duke assen

British multiple world champion Geoff Duke on his way to 2nd aboard his Manx Norton 500 at Assen in 1952, winner Umberto Masetti, Gilera…

Duke was world champion six times with 33 GP wins and dominated 1950’s racing. He won three of his titles on Nortons (1950/51/52).

Duke’s pace was critical to Norton who were fighting to maintain competitiveness as their ‘singles’ struggled against more advanced, powerful multi-cylinder engines of the Italians and AJS at home.

Their ‘Featherbed’ racing frame was at the cutting edge though. Isle of Man TT racer Harold Daniell was quoted as saying that it was like ‘riding on a featherbed’ compared to conventional racing frames.  The frame featured a lower center of gravity and shorter wheelbase, combined with careful engine placement to maximise handling.

duke 350

Duke more successful in 1952 350cc GP at Assen, victorious. Norton. (unattributed)

In ’53, being underpaid by Norton he moved to Gilera, the pay deal sweetened by inclusion of a new Lancia B20. He repaid Gilera’s faith in him winning three 500 championships ‘on the trot’, from 1953-5.

Duke also dabbled in cars, securing a podium finish in the 1952 Goodwood Easter handicap in a works Aston Martin DB3 behind 2 Jaguar XK120’s.

Aston Martin Team Manager John Wyer, wrote of Duke’s immediate pace in his autobiography; ‘Duke really was sensational right from the start. The car was one of the lightweight DB2’s and he 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 done on that track. In the very next session he lapped faster than any of our team drivers had ever done-i promptly signed him up!’

berne

Reg Parnell in DB2 #14 with Duke immediately behind him at the start of sports car race at the 1952 Berne GP meeting. Benz SL300’s, Lancia B20, Ferrari et al. (Vantage)

In May 1952 he and Reg Parnell contested a sports car race at Berne during the Swiss GP meeting, Duke was 4th in an Aston DB2 behind 3 factory Mercedes Benz 300SL’s, having qualified 5th but starting at the rear of the grid, having used his teammate Reg Parnell’s car in qualifying. Duke’s car was the only car not to be lapped by the Mercs’ until his car lapsed onto 5 cylinders for the last 2 laps of the race. Alfred Neubauer was so impressed he offered him a Mercedes test drive on the spot, 2 years before the same offer was made to Stirling Moss.

In a demonstration of his virtuosity Duke also won the 350cc Berne GP for bikes aboard his Manx Norton on the same weekend.

moss and duke

A youthful Geoff Duke and hirsute Stirling Moss at the ‘British Empire Trophy’ meeting IOM 1952. Moss drove Frazer Nash Le Mnas Rep DNF. Handicap race won by Pat Griffith in a Lester MG. (unattributed)

Duke was to win the Isle of Man TT 6 times, his circuit knowledge put to good effect by Astons’ who entered him in a DB3 in the British Empire Trophy race in late May 1952. His car, DB3/1 was the 2.6 litre engined prototype which had already done considerable miles at Monthlery. Duke led for most of the race and set the fastest lap but retired with a broken crankshaft. ‘Motorsport’ magazine observed that ‘His run was a fine introduction to long distance motor racing’.

He also led the 1953 Sebring 12 Hour in another DB3 until crashing the car he shared with Peter Collins, the two young Brits retired on lap 52. Duke recalled; ‘ Peter was a very fine driver, 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 an MG on a slower corner when i really should have waited and powered by on the next straight..anyway i drifted into a collision with the MG and then spun into a concrete filled oil drum which broke the suspension.’

duke iom

Geoff Duke, Aston Martin DB3, ‘British Empire Trophy’, Isle of Man 1952. (unattributed)

When the next race at Silverstone ended in disappointment and frustration after clutch problems, the atmosphere in the team also tense as the ‘mere motorbike rider’ was the subject of some resentment from the established drivers and ‘starlet’ Peter Collins; Duke decided to quit cars and focus on a lucrative ‘bikes only’ deal with Gilera. As related above, Geoff then won 3 500cc titles for the Italians on the trot. The Gilera deal meant he never did take up the Mercedes test drive offer…

duke and collins

Duke at the wheel with Peter Collins testing or demonstrating a DB3 Aston. Despite the frivolity their was tension in the team between ‘newbee’ motorcyclist Duke and some of the drivers, including, according to Duke, Collins who was also recruited in 1952. (Vantage)

