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Top 10 classic Italian motorbike brands

laverda-classic.jpg

Classic and vintage motorcycles come in all shapes and sizes. Some collectors like to specialise in certain types of bikes, such as sports bikes or scooters, while others have an affinity to certain brands, models or nationalities of bikes.

British motorbikes have a huge fan base but, when it comes to exotica, there is no country that commands as passionate a following as Italy. The home of Ferrari and Maserati has also brought us some of the most iconic two wheelers too, as we discovered when we banged our heads together to come up with the 10 most famous Latin bike brands…

Aprilia

Aprilia is a relative newbie in the world of motorcycle manufacturing. The Noale bicycle company started dabbling in motorcycles in the late 1960s, but a decade later it was already a top manufacturer of motocross machines.

The 1980s saw Aprilia make inroads into the road bike market, building some dazzling machines, in particular the 125cc AF1 sports bike. The 1990s were a spectacular time for Aprilia in racing, dominating the 125cc and 250cc Grands Prix classes and becoming synonymous with Italian icon Max Biaggi. More recently, they also won the Superbike World Championship.

These days the company has been absorbed into the huge Piaggio concern and has a wider range of products than ever before, while some of the 1990s and early 2000s metal have ‘future classic’ written all over them.

Notable models: RS250, Moto 6.5, RSV Mille

Benelli

Benelli is one of the oldest Italian manufacturers, having produced its first motorcycle back in 1919.

The company made some innovative products in the early years, including a 250cc, four-cylinder supercharged race bike in 1939, only for the war to intervene. Like many (most?) Italian manufacturers, Benelli has suffered some tumultuous years ever since World War Two – leading to a number of direction changes over the years.

Benelli is probably most famous for dabbling with its six-cylinder engines in the 1970s. Under the ownership of Argentine industrialist Alejandro de Tomaso, who also owned Moto Guzzi and his eponymous sportscar company, the Benelli Sei (six) range was the first production six-cylinder motorcycle – something guaranteed to give them classic status.

Production stopped in 1988 and it would be over a decade before Andrea Merloni (owner of the Indesit washing machine brand) revived the company with a three-cylinder model, the Tornado Tre.

Despite high hopes and a factory world superbike team, the Tornado was a flop and the brand fell again. These days it’s under Chinese ownership, on the comeback trail with a range of tidy looking mid-range twins. Whether they succeed in the long term remains to be seen, but we think that the relative rarity of the brand, as well as the interesting engineering, will see interest in the older bikes rise in coming years.

Notable models: 500 Quattro, 900 Sei, Tornado Tre 900

Benelli classic

Bimota

Bimota are in the news just now, having been revived with an investment that sees Kawasaki take a 49.9% stake in the company.

The company started out as a frame builder in 1973, taking its name from the first two letters of each of its founders’ names (Bianchi, Morri and Tamburini). 

Back in the 1970s, the Japanese were starting to build performance sportsbikes with powerful engines, but with little attention paid to chassis technology. Bimota’s first efforts took these contemporary engines and gave them a chassis that helped them handle much better. These early bikes were developed for road and track, and used engines from the likes of the Honda CB750 and Kawasaki Z1.

Early Bimotas were kits but full bikes soon went on the market, wrapped up in stunning bodywork and with price tags to match.

The 1990s saw the introduction of the Ducati powered Tesi, with its innovative front end, but as mainstream manufacturers started to build bikes that handled as well as they went, Bimota became increasingly irrelevant. The final nail in the coffin was the 500cc two-stroke V Due, with its in house engine (the company’s first, and so far only) of 1997, which was seriously flawed.

Never has the phrase ‘more comebacks than Sinatra’ been more appropriate than when talking about Bimota, and they even won an unlikely world superbike race in Australia in 2000 (although they had been leading protagonists in the championship’s inaugural season in 1988).

The rarity, mystique and high purchase price of Bimotas mean that they sell for big money on the classic bike market these days.

Notable models: HB1, YB4ei, Tesi, V Due, SB8R

Ducati

Without doubt the most famous Italian motorcycle manufacturer today, Ducati started out as a radio component manufacturer in the 1920s, before moving to motorcycling in the post war years.

The tiny Cucciolo, their first machine, was a motorised bicycle that sold in the hundreds of thousands, and Ducati soon moved into making bigger bikes.

The 1960s saw the introduction of the desmodromic valve train design with which they would become synonymous, and in the 1970s they came out with the 90-degree V-twin engine that would make them famous.

Racing has also been a huge marketing tool for Ducati at various times in its history. The world superbike championship, introduced in 1988, gave the company a platform upon which to showcase its prowess. The 916 series of 1994, combined with Carl Fogarty’s riding, moved them from being a niche player to a super-desirable brand and has set them on a path that continues today.

Notable models: Mach 1, 900SS, 851, 916, Desmosedici RR

Ducati Classic

MV Agusta

Famous for their domination of top level motorcycle racing in the 1950s and 1960s, MV Agusta also produced some of the most exotic road motorcycles of the time too.

