Since they first burbled, barked and sputtered upon the scene in 1894, the world has seen the rise and more often the fall of more than 2500 different makes of motorcycles produced by more than 30 countries in about every form imaginable. A hundred years ago when backyard mechanics were strapping motors to bicycle frames, one-lung monsters gained center stage until the advent of multi-cylinder designs supplanted their star billing. Yet, the singles carried on, finding their own loyal band of adherents, owners who both rode them on the street and flogged them on the tracks. In fact, it was not uncommon for riders owning twin cylinder bikes to plug up one jug and enter single competitions because of the "fun factor."
Going through our archives, we've selected an eclectic quartet of British, Italian, Japanese and quasi-American "thumpers," from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that still retain the "right stuff." They represent a remarkable synthesis of form and function not seen before their creation and in the opinion of many enthusiasts, not seen since. This is a tale about unique motorcycles but as you'll read, the men at their controls were one-of-a-kind as well.
Night of the Comet
After being trounced at the 1934 English TT race, Phillip Vincent, owner of Vincent-H RD and engineer Phil Irving decided to build their own half-liter engine rather than rely on the JAP engines they had campaigned to naught. The new 500cc powerplant featured splayed aluminum tunnels carrying extra-short pushrods that activated valves which were assured of perfect alignment via a double guide arrangement. It was a jewel of engineering synthesis, a combination of non-complex overhead valves mated to the high-speed capability of an overhead camshaft. Production of the 500cc Vincent included the 92 mph Comet and the tamer Meteor (60 mph) road bikes, as well as the TT Replica racer. There was also a performance tuned Comet Special road bike. Quickly designed and built in time for the 1935 English TT race, the new Vincent-HRD Comets finished seventh and ninth, an admirable showing, considering it was their first race. The road versions were guaranteed to do 90 mph..." When in standard road trim, the Comet "gives a comfortable cruising speed range between 65 and 70, but can with advantage be altered for speed events..."
Whereas the tendency is to describe a Comet as half of a Rapide or Black Shadow since it is one-half the displacement by way having a single rather than twin cylinders, in truth the 500cc Comet single came first, eventually evolving into the fearsome 1,000cc Vincents that now enjoy fame of mythic proportions. While the 500cc Comet and the later 1,000cc models varied considerably in power, the other appointments are interchangeable with minor differences in fitment and actuation. When describing the 500cc models, the factory manual states: "Riding methods are similar to the Rapide, except that when engaging bottom gear from neutral it is advisable to lift the clutch and "blip" the throttle two or three time to free the plates; bottom gear will then engage quietly." When in standard road trim, the Comet "gives a comfortable cruising speed range between 65 and 70, but can with advantage be altered for speed events..." The bike's dry weight was 390 lbs and the 0-60 sprint required 9.5 seconds to complete..."
In racing trim, the Comet was renamed the Gray Flash (little brother to the 1,000cc Black Lightning racer) earned considerable acclaim. The 115 mph Grey Flash (195O-51) was built in limited numbers, and purpose-built for racing by the factory. Like all C Series Vincents it featured Girdraulic forks which combined springs and hydraulic damper, all cast in aluminum. The cantilever rear suspension incorporated dual shock absorbers running beneath the seat, and as did its larger brothers, the Grey Flash used its engine as a stressed member of the frame. The Grey Flash did take on special additions including triple valve springs and polished and lightened connecting rods while its weight was trimmed to 350 lbs. Unfortunately it was introduced about the same time that Norton's unbeatable Manx took over the racing circuits. Still the Comet did blaze a glorious path, managing to take many wins in English national races, often with an apprentice Vincent factory rider by the name of John Surtees at the controls.
In truth the 500cc Comet single came first, eventually evolving into the fearsome 1,000cc Vincents that now enjoy fame of mythic proportions.
Gone in a Flash: 1950 Vincent Comet "Red Rocket"
Al Mark learned how to roadrace at the age of ten, back on the farm in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. The year was 1942, shortly after the beginning of World War II. His first "wheels" were a 250cc Royal Enfield, a Model A Ford and a massive Ford Ferguson steel-wheeled tractor. "It only went 2-3 mph, but it was a beginning," says Al. Later at the age of 14, Al bought a Whizzer motorbike and rode around Chicago. "At the time there was a big gasoline strike with no cars or buses running. My older brother had a tank of white gas, so I'd fill up my Whizzer and have all Chicago to myself...just me and Whizzer moving through the deserted streets."
