Geoffrey Duke OBE (29.03.1923 – 01.05.2015) was motorcycling's first true superstar, a man who transcended the confines of a relatively niche sport to become a household name. This was never more obvious than when he was voted Sportsman of the Year in 1951 by the British public - a feat that no modern motorcyclist, not even Valentino Rossi, could hope to repeat today. He died yesterday, Friday May 1 at Elder Grange Nursing Home on the Isle of Man, aged 92.
Duke's outstanding services to motorcycle sport were recognised in 1953 when he was awarded the OBE, and this in an era when the public's perception of motorcyclists was of black leather-jacketed, greasy-haired thugs. As much as any man, Geoff Duke helped turn that image around and proved to the wider public that motorcyclists could be well-spoken, charming, and immaculately dressed.
But Duke was no manicured prima dona; he was a devilishly fast racer who literally diced with death every time he sat on a bike. Poor safety standards in the 1950s meant that far too many of Duke's friends and contemporaries lost their lives in racing accidents. And the bikes he raced at 150mph were horrendously primitive and dangerous by today's standards. 'We had tyres made of natural rubber - all the same compound - and they had to cope with both wet and dry conditions' Duke said in a 2007 interview. 'I also raced with drum brakes and the drums always expanded with the heat so you never knew if you were going to have brakes when you got to any particular corner.'
Born in St Helens, Lancashire on March 29, 1923, Duke was an innovator as well as being one of the most stylish riders ever to grace a motorcycle. He invented one-piece racing leathers, something that every modern racer and many road riders now take for granted and he wasn't afraid to break with convention when it came to choosing machinery either. In the post war era when the British public's attitude towards foreign goods and practices was suspicious, if not downright hostile, Duke left Norton (for whom he had won three world titles) to race for Italian firm Gilera. Britain and Italy had been at war just eight years earlier and many felt Duke's switch was an unpatriotic betrayal of the British motorcycle industry but Duke was shrewd enough to see that the future lay with multi-cylinder motorcycle, not the thumping big singles that British manufacturers continued to insist on building.
And while he was the highest paid star of his era by a long way, Duke was always concerned with the well-being of his fellow competitors; a concern that had dire consequences for his 1956 world championship campaign. Duke had supported the 500cc world championship privateers in their demands for decent start money (many were struggling just to eat thanks to the huge expense of travelling around Europe while race organisers pocketed all the gate money) and found himself banned from racing for the first six months of 1956, despite being the reigning 500cc world champion.
Geoff Duke competed in 60 Grand Prix between 1950 and 1959, winning over half of the races he contested. In all, he won 33 GPs in the 350c and 500cc classes and finished on the podium in a further 17 races. He also set 29 fastest laps on his way to six world titles. He also won six TT races at a time when they were part of the world championship calendar and the most important motorcycle races in the world. Many still credit Duke with setting the first ever 100mph lap of the TT course. During the 1955 Senior TT, it was announced that he had cracked the magical 100mph barrier but his average speed was later revised downwards to 99.97mph. many people thought it was solely because Duke was riding a Gilera at the time, having turned his back on Norton.
Duke eventually retired from bike racing in 1959 after winning all three Grand Prix classes (250cc, 350cc and 500cc) in a single day at the non-championship Swiss Grand Prix.
After hanging up that original one-piece suit, Duke moved to his beloved Isle of Man and enjoyed an incredible career as a businessman. His name will be familiar even to young motorsport fans thanks to the hugely successful Duke Marketing business which is run by his son Peter. Duke had various other businesses on the Island over the years, including a hotel, before settling into retirement and enjoying the tranquillity of the Island on which he made his name.
Although he maintained an interest in racing right up until his death, Duke couldn't help thinking that perhaps he'd been involved in the golden era of the sport. 'I still think I’d take up racing if I was 20 years old today because I still have that inbuilt competitive streak' he said. 'But, in my opinion, I raced in the best period. The circuits varied so much that no two were anything like each other. And while the racing was highly competitive, all the riders were very friendly and mixed in the paddock happily together. Nowadays they just disappear straight into their motor homes.'
Despite all the changes that the sport has undergone since the 1950s, Duke maintained one constant remained: the spirit of the riders themselves. 'The same basic things apply to a rider today that applied 50 years ago. I can’t think of anything from a riders’ point of view that’s changed. We are all born with an ability to ride a motorcycle fast - and you have to be born with that ability, it can’t be taught. But you then have to develop your speed according to whatever bike you’re riding - in whatever era.'
Geoff Duke was supremely graceful on a racing motorcycle and utterly fearless in the heat of battle. he was also a mainstream star, a pin-up boy, a household name, and a multiple world champion. But he was something far more important than all of these things: he was a true gentleman. And that is surely the greatest accolade any man could wish for.
Duke's Racing Achievements
TT and Manx GP wins
1949: Senior Clubman's TT and Senior Manx GP (Norton)
1950: Senior TT (Norton)
1951: Junior and Senior TT (Norton)
1952: Junior TT (Norton)
1955: Senior (Gilera)
Grand Prix World Championships
1951: 350cc and 500cc world titles (Norton)
1952: 350cc world title (Norton)
1953: 500cc world title (Gilera)
1954: 500cc world title (Gilera)
1955: 500cc world title (Gilera)