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When the founder of AMCN George Lynn convinced world-class racer Geoff Duke to head Down Under and take on the Aussies

George Lynn, founder and editor of Australian Motor Cycle News in 1951, was a man of vision, at least in one sense. His eyesight was so poor that he had difficulty driving a car, and in the latter years before his death in March 1974, relied on others for his transport. Yet the man to which we owe this terrific masthead who believed passionately in motorcycle sport, and travelled extensively in Europe, where he forged contacts that assisted many aspiring Australian riders in their efforts to gain recognition and the precious starts in international events. He also harboured a dream to bring top talent to these shores, having witnessed the tour by English superstar Fergus Anderson in 1948/49, which had been organised and partly sponsored by Rex Tilbrook from Adelaide.

Despite being beaten many times by local stars on their methanol-burning machines (Anderson’s two works Moto Guzzis and his AJS 7R were tuned for low-octane European petrol), Fergus declared he would return, this time with more suitable equipment. George Lynn corresponded with Anderson but the return bout failed to materialise for various reasons, and Lynn turned his attention elsewhere.

During a trip to the 1954 Isle of Man TT, Lynn spoke to several top riders about coming to Australia for a nation-wide series of races in the European off-season. Top of the list was works Norton rider, Rhodesian Ray Amm, who won the 1954 Senior TT, and Australian Moto Guzzi teamster Ken Kavanagh. It all looked promising, but then things began to unravel.

First, Amm, fast and completely fearless, had the rug pulled from under him with the announcement that the works Norton team would disband at the end of the 1954 Grand Prix season, but he planned to make the trip in any case with his own Norton – until he was injured in a crash at Aintree, England. With Norton’s withdrawal, he wasted no time in joining MV Agusta for the 1955 season to ride the Italian factory’s 350 and 500cc fours. Tragically, Amm died in his first ride for MV Agusta at Imola on 11 April, 1955.

Kavanagh, meanwhile, was having problems of his own, with a deteriorating relationship between himself and Guzzi’s team manager/lead rider Fergus Anderson. Despite having entered for the year-opening meeting at Mildura in January 1955, Kavanagh stayed in Italy. Into the breech stepped Duke, who personally approached George Lynn by letter in October with the offer to bring a works 500cc Gilera with him, provided satisfactory financial arrangements could be made. The Gilera factory, eyeing a possible export market for their range of road motorcycles, gave a tacit blessing to the plan and arranged to ship two of their fabulous fours from Genoa, under the supervision of Giovanni Fumigalli, who had been Duke’s race mechanic for his two years with Gilera. The bikes arrived in Fremantle aboard the SS Neptunia on 2 January, 1955, and after some wrangling with local customs officials (who placed a value of $40 each on the priceless machines), the cargo was cleared.

Even at this late stage, a schedule for Duke’s race appearances had not been finalised. George Lynne said he had received “offers from all states, from Perth to Brisbane”, and that the tour would take “about three months”, and would hopefully include the NSW TT at Bathurst on 9 April, 1955. Gradually the arrangements fell into place, beginning with Perth on 9 January.

Let the show begin

Duke travelled by air, arriving in Sydney on Friday 7 January to be greeted by a bevy of fans and riders, before flying on to Perth, where he was deluged by the media. In the mid-1950s, the closest that Australian motorcycle enthusiasts came to ‘the big time’ was via months-old copies of the English weekly magazines The Motor Cycle and Motor Cycling, so the appearance of a multiple world champion was greeted with near hysteria.   Upon arrival in Perth, he was greeted by Lynn and other notables from the WA racing scene, including Ron Bradbury and Harry Gibson, a highly talented competitor and former Australian record holder, who took charge of the Gileras at his home workshop. After a day of interviews and personal appearances, which included a reception at Government House with the Governor of WA, Sir Charles Gardiner, a keen motorsport enthusiast, Duke was whisked off in Gibson’s Jaguar XK120 to inspect the circuit at Mooliabeenie, a wartime airstrip 80km from Perth that could be accessed only by a rough bush track. For a rider accustomed to the classic circuits of Europe, the sight of the crumbling strip was somewhat sobering. The same evening he was back in Perth, addressing 800 people at a sold-out reception at Perth Town Hall, and the following day attended a civic welcome by the Lord Mayor of Perth, the Hon. Jim Murray.

Owing to extreme heat – the temperature in the open pit area was measured at 40.5ºC in the shade – race day at Mooliabenie was restricted to a four-event programme beginning at midday. Despite the oppressive conditions, 12,000 spectators made it into the circuit while members of the organising clubs, the Ariel, BSA and Coastal MCCs, formed a human chain to sweep the track surface free of loose gravel before racing could start. Practice had shown that Duke’s main opposition would come from local all-rounder and current Australian scrambles champion Peter Nicol, on a Matchless G45 twin, and from George Scott’s GP Triumph.