Many years later, Al made the transition from the streets of the Windy City, to the equally blustery "Streets of Willow" at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, California, after he decided to "Go West", like other young men who sought fortune and adventure. The year was 1950. Al took employment as a motorcycle courier for Western Union and then for various architectural drafting firms, delivering blue prints back-and-forth across LA "At the time, there were about 125 guys on all kinds of bikes doing the exact same job, 'shagging' as it was called. I rode a 74-inch flathead Harley."
One day, when his bike quit on him, a helpful fellow stopped on a 1,000cc Vincent and gave him a ride. Al wrangled a chance at the controls himself, and immediately decided he had to have his own invincible Vincent. He eventually found a "preowned" 1950 Black Shadow with a $600 price tag, a hefty sum in 1950. On every Saturday, he would drop off ten hard-earned bucks until he paid off the layaway Vincent. "It took me a year to learn how to ride it after coming off that flathead Harley. It was around that time, that I got interested in roadracing."
The work scene was changing with the times as well. Little English Austin mini-panel trucks with 50 mpg displaced the motorcycle for delivery work, but Al still "shagged" a total 85,000 delivery miles on his trusty Black Shadow. "I guess you could say it followed everywhere. It was only at 100,000 miles that I rebuilt the engine. In fact I got 72,000 miles out the first set of points which were factory platinum units."
"I painted it red because I wanted people to see me on the track and get out of my way or at least give me a wide berth."
Meanwhile, Al was wheeling around Willow Springs on quite different machines, including another famous single, a Manx Norton. The "Red Rocket" 498cc single cylinder Vincent Comet seen here, sadly enough passed into Al's possession as a gift from a dying friend. In stock non-race Comet form, the bike had had been sitting outside at prey to the elements for 27 years, and Al was determined to revive it, spending two years and then some, brining the little Vincent back to speed. He added his own personal interpretation, including the red paint job and bolted on the Manx Norton replica Peel Dolphin Mark II fiberglass fairing which gave a 6 mph advantage of the standard stiletto fairing of the era. He also mounted a tachometer, rewired the entire bike, and modified the distributor using a small jeweler's lathe. "With that tinker toy lathe, it took me nine hours just to modify the 27-tooth countershaft sprocket."
With only 26,000 original miles, the original standard cylinder bores were found to be quite serviceable. Well-known Vincent expert Marty Dickerson supplied a brand new standard 11:1 piston while legendary restorer Mike Parti implanted an Alpha big end and lined the flywheels. The heads were ported to match the Amal GP carburetor that Al found at a swap meet where he also located the Norton 4-speed transmission now found on the Red Rocket in place of the standard Burman box.
As for the name of the bike, Al says he took creative license in assigning it the moniker of "Red Rocket" as the Vincent is technically a Comet streetbike that's been massaged into a Gray Flash replica, with a Manx fairing and a red paint job. "I painted it red because I wanted people to see me on the track and get out of my way or at least give me a wide berth."
Dirt Devils Re-Discovered! Yamaha YZ Works Racers
So Cal resident Lee Fabry holds onto things... like his first bike, a Hodaka Ace-90, given to him by his father in 1966. This started a chain reaction, leading to a collection of over 140 motocross bikes. As necessity would have it, most were sold off, over the years. However, Lee would go-on to build a "dream garage" for himself, in which to pursue the restoration of extremely rare and valuable factory race bikes, the créme de Ia créme being a pair of Yamaha YZ works racers.
Lee knows his race bikes from both sides of the handlebars, his competition experience stretches back to 1968, when he started desert racing in California District 37. After several years motocrossing, he returned to the desert, earning two #1 plates, in SCORE and NORRA events. Fluctuating back-and-forth between racing motorcycles and building street rods, after a few years, the dirt bike urge struck again and he was back to racing. Not content with bikes from the showroom floor, he created some interesting hybrids including two XR-200 Honda-powered YZ-125 Yamahas to which he added water cooling and raced in several Four Stroke Nationals.
