The brothers Benelli endured wars, factory bombing raids, and each other to create a legacy through many a legendary Benelli motorcycle.
The seaside town of Pesaro sits on Italy’s idyllic Adriatic coast, just north of Rimini. It’s where, in 1911, five Benelli brothers—Giuseppe, Giovanni, Francesco, Filippo and Domenico set up a business repairing motorcycles. In 1919 the first Benelli motorcycle engine, a 98cc “clip-on” two-stroke, was produced, and soon found a home in a complete Benelli motorcycle.
The sixth and youngest Benelli brother, “Tonino” (Antonio) became the factory rider in 1923 winning numerous championships in Italy on a Benelli motorcycle with a 175cc overhead cam single before retiring around 1932.
Racing success translated into sales, and by the mid-1930s, Benelli Motorcycle had become one of the “pentarchia,” the top five Italian motorcycle manufacturers, along with Moto Guzzi, Gilera, Garelli and Bianchi. The pride of its product line: 250cc and 500cc four-stroke singles, which used gears to drive their single overhead camshafts. (Most other makers of “cammy” bikes used a bevel drive.)
Benelli entered international competition around this time, eventually winning the 1939 Isle of Man Lightweight (250cc) TT with rider Ted Mellors on a DOHC single. An exquisite supercharged, liquid-cooled 250cc four cylinder DOHC bike was readied for 1940—but competition was curtailed by hostilities.
With their factory bombed out, Benelli motorcycles were late getting back into production after WWII, introducing its volume-selling 125cc Leoncino (lion cub) in 1949, followed by the Leonessa parallel twin 250. Meanwhile, brother Giuseppe had left the company to found his own company, MotoBi, perhaps best known for its futuristic-looking horizontally mounted 175cc single. The two companies merged (and the families were reconciled) in 1963 after Giuseppe’s death.
Like most Italian bike makers, Benelli struggled financially through the 1960s with a dated range of bikes, some of which were sold in the US under the Wards-Riverside brand. Ironically, though, the 1960s also gave Benelli arguably their finest hour, when Kel Carruthers won the 250cc GP World Championship on the four-cylinder DOHC 250. Benelli also produced an all-new 650cc parallel twin, the Tornado, in 1969.
A 1971 takeover by Argentinean industrialist Alejandro de Tomaso (who had also acquired Moto Guzzi) resulted in a new Benelli motorcycle model range featuring two-stroke twins, a four-stroke single, six-cylinder 750 Sei of 1972 and the 500 Quattro of 1974. These were followed by the 650 Quattro, the 900 Sei and the “254” 250cc SOHC four (also badged as a Moto Guzzi).
With de Tomaso departed, Benelli hit the skids in the 1980s and ‘90s until acquired by Andrea Merloni in 1995. The 900cc three-cylinder Tre hit the streets in 2002, though production effectively halted after Group Qianjiang bought Benelli later in the decade. The Benelli plant now assembles scooters.
The last standing part of the original Benelli factory in Pesaro is home to Registro Storico Benelli, a club dedicated to the preservation of classic and vintage Benelli motorcycles. And they have a collection of around 50 Benellis and MotoBis from the 1930s onward. So if you happen to be in northeast Italy, set aside some time for a visit—but call or write to check opening times first. And it helps if you speak Italian!
by Robert Smith Canadian Biker Issue#311