Never underestimate the power of a man determined. Umberto Borile is a testament to this fact. Inspired by the late John Britten, Borile made it a mission to create his perfect bike – a cafe racer. However, being Italian, it was in Borile’s blood to add his own Italian flare to his creation. The result is the Borile B500CR. In this week’s Church of MO feature, Yossef Schvetz tells us what it’s like to be the first journalist to test ride a distinctly Italian take on a thoroughly British specialty.
By Yossef Schvetz Mar. 19, 2001
Near Venezia, Italy, April 26, 2001 — It was the late John Britten who was once asked why, of all things, did he choose to build a motorcycle. It has to be remembered that the guy was a successful land developer, an architect and a glass craftsman. “Because it is not too big a project,” was his answer. And indeed, coming to think of it, all you need to build a bike is really a good tube bending machine, a lathe, a milling machine and a pair of extremely co-ordinated hands.
The bike that I saw there, two years ago, was so unlike anything else on show. It was as if somebody had read my mind and produced my ideal Sunday morning ride. Even if you hadn’t been raised on a steady diet of British singles (like me) you’ll have a hard time resisting the simple and honest allure of a svelte, sharp and agile road-going single that is loaded with cool retro looks. Instinctively, I grabbed a catalog and business card, knowing that some day I would certainly want to examine Umberto’s work more closely.
Exactly one year after the Milan show I decided to phone Umberto, just to see how was his project coming along. As it turned out, I couldn’t have chosen a better time to call.
“So when are you coming?” came Umberto’s reply. Surprise, surprise. The bike is up and running and I am going to be the first journo to test it.
In the best Italian tradition, it is an interesting mix of engineering reasoning and emotional decisions expressed with shinny aluminum tubes. My encounter with the Borile begins a number of miles before ever arriving in Italy where Umberto’s shop is located. This guy lives in a picturesque and quiet area just next to a hilly natural reserve, southwest of Venezia. With such calming vistas around him, it is a very small wonder that Umberto is so full of the inspiration that led him to the creation of his machine.
Umberto’s “factory” is as charming as the beautiful surroundings. The driving directions led me to the front of a small bike dealership. Until Umberto’s project really gets off the ground his income still depends on selling KTMs to the area’s inhabitants. But the true jewels are in the workshop area behind the showroom. Beautiful British classics in all stages of restoration; Rows of ready-for-installation Borile engines and, of course, a few prototypes of his own machine, the Borile B500CR. With such museum pieces lying around, there is little wonder that the Borile has turned out to be so full of nostalgia in its lines.
If you are not familiar with the GM engine, do not worry. Unless you follow speedway racing closely, there is little chance that you might have heard about it. Italy’s GM have been producing world championship wining engines for a few decades. Speedway engines are known for a truly wide powerband, needed to power slide bikes around oval tracks while having a nice 60-plus horsepower available on the top end. The only problems facing Umberto before using this engine were the lack of a proper oiling system or gearbox.
For their short mile tracks, speedway bikes often run with just one or two gear ratios. Transforming the oiling system involved the attachment of a proper oil pump to the engine. Creating a full road-going gearbox meant designing entirely new crankcases to house the transmission as well as all the gears and the shifting mechanism to go in them. The existence of proven, high performance, engine parts convinced Umberto to undertake this heavy task.
The Borile’s engine ended up with looks that successfully mix old and new. The engine’s right-hand side has strong visual links with the famous Gilera Saturno engines from the 50’s whereas the big cooling fins are reminders of bare-bones, sporting British singles. But as stated, the engine’s technology is pretty much up to date: Four-valve head, ceramic cylinder coating, electronic ignition.
The frame is a big part of the Borile’s visual impact, too. In the best Italian tradition, it is an interesting mix of engineering reasoning and emotional decisions expressed with shinny aluminum tubes. Or, in other words, a modern day interpretation of how a BSA Gold Star would look if it were produced today. The frame is basically a single cradle affair with the down-tube splitting under the engine. Screwed to its back is a minimalist (you will hear the term often from now on) rear subframe, a monoshock rear suspension and an aluminum swingarm with notable bracing. And what are those odd-looking side tubes, you might ask? Umberto replies with his heart, “well, they do add some rigidity, but above all, I like their looks.” Umberto may be a motorcycle producer, but he is also very romantic about his handicraft.
A minimal seat, a minimal, classically shaped fuel tank and, to make the whole bike even more minimal, Umberto developed a special exhaust system. A cylindrical silencer sits next to the air filter enabling the reduction of the actual silencer can at the end of the exhaust pipe to the smallest reasonable size. A 41 mm Ceriani inverted fork, single disk Brembos and hand-laced aluminium rims round out the hardware list. And that’s about it. Not many more parts to tell about. Simple.
After a guided tour around the Factory, it is time for a short spin. Umberto is a bit nervous. After all, I am the first stranger to ride his new baby. Besides, this really is a test mule, not fully sorted yet and has not even been registered. Nothing much to worry about in this little village, though. The only cop on duty knows Umberto very well by now.
I push the B500CR out of the shop and the bike already amazes me. This thing is light! Umberto notices my reaction. “Two hundred and thirty pounds,” he says with a smile. And I say, “yummy. That’s one low-fat cycle.”
