By Francois-Marie Dumas

During the long history of the motorcycle, very few designers have managed to realize exceptional fantasies as production motorcycles: they almost always remain as prototypes, left to us as beguiling ‘what ifs’.  Such is the fate of the fantastic Moto Major, created in 1947 by Piedmontese engineer Salvatore Maiorca, which never ceases to create a stir.  The Moto Major has been featured in BikeExif, voted Best of Show at the Concorso Eleganza Villa d’Este in 2018, and is currently presented (from this November 29, to March 30, 2020) at the National Museum of the Automobile in Compiègne (France) as part their exhibit ‘Concept Car: Pure Beauty.’ 

Imagine the reaction of the Italian public at the Milan show of April 1948, discovering this futuristic motorcycle, with graceful fully enclosed bodywork, and without even spoked wheels. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
Fantastic, surreal, futuristic and yet very a product of its time, the Moto Major originated as an extraordinary styling exercise at an aerodynamic research facility. Its development was very costly, and financed in the immediate post-war period by Aeritalia in Turin, a subsidiary of Fiat that offered Salvatore Maiorca its industrial resources. The Italian car and aircraft giant knew and trusted Maiorca to explore a possible FIAT motorcycle.  This was  the second time FIAT expressed an interest in motorized two-wheelers: their first experience was a scooter designed in 1938, which proved very similar to a Piaggio prototype from 1945, the Paperino.

From every angle, the Moto Major is stunning, and compelling. The sole prototype remains in original and unrestored condition. [Giorgio Sarti]
While it may have been shaped in a wind tunnel, the Moto Major did not emerge in a vacuum.  Its themes of total enclosure combined with aerodynamic streamlining were au courant in the 1930s, and after the interruption of WW2, surviving designers were eager to put their ideas into metal.

The incredible bodywork of Louis Lucien Lepoix’s personal BMW R12, built in 1947. Read more about Lepoix here. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archive]
The lineage to which Moto Major belongs is a legacy of great innovators, some of whom produced their machines in series, and some who could not.  These include Georges Roy, whose New Motorcycle and Majestic of the late 1920s were Art Deco masterpieces, while the Italian Miller Balsamo of 1939 still looks practicable today. From Germany, the 1938 Killinger & Freund blows up the Internet every time it’s (re)discovered on social media, while Louis Lucien’s Lepoix’s post-war rebody of his BMW R12 is perhaps closest stylistically to the Moto Major, in its dynamic, fluid sweeps of bodywork.  Salvatore Maiorca’s goal was as simple as it was ambitious: to create an extremely advanced motorcycle, both in terms of its style and its mechanical concepts, that utilized the unique industrial capabilities of the FIAT empire, with its ability to rapidly prototype everything from aerodynamic metal bodywork, new engine designs, and even aircraft-inspired wheels. Maiorca’s creation certainly lived up to these ambitions.

The twin fishtail exhausts hide a secret: only one side is functional! [Giorgio Sarti]
Most extraordinary is that, more than 70 years later, the aesthetics of the Major are still revolutionary.  Yes, they are dated, but hardly so, with devilish aerodynamics reminiscent of cephalopods.  The sculptural bodywork is teeming with superb details, like the silencers whose horizontal fish tails exacerbate the dynamism of the lines. And what a drape! The steel sheet bodywork completely encompasses the motorcycle, leaving only the wheels, the headlight and the handlebars protruding.  It thus maintains an absolute purity of line, running from the head of the headlight to the rear wheel hub, while the front shell curves soft and clever to surround the front wheel, then flares back to protect the rider.

The handlebars move in a slot in the bodywork, between the speedometer and a steering damper knob. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
Bravo to this superb artist, whose ingenuity was not limited to style. The sublime bodywork is also designed as a self-supporting hull, and fully monocoque.  It is free to hug the front and rear wheels closely, because the suspension is not between the wheels and the chassis, but between the wheel rims and their hubs! Maiorca used the idea of  suspension-in-wheel in his aircraft designs, reinventing an idea almost as old as the motorcycle: the elastic wheel.

Felix Millet in 1887 with his revolutionary 5-cylinder in-wheel engine, coupled with his patented in-wheel suspension via coiled steel hoops. One of his motorcycles is still intact, and can be found at the Musée des Arts et Metiers in Paris. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archive]
The concept of in-wheel suspension was originally patented by Felix Millet in 1887, who also preferred to keep his radial engines within the wheels of his experimental two- and three-wheelers.  The elastic wheel remained an engineer’s dream ever after, and was used on aircraft landing gear in the 1930s, for example the Gloster Gladiator.  The best known motorcycle example is of course the Triumph Sprung Hub, designed by Edward Turner in 1938, and intended for production on the 1940 Triumph models, but delayed by the war until the 1946 model line.  While Triumph’s elastic wheel may have been an expedient dodge before introducing a proper swingarm frame (in 1955), it made sense as a method of keeping unsprung weight at a minimum.  Simply put: unsprung mass is what absorbs bumps and must move directly over them – the wheels and brakes, typically – instead of being insulated from these bumps – the rest of the chassis and the rider.  The lighter the unsprung weight, the more responsive the suspension, due to reduced momentum and lag.

