Posts Tagged ‘Geoff Duke’

(B Young)

Huge excitement was created by Geoff Duke’s visit to Australia in 1954, here his Gilera 500/4 is shown at rest in the Longford paddock…

The Brit was a ‘rock star’, he has just won back to back 500cc world titles aboard Gileras in 1953 and 1954 having won his first on Nortons in 1951. In total Duke won six 350cc and 500cc world championships between 1951 and 1955 and six TT races between 1949 and 1955.

But his fame extended beyond bikes given his film star looks and ability to communicate, as such he was a wonderful ambassador for the sport globally and in late 1954 he was poised to spread a bit of his angel dust throughout Australia.

I wrote an article about Geoff four years ago with a focus on his racing in cars;

Longford (B Young)


In a whirlwind tour commencing on 7 January 1955 he raced in four states commencing in Western Australia at Mooliabeenie, a wartime airstrip near Perth on 16 January before a crowd of 15,000 people and then another airstrip at Gawler in South Australia, no doubt wheelspin in top gear was impressive to the 16,000 punters who experienced trying conditions in sweltering heat.

His main opposition in the west was from local all-rounder Peter Nichol on a G45 Matchless and from George Scott’s GP Triumph, at Gawler Keith Campbell and Roger Barker impressed.

Then it was off to the Bandiana Army Base near Albury, the Victoria/New South Wales border town on 30 January- the first half decent venue for the plucky gentleman in his tour to that point, the track comprised 4.5km of perimeter roads.

There, having carefully won the Senior Clubmans event in the slowest possible time, Eric Hinton’s handicap just gave him the edge over Duke to allow him to win the Unlimited Handicap in fading light, this was the only occasion on which the champ was beaten on the tour.

Duke, Bandiana


Maurie Quincey, Norton ahead of Duke at Bandiana

Gilera saw the commercial opportunity of a tour to promote their brand sending two current 500/4 bikes and works mechanic Giovanni Fumagalli to look after the machines.

The two bikes brought to Australia derived from a 250cc four designed by Engineer Piero Remor under Piero Taruffi in the early 1940’s. After Taruffi left Gilera to concentrate on car racing Remor and company founder Giuseppe Gilera began work on a 500cc bike whose origins lay in the earlier 250, in 1947.

The new racer was unveiled in 1948 with 1949 its shakedown season. After Remor’s departure to MV Agusta Taruffi was re-hired, together with engineers Colombo and Passoni changes were made to the cylinder head and rear suspension which allowed Umberto Masetti to win the 500cc world championship in 1950.

The bike was redesigned over the winter of 1950/51 adopting a new tubular frame with telescopic forks, pivoting rear suspension and hydraulic shocks. In 1951 Gilera won three GP’s but Duke took the title on a Norton, in 1952 Masetti again won the championship.

Fumagalli and Duke warming up the bike at Gawler (D Voss)


Gilera 500-4 1954 (unattributed)

When Duke joined the Milanese firm for 1953 he brought with him strong knowledge of the great Rex Candless designed ‘Featherbed’ frame Norton’s handling, upon his suggestions the Gilera frame was lowered and strengthened to bring better handling with the engine left untouched.

In 1953/54 Passoni redesigned the motor by increasing its stroke, changing the valve angle and elongating the sump to allow the unit to be lowered in the frame by three inches, by this stage the engine produced circa 65bhp @ 10,000rpm.

The frame was of double cradle design made of tubular steel with telescopic suspension at the front and pivoting rear suspension with hydraulic shock absorbers at the rear. The four cylinder, four stroke, air-cooled engine displaced 402.7cc and was undersquare having a bore and stroke of 52mm x 58.8mm. With two valves per cylinder operated by two overhead camshafts and fed by four carburettors the engine gave circa 65bhp as stated above.

1954 Gilera 500 with the dustbin fairing they commenced to experiment with in 1954 (G Cavara)


Back to Dukes Tour of Oz. From Albury it was then off to Sydney and a round of public appearances and a visit to Mount Panorama before the next race meeting at the permanent Mount Druitt circuit west of Sydney.

The surface was poor though due to damage from recent car meetings but Duke dominated as he did everywhere else, Keith Stewart impressive in second on a new Matchless G45 twin in the Senior GP.

Mount Druitt


Mount Druitt after one of his wins with Keith Stewart on a Matchless G45 behind

Duke’s final two meetings of the tour were down south, at Fishermans Bend in inner Melbourne and majestic Longford in northern Tasmania, which must surely have impressed.

At Fishermans Bend Maurie Quincey led the 500cc race on his Norton for a while before clutch slip set in and Duke pounced in the second Gilera having put the first to one side, it had lost its edge.

