While its glamorous rivals captured the public’s attention, the Benelli firm has a sterling history of race successes dating back to the 1920s, and a family of rider/manufacturer/racers who catapulted the little factory to the top echelons of racing.  Now known more for its bicycles (due to on again/off again production of motorcycles in recent years), there was a time when Benelli was synonymous with racing and World Championships, and that special Italian devotion to supercharged multi-cylinder racing exotica immediately prior to WW2.

Fratelli Benelli: Antonio (‘Tonino’), Francesco, Giovanni, Guiseppe, Filippo, Domenico. [The Vintagent Archive]
The factory’s story begins with Teresa Benelli, recently widowed in 1911, who sold a bit of family property and invested the proceeds in machine tools, establishing a business at which her 6 sons could make a living. The Benelli Garage of Pesaro employed 5 of the 6 boys, who repaired guns, cars, and motorcycles; while the youngest, Antonio (‘Tonino’) was too young to work, his impact would perhaps be greatest of all, as a championship rider for the family business. At this early date, factory spares for cars and motorcycles could be difficult to obtain quickly, and the Garage was fully equipped to fabricate any parts necessary for repairs.

The first Benelli of 1920, a 98cc two-stroke engine mounted at the rear of a bicycle. [The Vintagent Archive]
By 1918, the brothers’ facility at making parts begged the question – why not make our own motorcycle? – and in 1919 they indeed built a 75cc two-stroke single-cylinder engine for attachment to a bicycle.  By 1920 they built the first motorcycle, with a larger 98cc engine attached by outrigger tubes to the rear of a bicycle.  The awkward engine position equated to poor handling, and the first machine wasn’t a success, so by 1921 the engine was moved to the ‘normal’ position within the frame, and the engine capacity increased gradually to 150cc, with a two-speed gearbox and all-chain drive.

Tonino Benelli, four time Italian 175cc Champion, on one of the early 175cc OHC racers, in a beautiful period portrait. [The Vintagent Archvie]
Young Tonino ‘The Terror’ pressured his brothers for more power, with the intention of racing. They obliged, and in his very first race, Tonino placed second Gino Moretti riding a 500cc Moto Guzzi , proving both his skill, and the potential of the little machine.  The little Benelli failed to win a race in 1922 or ’23, but Tonino honed his skills as a rider, while his brothers learned valuable lessons from breakage and failure.  Wins began in 1924, and continued, while the Italian public took note of the little machine; the increased sales meant the brothers could buy new machine tools to create a new motorcycle – a four stroke of advanced specification.

Tonino in 1924 on the 175cc two-stroke racer, at Pesaro’s Foglia track. [The Vintagent Archive]
Giuseppi Benelli designed a new machine of 175cc for 1927, with a stack of delicate gears driving an overhead camshaft; it was an impressive lightweight roadster, and a natural candidate for the race track. The overhead camshaft engine proved reliable and fast, and Tonino gathered a string of wins, including Benelli’s first ‘international’ win at the Monza GP, culminating in the Italian 175cc Championship in both ’27 and ’28.  Now with a proper racing team, Benelli continued to rack up wins in 1929, and Tonino won the Italian Championship again in 1930.

Tonino Benelli on the new 175cc OHC racer, in 1927. [The Vintagent Archive]
In the search for more power, another camshaft was added ‘up top’, and the new double-overhead-camshaft 175cc racer debuted in 1931, a very advanced machine and the technical equal of any racer of the day.  The engine still had an iron cylinder head and barrel, and initially a hand-shift with 3-speed gearbox, but by ’32 a four-speed ‘box with footshift brought the little Benelli bang up to date.  The Benelli race team ventured across Europe in a bid for increased export sales, winning GPs in France, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland, effectively dominating the 175cc class through 1934 with their cracking little double-knocker lightweight.

The factory team of new DOHC single-cylinder racers, in 1934. [The Vintagent Archive]
The FIM abolished the 175cc racing class in 1934, and suddenly Benelli had racers without a category. Rather than immediately enlarge their racer to the 250cc class, they spent the next few years consolidating their roadsters, and capitalizing on their new visibility across Europe.  By 1936 their model range were all single-cylinder, overhead-camshaft machines of 175cc, 250cc, and 500cc.  These roadsters were all fast, reliable, and popular, and Benelli became the fifth-largest motorcycle manufacturer in Italy.  By 1938, their ‘250 Sport S’ roadster was good for 93mph, a figure not bettered by a production ‘250’ until the 1960s.

The last (1934) version of the ‘iron’ engine, with an oil radiator built into the oil tank. [The Vintagent Archive]
But racing beckoned; Benelli could not rest on its laurels forever, and while the production range was consolidated, the race shop designed a completely new 250cc racing engine in 1938, again DOHC, but all-alloy, and with rear suspsension (a swingarm with plunger springboxes, and friction damping).  The new engine could be revved to 9000rpm, and proved nearly bomb-proof, even at 110mph.  The competition had changed dramatically though, as GP racing gained international sporting significance, and much larger companies were prepared to invest heavily in new technology and very advanced racing machines.  In the 250cc field, Benelli’s most significant competition came from Moto Guzzi, with their supercharged flat single, and DKW, with their supercharged two-stroke.  Even with their blowers, these machines had trouble shaking off the solid and good-handling Benelli, which could be every bit as fast as its rivals, and definitely more reliable.

