Geoff Duke scrambling down under

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The capitals are as used by Motor Cycling. They added a strap line, this all in capitals, across the top of the page: “WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS RIDER WRITES FOR YOU.” And, over four parts running in consecutive weeks, that’s what Geoff Duke did.

While the main point of the trip for Duke was surely publicity for Gilera – his then employer, who he recounted had lent him two machines, one his 1954 Italian GP mount, the other the one previously used by Reg Armstrong, as well as sending chief mechanic Giovanni Fumagalli – and as a money making exercise, Geoff was also there to have some ‘fun’ too, which accounts for the accompanying picture. But more of that later.

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After a stop on route in Singapore (where Duke was met by Bill Clough, who’d ridden in the 1954 TT races) and an introduction to Chinese food, it was on to the heat of Australia. And he had work to do, with radio shows, civic receptions, press interviews, film shows… all wanting a part of the reigning 500cc world champion, even before he’d made it on to a race track.

The heat was to prove Geoff’s greatest opponent in some ways, though he was quick to praise the efforts of a few locals, even wondering aloud: “With no disrespect, it isn’t often that a Gilera four is pushed by a Grand Prix Triumph…” He was referring to local George Scott’s harrying of him, and though Geoff did win out (lowering the lap record by six seconds at that particular circuit in Perth) he knew he’d been in a race.

There’s a hint at some trouble in a place called Gawler (where the race track doubled as the emergency landing strip for nearby Adelaide airport!) when Geoff elected to not ride in the unlimited race, having already won the 500cc race, though “…small stones entering the two outside carbs had deprived me of 2-3000 revs… I decided to not run… as it would have been foolish to risk my spare machine when my tour was just beginning. Unfortunately the organisers did not see eye to eye with me on this point, but it just had to be”.

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There were other races too, including epic battles with some more of the Aussie heroes, including the Hinton family – father Harry (aka ‘Chisel’) and sons Eric and Harry Junior, Maurice Quincey, Keith Campbell, Bobbie Brown, Max Stevens, and at Bathurst, Jack Ehret on his 1000cc Vincent in the unlimited race. Duke won, but mainly by dint of his good start and Ehret’s poor one, as the Vincent man maintained the same gap and the pair shared a new lap record.

So how come did Duke end up on the aged BSA in a scramble? In his words: “… there was a 250 Championship race to be held a few miles from George Lynn’s house (Lynn was a journalist and ‘fixer’ who’d arranged the trip where I was in residence) in Victoria. I don’t really know whether I was talked into competing or whether I talked myself into it!

“Anyway, there I was, wearing a borrowed two-piece leather suit much too big for me and, no, not with the Gilera minus two pots, but a prewar ‘Empire Star’ BSA complete with girder forks and rigid frame! I still have the bruises to prove it!”

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Geoff went on to say how the course was more like a grass track and that he’d ‘lost his touch’ – remember he was a works off-roader for Norton before a road racer – though he soon recovered it, finishing fourth ‘first time out’ thus qualifying for the semi-finals. Here, he came third, just behind the second place man – but then in the final the BSA, owned by Jim Guilfoyle, cried ‘enough’ and that was that, retiring from fifth place, having been badly ‘baulked’ at the start.

After one more road race, that was that. Summing up Duke said: “It is quite impossible to describe the friendliness and hospitality which I experienced no matter where I went in Australia.” He boarded a Super Constellation airliner bound for home, via America, while Fumagalli escorted the Gileras back on the boat. bike

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