Surtees is the son of a south London motorcycle dealer. He had his first professional outing in the sidecar of his father's Vincent, which they won. However, when race officials discovered Surtees's age, they were disqualified. He entered his first race at 15 in a grass track competition. In 1950, at the age of 16, he went to work for the Vincent factory as an apprentice. He made his first headlines in 1951 when he gave Norton star Geoff Duke a strong challenge in an ACU race at the Thruxton Circuit.
In 1955, Norton race chief Joe Craig gave Surtees his first factory sponsored ride aboard the Nortons.He finished the year by beating reigning world champion Duke at Silvertone and then at Brands Hatch. However, with Norton in financial trouble and uncertain about their racing plans, Surtees accepted an offer to race for the MV Agusta factory racing team.
In 1956 Surtees won the 500cc World Championship. In this he was assisted by the FIM's decision to ban the defending champion, Geoff Duke, for six months because of his support for a riders' strike for more starting money. In the 1957 season, the MV Agustas were no match for the Gileras and Surtees battled to a third place finish aboard a 1957 MV Agusta 500 Quattro. When Gilera and Moto Guzzi pulled out of Grand Prix racing at the end of 1957, Surtees and MV Agusta went on to dominate the competition in the two larger displacement classes. In1958, 1959, and 1960, he won 32 out of 39 races and became the first man to win the Senior TT at the Isle of Mann TT three years in succession.