Updated: Aug 20, 2021
You can tell a book by looking at its cover in this case! A great book by a great rider
If you measure 'superstardom' by its appeal to the public-at-large, then Geoff Duke was very definitely motorcycling's first in the firmament. Back in the early nineteen-fifties, there were only two names from motor sport that also regularly featured in the national press outside of the sports pages and who were what today would be termed 'celebrities'. Stirling Moss and his motorcycle racing counterpart, Geoff Duke, were the darlings of the dailies - handsome and modest young men who were patriotic even beyond the call of duty. as they battled foreign opposition with outdated and underpowered British machines.
Britain's motorsports superheroes - Stirling Moss (left) and Geoff Duke racing cars in 1953
Geoff Duke won three World Championships on the British Manx Nortons
Geoff, who died in 2015 at the good old age of 92, even went a step ahead of Stirling in his chosen sport by riding to the outer edge of his considerable abilities and actually winning three world titles on already outdated and much slower British Nortons – the 350/500cc Championship double in 1951 and the 350 crown again in 1952. No wonder the public took the Lancashire lad to their patrotic hearts and in 1951 even voted him the nation's Sportsman of the Year.
But there was a lot more to Geoff Duke than simply being a superstar rider. He was a modest man with an innate sense of fair play and wore the cloak of celebrity well throughout his life. In addition to all of the successes there were some serious setbacks in his career and he was equally as gracious in dealing with those as he was in accepting the accolades of success.
Like so many young guys, Geoff’s involvement with motorcycles started as a kid and riding, as he describes them, “old bangers” around fields near his St Helens home. It continued in his Army days as a despatch rider in the Royal Corps of Signals from 1942 until 'demobbed' in 1947. Rising to the rank of Sergeant and training other DRs, he spent the last two weeks of his Army career at the Royal Tournament in London's Olympia, performing as a member of the Royal Signals Display team. And the balancing acts that were a big part of the team's repertoire must have stood him in good stead as he started riding in off-road trials and scrambles on his return to 'civvy street'.
He quickly proved good enough to be initially employed by BSA and then wooed by AJS/Matchless before finally being signed up to ride on the official Norton trials team. He chose the Norton option purely because only that company had dangled the carrot of a possible road racing test before his eager nose. Even at the height of his road racing career, Geoff kept fit by riding in wintertime trials and in 1953 was still good enough at the feet-up game to take his 500T Norton to outright victory in one of the most important events on the trials calendar – the Colmore Cup. Though first employed as a trials rider Geoff soon persuaded Norton to loan him the road racer they had promised him and entered for the 1948 350cc Manx Grand Prix – an event on the fearsome Isle of Man TT course but one restricted to amateur riders. His preparation for this race was the first indicator of his meticulous, almost scientific, approach to his riding career. He spent a week on the Island before practice even started, first walking and cycling through the various individual sections of the Mountain Course and finally riding lap after lap on his trials bike to memorise every curve and bump of its nearly 38 miles! And that approach almost paid off with a win on his road racing debut. He retired with a split oil tank after three and a half laps of the circuit...but by then he was already leading the race! After that, the successes came thick and fast. In June 1949 he won his next Isle of Man race – the Clubmans 500cc TT, another race for amateurs but this time on production road-going machines. Three months later he was back to win the Manx Grand Prix that had so narrowly eluded him on his IOM debut. He won the 500cc class at an average speed of 86.03mph – only 0.865mph slower than the winner of the World Championship Senior TT earlier that year! Therefore, it seemed almost inevitable that his name would soon be on that TT trophy when he turned professional in 1950 – and so it was. He won that year's Senior, as well as picking up the winner's trophy for both the Ulster and Italian Grands Prix. In his first year on the World Championship scene he was already being talked of as a Champion-in-waiting. And he didn't wait long! 1951 brought the TT 'double' in both 350 and 500cc classes along with the world title in both of those categories.
Geoff developed his own lightweight Nortons with Reynolds frame and forks but had to accept that there was no way they would ever match the MV Agustas in Grand Prix races..the Dutch TT and the Grands Prix of France, Switzerland and Italy to wrap up his fourth world title. Two more were to come.
