22 March 2013

The Morbidelli Mystique

Fascinating trip through one man’s dream involves 350 bikes, multiple race trophies and many stories, hidden away in an amazing museum

The outside of the bland-looking building in an industrial area of Pesaro, on Italy’s Adriatic coast gives no clues as to the treasure within. The contents will take your breath away: 350 machines from all over the world are displayed in a series of well-lit halls.

The bikes range from immaculate restorations to barn finds. Road and race bikes are on mirrored plinths; you can trace the history of motorcycling from the turn of the last century to the 1990s. A fully equipped workshop ensures that machines are mechanically and cosmetically restored, and in-house work also includes hand-beating aluminium fairings for the race bikes.

This museum is the culmination of Giancarlo Morbidelli’s life and love of motorcycles. His office is lined with bound copies of Motociclismo magazine, charting the history of Italian motorcycling and providing a research resource.

Morbidelli was born in Pesaro in 1934, the eldest son of peasant family. He got into a technical school, and gained knowledge and skills to work in a factory when he graduated. Then he opened his own factory producing woodworking machines, eventually employing more than 300 workers.

But Morbidelli’s real passion was for motorcycles, and in 1967, he opened a small racing workshop behind his factory at Pesaro. He had a large collection of vintage motorcycles, and opened his own museum. But museums do not generate the publicity needed to finance such a hobby, so he started his own Grand Prix team, having grown up during the golden era of the’50’s.

Morbidelli started by building a primitive 50cc model, but recruited designer and rider Franco Ringhini from Guazzoni, who helped him put the bike on the grid. A top speed of 100mph from 10bhp at 14,500rpm was an impressive start for the single-cylinder disc-valve engine.

Only a year later, works Morbidelli riders took the top two podium steps in a significant race. But despite impressive finishes, especially from Eugenio Lazzarini, the little company struggled to compete with giants like Kreidler. The answer was to build a bigger bike, and in 1970 the first 125cc Morbidelli appeared. Gilberto Parlotti took the first win at the Czech GP, as he and Lazzarini developed the bikes. The 1971 season started well, and Parlotti beat the World Champion Angel Nieto at Monza with a race average of 108 mph.

Hopes were high for 1972, and Parlotti won the first two races in Germany and France; took a second place in Austria and a third in Italy, giving him a massive points lead over Angel Nieto. But at the Isle of Man TT, disaster struck. Parlotti became the 99th TT fatality, crashing in the rain at the Verandah, with a commanding lead of 18 seconds. That led to the exodus of Grand Prix stars from the TT, led by Parlotti’s friend Giacomo Agostini, and the event would no longer count towards the world championship.

Morbidelli said he had not only lost his best rider, he had also lost a friend. He also lost the championship too, as Nieto kept his title. But despite the championship, Derbi announced they were retiring. Nieto was left without a ride, and joined Morbidelli.

Morbidelli’s workshop had three 50cc bikes, three 125’s and a prototype 350cc ready for the 1973 season. The main effort was put into the 125 cc class, where the competition was toughest, but seized pistons and transmission failures dogged Morbidelli. Then Derbi returned to competition, and Nieto went back to his former employers.

During the winter Morbidelli tempted two- stroke expert Georg Muller to leave the Dutch Van Veen Kriedler factory and join him. The team approached British star Barry Sheene, but contractual problems with Suzuki prevented him signing on.
Perhaps it was just as well, because the powerful new engine proved too much for the transmission.

For the 1975 season, a new generation of bikes boasted 42 bhp at 14,200 rpm. They weighed just 165 lbs, with a top speed of more than 130 mph. Ridden by Paolo Pileri and Pier-Paolo Bianchi, Morbidellis dominated the championship, with Pileri taking the world crown.

Privateer 125cc bikes were planned, along with a 250 and possibly a 500. Morbidelli entered into an agreement with Benelli to make works replicas. While they were nearly identical to the works bikes, they were down on power, at 36.5 bhp. The bikes had the MBA logo on the tanks.

In 1976 Pileri kept his championship with help from Bianchi. The following year it was Bianchi’s turn, after Pileri quit the team. Morbidelli also took the 250cc title with consistent Mario Lega in the saddle. Morbidelli was the bike to have, and the British GP saw 30 on the grid.

In 1978 the MBA logo was used on the works bikes and Lazzarini won the title. The 125cc twin continued until 1988, when the FIM changed the rules to single cylinder only.

The last proper Morbidelli to compete at world level was actually a 500cc square four ridden by current world champion Valentino Rossi’s father, Graziano. However, a series of crashes and mechanical failures led Morbidelli to concentrate on assisting his son Gianni in Formula One.

He still had a last hurrah though. In 1998, Morbidelli produced an electrifying 847cc V-8 road machine, with shaft drive. Costing a staggering $45,000, each bike was sold direct and delivered in its own packing case. For service, you sent it back to the factory. Only four were sold, but the Pesaro museum has one, and another is at the Barber Museum in Alabama. 

After this, Morbidelli sold his woodworking factory and opened his bike museum, and restoration shop. It’s a fascinating trip through one man’s dream and well worth the three hours you will spend there. Check it out here: www.museomorbidelli.it

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