I should buy a map…

      • Goose

        I shouldn’t have missed Cameron, my error. He has done some great work although he seems to be “phoning it in” of late. You’re still on the spot. 😉

  • Old MOron

    Phil paid it forward, and so will you. I’m sure you’ve considered the idea before now. Keep the faith.

    • john burns

      Ahahha. I try. I don’t think I took as much of a chance when I gave our Editorial Director Sean Alexander a job as Phil did when he gave me one.

  • JMDonald

    The best of us are remembered by the kindnesses they have shown. They are true gifts that can last many lifetimes and are shining examples that influence all of us. Well done Mr. Schilling.

  • Jack

    Thank you John. Phil was such a large part of my life in those days. Hung on every word that bunch wrote in those magazines and waited impatiently for every issue to arrive. He has had a lasting influence on my life in many ways; from racing to wrenching and just a clearer understanding of many things. Hearing Cook tell tales of back in the day at several bull sessions during Barber Vintage was priceless. Please take the time to recount any stories for those of us in our seventh decade. We would be grateful….to a man or woman.

  • craig collins

    Neilson, Schilling, Cook, Cameron. Along with a CB77 and a couple of Metrallas, those names occupy a special time & place in my mind, always will. Thanks, Burnsy!

    • craig collins

      oops…and Gordon Jennings!

  • kawatwo

    Cycle magazine was my bible when I first got into motorcycling. They should have killed of CW and kept Cycle 🙂 May you rest in peace Phil and Cycle mag.

  • Gary

    It is bitter sweet looking back on the superb work of those who documented the golden age of motorcycling. It was a marvelous time, but also a reminder of how far the industry has fallen. Godspeed, Phil.

    • john burns

      Yeah, well, I don’t know how much it’s “fallen” as much as it’s completely transformed. In those days, you had to be good, but you also had to have a guy like Phil to recognize, or over-estimate in my case, your potential in order to even get off the ground. There were 3 or 4 job openings per decade. Now, hell man, you can start your own online magazine! Pretend to know about “uniques” and “click-thru rates” among the 18-34-year olds and you’re in!

  • Murat Oğuz Kanpak

    I remember reading about the Old Blue in Cycle World in the late ’90s, that was such a great story, so inpirational, I read it over and over again. I’m going to dig that issue out and read it again in his honour. Godspeed Phil…

  • James Stewart

    For an example, read Phil’s story about the Ducati 175 Restoration (twice) in the CW archives – worth the read… what a master story teller he was.