Nobody there! Few could challenge Geoff Duke when at the peak of his form with Gilera.
Those future additional titles came because during the 1953/54 winter neither he nor the Gilera team rested on their laurels. For the new season there was a new engine that was two inches narrower and sitting an inch and a half lower in the frame than before. That frame was a new one that was similar to the Norton (hardly surprising!) and it worked perfectly.
Geoff Duke and the Gilera were a virtually unbeatable combination in 1954 and 1955
Geoff Duke (Gilera) leads another British World Champion, Bill Lomas (Moto Guzzi) in the German Grand Prix. Those streamlined 500cc racers would top 170mph in the mid-1950s!
The 1954 and 1955 seasons with Gilera were probably the most satisfying and enjoyable years of Geoff's career with two more World Championships coming his way. He was at the top of his game and no-one could foresee that politics and vindictive revenge would combine at the end of the 1955 season to effectively end his career as a Championship contender.
MV Agusta had been Gilera's main rival ever since Pietro Remor, the designer of the Gilera engine, had switched camps and taken his in-line four cylinder design with him for the 1950 season. But even when equipped with its own version of Remor's engine, MV had still never taken a world title in the bigger classes. The company's owner, Count Agusta reasoned that what the team needed was its own version of Geoff Duke – and they found one in the form of another Englishman, John Surtees. John is now a legend insofar as he is the only man to win both motorcycle and Formula One world titles. But back when he joined MV for 1956 he was just a 22-year-old Norton-mounted charger who had made a big name for himself by beating Geoff and the Gilera in some end-of-season races in the UK.
Unknown to anyone at the end of the 1955 season, however, MV Agusta would gain an even bigger advantage for the 1956 season than the signing of John Surtees. Before the start of the season, Geoff Duke - by then a six-time World Champion – was sensationally banned for six months by the Federation Internationale Motocycliste (FIM) for supporting a riders’ strike at the previous year’s Dutch TT – a start-line strike that demanded more guaranteed appearance money for the poorly paid privateer racers who made up the bulk of the field at GP events. The Dutch race at Assen always drew well over 100,000 spectators and riders were paid a pittance in ‘start money’ that didn't even cover their expenses of competing. Unless they also won some prize money, they were actually out of pocket.
Geoff, of course, was well paid to compete by his Gilera factory team, as was his team-mate Reg Armstrong and they were likely to win the lion's share of the prize money too. But they still supported the private riders in their strike action on the principle that all riders entered should get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. For those admirable principles, Geoff, Reg and a dozen privateer riders earned what is still the harshest ban in the entire history of motorcycle sport. Imagine today’s MotoGP organisers doing the same to Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi - the outcry from press and public would be tremendous and undoubtedly the lawyers would soon be in action!
The vindictive and disproportionate ban meant that neither Duke nor Armstrong could return to racing in 1956 until the World 500cc Championship had already been decided. For Geoff it was a particular disaster as it precluded him from having any chance of winning his fourth world title in succession for Gilera…and left his final Championship total at six in all.
In sympathy with their riders, Gilera team kept its bikes back in Italy whilst its top riders were sidelined and the field was thus left clear for John Surtees and the MV Agusta to win the first three races of 1956 with ease. The points from those wins led to the first World Championship for both man and machine. Great rider though John was, he and the 500cc MV really had no opposition during the critical half of their debut season together and his first world title was essentially handed to him on a plate. But for the ban, the final tally of world titles for he and Geoff could easily have been reversed to read Duke 7 – Surtees 6.
This premise was essentially proved in 1957 when Gilera came back with a vengeance. The MV Agusta was so outclassed by its near-neighbour and arch-rival that, despite his best efforts, Surtees could only manage third in the standings behind the Gileras of Italy's Libero Liberati and 'the Flying Scotsman', Bob MacIntyre. Meanwhile, Geoff had crashed in an important, though non-Championship, race at Imola in early May. That had resulted in a shoulder injury severe enough to keep him out of racing for some three months and all but the last two races of the season.