The start of the first race was eventful, with Nicol crashing heavily on the run to the first corner and badly damaging his Matchless. Scott held second before his machine jammed in third gear, allowing Jack Rowe’s Norton through into second behind the long-gone Gilera. Prior to the start of the Unlimited Invitation Race, thousands of fans swarmed onto the starting area of the broad airstrip to catch a glimpse of the superstar, delaying the start until they were removed by a fleet of police mounted on BSA Golden Flash outfits. Scott had the gearbox functioning again for the Unlimited race and clung to Duke for the entire race. In the latter stages, a stone flung from the rear wheel of a lapped rider smashed one lens of Duke’s goggles, cutting his face and further adding to his discomfort. However he maintained his advantage to the flag, holding a slight advantage over Scott.

Soon after the completion of the meeting, Duke was aboard an aircraft bound for Adelaide, where the second event of his tour was to take place. With a total ban on public roads racing in the state still in force by an Act of Parliament, the only suitable venue to be found was Gawler airstrip. Even obtaining the use of this rugged site was difficult, and only the intervention of the directors of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital – the charity which would benefit from the meeting’s proceeds – saw permission granted for its use. Even so, as Gawler was officially an emergency site in case of bad weather for the main Adelaide airport, a proviso was that aircraft still had right of way!

But again, race day turned out to be a scorcher, with the hot gusty winds blowing dust and dirt in all directions. With 16,000 spectators crammed into the confines of the airstrip, it took some time to erect extra barriers for crowd control, and 3000 straw bales around the circuit, meaning that practice was restricted to just four laps.

Duke found the Gilera wheel-spinning in top gear down the gravel-strewn straight, and was rather unimpressed with the whole set-up.

In the 500cc race, Keith Campbell had the crowd jumping for joy as he took the early lead. Although the Gilera clearly had the speed, Duke had his hands full with Roger Barker, who would constantly slide under the maestro on the slippery corners. With the air full of dust, Duke’s Gilera ingested a gritty mixture, knocking a few hundred revs off the top end, and he had only managed to catch Campbell as the race reached its final stages.

The Victorian was far from beaten, but just when a thrilling finish was looming, the gear lever of his Norton dropped off and he was out. The heat was so intense that both Campbell and Barker needed medical attention and were unable to start in the Unlimited event. Duke also declined to start. His number-one machine had lost 2000rpm after its diet of Gawler grit, and he was unwilling to use his spare Gilera (the bike used in the world championships by Irish star Reg Armstrong) so early into his tour.

His decision caused much consternation among officials, but Duke was adamant. In the end, just six riders took the start for the Unlimited, which was won by local Les Diener on his 350cc Norton.

Heading  east

For the first time since he had left wintery England, Duke was able to relax prior to the next meeting at Bandiana Army Camp on the NSW/Victoria border on 29 January, 1955. Unlike the previous two venues, Bandiana was an established track, having hosted annual meetings since 1953, and in Duke’s words was “much more on true European lines…with some fine full-bore swervery and a fair-sized jump at the cross road near the end of the back straight, which flung the Gilera through the air at something approaching 135mph.”

A huge entry of 250 riders drew a similarly large crowd of over 10,000, and this time the weather was a little more benign. Duke completed just four laps of practice before the contact-breaker parted company with the armature in the magneto, causing quite a bit of damage. In true stoic British fashion, the five-times World Champion pushed the silent Gilera one mile back to the pits, where it was whisked away to Albury to be attended to in the workshop of local star rider and car dealer Doug Fugger. By the time repairs were completed, practice had finished, and the support events were under way.

Young Eric Hinton, riding a highly-modified road-going 500 International Norton, won the Senior Clubman’s event, making sure to do it in the slowest possible time. The reason for this ploy was that handicaps were being calculated for the final Feature race on the results of the scratch races. In the 500cc Senior race, Duke settled in behind Maurie Quincey’s Norton for several laps to learn the line, then opened the taps and cleared out to win easily by 25 seconds – a fact not unnoticed by the handicappers. With daylight fading, the Unlimited Handicap was reduced to six laps, and Duke conceded 45 seconds to Eric Hinton, and 25 to Eric’s father Harry, riding an ex-works 350 Norton after crashing his 500 in the Senior.

Finally Duke was away and set about carving through the field, blasting by rider after rider as if they were standing still and shattering the lap record. With just one lap to go, only one rider lay between Duke and the chequered flag, but even his final record-smashing circuit could not bridge the gap, and Hinton took the win by just 30 metres. It was to be the only time Duke was beaten during his Australian tour.

Duke had two weeks to relax before the next leg of the tour, to be held at Mount Druitt in western Sydney. On arrival he was feted as royalty by the motorcycling community, and addressed a 1300-strong audience at Sydney Town Hall, who hung on his every word as he related tales of the European scene. Such was the demand for tickets, many listened to the talk from outside in Druitt Street.

The following day, accompanied by several members of the Auto Cycle Union of NSW, he was flown to Bathurst to inspect the nation’s pride, the 6km Mount Panorama Circuit. The ACU, and Bathurst Council, held faint hopes that Duke could be persuaded to ride at the NSW TT at Easter, and Bathurst’s Mayor was among a string of identities who greeted him as he stepped onto the tarmac at Bathurst Airport. Duke was lavish in his praise, describing the track as “set in beautiful surroundings… with a wide variety of medium, fast and slowish bends, and probably more gradient in 1.5 miles than I have ever seen. I was indeed sorry that the necessity for returning to Italy, to test machines for the coming season, prevented me from competing at the Easter meeting”. Not half as sorry as the ACU.

