By Stuart Grant
The world of motorcycling in the 1970s was an exciting place; revolutionary bikes were rolling off the lines in both Japan and Europe with astonishing – and literal – pace. Making a mark during this period was no easy feat, but the small Italian outfit Benelli did just that with its 750 Sei, the first production motorcycle to feature a six-cylinder engine. The original six-shooter that car-making ace Alejandro de Tomaso brought to life.
Yes, that’s right: the man who brought us the likes of the Mangusta and Pantera is responsible for unleashing the acoustic fury that only a six-pot bike with six pipes can produce. Established in 1911, Benelli is one of the oldest Italian bike manufacturers, but the arrival of the Japanese bike competition in the ʼ60s, combined with a large reliance on the American market and perceived old-fashioned image, saw popularity and the bank balance waning. There was a ray of hope in the early 1970s when De Tomaso Industries Inc., owned by Argentinian industrialist Alejandro de Tomaso but based in Italy, purchased SEIMM (Moto Guzzi, Benelli and Maserati). Intent on creating Italy’s premier sporting motorcycle company, he set out to create a two-wheeled equivalent of his Pantera (released in 1971) and planned on launching this as a Moto Guzzi.
At the heart of the Pantera strategy was a third party-supplied, simple V8 – Ford, of course. Rumour has it that he applied a similar borrow plan when looking into ways to transform the bike segment and used the four-cylinder Honda CB500 as a base. Only he figured more was needed and stuck two more cylinders into the equation. Controversy surrounds the Honda theory though, with many claiming that De Tomaso was simply following standard design practice and that there are very few, if any, interchangeable parts between the Honda and the De Tomaso lump. Interesting… the bore and stroke of the De Tomaso bike measure in at 56mm by 50.6mm, the single overhead cam is rotated by a central chain, and two-piece connecting rods with plain big ends and the Morse Hy-Vo chain primary drive are found inside the engine – just like the Honda’s four-cylinder CB500.
The extra pots meant that the transversely mounted engine was just over an inch wider than the Honda, but De Tomaso kept the width in check by moving the alternator behind the cylinders. Cooling was handled by air passing through a gap between each cylinder and the six cylinders were fed by a trio of Dell’Orto VHB 24mm carburettors. There was no Japanese in the rest of the kit though, with an Italian-built cradle frame, twin Brembo disc brakes in front, Marzocchi forks and shocks, and Borrani aluminium rims.
When first shown in 1972 as the Benelli 750 Sei (and not Moto Guzzi), the new engine did the job of showstopper. It promised 96hp at 9000rpm and claimed a top speed of 210km/h, good enough to put it at the forefront of the performance race and satisfy De Tomaso’s requirement by overshadowing the other new Italian models at the time. It was more than just a revolutionary power unit though, with hard-edged, angular styling carried out by Carrozzeria Ghia – another one of De Tomaso’s interests. This look, a detour from the curves of other bike makers, set a trend which continued for decades thereafter.
All good for the Benelli then… or not. It took the Benelli almost two years to turn a show bike into a production unit, which saw potential customers getting impatient and moving on to the Japanese machines that had caught up in the performance and styling race. When the Benelli finally made it to the showrooms, sales were slow thanks to a serious price tag and diminutive distribution network. For those who had the patience and bank balance, the reward was class-leading styling, handling and speed, an impressively low-vibration ride and that sound… think a Ferrari V12.
But just 3 200 units were sold between 1974 and ’77, when it was replaced by a bored and stroked six-cylinder known as the Benelli 900 Sei. This differed in appearance from the 750 with the six tailpipes changed to a six-into-two set-up and Moto Guzzi Le Mans-borrowed bikini fairing. Fewer than 2 000 of these were made. They were soon given the tag of ‘flashbike’ which although was supposed to mean rare, fast, expensive, stylish and flashy, could well have summed up the future of Benelli’s brief resurgence and hinted at the future. With all the clever technology unfortunately also carrying a reputation for lots of problems, Benelli production was phased out and eventually came to a halt in 1988. The brand merged fully with Moto Guzzi and the production plants in Pesaro were sold.
An unsuccessful attempt to fire up the brand once again was made in 1989 but it took until 1995, when Andrea Merloni bought the rights to the Benelli brand from De Tomaso, to get it rolling again. He set the design team the task of building a stylish and exclusive bike with a three-cylinder 1000cc at its core. The result was the Tornado Tre 900 launched in 2002, and this was followed by the TNT Roadster a few years on.
Today Benelli is part of the Qjian Jiang Group and sees design ideas being penned in Italy and manufactured in China. The six-shooter Benellis have been relegated to the history books, but with new capital (from car-making giant Geely) and the synergy between Europe and the Far East, a number of bike projects are on the go and gunning for the mass market.