Geoff Duke was an old-fashioned sporting superstar. In the golden age of motorsport he won six World Championships in five years and six Isle of Man TT titles in six during the 1950s, smashing records, setting new standards and beating his European rivals in their own back yards.
Well-spoken, with his trademark quiff, good looks and a winning smile, "The Iron Duke" was a fearless rider who won fans and admirers wherever he raced, making him a mainstream star and pin-up. On one occasion more than 400,000 people turned up to see him do battle for Norton against the engineering might of the BMW team in Germany.
Duke's neat, distinctive and progressive riding style was widely admired: he was always "with the bike", centred in the saddle and with his upper body at the same angle of lean as the machine. Before him, many riders leaned the bike but kept themselves more upright. The celebrated Irish motorcyclist Stanley Woods likened his riding style to "water flowing from a tap ... I'd never seen such smoothness."
In an era when the public's perception of motorcyclists was of leather-clad, greasy-haired thugs, Duke, regarded as a gentleman, was described by Motorcycle News as "a man who transcended the confines of a relatively niche sport to become a household name." In 1951 he was voted Sportsman of the Year.
Duke also pioneered the lightweight, one-piece, aerodynamic leather suit thanks to the help of a tailor, Frank Barker, from his home town of St Helens. Duke first used it in 1950, and it has been standard issue ever since.
Following a series of injuries Duke retired in 1959 after winning all three Grand Prix classes (250cc, 350cc and 500cc) in a single day at the non-championship Swiss Grand Prix. Of the 60 GPs he started he won 33, with six titles across two classes, 500cc and 350cc, and he had a further 17 podium finishes. He also set 29 fastest laps on his way to six TT triumphs, when it was the most important race on the calendar. On his retirement, the editor of Motor Cycling remarked, "He put our beloved sport on a plane far higher in public esteem than we had dreamed it could obtain."
Born in St Helens, Lancashire, in 1923, Geoffrey Ernest Duke was the son of a baker. He became fond of motorbikes as a schoolboy, initially due to the "aroma of the Castrol R" from a couple of bikes parked outside his house, but also because his brother had a 1921 250cc New Imperial, a model which had won the TT.
Duke's first bike, bought from a friend for 10 shillings, was a 1923 belt-drive Raleigh, which he replaced with a second-hand DOT 175cc, which he used while working for the Post Office as an engineer. During the Second World War he served as a dispatch rider before taking up a job with BSA and then with Norton, where he became a member of the trials team.
Duke made his race debut in the 1948 Junior Isle of Man Grand Prix on a 350cc Norton, but was forced by engine failure to withdraw while leading. But he had impressed observers and was soon racing again, beating Les Graham in the 350cc final at Haddenham in 1949. He won the senior Manx Grand Prix later that year as well as the Senior Clubman's TT.
Employed by Norton as a full-time rider, Duke earned £10 per week. With successful testing of Rex McCandless's "Featherbed" chassis in time for the 1950 season, Duke demonstrated that the rugged Norton was more than a match for the superior power of the Italian Gilera 4-cylinder racer. That year he set a record pace on the way to his first TT victory.
A few tweaks, and the following year Duke dominated the Gileras to win the 350cc and 500cc world titles, also adding another TT victory. However, the Norton, although revitalised, could not hold off the increasing Gilera horsepower. Despite injuries, in 1952, Duke successfully defended his 350cc title with Norton, but the Italian Umberto Masetti regained the 500cc title.
Duke also dabbled in sports car racing with Aston Martin. A podium finish in a DB3 in Goodwood's Easter Handicap in 1952, ahead of Stirling Moss' Jaguar, was the high point in terms or results, but he also led the 1953 Sebring 12-Hours endurance with Peter Collins before crashing.
It became clear that Norton could not afford to carry on with its 4-cylinder project, and so, controversially, as the two countries had been at war eight years earlier, Duke joined Gilera. In the postwar era of suspicion towards foreign goods and practices, some saw it as a betrayal of the British motorcycle industry. But the public soon relented. Duke focused on the 500cc and secured three consecutive world titles in 1953, 1954 and 1955, also notching up another TT win in 1955.
Though was the highest paid star of the period, Duke never became aloof, or detached from the realities and dangers of racing. His 1956 title defence was severely hampered by a six-month ban for leading a riders' strike over privateers' pay – the riders sought decent start money as many struggled financially, particularly with race organisers pocketing most of the gate receipts.
After retiring, in 1963 Duke briefly ran the Scuderia Gilera team before moving to the Isle of Man where he was revered and enjoyed business success in shipping, hotels and entertainment; in 1978 he was involved in setting up the first roll-on roll-off ferry service from Douglas to the mainland. In 1988, he published an autobiography, In Pursuit of Perfection. It was an apt title.
Geoffrey Ernest Duke, motorcyclist and businessman: born St Helens, Lancashire 29 March 1923; OBE 1953; married 1951 Patricia Reid (died 1975; two sons), 1976 Dorothy Eagles (marriage dissolved), 1978 Daisy; died Douglas, Isle of Man 1 May 2015.Reuse content