Longford was held over two days- with racing on the Saturday and Monday, in the opening race the engine began to lose power with what was diagnosed as magneto problems. The other bike, in Melbourne awaiting shipment back to Italy was stripped of the part which was despatched overnight to the Apple Isle. With the machine back in fine fettle Duke won and set a new lap record in the Unlimited race of 152km/h. Oh to have heard that Gilera screaming its way along The Flying Mile @ 10,000rpm!

Ready for the off at Longford, Duke at right (S Scholes)

Jim Scaysbrook summarised the impact of Dukes tour in ‘Old Bike Australasia’; ‘His whirlwind tour had taken him to every state except Queensland and his charming and eloquent manner did incalculable good for motorcycling. The unprecedented publicity generated helped to dispel the popularly held, media fuelled belief that motorcycle racers were a bunch of halfwits with a death wish. It also had a profound effect on the local riders, serving as a stark reminder of the gap between our rather primitive scene and the European big-time.’

‘A number of up and coming stars impressed him, including Keith Campbell, Roger Barker and particularly Bob Brown, who had just gained selection as Australian representative to the 1955 IOM TT races. “This young man is a joy to watch, uses his head, and should figure very well in the IoM and on the continent” he said in his report to the British Press. When Duke was injured at the start of the 1957 season, he recommended Brown to take his place in the Gilera team for the TT, resulting in two excellent third places. For 1958, Duke personally sponsored Bob on a pair of Nortons’ Jim wrote.


(D Tongs)

The second of the two Gileras at rest in Longford.

The contribution and significance of this series of Gileras is recognised in a wonderful, highly technical and thoroughly researched scholarly paper titled ‘Grand Prix Motorcycle Engine Development 1949-2008’ written by David Piggott and Derek Taulbut.

Click to access Grand_Prix_Motorcycle_Engine_Development.pdf

The authors recognise ‘Piero Remor’s contribution to Grand Prix engine design’ as follows;

‘The defeat of the original MV 4 in early 1966 had brought to a close after two successful decades the career of the 1947 basic 500cc design of Phil Remor. Initially for Gilera, this introduced the Naturally Aspirated aircooled transverse 4-cylinder with double overhead camshafts and 2 wide angle valves per cylinder, bore-stroke ratio around 1. Remor’s concept, although changed in detail development by others in Gilera and MV, is worth remembering. There had also been successful 350cc versions. Remor had actually been associated with transverse 4’s since 1925 when it was the layout of the Italian GRB (Gianini-Remor-Bonmartini) which ultimately had been transformed into the water supercharged Gilera which powered Dorino Serafini to the European Championship in 1939.’

This piece is based on a wonderful article by Jim Scaysbrook titled ‘Geoff Duke- The Duke’s Crusade’, do have a read, it’s terrific.

Geoff Duke – The Duke’s Crusade

Bibliography and Photo Credits…

Bob Young Collection, Des Tongs, Stephen Scholes, Doug Voss, ‘Geoff Duke- The Duke’s Crusade’ article by Jim Scaysbrook in Old Bike Australia issue 13 May/June 2009, ‘Gilera Motorcycles and Racing History’ by Lucien C Ducret, ‘Grand Prix Motorcycle Engine Development 1949-2008’ by David Piggott and Derek Taulbut.




The 1950 Isle of Man meeting on June 10 was a mix of the new and old…

New was Geoff Duke, signed by Norton to compete in the Junior and Senior events after winning both the Clubman’s TT and Manx Grand Prix the year before.


Number being painted on W Hall’s Triumph 500, Bottom left the 3 Norton teammates , # 57 Geoff Duke

Norton also introduced the new ‘Featherbed’ frame, developed by the McCandless brothers, the combination of Duke and the Featherbed were instantly competitive. The light, trim, all welded (rather than lug and tube) frame lowered the bikes centre of gravity and had a shorter wheelbase which suited the challenging TT course.


The TT said goodbye to pool petrol, and its was immediately celebrated by record laps in all three classes.

Duke’s debut in the seven-lap Senior was amazing. Riding the new Norton, he led from start to finish, smashing both race and lap records, winning in 2 hours 51 minutes 45.8 seconds.

Artie Bell’s Norton took the Junior honours with Duke runner-up as Harold Daniell filled the last podium place in his final TT. It was at the Junior prize-giving ceremony that Daniell commented ‘the new Norton was so comfortable that you could sleep on it-rather like being on a feather bed’, so creating the frames name.

