Phil Schilling: 1940-2015

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.

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