Historic Motorcycle Brands
Guiseppe Gilera served his apprenticeship with the Bianchi motorcycle company as a mechanic, went to the Italian branch of the Swiss Moto Reve company and, in a 1935 masterstroke, Gilera acquired rights to the Rondine four-cylinder engine.
However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. At the age of 22, in 1909, Guiseppe Gilera built the first motorcycle of his own design, in a small shop in Milan and won a hill-climb with this machine.
In 1911, he started a modest Gilera racing team and participated in many regional races.
He met a lawyer who had trouble with his Harley-Davidson and Gilera’s magic hands cured the problem. The lawyer was so impressed that he introduced Guiseppe to wealthy investors, who financed a start-up company manufacturing a side-valve single motorcycle, followed by a twin.
Guiseppe was generous with his employees, giving them interest-free loans and that earned him a loyal following.
In 1924, Gilera released a pure-racing, pushrod OHV, but it did poorly until 1930. After many modifications it won the 1930 International Trophy in Grenoble and again in 1931.
Mussolini aped Hitler in using involvement in international racing as a political statement, so at the end of 1935 Gilera was offered a deal to buy the supercharged, four-cylinder Rondine racers that had been acquired by the Caproni Aircraft company.
The ground-breaking Rondine engine was designed in the early 1920s by two young engineers, Carlo Gianini and Piero Remor. They mounted this air-cooled, four-cylinder engine across the frame, to alleviate the cooling problems associated with an in-line four. Their first 490cc engine produced 28bhp at 6000rpm and, by 1928, 34bhp.
Gilera four-cylinder engine – Lucien Ducret
In 1933 the racing motorcycle was completely redesigned. Now named Rondine, it had double-overhead-camshafts, water-cooled cylinders and was equipped with a supercharger that sent output to 60bhp at 8500rpm.
In 1935 the Rondine broke the 500cc-Class world record for the flying km/mile at 152mph.
1953 Gilera 500 – Monneretreal Photo
In Gilera’s hands the 1939 Gilera 500 Rondine racer was given a modified crankshaft and power went up to 80bhp at 9000rpm, with a top speed of 140mph. This formed the basis for Gilera’ s racing machines for nearly 40 years.
From the mid-1930s, Gilera developed a range of four-stroke production machines. The engines ranged from 100cc to 500cc and the best known was the 1939 Saturno that featured unit engine-gearbox construction. It was powered by a 498cc OHV single, with 22bhp at 5000 rpm and had swing-arm rear suspension with twin, horizontal, coil springs.
1948 Saturno Sport – Marcel
The racing version designated Saturno San Remo was campaigned with success in Italian national and international races but was unable to compete with the multi-cylinder and overhead camshaft opposition.
The Marte was produced during World War II for the Italian Army, powered by a 498cc OHV single with 14bhp. Intended for use with a sidecar, the Marte had a shaft drive and hand-operated transmission.
1947 Gilera 500 Saturno – Danzeb
After World War II, superchargers were banned on racing motorcycles, so Gilera came up with a brand new 500cc racer in 1948, with torsion bar and friction damper rear suspension. It had limited success and Remor left for MV Agusta.
For the 1950 season the Gilera discarded Remor’s rear suspension and reworked the engine’s head. Masetti went on to win the 500cc World Championship with the revised Gilera racer.
Gilera 500 4C
In 1951, the title went to the talented Norton rider Geoff Duke, but in 1952 Masetti again secured the World title for Gilera. Geoff Duke was sidelined by Norton and joined the Gilera team.
Duke made suggestions to improve the handling of the bike and then won the 1953 World 500cc Championship. Gilera won the manufacturer’s title for the second year in a row.
1954 Gilera 150 Sport – Seat850
During the winter of 1953-54 the engine was redesigned again and produced 64bhp at 10,500rpm. The 1954 and 1955 seasons were repeats of 1953, with Duke completely dominating the field.
The Gilera was revised again for the 1956 season, introducing a new dustbin fairing and increasing the power to 70bhp. However, mechanical failure while leading several races, prevented Duke from winning the title, which went instead to Surtees on the MV.
1953 Gilera Corsa Piuma – Piaggio-Gilera
In 1957, Guiseppe’s only son, Ferrucio, had a heart attack, causing him to loose interest in his business and racing. Gilera won the 1957 World Championship and manufacturer’s title, but Guiseppe Gilera pulled the plug before the 1958 season got underway. Moto Guzzi and Mondial joined the withdrawal, leaving the field clear for MV, Ducati and Morini.
However, the 1957 500cc machines, on which former World Champion rider Geoff Duke had much success, were resurrected in 1963. With the benefit of upgraded tyre technology the Gileras were still competitive, but raced for only one season.
Gilera then downplayed its hitherto successful line of four-stroke singles and began to focus on motocross and off-road events in association with independent specialist Elmeca. Sales declined through the 1960s and by 1968 the company was in receivership.
Gilera Saturno 500 Bialbero – Ponte
In 1969, Gilera became part of the Piaggio Group, which focussed on production of Gilera road and off-road bikes. Gilera’s 125 Bicilindrica Cross was innovative in the early 1980s and was followed by bikes with four-stroke, dual-shaft, single-cylinder engines of 350cc, 500cc, 600cc and 750 models — the latter scoring class victories in the the Paris-Dakar and an overall win in the Pharaoh Rally. In the 125 class, Gilera led the field with the all-powerful SPO2 and the futuristic CX125.
Gilera returned to the 250cc Moto GP World Championship in 1992 and 1993.
After 1993 Gilera produced sport scooters.
1991 Gilera 125 CX – Mike Schinkel
In 2001, Gilera retuned to road-racing, entering the 125cc class World Championship and Manuel Poggiali became 125cc World Champion.
Following the integration of Aprilia into the Piaggio Group, Gilera returned to MotoGP in 2006, with Marco Simoncelli in the saddle. Simoncelli won the 2008 MotoGP World Championship title in the 250 class.