Geoff Duke, the first "Superstar"

A host of outstanding British riders began their careers in the 1950s, but of them all, one stood head and shoulders above the pack; Geoffrey Duke; a supreme stylist who gained 3 World titles for Norton and 3 for Gilera. He was born at St. Helens in 1923; as a teenager he became a technician in the postal service, and from there he enlisted in the Royal Corps of Signals, attaining the rank of sergeant. During his army tenure Duke was an enthusiastic member of the signal corps motorcycle display team. Following his de-mob in 1947 he purchased a 350cc competition BSA, and on the ‘Beeza’ he began his career as a trials rider.

New career with Norton

Duke’s exploits attracted the attention of Irish race star Artie Bell, who was instrumental in finding a position for him with the prestigious Norton firm in Birmingham. At first he had scant success on the 500T trials Norton, which was quite a deal heavier than the BSA; however the prospect of becoming involved in road racing seemed much more appealing. Nortons supported him fully from the outset; to the extent of loaning him a new 350 for the 1948 Manx Grand Prix. which would be his first ever road race. He arrived in the Island a week before official practice began; and using his trials machine, fitted with road tyres he set about learning that most demanding course.

Manx Grand Prix

He did not feature on the practice leader board. His practice plan was to conserve his machine on the straights, but concentrate on the quickest possible way through the numerous bends. On race day he faced the starter; quietly confident of a good showing, riding to a pre-determined plan that saw him assume the lead on lap 3. Shortly afterwards he was forced to retire with a split oil tank. It was a great disappointment, and but for his problem he may well have won a Manx Grand Prix at his first attempt.He won the 1949 Senior Clubman’s TT at the Isle of Man in June and was anxious to make a good showing at the 1949 Manx Grand Prix in September, but in July he was involved in a crash at the Skerries 100 in Ireland. He suffered a broken leg and painful lacerations when he was thrown through a thicket hedge, and had barely recovered in time when practice began for the Manx.

Norton works team

His main opposition at the Manx came from Ulsterman Cromie McCandless, who like Duke was a most capable racer. Both riders encountered problems during their races, which hampered their prospects of winning. Duke finished a close second to McCandless in the Junior event, but positions were reversed in the Senior Grand Prix; with Duke consolidating his lead ahead of McCandless who lost time on the final lap with fuel problems.

First Grand Prix SeasonFollowing his Manx success,Duke was an obvious selection for the 1950 works team. His initial outing was in late 1949 at the Montlhery speed bowl near Paris; for the purpose of attacking world endurance records. Artie Bell was Duke’s partner in the solo attempts, which resulted in a bag of 21 records, still using the outmoded “Garden Gate’ model. To be included in the Norton team on equal terms with Bell, Daniell and Lockett was really special, but to start the 1950 season on the new-look ‘Featherbed’ was an opportunity beyond compare. Duke scored emphatic wins in the 500 class of the Senior TT, the Ulster Grand Prix and the final Grand Prix of the season, the Italian.Only for tyre failure in Belgium and Holland he would have surely become 500cc World Champion at his first attempt. There was some consolation for Duke when he scored decisive wins in the 350 and 500 events at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. In the 350 race his team mate Harry Hinton deliberately sacrificed his second place to ensure that Duke was not overtaken by AJS star Les Graham.