The Borile lights up via a kick-start (remember them?) and settles down into a rather fast tick-over. But there is nothing vintage in the way the engine picks up revs while playing with the throttle. Engine response is much more akin to current fire-breathing off-road singles like Yamaha’s YZ250F than one of my 1951 500 Nortons. With first gear engaged, it’s time to head for the curving road that surrounds the natural reserve. As soon as some curvy bits arrive, the lightness that I experienced before translates into one quick steering bike. Think about the first time you swung a leg over a nice and light ten-speed bicycle, only that instead of a set of pedals, the Borile has that neat little 500 cc motor pumping you forward.
The Borile’s pull is quite amazing, the low mass and healthy midrange gets the B500CR up to speed in a hurry. Soon, though, it turns out that the test mule is geared short. Umberto has been playing around with gearing but it has to go up some more. That means that within seconds I am already in fifth gear doing close to 80 with an engine that is screaming. But in the twisting mountain roads with 50-70 MPH curves that I am riding, this is just fine. I leave the Borile in fifth gear and proceed to attack the curves ahead on what feels like the world’s most powerful pushbike. The B500CR’s diminutive size, the insignificant weight and the stiff frame make the Borile one hell of a mountain road warrior.
The only big problem that spoils my ride is the rain. Not the best time to test the outer edges of road-holding but, nevertheless, on the wet roads, the torquey and manageable engine makes me feel a lot more relaxed than I would ever be on the top of a four-cylinder bike in these conditions. I also add to myself a few more mental notes. The huge front Brembo has no problem slowing down this flyweight NOW. The riding position is very Ducati-Monster like – erect, but sportingly so.
But let’s leave analytical issues for a second, shall we? The most prevalent sensation while riding the Borile is one of being in a time tunnel that takes you to an age where everything was simpler and somehow more exciting. No fairing, no unnecessary ornaments, just pure, undiluted, unfiltered motorcycling sensations. Sure, performance is nowhere near a current 600 four-cylinder sport bike, but then the Borile is all about something else. Still, all my excitement could not mask the fact that Umberto has some problems to solve before sales begin. Those 50’s singles had some good 380 lbs of weight to calm down the vibrations of a single. The Borile, what with its meager 230 lbs has less mass to absorb the unbalanced 500 cc engine’s vibes. Different balance factors are going to be tried and, in the future, a counterbalancer will be added.
After my short spin I turn back to the factory. It’s noon already and in Italy, this means its time to close the shop and head for the nearest Trattoria for wine, food and a moment to talk about life. Work can wait a bit. We order some good local red wine and Umberto proceeds to tell his life’s story. In the 80’s he used to race motocross in local events gaining some nice placings in the area’s championship, but at one point he understood that he is more talented as a bike builder than a bike rider. A little shop he opened allowed him to begin his experiments.
One of his first creations was the Piuma 520, a motocross/enduro bike with countless innovative features such as an under-the-seat fuel tank, twin spar frame and truely low weight by 80’s standards. Umberto sent photographs of his creation to Honda’s R&D and proudly shows a letter from Honda stating their interest in his creation. But eventually his own interest turned to the more unique niche of road going singles. His first try was with said GM engine, still with its speedway crankcases. A separate gearbox, in true brit-bike fashion, was added and the model showed good potential. Over an old drafting table, Umberto produced the drawings for the new crankcases and gearbox. “It’s all hand made, including the drawings. No CAD or computers involved,” he proudly claims.
At the moment, Umberto is busy solving the last problems before beginning a first production batch of 50 bikes. Response at the last Munich show has been good and there are already solid orders for the bike. We continue talking bikes for a while; this guy really has 40W oil charging through his veins, but eventually, its time to go back to work.
Umberto Borile is a truly colorful character, and it shows on his B 500CR. Yes, it’s a bike that will appeal only to passionate and romantic single-cylinder lovers who do not really care what’s fashionable at the moment. Luckily there are still people that go with their heart and not with their calculators and accountants in this world. Umberto Borile is surely one of those.
Specifications ENGINE: Type: Borile single cylinder, four stroke, air cooled with GM head and cylinder Bore & Stroke: 87x85 mm Piston displacement: 500 cc Distribution: single overhead camshaft, 4 valves Compression ratio: 10.3:1 Carburetor: Dell'Orto PHSB 36 Ignition: electronic Starting: by kick-starter with manual compression release Lubrication: by pump Gearbox: 5 speed Clutch: multidiscs in oil bath Main transmission: by gear Final transmission: by chain FRAME: Frame: split cradle frame of round tubes in 7020 light alloy Suspensions: Front: Ceriani upside down fork 41 mm, stroke 145 mm, Steering Rake: 26.5° Trail 146 mm. Rear: WP mono with no levers (PDS), stroke 145 mm. Brakes: Front: disk 315 mm. Rear: disk 220 mm. Wheels: Wire wheels with light alloy rims Front: 17' x 3,5' Rear: 17' x 4,5' Tires: Front: 120/70 x 17' Rear: 150/60 x 17' DIMENSIONS: Length: 1990 mm (78.4 in) Width: 720 mm (28.4 in) Height: 1120 mm (44.1 in) Seat Height: 810 mm (31.9 in) Ground clearance: 270 mm (10.6 in) Wheelbase: 1380 mm (54.4 in) Tank capacity: 8.5 lt. (2.2 gal) Weight: 104 Kg (229.3 lbs)