Monday, May 04, 2015


To the Victor, the spoils! After winning the '54 Swedish TT at Hedemora
News of Geoff Duke's passing filtered through the internet this weekend, as an older generation remembered motorcycle racing's first superstar and tabloid darling.  His movie-star good looks and pleasant demeanor combined with a fierce surplus of raw riding talent, and he became a welcome ambassador for the sport of motorcycling.  
Among the tricks learned as part of the Royal Signals team - getting a haircut aboard a Triumph Tiger 100 in 1947
Duke appeared on the racing scene immediately after WW2, which seems from his memoirs to have been less a period fighting war than fighting rocky hillsides in the Royal Corps of Signals, as he learned trials riding skills from a stellar collection of ex-Brooklands men.  Quite a few famous racers and trials riders, like Freddie Frith, Hugh Viney, 'Nobby' Clark, and Charlie Rogers, pulled dual duty in the Army, both training ordinary soldiers to ride, and nurturing the talent of promising youngsters who 'joined up' under a scheme created by Graham Walker of Motor Cycling, to enlist motorcyclists as despatch riders. Duke was soon promoted to the training staff, and taught riding tricks as a member of the Royal Signals display team

Duke after winning the '49 Isle of Man Senior TT, with Cromie McCandless (inventor of the Featherbed frame with his brother Rex), and Francis Beart, who was always Beatnik-cool, with the best prepared machines at any racetrack.  A comparison of Duke's factory Manx with Beart's 2nd place bike is instructive; no doubt his machine weighed 10lbs less than the standard racer.
After the war, he excelled at trials, but really wanted to road race.  Connections made in the military gave him jobs offers at both to AMC and Norton, but AMC wouldn't allow him to enter the amateur TT races, fearing a perceived conflict of interest, while Norton had no such qualms.  He was signed up to ride a factory Norton 500T trials machine, which he never really sorted out (to Joe Craig's disgust), but led the 1948 Junior Manx GP before a split oil tank ruined his motor.   Still, Craig watched Duke with keen interest, and after he won the '49 Senior Manx on a 500cc Manx, he was offered a spot on the Norton factory race team.
Racing at the North-West 200, under the Dunlop sign...ironic as Duke refused to race with them, after meeting with Fort Dunlop in company with Joe Craig to discuss tread-shedding disasters, which the mighty rubber company ignored.  Nortons, and Duke, thereafter used Avon tires...
The history books record, Duke rewarded Norton's support with a double World Championship (350cc and 500cc) in 1951, when he was also named Britain's Sportsman of the Year, and he was truly thrust into the limelight.  He eventually won 3 World Championships for Norton, famously on their brand-new Featherbed Manx, although it slowly dawned on him that he was earning a pittance even as Norton's champion, as the factory simply paid its racers very poorly.  Discussions with other racers revealed just how little he was earning by comparison.  Even Norton factory racers in the late 1920s earned more, as Duke was informed by Alec Bennett, whose 1927 Isle of Man win netted him £3000, more than double Duke's annual winnings 23 years later!   
Finally!  Aboard the Featherbed Manx, on his way to a couple of World Championships in 1951.
Offers came in from AJS and Gilera to ride for the factory, who both offered a base £3000 salary, and Gilera threw in a lovely Lancia Aurelia B20 coupe, which sealed the deal for the Italian factory, whose future looked far more rosy in any case, with their pioneering DOHC 4-cylinder racer, a development of their prewar supercharged Rondine.   
Exquisite metal.  Undoubtedly the prettiest 4-cylinder engine ever built, the factory racing Gilera, developed over 30 years from an experimental across-the-frame pushrod 4 in 1924, to the supercharged, watercooled 'Rondine', and postwar to the aircooled and carbureted World Champ.
Duke was also courted by the four-wheeled world, which was common then but unthinkable today. From the 'Teens through the 1970s, quite a few F1 drivers cut their teeth as motorcycle champions, from Tazio Nuvolari to John Surtees and Mike Hailwood, and Duke was no exception. He drove for the Aston Martin sports-racing team in 1953, and after a good finish in the Swiss GP, Mercedes F1 chief Alfred Neubauer offered him a spot driving with the all-conquering 'Silver Arrows', driving alongside Juan Manuel Fangio. Duke declined, honoring his commitments to two wheels, although his career was sidelined in 1956 by the AFM, who punished his support of a riders' strike for increased start pay at the Dutch TT, with a 6 months' suspension of racing.  This ended his World Championship hopes for '56, and for 1957, Gilera announced it was quitting GP racing, along with BMW, Moto Guzzi, Mondial, DKW, etc - the Great Die-Off.  
With Giuseppe Gilera and Alfredo Milani
That was effectively the end of his racing career, but he returned as team manager for his own Scuderia Duke in 1963, using identical, undeveloped Gileras from the 1957 season.  Derek Minter and John Hartle were in the running for another World Championship, remarkably, against the MV Agusta 4s - blatant copies of the Gileras, which traced their mechanical lineage back to 1924, with the OPRA pushrod across-the-frame 4.  Fate had other plans, and while the Gileras recorded their best-ever times, they needed further R&D to make the power of the newer MVs.
Enjoying the oversteer of a factory Aston Martin DB3.  He preferred the handling of the DB2S, which he reckoned "handled like a motorcycle - it went where you pointed and stayed on line."  On testing the first time with John Wyer (Aston racing manager), Duke was faster than any of Aston's factory drivers, the first time he'd ever tried a racing car!  He didn't fit the culture of a car-racing team, and went back to bikes, even after showing huge promise on four wheels.
I highly recommend Geoff Duke's excellent 1988 autobiography, 'In Pursuit of Perfection', which is charmingly written and full of great photos, which illustrate this story.  It takes a particular character to make a World Champion in any field, and Duke will be remembered as a 6-time winner, and the friendly face of motorcycle sport in the 1950s.
Geoff Duke's autobiography, written in 1988; buy it!
Yes, he tried BMWs too, but couldn't get the hang of the handling.

