One of motorcycle racing’s first true superstars– Geoff Duke, known simply as “The Duke” by his circuit peers and fans, was a six-time World Champion (racking up 33 Grand Prix victories along the way), who dominated the ’50s racing scene, winning three of his titles on Snortin’ Norton bikes. After bringing home the championship three years in a row for Norton (’50, ’51 & ’52), in ’53 he moved on to race for Italy’s Gilera– not exactly an endearing move with the British fans and press, but nonetheless ‘The Duke” continued his winning streak, and would eventually find himself racing Nortons again down the road.
Duke’s racing prowess was a boost for Norton, who struggled to regain their racing foothold against the evolving postwar technology as their single cylinder machine was up against the advanced, more powerful multi-cylinder engines being cranked out by the Italians and AJS on home soil. What Norton did get right was their legendary shock-absorbing “featherbed” racing frame. The name was coined when Isle of Man TT racer Harold Daniell was quoted as saying that it was like “riding on a featherbed” as compared to riding on a “garden gate” when compared to conventional racing frames. Their featherbed frame technology, with a lower center of gravity and shorter wheelbase, combined with finessed engine placement to further maximize bike handling, were crucial in keeping the Norton Manx competitive– the mother of all badass cafe racers that are still loved today.
Ultimately, Norton frames were paired with Triumph engines by motorheads looking to create hybrid bikes that became known as “Tritons” — effectively combining their respective strengths to create fierce racing machines.
1952– The legendary Geoff Duke astride a 500cc Norton bike at the Dutch TT, Assen, the Netherlands. via
1951, Northern Ireland, UK– The line-up for the start of the Senior World Championship motorcycle race in Ulster. The winner was British motorcyclist Geoff Duke (No. 55) on a Norton bike. –Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
1951, Ulster, Ireland– Motorcycle racer Geoffrey Duke walks past fans to the officials’ stand after winning a race. Duke was the first to wear a one-piece leather, seen above. –Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
1950, Isle of Man, UK– British motorcyclist Geoff Duke races on a Norton bike in the Tourist Trophy Races. –Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
1950, Isle of Man– Mechanics work on two Norton motorcycles before the start of the Tourist Trophy Race. –Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
1950, Isle of Man, UK– British motorcyclist Harold Daniell takes a corner fast on his Norton bike in the Senior Tourist Trophy Race. –Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
1950, UK– British motorcyclist Geoff Duke is congratulated by his opponents after winning the Senior Tourists Trophy Race on the Isle of Man. His average race speed was 92.27 m.p.h. Other members of the winning Norton team pictured are 40 year old Harold Daniell (left, wearing glasses), a triple winner of the event; John Lockett (shaking Duke’s hand) who came third and Artie Bell (far right) who was a close second. Duke was the first to wear a one-piece leather, seen above. –Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
1955, Dundrod, Belfast, Northern Ireland– Flashing by at speed competing in the 500cc event at the International Ulster Grand Prix is John Hartle (Norton) who finished second in this class. 17/8/55. MJH.M.3. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
Tritons– 130-mph road-going racebikes with genuine track quality, speed and handling. via
For almost forty years, the Manx Norton dominated motorcycle road racing. World champions Geoff Duke and Mike Hailwood used its combination of reliability, fine handling and outright speed to win countless races all over the world.Now, almost fifty years after production of the 500cc 30M model ceased, Norton has reproduced this iconic motorcycle to exacting specifications. via
ahh cafe racers…there is not a better sound in the world than a thumper through a supertrapp. Yamaha SR400’s have in production for the last 30 years – based on the old bsa. Have a look at some of the customised SR’s from japan, they have a cult following there. Simply beautiful machines…
Great shots as usual. Love the brylcreemed mechanic pic.
Years ago, pre-net, I worked with a blowhard who now has a call in talk show on Speed. He had a contract with Duke Video to convert PAL motorcycle racing tapes to VHS and sell them. My job was to market, box ’em and make sure it got done.
“Duke Video” was Geoff Duke’s business. Fantastic motorcycle races from around the globe. If you wanted the video, Duke had it.
I was young, but I started realizing there was a bigger world out there… and they raced motorcycles there too!
Still a force to be reckoned with on track. In AHRMA racing here in the states, there are a couple of the “new” Manxes being campaigned, but not built by Norton. There are a few people in the U.K. and New Zealand that have replicated the engine and frame and improved it with today’s metallurgy. They are so fast and handle so well compared to bikes out there that are even built within the last 20-30 years. Molnar and McIntosh Racing are building these to great success. Summerfield Engineering is also building the motors having taken over former Norton tuner Ray Petty’s designs and tooling. Unfortunately they’ve stopped building the frames he built that were a tweaked version of the Featherbed. There is one of these in the paddock at the AHRMA races that is seriously quick and a former champion of the Premier 500 class they race in. Great stuff, spine tingling to be around when they fire up and head to the track.
re dean and
“Duke Video” was Geoff Duke’s business.
all times a terrific racer
all these pretty dreadful, in my experience
Which is saying something, when a vid manages to take tings as exciting as LeMans or Targa – or even the TT… and turns ‘em into the eye-wateringly dull
My most prized posesion is my ’72 combat, a bike with enough torque and rumble to thrill the jaded old fool that I am, to the marrow, as the song goes. Though the bike is clean and upgraded in many ways, it’s no show girl with its share of patina, and goes like hell. No, it won’t outrun a robot-made carbon fiber 600cc rice rocket, but it has that jens se qua that you only get with a big, hand-built british twin.
Great write up JP, there’s so much about Norton history I don’t know about, anythime you have time for more, please do.
edit! make that “jena se qua” and “anytime”
God JP, monotonously brilliant once more – no wonder we all love this stuff so much, like Eddie said “you can smell it . . . . “
Great photos. legendary rider and moto. I’d like a Rob North framed Triumph triple to cafe’ race on sunny days. Thanks you for sharing!
Beautiful Nortons. Cafe dream. Huge pipe for a 500 single. Those racing Nortons must have been deafening. Been riding SR500’s for thirty years. It’s not a Norton….but classic rice-burner with one pounding piston and lots of ways to modify. Fabulous photos
Another great article, JP (as usual). Very timely too…..my friend in AZ just bought a custom Norton/BSA built by local Phoenix, AZ area legend Byron Boaz. It’s a 1951 BSA 500cc engine in a 1966 Norton Featherbed frame. Beautiful!
I just talked to him 2 days ago and learned about the Norton Featherbed for the first time, and here I am reading about these frames again. I love the internets.
Email me for photos and more info.
It’s “je ne sais quoi” – French for “I don’t know what”
Exactly! thanks Frank…. did you ever know Duke or any other of these guys?