Historic Motorcycle Brands
In 1911, Teresa Benelli, who was widowed, invested her family’s capital in establishing a mechanical workshop for her six sons: Giuseppe, Giovanni, Filippo, Francesco, Domenico and Antonio ‘Tonino’ Benelli. Out of this service garage grew a motorcycle manufacturing business.
In the beginning, the Benelli business was a workshop, where some spare parts for cars and motorcycles were also made. But the six Benelli brothers had the ambition to make their own motorcycles.
To help in this endeavour, their mother sent Giuseppe and Giovanni to Switzerland, to study engineering.
Eight years later, their first two-stroke, 75cc engine was fitted into a bicycle frame, but the result was less than satisfying.
In December 1921, the first Benelli motorcycle was the ‘Velomotore’, 98cc, two-stroke lightweight bike that was available in Touring guise, or as a Sport version with larger, 125cc engine.
In 1923, a 147cc version started to win race victories and was a race-training bike for the young Tonino.
In 1926 Giuseppe Benelli designed a completely new motorcycle, powered by a 175cc, four-stroke engine that featured a gear-driven, overhead camshaft.
The ‘cascade’ five-gear train was inspired by a theoretical study of an engine by UK engineer, Edward Turner that was published in 1925, in the French magazine Moto Revue.
Benelli’s camshaft drive gear train – Benelli Archive
Giuseppe examined the design and foresaw negative effects of thermal expansion that could afflict it. Because the gear train had to remain in mesh as the cylinder head and barrel expanded at different rates, the practical solution would need to keep alignment of the gear train, while permitting expansion and contraction.
Guiseppe’s solution was to mount the gear train in an aluminium housing that was connected to the barrel and the head with expansion movement inbuilt. This solution was patented in 1927.
Tonino Bellini – Benelli Archive
Riding a Benelli 175, Tonino Benelli won four Italian championship titles in five years – 1927, 1928 and 1930 – with the single overhead camshaft (SOHC) version and in 1931 with the double overhead camshaft (DOHC) version. Unfortunately, a bad crash in 1932 put an end to his career and, on 27 September 1937, Tonino died, following a road accident.
1935 Benelli 4TN 500cc – esterdays Antique Motorcycles
Tonino’s race victories led to sales success and a production increase. The 175cc model was produced until 1934, when Benelli introduced a 500 with side valves.
1939 Benelli 250cc DOHC supercharged four
For the 1940 racing season Benelli built a race bike, powered by a double overhead camshaft, liquid cooled, in-line, four-cylinder, supercharged 250cc engine. It developed maximum power of 52hp at 10,000rpm and had a maximum speed of 230 km/h.
1935 Benelli Monalbero Sport 500cc – Lars-Gopran Lindgren
However, the outbreak of World War II in late 1939 saw racing programs cancelled and forced the company to produce only military motorcycles.
The War brought a manufacturing boom for Benelli, with the company being focused on developing, producing and repairing War machines. At this time, Benelli employed 800 workers at its Pesaro factory.
Benelli M36 – Constantino Frontalini Collection
Unfortunately, the manufacturing hub was singled out by the Allied forces and was subjected to a devastating bombing campaign that saw the factory reduced to rubble. Subsequent Nazi plundering finished off the destruction.
After the War, the Benelli brothers’ experience in motorcycle repair and servicing proved useful as they set about retrieving and refurbishing around 1000 military motorcycles that were mainly of English origin. These bikes had been left in the battlefields by the Allies and were progressively rebuilt into bikes for civilian use.
In 1946, Giuseppe Benelli parted ways with the company after disagreement on its future direction and established his own company, Moto “B” Pesaro, which became known as Motobi in 1952.
Giovanni Benelli took over control of the company and gave his designers guidelines for a new Benelli post-War model: the new motorcycle had to be light, reliable and cheap.
The Letizia was powered by a simple and cheap two-stroke, 98cc engine that didn’t need Guiseppe’s complex cascade camshaft gear train.
In 1948 the company hired the motorcycle racer Dario Ambrosini and that paid off with Ambrosini’s victory in the 1950 World Championship in the 250 class.
The next Benelli model was the Leoncino (little lion) that was produced from 1950 to 1960. Around 45,000 of this 125cc two- stroke were made and there was also, a 150cc trike-bike and a 125cc four-stroke that suffered reliability issues with its cascade gear train.
Benelli Cobra 125 – Vintage Kraft
The small and economical Leoncino models were exactly what post-War Italy needed, but Benelli’s larger 350cc and 500cc single-cylinder models were aimed at motorcycle enthusiasts and the export market. Through the Montgomery Ward company, Benelli began exporting to the USA, with models sold under the ‘Riverside’ brand name.
In 1961 the company of Pesaro celebrated its first 50 years and the following year, to tackle the crisis of the motorcycle industry, the two brands Benelli and Motobi were merged into one.
1969 World Championship 250cc winner Kel Carruthers – Benelli Archive
Racing successes were headed by Provini and Pasolini, on the four-cylinder 250cc and a second world title in 1969, with the Australian racer Kel Carruthers in the saddle.
A wide range of models characterised the production at Benelli-Motobi in the 1960s: from scooters to the Tornado, twin-cylinder 650cc model.
1965 Benelli Tornado 650S – El Caganer
The Tornado earned a reputation for reliability and high performance, despite its somewhat hefty weight of 220kg. Benelli claimed that the Tornado produced 57hp at 7400rpm and had a top speed of 117mph.
The Tornado and later Tornado S models were discontinued after 1974, when Benelli introduced a series of ‘multis’ that were intended to compete with Japanese triples and fours.
In 1972 the company was bought by the Argentinean entrepreneur Alejandro De Tomaso. The new property relaunched and enlarged the product range with multi-cylinder motorcycles and a prestigious 750cc six-cylinder – the first six-cylinder, series-production motorcycle.
Benelli Sei 750 – Benelli Archive
Benelli produced a number of multi-cylinder models to compete with the Honda CB750 and Kawasaki Z1, but Benelli’s models had dated pushrod, single-cylinder engines that couldn’t really vie for buyer attraction beside electric-starting, overhead-camshaft Japanese bikes.
Japanese bikes also soon showed they were much more reliable than Italian and British motorcycles – particularly in the electrical department.
Sales slumped through the 1970s and 1980s and industrial tycoon Giancarlo Selci, owner of the Biesse group, bought Benelli in 1989. Benelli targeted the scooter market segment with the models Devil and Scooty.
Benelli Tornado Tre 900 – Kat1100
Revival was short-lived and in 1995, the Merloni Group purchased the majority stake of the historic brand. A new 491 scooter arrived, along with a new Tornado 900cc, three-cylinder sports bike.
The most recent bailout was in 2005, by the Chinese Qianjiang corporation, so the Benelli name lives on.