Some years ago, middle of the last century, thousands of young Italian men became obsessed with motorcycles. And in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, many of them decided to build their own. Not necessarily to manufacture and sell, but to put their own names on them and go racing. One such man was Giancarlo Morbidelli.
But few of the other hobbyists grew to win world championships in Grand Prix road racing, as Morbidelli did. The small shop behind Morbidelli’s woodworking machine factory in Pesaro, Italy, launched top-level racing machines that earned four GP world championships.
This documentary film, directed by Jeffrey Zani and Matthew Gonzales, follows the working career of a craftsman who came to attract riders like Parlotti, Nieto, Agostini and Graziano Rossi, (whose son, Valentino, would later achieve abundant roadracing success).
Morbidelli’s 50cc and 125cc machines did well in Italian championship events in the Sixties. By 1969 they were ready for the world title series, the famed Continental Circus. But in 1972, Morbidelli’s top rider, Giberto Parlotti, crashed and died at the Isle of Man TT while leading the points chase. The decision for Morbidelli to continue was difficult, but he was urged by friends to carry on. The perseverance paid off with Morbidelli’s first world championship in 1975, with rider Paolo Pileri taking the 125cc title. Morbidelli went on to earn two more successive titles in the 125cc class, with Pier Paolo Bianchi. And 1977 also saw the diminutive Italian company win the 250cc class with rider Mario Lega.
The movie alternates between original racing footage of the era and contemporary interviews with Morbidelli, former employees and riders. The narration is in English, but the interviews in Italian are subtitled. They include some interesting inside stories on strategy, inter-team rivalries and reflections on specific races. And while most of the events took place three or four decades ago, the participants still display their original passion for racing. They are Italian, after all.
Those old enough to remember the era will recognize familiar faces – Charles Mortimer, Kork Ballington and Barry Sheene – and shudder at the dangerous tracks on which they raced. Safety often took a back seat to performance. Racer Alberto Ieva recalled being about 25 pounds shy of the Italian 50cc championship’s minimum weight requirements in 1971, so Morbidelli fitted him with a lead belt for the weigh-in. When it wasn’t enough, he added a few pounds of rocks in his helmet. Ieva went on to win the championship.
In 1973 at Czechoslovakia, Pileri crashed in the 125 race and broke his shoulder. Taken to the hospital, he escaped through a window and returned to ride the 250 event, which he was leading up to a quarter-mile from the flag when the engine broke. So he pushed the bike across to finish second.
In 1976, Morbidelli teamed up with Benelli to battle the increasingly rapid Japanese teams, and Kawasaki bought one of the new bikes to learn some tricks Morbidelli employed in its engine. Meanwhile, privateer riders were lining up for Morbidelli’s 125 and 250cc machines, and a new 500cc racer was in the works. Agostini rode the 250 in an Italian race, but the electrics caught fire. Mario Lega recounts his experience of coming to Morbidelli and being astounded by the 250’s speed at Imola. He would go on the win the 1977 world championship.
Graziano Rossi came on board nearing the end of the Morbidelli story, and he earned third place in the 1979 250 title chase after a few crashes and dicing with Ballington on the Kawasaki. Rossi went on to ride the 500 Square-Four prototype, which Morbidelli had developed with suspension help from Enzo Ferrari. But, as his son got more serious about Formula 1 car racing, Morbidelli’s interest in motorcycle competition waned. Nonetheless, he had established an impressive record as an independent builder, a man Rossi called “one of the best technicians in the world.”
This was an engaging chapter in international roadracing, the period when Italian marques like Moto Guzzi, Benelli, Moto Morini, Gilera, Ducati and Piaggio would rise to prominence. The film offers an entertaining insight into an era now widely remembered in moments of pleasant nostalgia, and a personal look at the lives of those who set the groundwork for the sport in the inimitable Italian style.
The DVD can be ordered from www.morbidellifilm.com for 18 euro. It is available only in the PAL format, which will work in any computer but not in NTSC DVD players, the format used in North America.