"In 1985, I sold all the street rods, bought a house with a six car garage in Monrovia, CA, and started buying up all the old dirt bikes I could find" says Lee. "These were bikes that I always wanted, but could never afford as a kid. I concentrated mostly on Japanese "works" bikes as they are the rarest and also the most valuable." However, while he was restoring classic racers, he also stayed in the thick of things, racing vintage motocross on modified 1974 Yamaha YZs. Lee would eventually find and restore two of the rarest motocross racers, a 1964 YZ-360 and a 1971 YZ-500.
"These were bikes that I always wanted, but could never afford as a kid. I concentrated mostly on Japanese "works" bikes as they are the rarest and also the most valuable."
The YZ-500 is truly a one of a kind machine, or as Lee says, "The only one known to exist from eight or so that were built in 1971, to compete in FIM Grand Prix Motor Cross." A total departure from previous models, it featured a completely new non-derivative design.Weighing a mere 187 lbs., it owes its feathery lightness to lots of money, as in: sand-cast magnesium engine, hubs and triple clamps.
There's titanium too, lots of light titanium where it counts, for example, a cross-through titanium shaft for right or left side shifting as well as titanium rear brake pedal perches on both sides... also titanium axles, bolts, pins and fasteners. Yamaha did not scrimp, the gas tank and airbox are hand formed aluminum, while billet aluminum went into the fork legs, 35 mm fork tubes and even the machined "Thermal Fl" shocks.
Yamaha engineers chose the heavier mono-shock design, because of its enhanced handling benefits which they believed overcame the extra weight and gave them the winning advantage. The major fly in the ointment, was the Yamaha frame, which a tendency to break. To the rescue, came Pierre Karsmakers who convinced Yamaha to construct a few new frames based around the existing OW-13 components. Evidence that the new frames actually worked, was later substantiated by the racing success of Karsmakers, Tim Hart and Mike Hartwig.
The YZ-360 seen here, was one of twelve or so built with the original Japanese frame and is one of only two known to exist today (the other is in Canada). For three years, Lee sorted through rumors, searching for clues to the bike's whereabouts until his dogged persistence finally paid off. He learned that after escaping the Yamaha crusher (the usual fate of all "works" bikes), the YZ ended up in a small town the Mexican border, west of Calexico, CA. It had been sitting there, in a state of major disrepair, since 1975.
Finding the bike after a three-year hunt was only the beginning of the epic quest. Over the telephone, the owner, very suspicious after having been "tracked down", not only didn't want to sell the fugitive Yamaha, he didn't even want to talk about it. After intensive cajoling, wheedling and begging, the owner agreed to let Lee "just take a peek" at it. That little peek required a 5 1/2 hour car trip. However, with more coaxing and a bag-O-cash, the long-lost YZ finally belonged to Lee. It would take another nine months of intensive research and restoration plus a few more bags of money, before this showstopper was complete. For three years, Lee sorted through rumors, searching for clues to the bike's whereabouts until his dogged persistence finally paid off.
While he was able to rescue these stalwart race bikes, Lee laments over the fate of so many other noteworthy motorcycles, which have been destroyed by the crusher in the name of "product liability" and "protecting technology."
He summed it up best, when he said, "At least a few slipped through for guys like me."
Riding Rings Around the Competition: Gilera Saturno 500
Japan lists Samurai swords as national treasures, England guards the Crown Jewels, and Argentina, well...it has a motorcycle, or had a motorcycle that bares that distinction. At last report, this particular 1953 Gilera Saturno 500cc road racer now resides in California, a far cry from Buenos Aires from whence it was spirited.
Rumor has it, that only three Saturnos exist in this country. However, this particular immigrant from Arcore, Italy boasts a very machismo pedigree, as it was ridden to victory in the 1959 and 1963 Argentine Grand Prix, by Benedicto Caldarella, the Gilera Factory rider.
While most enthusiasts respond to the names Ducati and Moto Guzzi, few perhaps are familiar with Count Guiseppe's Gilera, despite the fact that the Count's four cylinder Superfasts garnered a sizeable share of glory from their early to mid-fifties racing successes, including three TT victories, six worldindividual championships and five manufacturer's titles. The first Gilera, a spindly motorized bicycle, putted onto the Italian stradas in 1909, while the first major coup for the factory came when a supercharged 500cc four-cylinder Gilera snatched the world speed record away from BMW with a blistering 170.37 mph, way back in 1937.
