#303 Full Circle with The Ant

It was a dark and stormy night when Smith brought home his first scooter. It was a sign of things to come.

Nostalgia, it’s been said, isn’t what it used to be. But it’s a feeling that becomes stronger with age. That’s not news for those of us with more past than future. And, sad cliché that it is, many of us yearn to relive the thrill of our first motorcycle. Concurrently, memories of the pain and frustration of trying to keep the damn thing on the road—literally and figuratively—fade away…
During WWII, Bergamo based Fonderei Officine Srl. produced bronze and aluminum castings for the Italian military. Like Piaggio and Innocenti, it chose to parlay its expertise into two-wheeled transportation after hostilities ceased, employing itinerant engineer Luigi Salmaggi to develop their engine. The result was a 125cc two-stroke parallel twin using deflector pistons. Now known as Moto Rumi, the company produced sporting and racing motorcycles around Salmaggi’s motor as well as a curious scooter called the Scoiattolo, or Squirrel. Through the 1950s, Rumi motorcycles racked up an impressive competition record, consistently placing in the Milano-Taranto race and the Giro d’Italia, and with Gold Medal wins in the 1951 and 1954 ISDT, as well as taking first place in the 125cc class in the 24-hour Bol d’Or three straight years from 1958-60.
Family patriarch Donnino Rumi was first an artist and sculptor. It’s said that in designing the company’s next product, he sculpted a full-size model in clay of a scooter that was to become the Formichino, or Little Ant. The design also played to the company’s strengths: the entire front and rear frame sections, headlight nacelle, single-side rear swingarm, front fender, and even the muffler were cast in aluminum. The same twin-cylinder motor bolted between the front and rear frames, forming a stressed member connecting the front and rear frame halves. Front suspension was by means of a single-sided leading link “fork.” The result was a neat, tidy package with smooth lines and a futuristic look.
The Formichino went on sale in 1954 equipped with the 125cc twin and a single 18mm Dell’Orto carburetor for an output of 6.5 hp. But its light weight gave it performance comfortably in line with its competition from Vespa and Lambretta. In 1956, the rear frame, instead of being cast in one, became two sections bolted together, and a conventional two-sided front fork was adopted. In 1957, the Tipo Sport model appeared at the Milan trade fair, with chrome-plated aluminum cylinders, bigger cylinder heads with higher compression, and a 22mm Dell’Orto. Power went up to eight hp, and top speed to 105 kmh.
A year later, Rumi entered Formichino Sports in the scooter class at the Bol d’Or 24-hour race at the famous Monthlery circuit in France, where the team of Foidelli and Bois were first home at a record average speed of 87 kmh. In honour of the victory, Rumi produced a limited edition Bol d’Or version of the Tipo Sport with dual downdraft 18mm Dell’Ortos and gold paint.
To quote Victorian novelist Lord Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, Secretary of State for the Colonies and for whom the BC town of Lytton is named, “It was a dark and stormy night…” in 1966 when we went to collect my first motorcycle. I crouched in the back of my dad’s 1958 Bedford CA van as we made our way through central London, sodium lamps casting their eerie orange glow over rain-soaked streets.
In the back of the van, anchored by a length of rope was a 1961 Moto Rumi Formichino Tipo Sport that I’d found through the paper-based eBay of the day, the Exchange and Mart.
On Regent Street, a Mini shot out from a side street and stopped in front of us. Dad hit the brakes, but this was in the days before radial tires and ABS. The wheels locked and we slewed into the side of the Mini. With the impact, the Rumi shot forward, snapping its leash and launching itself into the passenger seat, breaking the seat frame. I was already on thin ice. I’d been forbidden to buy a motorcycle, but had persuaded my mom that a scooter would be safer. A former motorcyclist himself, dad had been more sympathetic—until now anyway…
We limped home and unloaded the Rumi, which had escaped unscathed. That was the beginning of a short and tempestuous relationship that ended a few months later when I traded the Rumi for a Vespa. But I cut my riding, wrenching (and crashing) teeth on the Little Ant.
I took my motorcycle test on the Rumi. Lessons seemed superfluous, so I learned by trial and error, practicing the hand signals listed in The Highway Code. I passed first time. Later, rounding a bend, I hit a house brick that was lying in the road a mile or so from our house. The Rumi’s undamped suspension bucked me off the seat, and we landed in a heap in the road. I still have the scar from catching the clutch lever on my chin.
Never easy to start, the Rumi became quite recalcitrant, and then would only run on one cylinder. Knowing nothing, and using my dad’s Whitworth wrenches on the Rumi’s metric fasteners, I pulled off the alloy cylinders, which showed clear signs of an earlier blow-up—a broken piston ring had mangled the bore around the exhaust port on one cylinder. With no money to spend on repairs, I found a buyer even more ignorant than me.
So why now would I want to revive the memory of that traumatic period? I’m not sure I know, but in April this year, I collected the Formichino Tipo Sport I’d bought in the UK and uncrated it in my drive. It’s a wonderful piece of creative engineering from a classic period in Italian design, and I could look at it for hours. And it’s still a bugger to start!