Updated: Aug 20, 2021
A dozen years before John Surtees made his indelible mark on our sport by becoming the only man to win World Championships on both two and four wheels there was another young motorcycling superstar who some very influential motor racing insiders thought had the potential to go all the way to the top on four wheels as well. His name was Geoff Duke and his talents at the wheel of a car were admired by no less authorities than the legendary Mercedes Benz team manager, Alfred Neubauer, and the almost as legendary John Wyer, who managed the Aston Martin team.
Back in the early nineteen-fifties, there were only two names from motor sport that 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his motorcycle racing counterpart, Geoff Duke, were the darlings of the dailies as they battled foreign opposition with outdated and underpowered British machines.
Young British heroes at Goodwood in the 1950s - Stirling Moss and (in the car) Geoff Duke
In 1951 Duke achieved an incredible motorcycle World Championship 'double' when he won both 350cc and 500cc titles for Norton despite a 20-horsepower disadvantage to the Italian opposition. For that feat he was voted Britain's 'Sportsman of the Year' and this led to a test drive for Aston Martin early in 1952.
Duke won three world titles for Norton in the face of superior opposition from Italian rivals
He later grew frustrated with Norton's apparent lack of ambition despite another world title for Britain in 1953 and signed with the Italian Gilera company to ride their formidable four cylinder 350 and 500cc machines, The immediate result was three more world titles - two in in the 500 class and one in the 350 - for a final total of six before his retirement in 1958.
Frustrated at Norton, Geoff moved to Gilera and won three more world titles for that team
It is fair to say that Geoff's immediate pace on four wheels was a revelation for all who were at that test – not least for the Aston Martin team manager, John Wyer, who had this to say in his autobiography...
"Duke really was sensational right from the start. The car was one of the lightweight DB2s and he had asked me not to time him during the first session as he was just going to go out and get the feel of the car. In fact I did time him, just for my own interest. and in that first spell he was only a second slower than the best time any of our drivers had ever done on that track. In the very next session he lapped faster than any of our team drivers had ever done - and I promptly signed him up!"
Not wishing to burn his bridges as far as his motorcycle career was concerned, the Aston Martin contract was for specific races that still allowed Geoff to challenge for the two-wheeled title double again in 1952, as well as being able to ride in selected international races which paid the kind of appearance money that the reigning double World Champion deserved. It was going to be a hectic year for the 29 year old from St Helens in Lancashire.
Geoff's debut for Aston Martin saw him driving the prototype DB3 in a relatively minor but very visible race – one of the short six-lap handicap races that were always a popular feature of the Goodwood Easter Monday meeting as they forced the faster drivers to spend the whole race charging past slower competitors who had been allowed to start earlier. After the six laps were run Geoff ended up third on handicap behind two Jaguar XK120s that had enjoyed starting advantages of almost a minute over him. But more importantly he had made the most of his own 25 second starting advantage ahead of Stirling and remained ahead of him at the finish. On actual non-handicap times Stirling and his Jaguar C-Type were quicker but a close second in a smaller car behind Britain's acknowledged fastest driver was still a satisfying debut for Geoff.
About a month (and three important motorcycle race wins) later he was back at Silverstone with the DB3 for what would turn out to be both an exciting and a frustrating race. First of all, a car that he was lapping broke a con-rod, holed its sump and dumped all of its oil in front of Geoff. As Motor Sport magazine reported at the time "Duke went spinning round several times and into the palisades fencing but kept his engine running and drove off again to the approval of the crowd". But worse was to come a lap later at Abbey Curve, then a flat-out left-hander taken at over 120mph in the DB3. Geoff recalled "I had just set the car up for the corner when it simply went straight on. Something in the steering box had failed and the marshals in the adjoining wheat field had to scatter as I did my impression of a high speed combine harvester!"
Next came the Swiss Grand Prix meeting on the dangerous Bremgarten circuit at Bern but it was a track where Duke, weaned on equally-dangerous tracks like the Isle of Man TT, was in his element. Not only that, it was a combined car and motorcycle event where he could demonstrate both his riding and driving talents on the same weekend. And he duly began to do so by winning the 350cc bike GP for Norton. Switching from two wheels to four, Geoff lined up in a DB2 coupe up against two factory Lancias and a formidable Mercedes Benz works team of four 300SL lightweight coupes. Once again the race was to produce some unusual excitement for Geoff but not before he had qualified fifth behind the Mercs. Unfortunately he had done this in the second qualifying session and did so while driving the car of team leader Reg Parnell because his own had run poorly in the first one. As a result, the organisers placed Parnell's car in the fifth grid spot and that of 'new boy' Duke at the back!
Even so, by the time the flag dropped to start the race his engine misfire had been cured and Geoff easily picked up a number of places on the opening lap, passing both his experienced team leader and one of the Lancia team in the process. Then came a bizarre incident when Rudolf Caracciola, a former three-time European Champion in the famous 1930s 'Silver Arrows' GP cars, went off the road and hit a tree, bringing it down across the track! His three Mercedes team-mates were ahead of him at the time so were unaffected...but the rest of the field, Duke included, had to queue up and wait while the tree was dragged away. By which time, the three leading Mercedes that had enjoyed a clear track had caught up with the back of the waiting field!