However, when blowers were banned after WWII, Gilera switched to their 500cc single cylinder Saturno, in an effort to retain its racing prestige. Minus three cylinders compared to its factory predecessors, the thumper displaced 497.8cc and sported innovative shaft and pivot distribution. It produced 36bhp at 6,000 rpm, giving a top speed of around 111mph. For five years, the Count and his crew squeezed every drop of performance out of the Saturno and in the course scored many victories. The Saturno earned wins at the 1947 Italian Grand Prix and 1950 Spanish Grand Prix. However, it is perhaps best remembered for Nello Pagani's second place ranking, behind Britain's Les Graham on an AJS in the 1949 500cc World Championship.In a last ditch effort, Gilera transplanted another 500cc single cylinder powerplant, the Bialbero, into the Saturno frame, but it met with little success.
By the 1951/52 season the Gilera single was pumping out 38 bhp and maxxing-out at 120mph, but by this point, the Saturnos had run out of development room. In a last ditch effort, Gilera transplanted another 500cc single cylinder powerplant, the Bialbero, into the Saturno frame, but it met with little success. By 1957, the factory withdrew from sponsored racing, although privateers kept the banner waving for a few more years, until a final fadeout.
Enter Todd Millar, a So Cal local boy fresh out of the Navy in 1959 and enjoying some shore leave in Sicily, a locale remarkably like Southern California in its appearance. Although it is at this point that he may have encountered his first Gilera, his first motorcycle was a BSA Starfire Scrambler, and he had remained "strictly British" until, mama mia! he discovered Italian machines. A self-admitted slave to them ever since, he leans toward the classic lightweight singles especially the extremely rare and extremely fast. Todd remembers that everyone's favorite in the early 1960s was the Ducati Diana or the Parilla 250 Grand Sport. However, he was "doing very poorly" racing a BSA Goldstar at the time, mostly viewing the back ends of Norton Manx's and Matchless G50's at the track.
Several years ago, his venture into the world of Italian motorcycles took a different slant, with not so much a focus on authentic 100 point restorations, but rather the production of "road racing specials," an outlook influenced by the generally incomplete nature of old Parilla, Ducati, and Gilera "basket case" projects.
However, in the case of the Gilera, Todd was a bit more lucky, coming up with an almost 100% complete machine, resulting in one of the most authentic restorations in existence. He and his restoration team were even more fortunate, in that they were able to contact the bike's original owner, Benedicto Caldarella. They also learned how the Gilera had been "persuaded" to emigrate to the U.S., where it subsequently migrated into the racing stable of Jody Nicholas, holder of national #58 on the AMA race circuit during the 1960s and a factory racer for BSA and later Suzuki. Jody raced the Saturno on occasion, the last time being in the late 1970s, at Laguna Seca, where he took first place in the vintage class, his nearest competitor was the late, great, Don Vesco on a Manx Norton.
After Todd acquired the Saturno and preliminary restoration discussions began, concern was voiced that the bike was going to be "very flashy" unlike the original no-frills factory edition. "No way did the original bike look as shiny." says Todd, "We didn't want to be accused of something like chrome plating the Holy Grail, but we believed that a little bit of poetic license was allowable." Fortunately, the photos secured from Caldarella indeed showed polished cases, thus Todd opted for an increase "in the quality" of the painting, chrome plating and polishing. It should be noted, that the inside of the Saturno's engine is as lovely to behold as the exterior, a complete mechanical rebuild was included in the restoration.
"We didn't want to be accused of something like chrome plating the Holy Grail, but we believed that a little bit of poetic license was allowable."
Todd is quick to heap praise on the support and expertise of the enthusiasts at Pro Italia Motors in Glendale, CA who helped make the project possible, and to metal artisan Tom Rightmyer who fabricated the impossible and to upholstery wizard Gary Sonniksen the third team member. Todd's formula for exotic design was based on a mixture of Italian wine and woman to generate the proper inspiration plus a fair amount of time for fermentation, anywhere from six months to a year and a half of intensive research and reconstruction. Todd's success can be measured in the number of wins the Saturno has accumulated when shown in competition.
As for the cloak and dagger operation that brought the Gilera out of South America, it can be conjectured, unofficially of course, that certain important and powerful individuals received certain favors and goods, and that once upon a time, amidst a shipment of prized Argentinean beef, a small herd of rare racing motorcycles appeared as tourists, and all returned home as required by Argentinean law. However, it's also safe to say, that there is a Japanese bike in Argentina today with a Gilera sticker on the gas tank. Talk about sticker shock.