Immediately after its comprehensive steam-rollering of the 500cc class opposition in 1957, Gilera promptly retired from racing along with fellow Italian World Champion manufacturers Moto Guzzi (in the 350cc class) and Mondial (who’d done the 125/250 double). And, as a result of those withdrawals, Geoff Duke's career as a World Championship contender was over. In fact, MV Agusta had also agreed to join all of the other Italian teams in withdrawing from racing because of the escalating costs of battling each other. But once the opposition had fulfilled the agreement, Count Agusta and MV returned to racing for 1958 and beyond. The bikes had the word 'Privat' painted on their bodywork in a cynical effort to convince people that the exotic fours were now privately entered. It fooled nobody and Count Agusta couldn't care less about that. The word that demeaned MV and insulted the opposition soon disappeared and for most of the next ten years and the arrival of Honda in the bigger classes, MV's official team leaders like John Surtees, Gary Hocking and Mike Hailwood only had their teammates to beat. And not until Count Agusta's Italian 'golden boy' Giacomo Agostini appeared on the scene did those teammates give their 'number one' riders any real problems.
Moving back to the 1958 season, Geoff Duke did try to make a challenge with the BMW factory team but their 'boxer twin' shaft drive racers suited few people's riding styles other than the Germans who had grown up with them such as Walter Zeller and Ernst Hiller. Geoff’s first ride on the BMW in an early-season non-Championship race at Silverstone in 1958 was to all intents and purposes the start of a ‘comeback’ season in the minds of his legions of fans and he delighted them by coming from the very back of the grid to win the 350cc race on a Norton. So much so that they ran up on to the trackside banks to wave him through his victory lap. Most uncharacteristic enthusiasm for 1950s British folk!
Unfortunately, it was quite a different story for his debut on the BMW later in the day. “After the win on the Norton, the BMW served to dampen my ardour” recalled Geoff, with typical honesty. “After struggling through practice trying to come to terms with the peculiarities of its handling, I was totally uncompetitive in the race”.
Geoff Duke never felt comfortable with the shaft drive German BMW flat twin
There was a success in a non-championship race on the long straights and smooth sweeping curves of Hockenheim in Germany when Geoff won a slipstreaming battle with his team-mate Ernst Hiller but he knew that races on more demanding tracks would be an altogether more difficult task. In fact, he admitted as such, saying “My main problem lay in my inability to adapt myself to the unusual handling characteristics of a machine that had an in-line crankshaft and shaft drive. And yet there was no getting away from the fact that Walter Zeller had put in some superlative performances on the virtually the same machine in previous years. So, my admiration for Walter Zeller, which had always been high, grew day by day as I struggled in 1958!”
The flat-twin BMW engine and shaft drive transmission layout perfectly suited racing sidecars and after Walter Schneider had won the 1958 World Championship in this class with a round to spare, BMW announced that the factory team would not attend the final race of the season, the Swedish Grand Prix. Rather than contest this race with the production racer that BMW offered to provide, Geoff asked to be released from his contract so that he could return to his preferred Manx Norton option and the BMW factory was obviously happy to oblige. With John Surtees and MV Agusta staying away because they had already clinched the Championship, Geoff at least proved that he had not lost his winning ways, although his erstwhile team-mate, Dickie Dale on a production BMW RS500 pushed him hard all the way to the flag.
Geoff developed his own lightweight Nortons with Reynolds frame and forks but had accept that there was no way they would ever match the MV Agustas in Grand Prix races.
With no other options available in 1959, Geoff continued developing his own lightweight versions of the Nortons and, though he occupied third places on the podiums for the World Championship races in Belgium, Ulster and Italy, the bikes were never even able to get close to challenging Surtees and the MV. He did win the final Grand Prix of the season in Sweden when MV didn't bother to make the long trek north from Italy as John Surtees had already wrapped up the title for them. In the end, Geoff Duke, the man who had become a legend in his own lifetime, quit motorcycle racing for good on a September day in 1959 at Locarno in Switzerland. But the end came after he had won all three major races on the card of the non-Championship Swiss Grand Prix - the 250 on a Benelli, and 350 and 500cc classes on his faithful Nortons. It was a fitting way to leave the stage that he had graced for so long.