His 1955 World Title with Gilera was his last, he lead a riders strike over privateers pay and was then banned from racing for 6 months. Injuries and Gileras’ withdrawal from racing interfered with the following seasons, he finally retired from ‘bikes in 1959 returning to cars one last time.

He contested several 1960 Formula Junior events in a Chequered Flag entered, front engined Gemini Mk2 Ford, his best result 7th in the International Trophy at Silverstone in May, Jim Clark won in his Lotus 18. It was a good run, future GP drivers, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Peter Arundell and Mike Spence were in front of him in mid-engined cars.

He raced at the Monaco GP FJ curtain raiser in May but spun on the first lap. He qualified 10th, those in front of him included Henry Taylor, Trevor Taylor, Jim Clark, Peter Arundell and Colin Davis.

monaco

Monaco GP, FJ pits. #102 Graham Warner 15th # 98 Geoff Duke DNF spin Gemini Mk 2 Fords. Thats Duke in the driving suit to the right of his car. #60 Kurt Lincoln Cooper T52BMC 5th. (Brad Ward)

He also raced a Reg Parnell Racing Lotus 18 Climax in several later 1960 F2 events at Aintree, Snetterton and Brands Hatch in August DNF in all events.

His final race was also Duke’s only F1 race. He was entered in the Fred Tuck owned, outdated Cooper T45 Climax in the 1961 Non-Championship ‘Kanonloppet’ at Karlskoga, Sweden on 20 August. The cars gearbox locked on lap 10 causing a huge crash which damaged his ribs, broke a collar bone, cracked his pelvis as well as causing a collapsed lung and trauma to the heart muscle…

It was a sad end to a great racing career by any measure.

duke on bike

The schoolboy idol at the start of an Ulster GP year uncertain. Manx Norton. Duke was ‘British Sportsman of The Year’ in 1951, a ‘Superstar’ before the term was invented. (Vantage)

From a car racing viewpoint, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, Duke was 37 when he returned to four wheels. He should have focused on sports cars, or if hell bent on single-seaters he should have, given the promise he showed in the outmoded front-engined Gemini in 1960 done another year in FJ in a Lotus 20 and used any success as a launchpad into a decent GP car, racing an ‘old nail’ Cooper in F1 was not a smart thing to do. Hindsight of course as i say…

The last word on Duke’s potential in a car from Astons’/JW Automotive’s John Wyer; ‘The generally accepted judgement 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 he had great potential. I will always regard his early retirement from the Aston Martin team as a real loss to motor racing’.

iom gilera

Duke aboard one of his beloved Gilera fours at The IOM. (unattributed)

He ran his own motor cycle racing team in 1963, ‘Scuderia Duke’ running John Hartle and Derek Minter on old Gilera’s. Duke ran one of his old bikes in a demonstration at Oulton Park and was immediately quick on modern tyres. Hartle took a 500cc win at Assen but only after Mike Hailwood retired his dominant MV. It was a brave season and largely funded by Duke when promised backers withdrew.

Geoff then focused successfully on a number of business interests mainly centred on The Isle of Man, where he lived, including hotels, shipping and the Duke Video company which was run by his son.

He died on 1 May 2015, born 29 March 1923.

duke astons

Duke in Aston Martin racing ‘clobber’ 1952. (unattributed)

Click on this link to a tribute to Geoff Duke…

Et cetera…

duke cartoon

(unattributed)

duke lancia

Duke and his Gilera company car, a Lancia B20. (unattributed)

Credits…unattributed/Russell Burrows, selvedgeyard.com, Brad Ward, ‘Vantage’ magazine, Patrick Ryan Collection, John Wyer ‘The Certain Sound’

Finito…

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