In what was one of his best drives for Aston, Geoff got ahead of the pack after the restart and actually kept the three leading Mercedes cars behind him – even after they had lapped everyone else. He held them at bay until the Aston Martin straight-six went on to only five cylinders for the last two laps and they were able to lap him as well. Nevertheless he still brought the ailing car home in fourth place behind the Mercs. It was a spectacular drive – and one made in front of the right people. After the race, Alfred Neuebauer sought out Duke and offered him a Mercedes test drive - two clear years before the same offer was made to Stirling Moss.
But before that opportunity could be taken up there was a final race to run for Aston Martin. Unfortunately it followed the same pattern as Silverstone where Geoff's good driving performance was overshadowed by problems that were not of his making.
The race was the British Empire Trophy held on a short four-mile road circuit on Geoff's beloved Isle of Man. Less than a mile of it was shared with the 37¾ mile Mountain circuit on which he had enjoyed so much two-wheeled success but it was still the sort of natural road course on which he excelled. This he proved in the race, when he easily passed the factory C-Type Jaguar of Le Mans winner Duncan Hamilton after two laps and then pulled out a comfortable lead until his engine cut out. The culprit was a detached wire behind the dashboard – an easily-cured fault which had also been experienced in practice and which should never have been allowed to re-occur in the race.
Geoff led the British Empire Trophy on the Isle of Man until slowed by a minor problem
Geoff quickly made a temporary repair and limped back to the pits to get it properly fixed. Then he began to chase down Hamilton but the strain was too much for what was later revealed to be an already-tired Aston engine. So tired, in fact, that it broke its crankshaft two laps later. Back at the pits, Aston Martin's owner, David Brown, was full of apologies. Geoff remembers "He told me that particular engine had done a terrific lot of running on the test bench and that it was selected because the factory had primarily looked upon the Manx race as good practice for me rather than a serious outing. He told me that had they known I would drive so well they would have fitted a decent engine into the car!"
Even though he had won a third motorcycle World Championship for Norton in 1952, and frustrating though his races with Aston Martin had been, Duke still felt encouraged enough with his own driving performances to accept the new Aston Martin contract that John Wyer offered him for 1953. Sadly, it ended in tears of frustration for all concerned. Geoff made what he now admits was an elementary and unecessary mistake in the very first race of the season, the important Sebring 12 Hours in Florida. A mistake which saw the DB3 that he was sharing with Peter Collins put out of the race when in a comfortable lead.
"Peter was a very fine driver" says Geoff. "He drove the first stint and built up a commanding lead which I then managed to maintain. Unfortunately I went for a gap on the inside of a slower MG in a corner when I really should have just waited and powered by on the next straight. I suppose it was my motorcycle racing instincts to blame. Anyway, I drifted into a collision with the MG and from there spun into a concrete filled oil drum, which damaged the suspension enough to cause our retirement".
Geoff Duke and Peter Collins in a DB3 - things weren't always that friendly between them
Peter Collins was then one of the up-and-coming 'golden boys' of British motor racing and had joined Aston Martin at the same time as Geoff in 1952. During that season, Geoff had privately felt that there was some resentment towards him from the established team members – and Collins in particular - for being a 'mere motorbike rider' getting more than his fair share of public and press attention.
"Certainly, after the Sebring incident" said Geoff " Collins made some very scathing remarks about my status as a driver and an already-charged atmosphere became unbearable. I seriously began to question my decision to change from two wheels to four".
So much so that when the next race for Aston Martin at Silverstone again ended in disappointment and frustration due to clutch problems, he asked David Brown if he could terminate his contract. This was in order to accept a lucrative 'two wheels only' offer to lead the Italian Gilera factory team that he had previously battled on unequal terms when riding for Norton. Ever the gentleman, DB agreed without hesitation.
It was the right move at the time for Geoff as he soon shook off his disappointment at Aston Martin and won that 1953 season's 500cc World Championship on the four-cylinder Gilera. He then took that title again for the Italian factory in both 1954 and 1955, which made him very much the dominant motorcycle racer of the early 'fifties.
But in making the decision to leave Aston Martin he left his one and only real shot at a four-wheel career behind. He never did take up the offer of a test with Mercedes and when he did try car racing again seven years later he was 'yesterday's man' in 'yesterday's cars' – a front-engine Formula Junior for the underfunded Gemini team in 1960 when Cooper had already successfully staged the 'rear-engine revolution' and a privately-entered and outdated Formula One Cooper which almost killed him in a Swedish Grand Prix crash.
The front-engine Gemini was no match for the well-developed rear-engine Coopers.
Nowadays his time with Aston Martin is an almost forgotten footnote to a glittering motorcycle career that saw him win six World Championships. But could it all have been different on four wheels? Let's leave the last words to John Wyer, a team manager whose opinions were universally respected throughout the motor racing world..."The generally accepted judgement" said Wyer in his autobiography " is that Duke was a very great motorcyclist who failed to make the transition to cars. But I maintain that I had more opportunity to evaluate him than anyone else and I am convinced that he had great potential. I will always regard his early retirement from the Aston Martin team as a real loss to motor racing".