The life and times of a sporting legend

Geoff Duke at Buckingham Palace  in1953 to receive his OBE
Geoff Duke at Buckingham Palace in1953 to receive his OBE

Geoff Duke OBE was one of Britain’s best-known sportsmen of his generation.

The six-time motorcycle road race world champion had been in failing health for some years and spent the last few months of his life in Elder Grange Nursing Home on the outskirts of Douglas.

Born in St Helens in March 1923, he moved to the Isle of Man in 1955, having married Pat Reid, of a well-known Manx family at the height of his career. The couple, who married at St Thomas’s church in Douglas in September 1951 had two sons, Peter, who was born in Southport in 1953 and Michael who was born at the Jane Crookall in 1961. Sadly Pat died at quite a young age in January 1975. He would later remarry.

Regarded as the first superstar of motorcycle racing, Geoff Duke made his Snaefell Mountain Course debut in September 1948, retiring after his 350cc Norton suffered a split oil tank and seized.

The popular Lancastrian rose to prominence in an unprecedented 12-month period when he won the 1949 Senior Clubman’s TT, the 1949 Senior Manx Grand Prix and 1950 Senior TT in swift succession (as well as finishing runner-up in the Junior). It was a feat never again achieved.

The factory Norton star became a double 350cc/500cc world champion in 1951, after which he was voted Britain’s Sportsman of the Year.

He retained the 350cc title in 1952 prior to controversially switching to the Italian Gilera team the following year when he regained the 500cc crown. He won the title three years in succession – it would have been four but for a lengthy ban in 1956 when he and Reg Armstrong, amongst others, supported a strike to secure better start money for the GP privateers.

He retired from Grand Prix racing in 1959, having etched his name in motorsport history as one of the greatest motorcycle road racers of all-time.

Alongside bike racing Geoff dabbled in car racing with considerable success, having also been a very good off-road motorcyclist in his younger days.

After retiring completely he remained involved in racing on a consultancy basis with a couple of factory developments, not least BSA and Royal Enfield.

In 1963 he managed the private Scuderia Duke team of John Hartle and Derek Minter after persuading Giuessepe Gilera to let him run the mothballed machines last raced in 1957.

It was an attempt to challenge MV’s then dominance of the 500cc class. The bikes were updated with new dolphin fairings, the latest Girling suspension struts and Avon tyres. The bikes appeared competitive in testing at Monza, but the hoped-for sponsors didn’t all come onboard and Geoff had to share the brunt of the costs himself.

Minter was hurt in a serious crash when riding his own Norton at Brands Hatch, putting him out for most of the season, so Duke recruited up-and-coming Phil Read to take his place.

But a distinct lack of cash meant a shortage of testing and other vital components to make the seven-year-old machines truly competitive.

The bikes lapped quicker than they did in 1957, but it was not enough to see off Mike Hailwood on the factory MV and Hartle had to settle for a distant second with Read third.

Hartle also finished runner-up in the Junior on the scaled down 350cc Gilera, this time to Jim Redman’s Honda.

The season was to end in ultimate disappointment for Geoff and the Scuderia Gilera team.

He was heavily involved with the organisation of the 1965 International Six Days Trial staged in the island, as clerk of the course. He remained involved in the off-road sport as president and latterly patron of Ramsey Motor Cycle Club. Both of his sons competed off-road.

An astute, charming and extremely popular man, Geoff Duke was involved in several business ventures, including purchasing and running the former Arragon Hotel on the Old Castletown Road in the late 1950s.

He established a successful motor parts distribution company on Peel Road, Douglas and headed the Manx Line shipping company launched in 1978 as opposition to the Isle of Man Steam Packet.

Geoff was also a director of Duke Video which his eldest son Peter set up in 1981, a company that still exists.

Sympathy is extended to Geoff’s second wife, Daisy, his sons and their respective families at their extremely sad loss.