Playing to the Chosen Audience

Technical Editor Kevin Cameron shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more

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Technical Editor Kevin Cameron shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more.Cycle World

For years I've been aware that Benelli had before WW II been a pioneer of using high rpm to win races. I also knew they had raced exotic 4-cylinder 250s, 350s, and even a 500 during the 1960s. In 1969, for example, Kel Carruthers (who would later be tech chief of Yamaha's GP team) won the FIM 250 GP championship on Benelli's 250-4.

I became more interested after seeing Rob Iannucci’s Team Obsolete 350 Benelli apart in his Brooklyn workshop, and then running at Thompson Speedway last month, and decided to learn more about that company’s accomplishments.

What I found was that Benelli’s GP racing was intermittent and mainly consisted of places rather than wins – lots of seconds through fifths, and not every year. Reading more, I began to understand that while MV’s Count Agusta chose to play on the world stage, Benelli’s interests were closer to home. By the 1960s Agusta’s real business was helicopters, but Benelli’s remained sales of motorcycles (Benelli’s shotgun production began in 1967). That meant that while Count Agusta sought world championships – lots of them – Benelli’s main effort went into the Italian national championships – which would have more sales-promoting effect on Benelli’s actual market than would, say, winning the Ulster TT.

Today the expectation is that a motorcycle manufacturer produces a full range of models sold world-wide, providing income capable of hiring professional riders and keeping a Grand Prix team in the field every year, competing in every event. It wasn’t like that for Benelli. Their sales were mainly in Italy (Montgomery Ward rebranded a few for US sales) and comprised a few well-liked models. Benelli’s relations with riders were mainly familial in nature. Those riders were Silvio Grassetti (son of a Benelli employee), competing in his first GP in 1959, then the great Tarquinio Provini in the middle 1960s, followed by Renzo Pasolini in 1967.

And so we find Provini winning the 250 Italian championship in 1965, but appearing only now and then at GPs. In 1967-68 Pasolini was 250 and 350 Italian champion. In 1969 Pasolini cleaned up in the Italian races, making things difficult for Agostini and MV.

There was no lack of design ambition at Benelli. Not only had development of their 250, 350, and (occasionally) 500 been steady, but in the summer of 1968 castings were poured for an air-cooled 250 V8.

It was not to be. The FIM, after the Japanese withdrawal from GPs at the end of 1967 and seeing the rise of Yamaha’s inexpensive production racer twins (the 250 TD2 and 350 TR2) decided they could no longer expect grids of exotic 4-, 5- and 6-cylinder 125s and 250s. The multi-cylinder bikes were therefore written out of those classes, making the Benelli V8 into history. Henceforth, 125s and 250s would be limited to two cylinders and six speeds.

Japan’s full investment in manufacturing methods of the lowest cost made life tough for small producers like Benelli. After their grand accomplishments of 1969 (Carruthers won the 250 title and the 250 TT, while Paso did his best to embarrass MV in Italian nationals) Benelli ceased to be a player.

The Grand Prix Benellis remain beautiful classic machines whose 4-cylinder sounds are a celebration.