The Lancia B20 Aurelia which sweetened the deal for his Gilera contract.
A happy Duke tests the Gilera for the first time in 1953. 
A pensive Duke before the Swedish GP at Hedemora, 1954.  The sexiest racing motorcycle of the 1950s.  Note the Matchless G45 behind, another gorgeous racer, albeit plagued with problems.
An important tale to set right: while Geoff Duke was the first World Champion to race with one-piece leathers, he wasn't the first racer to try them.  Velocette's Bertie Goodman had a set years before Duke, as did other riders, even at Brooklands.    Here's Duke's tailor, Frank Barker, who made up the leathers.  Duke understood the value of a tight fit for lower wind resistance, and by 1951 had perfected the racing catsuit with ankle-tight boots.
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GuitarSlinger said...

A classic Vintagent post as well as P d'O at his best ... two thumbs up .

And lest we forget ... it was Geoff's son that gave us Duke Video .. for which without we in the US would of never had access to be able to watch WRC , WSB MotoGP ,Isle of Man etc on our screens before the days of Internet , SPEEDTV etv !

the french owl said...

At last!!! A decent article...

RIP Geoff...


William FERRY said...

I forward your Vintagent articles on to several elderly men here in the UK.
To a man they have replied to tell me [I knew of course..] that GE Duke won the 1949 500 Manx GP.
So then not as you put it in this article which was excellent.
Over a long period, I came to know GED.. a little.
A true sportsman.. very fair. A great motorcyclist in many spheres, but above all a truly GREAT racer.. in my all time top ten.
He belonged as we know to an age when GP race bikes were ridden in the classic way, of which he was THE master. [And Rob Fitton too.]
Head down, tucked in tight, head up to see the corner only.
Elegant, stylish.. magic.
But the style of the day.
Stanley Woods described him as "like watching water flowing over stones, in a brook".
Thanks for posting

jerrykap said...

Terrific piece Paul, I'm proud to say that I was able to meet, shake his hand and get his signature in one of my books at the `94 Daytona AHRMA race, He was parading a reproduction dustbin Gillera wearing his 'Red rose of Lancershire?" puddin basin helmet. Gracious and friendly indeed.

Your article shed a great deal of light on his career and I intend to acquire his autobiography to learn more. I do know that his switching from Norton to Gillera was considered most controversial in that era. Nationalism was paramount.

Anonymous said...

I met Geoff at the IOM and he showed me the fast way around with help of the Marshals in 1998. First met him at Hard Rock cafe in NYC along with Evil Knievel, what a contrast of different motorcycling philosophy. Few people like him in the sport.
Alex McLean