The glamorous OHC ‘500 Sport’ roadster of 1936. [The Vintagent Archive]
A 1-2-3 at the 1938 Italian GP was an eye-opener for all concerned, especially riders in the 350cc class, whose race averages were slower than the winning 250!  Englishman Ted Mellors took note, as his own 350cc Velocette MkVIII KTT had been outclassed by the winning Benelli of Francisci Bruno.  Mellors approached Benelli about a ride for the1939 Isle of Man Lightweight TT this was an excellent opportunity for the factory; an experienced and successful Island rider riding -free!- for the most difficult and prestigious road race in the world.

The new 250cc racer with swingarm rear suspension and huge brakes [The Vintagent Archive]
In that tense year of 1939, great forces stood poised on the brink of armed conflict, and every international sporting contest became a proxy war between nations.  The Isle of Man TT had been the private playground of English motorcycle companies since the wakeup of a 1-2-3 Indian victory of 1911, with only occasional losses to the ‘foreign menace’.  The lineup of racers at the 1939 TT showed a glaring technological gap between Continental and English machines, as well-developed supercharged, multi-cylinder bikes from Europe had become reliable enough to seriously challenge the solid, good-handling English single-cylinders.  In the 250cc race, the blown Moto Guzzis and DKWs were fastest, but the Benelli was no slouch, and its reliability proved the decisive asset which assured a win for Ted Mellors.

Ted Mellors at the 1939 Isle of Man Lightweight TT (note bronze-head Velo mk4KTT in the background, in road trim). [The Vintagent Archive]
Benelli had seen the future in 1938, and begun experimenting with a supercharger on their 250cc single, which gave 45hp and 125mph.  This was good, but better would be a four-cylinder engine of their own; a 250cc with a supercharger and twin overhead cams.  Giovanni Benelli designed the new ‘four’ in 1938, it was built in ’39, proving incredibly fast; pumping out 52.5hp at 10,000rpm, it rocketed to 146mph; 16mph faster than their nearest rival, the Moto Guzzi.  The machine was ready by 1940, but international racing was strictly between bullets by then, and the brothers Benelli, fearing the worst, hid their four-cylinder engine in a dry well in the countryside, and scattered their racing singles in barns and cellar across northern Italy.

Epic shot of Ted Mellors in 1939; wet conditions at the Isle of Man dampened speeds. [The Vintagent Archive]
The factory was completely destroyed in the war, and their machine tools stolen by retreating German forces.  When the smoke cleared, it was the sons of fratelli Benelli who had the energy to begin again, tracked down some of their tooling in Germany and Austria.  Their first post-war machines were modified ex-military Harleys, Matchlesses, and BSAs, to which they fit swingarm rear suspension.  Within two years, Benelli were again making their own motorcycles, mostly utilitarian lightweights.  And racing!  Enough of their prewar racing singles survived to form a Works team, and rider Dario Ambrosini chalked up win after win in 1948 and ’49.  The FIM created the first World Championship series in 1949, and Benelli decided to invest in a bid to win for 1950, sending Ambrosini abroad to battle rival Moto Guzzi, who shared their ambition.

The incredibly fast 250cc four-cylinder supercharged Benelli racer of 1940…146mph! [The Vintagent Archive]
Dario Ambrosini had never raced at the Isle of Man TT, but proved a fast learner, shaving 66 seconds from his lap time between rounds 2 and 3, during the race!  His win at the 1950 Lightweight, plus Monza and the Swiss GP, gave Benelli their first World Championship.  Hopes for a repeat in ’51 were dashed when Ambrosini was killed during practice at the Albi GP in France.  Stunned by their victor’s death, and with no other rider in their team, Benelli withdrew from racing for a few years.

Dario Ambrosini on the 1950 version of the Benelli 250cc single cylinder racer. [The Vintagent Archive]
They returned to racing in 1959, building just four machines, a fresh design of unit construction short-stroke 250cc DOHC singles.  Benelli’s rivals, Ducati and MV Agusta, used high-revving twin-cylinder racers in the 250cc class, and while Geoff Duke won the Swiss GP in ’59, his was the only victory for these last single-cylinder racers. The new racer was fast and reliable, but as with 1939, it was clear more cylinders held the key to GP victory, and having once tasted a World Championship, Benelli was in it for the big prize.

Dario Ambrosini’s 1951 250cc machine, now with telescopic front forks and a swingarm rear suspension. [The Vintagent Archive]
In 1960, Benelli’s Ingeniere Savelli took inspiration from the 1940 four-cylinder racer, and created a new 250cc ‘four’.  You can read more about these in our article about Benelli’s four-cylinder racers.

Beauty is as beauty does; the sculptural timing gear case is indeed a thing to behold. [Paul d’Orleans]
The 1959 250cc last-series Benelli racer at the Team Obsolete HQ; this machine is now in England – a friend bought it! [Paul d’Orleans]



Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


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