Whilst Norton’s success in both Junior and Senior TT’s was clear, the Lightweight produced one of the closest finishes of all time. Just 0.2 of a second separated Italian Dario Ambrosini’s Benelli and Maurice Cann’s Moto Guzzi after 264 nail-biting miles!

Race Build Up…


Spectators check out H Daniell’s works Norton 500 prior to the Senior TT

The development of the Norton frame is an interesting story about advancing technology. In 1949 racer and self taught Belfast motorcycle engineer Rex McCandless began working on a new type of frame which used a welding process developed during the war. ‘Sif bronze welding’ used an alloy that melted at lower temperatures but had high tensile strength and can be built into fillets.


Mechanics fettle Duke’s Norton pre-race

A works 500 engine was mounted into the frame which was lighter and stronger than Nortons ‘garden gate’ frame. Tested at the IOM by Bell against a standard frame bike ridden by Duke, it was much quicker, further tests at Montlery near Paris, proved its speed.

In January 1950 McCandless and Norton’s Edgar Franks took the frame and the McCandless jigs to the Reynolds Tube Company who built the frames from their famed 16 gauge ‘531’ high tensile steel tube on their own jig adapted from the Norton approved McCandless one.


Reynolds were to keep quiet the fact that they built the frames, rather than Norton themselves, but of course their origin soon became widely known. In a great example of ‘racing improves the breed’ the ‘Featherbed’ found its way into Norton’s production bikes in concept if not street frames actually made from ‘531’ tube.


Nice side on shot of Duke’s new ‘Featherbed’ Manx. Reynolds 531 alloy steel frame either made by the McCandless Bros or by Reynolds on the McCandless jig depending on the reference. Either way a great step forward, Nortons frame design until the mid-sixties ‘Isostatic’


Duke and his Norton teammates before the off

Whilst the IOM Official website is quite useful i haven’t been able to find a competitor list with numbers to identify the bikes, other than those which had captions which i have reproduced. If you can help with any of the captions please get in touch. Once again, the photography of  ‘Picture Post’s’ Bert Hardy inspired this article. So, whilst it may lack a little of the detail hopefully Bert’s fantastic, evocative shots make up for it!



Senior TT Race…


Senior TT competitors commence the race


C Horn, Norton


R St J Lockett, Norton 500



Geoff Duke #57 and Artie Bell both on wworks Manx Norton ‘Featherbed’ 500’s race for the finishing line


Norton teammates Harold Daniell, Geoff Duke and Artie Bell, Isle of Man Senior TT 1950

Photo Credits…

All photos by Bert Hardy





duke assen

British multiple world champion Geoff Duke on his way to second place aboard his Manx Norton 500 at Assen in 1952, winner Umberto Masetti, Gilera 500/4…

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

Norton’s ‘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 centre 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 on a Norton (unattributed)

In 1953, being underpaid by Norton he moved to Gilera, the pay deal was sweetened by inclusion of a new Lancia B20 as part of his package. 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!’


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 fourth in an Aston DB2 behind three factory Mercedes Benz 300SL’s, after qualifying fifth but starting at the rear of the grid, having used his teammate Reg Parnell’s car in qualifying. Duke’s machine was the only car not lapped by the Mercs’ until his car lapsed onto five cylinders for the last 2 laps of the race. Alfred Neubauer was so impressed he offered Geoff a Mercedes test drive on the spot, two 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 six times, his circuit knowledge was 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 Montlhery. 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 that ‘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 was 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 three 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 led a riders strike over the levels of privateers pay from circuit promoters and was then banned from racing for 6 months. Injuries and Gilera’s withdrawal from racing interfered with the following seasons, he finally retired from ‘bikes in 1959 returning to cars one last time contesting several 1960 Formula Junior events in a Chequered Flag entered, front engined Gemini Mk2 Ford.

His best result was seventh in the International Trophy meeting 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. Duke also contested the Monaco GP FJ curtain raiser in May but spun on the first lap. He qualified tenth, those in front of him included Henry Taylor, Trevor Taylor, Jim Clark, Peter Arundell and Colin Davis.


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)

Duke also raced a Reg Parnell Racing Lotus 18 Climax in several later 1960 F2 events at Aintree, Snetterton and Brands Hatch in August for DNF’s 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- hindsight being 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, on them given the promise he showed in the outmoded front-engined Gemini in 1960. Then do done another year in a Lotus 20 FJ 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 is 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)

Duke ran his own motor cycle racing team in 1963, ‘Scuderia Duke’ ran John Hartle and Derek Minter on old Gilera’s. He 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 was 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…


duke cartoon



duke lancia

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


Russell Burrows,, Brad Ward, ‘Vantage’ magazine, Patrick Ryan Collection, John Wyer ‘The Certain Sound’