Again, a bumper crowd officially stated at 20,000 poured into the scruffy Mount Druitt circuit to see the world’s top rider in action. The track surface, basic at the best of times, was in extremely poor shape due to the number of car races in recent months, but Duke praised the general layout, despite adding that “half the time I was threading my way through patches of grass that had grown up through the tarmac”.

To the delight of the crowd, evergreen Art Senior, on his home-brewed Ariel-based special, shot into a brief lead in the Senior GP. Before the first lap was completed however, it was the blood-red Gilera out in front, running away to an easy win. Riding the race of his life, Keith Stewart brought his new Matchless G45 twin home in second place, ahead of Harry Hinton.

Everyone expected big things from wild man Jack Ehret, the lap record holder, in the Unlimited race. But Ehret’s alcohol-burning 1000cc Vincent Black Lightning was slow to fire from the push start, whereas Duke was quickly in the saddle and disappearing. Although unable to bridge the gap, Ehret charged through the field, sharing a new lap record with Duke, a full second under the old mark. As some consolation, Ehret then fitted a ‘chair’ to the Vincent and won the Sidecar TT!

A flying  visit

Straight after Mount Druitt, Duke was flown to Brisbane, where he addressed 700 people at Brisbane City Hall. Then it was back to Victoria for a combined car and motorcycle meeting at the airstrip at Fisherman’s Bend in the heart of Melbourne. Once again the fans voted with their wallets, an estimated 30,000 lining the barriers. With his number-one machine now getting rather tired, Duke switched to his spare, but found it severely lacking in bottom-end power. The featureless layout, with long straights and hairpin turns with hay bales on the inside, presented its own obstacles. The late Noel Cheney, who rode at the meeting recalled, “We (the local riders on Nortons) used to brake hard and hug the straw bales tight on the corners, which meant we had to slip the clutch hard, and this resulted in a lot of clutch problems. Duke, however, would brake out wide, then swoop in and just clip the bales coming out. We all hoped that no-one would out-brake themselves and torpedo him.”

On his home turf, Maurie Quincey was in fighting form, and led the 500 race until clutch slip set in. By this time Duke had stalked his prey and pounced when Quincey ran wide at a hairpin bend. In the Unlimited event, Quincey again took the early lead until the clutch gave out completely, leaving Duke to win easily from Doug Fugger’s Norton.

Tasmania’s Longford meeting a week later was held over two days, Saturday and Monday, and in the opening race Duke was circulating comfortably in front after passing first lap leader Noel Cheney when the engine began to lose power. Sensing his chance for glory, local star Max Stephens, on his ex-Ken Kavanagh Norton, really got his head down and closed to within a few seconds of the ailing Gilera when the chequered flag came out. The Gilera was rushed back to Launceston, where a faulty magneto was diagnosed. With the unit beyond repair, a frantic phone call to Melbourne, where the other Gilera was already packed ready for shipment back to Italy, had the magneto removed and on a plane to Tasmania, where it arrived late on Sunday afternoon. With the motor now sparking healthily, Duke had no problems in winning the Unlimited race, with a new lap record of 152km/h, before jumping out of his leathers and rushing to the airport to catch his flight to Melbourne.

His whirlwind tour had seen Duke race in every state except Queensland, and his charming and eloquent manner did incalculable good for motorcycling. The unprecedented publicity generated helped to dispel the popularly-held, media-fuelled belief that motorcycle racers were a bunch of half-wits with a death wish. It also had a profound effect on the local riders, serving as a stark reminder of the gap between our rather primitive scene and the European big time.

A number of our up-and-coming stars impressed him, including Keith Campbell, Roger Barker and particularly Bob Brown, who had just gained selection as Australian representative to the 1955 Isle of Man TT races.

“This young man is a joy to watch, uses his head, and should figure very well in the Isle of Man and on the Continent,” he said in his report to the British press. When Duke was injured at the start of the 1957 season, he recommended Brown to take his place in the Gilera team for the TT, resulting in two excellent third places. For 1958, Duke personally sponsored Bob on a pair of Nortons.

The man who had engineered Duke’s visit, George Lynn, said that Duke was keen to return at the end of the 1955 European season, and received a reply to a letter from Guiseppe Gilera himself that he “hoped to be able to send other riders of my Moto Gilera to your country.”

What scuppered that plan was that by the end of the season, Duke, Reg Armstrong and 12 other riders, many of them leading privateers, were under threat of suspension following the infamous ‘Riders’ strike’ at the Dutch TT. Nevertheless, the sight, and sound of the maestro on the screaming red ‘Fire Engines’ stayed with everyone who witnessed the spectacle for many, many years.

Geoff Duke with George Lynn at Gawler, South Australia.

Words Peter Turner   Photography Independent Observations