The Forgotten Harley Hero: 250cc World Champion
If you talk to "hardcore" Harley riders they tend to look sideways at Sportsters, generally considering Big Twins as the only Milwaukee marvel to count. Mention the Buell and the 2004 lineup of Sporties and the word "exception" might enter the conversation. But suggest that Harley's greatest track star was a ringy-dingy 2-stroke and you'd be laughed out of town. We're not talking snowmobiles or golf carts here, we're talking fast and ferocious motorcycles... and not only half a gold ol' four-stroke, but sporting only one cylinder to boot.
A case in point is the Harley-Davidson Aermacchi Grand Prix racer. Aermacchi, hey, that's foreign like "air machine" or something Italianish. Right you are! It seems that toward the later 1950s, the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. wanted to market a lightweight machine to fill a growing consumer interest. Rather than go to the trouble and expense of tooling-up for such an effort, they decided to buy most of an already successful Italian firm, Aermacchi. Here, they had a ready-to-wear 250cc horizontal four-stroke single, ready to unveil on their dealer showrooms. All it needed was a little "badge engineering," that is peeling off the Aermacchi logo and pasting the HD logo on the gas tank.
Aermacchi, hey, that's foreign like "air machine" or something Italianish. Right you are!
Harley did just that, and in 1961, added a "new" motorcycle to their line, called the "Sprint". The H-D Sprint was aimed at customers already buying the British Triumph 250 Cub (don't ask why), and two other Italian single cylinder success stories, Ducati's Diana, and Parilla's Grand Sport and Tourist models. Since Milwaukee also noticed that the lightweight (as in 238-245 lb.) single cylinder 26-28 HP Italian stallions often smoked the full-blooded American-made H-D Big Twin's on the street and track (the more things change, the more they stay the same. --Sean), the Harley honchos quickly realized the potential for a competition spin-off and looked toward modifying the Aermacchi's to qualify for US racing requirements.
While WR 750 Harleys were the long distance dirt track champs, Milwaukee wanted something quick and nimble for racing in the dirt. The result, was the Harley road race CRTT, which was an Aermacchi racer with Harley decals. The CR5 Scrambler and the CR short-track racer soon joined it. The latter featured an altogether new frame, an upper double-cradle arrangement that utilized the engine as a stressed member. Carroll Resweber blitzed the competition on just such an H-D Aermacchi, in the first short-track race of the 1961 season.
By ambling into their local authorized H-D dealership, novices could benefit from the off-the-shelf, take-it-home-and-race-it moderately priced little screamer. However, it was 10 years later, in 1971 that an altogether different animal appeared in the formidable form of the first air-cooled Aermacchi 250 two-stroke twin, a true beast of a bike capable of 140 mph. In 1974, French champion Michel Rougerle used his (at that time) unique chest-to-the-gas tank riding style to place third in the Italian Grand Prlx aboard the H-D Aermacchi (called the RR-250 in Europe); in the same year, U.S. AMF-H-D factory rider Gary Scott won the 250cc road race event at Loudon, New Hampshire.
While the bike was also built in 350cc and 500cc versions, it was the 50 HP 6-speed 250 that earned enough points to win World Championships in 1974, 1975 and 1976 ridden by brilliant designer/rider Walter Villa. With it, came two road racing World Championships for Harley Davidson. To further prove his own talent and that of the machine he developed, This particular Aermacchi H-D Grand Prix machine was spotted many moons ago, at the California Hanover Bike Show while being well-guarded by a large German Shepherd.
Villa also won the 350cc Championship in 1975. Of considerable note, is that it apparently had zero miles on it... a 20 year old machine literally fresh out of the crate.
Unfortunately, the name of the owner (and his dog), both residents of Berkeley, CA have fallen into the black hole of lost notes and will remain unknown until someone writes in with the information which we will then acknowledge. We do however know, that the bike was for sale when photographed. Though at this point, its whereabouts remain a bit of a mystery. However, it's no mystery, although certainly a gray area in Harley history, that this petite two-stroke go-for-broke Italian racer packed some serious pizza-pounding performance, and that it was also ridden by some of the great riders of the sport.