The Moto Major’s in-wheel suspension uses 12 compressed rubber disc per wheel for suspension, to provide a nominal 50cm of travel. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
The Moto Major’s elastic wheel is simple in principle, and built in three parts. Two hub-mounted light alloy flanges pinch a central petal-shaped disc between six pairs of 50mm rubber cylinders, and two large bolts on the rim in turn clamp the center disc through six other pairs of buffers. It’s a disc sandwich with rubber mayo.  In theory, this device maintains lateral stiffness while allowing for rim movement in a vertical plane of plus or minus five centimeters, as the rubber pads squish.  A contemporary road tester reported: “Movement of the rim is 50mm without transverse deformation, and gives an exemplary road holding comparable to a BMW. ”  Maiorca assured the press that bench tests the equivalent of 40,000 kilometers were made, and showed minimal wear of the rubber elements, as each of them (24 in total) experienced only a small effort.  Doing the math: 150kg (bike) + 80kg (rider) = 230kg (506lbs).  Divided by 24 = 9.6kg (21lbs) of weight for each rubber buffer to handle, which is not enormous. But clearly, when the rubber deteriorates, the effect on road-holding will be double plus un-good, to quote a novel of the period.

An cutaway view of the 350 single-cylinder Moto Major, showing the steering system, inline single-cylinder motor, shaft drive, and fuel tank under the saddle. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archive]
The Moto Major was designed in both single- and twin-cylinder form, although only the 350cc single appears to have been built. On the twin-cylinder project, the elastic wheel design is more rudimentary, with a similar central disk suspended on a small internal tire, with side flanges ensuring rigidity.  Basically, the design has two concentric wheels with a small central tire acting as a damper, a bit like the 1955 patent of Boris Vian.

The Moto Major’s 350cc engine was developed in collaboration with engineer Angelo Blatto, who had significant experience in the 1920s and ’30s at Aquila, Augusta, OMB and  Ladetto & Blatto. It’s an aero-engine inspired four-stroke, with a turned steel cylinder and an aluminum cylinder head. A fan at the end of the crankshaft provides cooling by forced air, while the long crankshaft drives a four-speed gearbox controlled by footshift, and a shaft final drive.  The kickstarter is removable, as on the first Honda 1000 Gold Wing of 1975.

The twin-cylinder Moto Major concept was apparently never built, but specified a watercooled twin-cylinder motor with a different form of in-wheel suspension and simpler steering mechanism. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archives]
Salvatore Maiorca’s design for a twin-cylinder version of the Moto Major predated the single that was eventually produced, and was in some ways more exotic technically. The engine was a long, liquid-cooled, vertical twin-cylinder, with two radiators embedded in the fairing fed via air intakes up front. It was slightly retrograde in having a handshift emerge through the bodywork, and handlebars exposed. The twin exhausts exited through twin flattened fishtails out back, which the 350cc single model retained, in spite of having only one exhaust pipe!  The second fishtail is a dummy, for aesthetic balance only.

Rare period illustrations explaining the layers included in the Major’s suspension. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archives]
In the blissful optimism of the post-war period, the brass at FIAT seemed to forget the prohibitive cost of building such a radical machine.  While the Moto Major remained unique, a company was created in Milan on January 15, 1948 to market its wheels, with SARE (Società Applicazioni Gomme Elastiche) and SAGA (Società Applicazioni Gomme Antivibranti) building plants for their construction in collaboration with Pirelli. Pirelli was happy to exhibit the Moto Major on its stand at the Salon of Milan in 1948, where it created an enduring sensation, akin to the BMW R7 (‘The Best Bike BMW Never Made’): machines that, once glimpsed, remain in the memory forever, but also remain elusive and un-produced. The dream of the Moto Major was too good to be true.

The dream that was not to be. The 1947 Moto Major prototype. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
1947 Moto Major prototype

Engine: 4-stroke vertical single-cylinder engine with longitudinal crankshaft / Turned steel cylinder, aluminum cylinder head / Forced air cooling / 349.3cc (76 x 77 mm) / 14 hp @5200 rpm / Dell’Orto carburettor /  Lubrication by oil circulation and double pump / Battery-coil ignition.

Transmission: Dry multi-plate clutch / 4-speed gearbox with footshift / Transmission by shaft and bevel gear final drive

Chassis: Self-supporting sheet steel body / Spherical hub and rod-controlled steering / 19″ elastic wheels with 24 deformable rubber-block suspension

Dimensions and Performance: 150 kg in running order (43 kg engine) / Tank 13 liters / 105kmh (63mph)

The Moto Major could run again, but its rubber buffers are unique, and deteriorating, so the current owner – the Hockenheim Museum Archive – has chosen to keep it exactly as it is, for now. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
[ Francois-Marie Dumas is a Paris-based motojournalist, author, and Chief Judge at the Concorso Eleganza Villa d’Este.   His website moto-collection.org is an authoritative study of motorcycle history, and The Vintagent is proud to include his work as a regular Contributor. ]
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