Much like Ferrari, MV were guided by a patriarchal figurehead (in this case Count Domenico Agusta) and had a passion for racing, first and foremost. With riders like Giacomo Agostini, Carlo Ubbiali, Phil Read, Mike Hailwood and John Surtees, MV Agusta won 270 Grands Prix and 38 world titles.

The road bikes were special too, but when Count Agusta passed away in 1970, the team lost its edge and was unable to keep up with the new generation of two-stroke machines from Suzuki and Yamaha. Production slowed up too, and finally ended in 1980.

Cagiva revived the brand in 1991 and gave the world the gorgeous F4. Several ownership changes have taken place since then but the modern company seems to have found some stability, building high quality sports bikes that provide a viable alternative to Ducati.

Notable models: 750 Sport America, 750 GT, F4

Lambretta

Milan’s Lambretta was another product built out of the need to get Italy moving after the second world war.

Made by Innocenti, the scooters first went on sale in 1947 and gained a cult following, especially here in the UK, where they became the vehicle of choice of the Mods. This popularity ensures that Lambrettas remain a common sight today, especially at the many rallies that take place each summer.

British Leyland briefly owned Innocenti in the early 1970s and ended scooter production to free up production capacity for small cars. Innocenti has licenced the name out to fashion brands in recent years, but a prototype scooter was shown at the Milan motorcycle show a few years back, suggesting a revival may well be on the cards.

Notable models: GP125, SX150, TV200

Lambretta Classic

Laverda

Like so many Italian manufacturers, Laverda came into motorcycles in the post World War Two years, as they looked to diversify and tap into the growing demand for personal transport.

Laverda had made engines for agricultural equipment and made its first motorcycle in late 1949.

The company really made its mark in the 1970s, when they became famous for high performance bikes. In 1968 they brought out a 650cc and 750cc parallel twin, with performance surpassing the British Nortons and Triumphs of the time. The bikes were well engineered, but heavier than other bikes on the market, however reliability was a big thing for Laverda, and they had great success in endurance racing with the faired SFC, one of the most desirable motorcycles of the time.

Like Triumph and BSA, Laverda came out with a triple in the late 1960s. The 3C was a 85bhp bruiser, while the UK distributor developed the brutal Jota with 5bhp more and a 145mph top speed to make it the fastest production bike in the world when launched in 1976.

Around this time, Laverda also developed its mythical V6 endurance racer, which retired from the 1977 Bol d’Or but was abandoned after six-cylinder machines were banned from endurance racing.

The company went to the wall in 1985 and a brief revival in the 1990s was hindered by terrible reliability problems from a range of bikes using developments of the old air-cooled twins in a Dutch designed chassis.

These days the brand is owned by the Piaggio group but remains dormant. 

Notable models: Jota, 750 SFC, Alpino

Laverda Classic

Moto Guzzi

Founded in 1921, Guzzi is one of the first generation of Italian motorcycle manufacturers.

Moto Guzzi was active in racing in the 1950s, winning five 350cc world championships between 1953 and 1957, and created one of the most iconic racers of all time with the short lived V8 streamliner, which entered the 500cc championship between 1955 and 1957.

The company is probably most famous for its V-twin engines, which are transversely mounted and feature shaft drive. First introduced on the 1967 V7, models have ranged from commuters through to the California cruiser and the sleek Le Mans sports bike. Today the brand is part of the Piaggio stable and the updated air-cooled V-twin is used on every single model in the current Moto Guzzi range, giving them a real character no other manufacturer can match.

Notable models: Le Mans, California, V7, MGS-01 Corsa

Guzzi Classic motorbike

Moto Morini

Another brand in the middle of a comeback, Moto Morini is yet another Italian manufacturer with a chequered past.

Founded in 1925, the company made small sporty bikes between the wars. After World War Two, the company reopened with a range of 175cc machines that were among the most sophisticated of the time.

Morini’s golden years were arguably in the 1970s, when the introduced the 3½ models, a range of sporty 350cc V-twins, which were latterly joined by 500cc versions. Although expensive when compared to bigger and more powerful rivals, the Morinis were known for their great handling. The company was bought by Cagiva, but was wound down as they focussed on the Ducati brand.

A revival came in 2004 and lasted seven years, before bankruptcy struck. These days, Moto Morini is under Chinese ownership and recently a range of 650cc models was announced, as they look to enter the mainstream for arguably the first time ever.

Notable models: Corsaro, 3½ Sport, Dart

Moto Morini Classic motorbike

Vespa

Italy’s most successful two-wheeled manufacturer doesn’t make sexy superbikes, rather a range of humble scooters and mopeds.

The Piaggio company created the Vespa (which translates as Wasp) in 1946 and, after a slow start, went on to sell over 16 million examples.

Although designed as a humble runaround, the Vespa proved to be a machine that proved popular across the classes – helped in no small part by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn scooting around Rome on one in the 1952 movie Roman Holiday.

These days Vespa has established itself as a design classic. Like its contemporary four-wheeled brethren, such as the Mini, Fiat 500 and Volkswagen Beetle, the Vespa has been reimagined for the modern era, with a whole range of models sharing the same loose design of the 1940s originals, but with thoroughly modern technology.

Notable models: Rally 180, PK 50, PX 200, T5

Vespa classic scooter

 

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