For a once-great marque, Gilera, like most of the Italian motorcycle industry, was moribund by the 1960s. A range of unexciting small capacity models barely sustained the old and massive Arcore factory as the decade drew to a close. In a bid to capture vital military and police contracts, scarce resources went into the development of the twin cylinder 483cc B50 5V – the factory’s first 500 since the famous Saturno single. As well as the military model, a customer version – the B50 – came on line in 1968, but it was too late to save the company, which went into receivership in November of the same year.
It looked like the end for Italy’s oldest motorcycle marque, but a rescue came in early 1969 from the giant Piaggio concern, flush with funds from the sale of its core aviation business. The Piaggio takeover marked the retirement of company founder Giuseppe Gilera, who passed away two years later in 1971, aged 81. With new Managing Director Enrico Vianson in charge, Gilera embarked on a complete reconstruction, mainly based around a range of small capacity two strokes. It was hardly ground-breaking stuff, but it set Gilera on the road to recovery, and eventually, the construction of four strokes again.
For the Gilera purists, one of the most fondly held models was the Saturno – the 500 single that was in effect Italy’s version of the BSA Gold Star. The Saturno came into being in 1940, and remained in production until 1960, appearing in many different guises. These included production road racers, ISDT specials and works replicas, motocrossers, trials bikes, and the bulk of the production which were big road burners. The Saturno (“Saturn”) continued the company’s astrological theme for model names which included others such as the 250 Nettuno (“Neptune”). At the 1985 Milan Show, Gilera sprang a surprise by showing its brand new four stroke single, the 350cc Dakota dual-purpose machine, powered by an all-new liquid-cooled, four-valve head, with the twin overhead camshafts driven by a toothed belt. In the bottom end, a balancer shaft was gear-driven directly from the crankshaft, with a multi-plate wet clutch, a five-speed gearbox and an electric starter. The onepiece crankshaft ran on anti-vibration ring bearings and the piston was a high quality forging. Ignition was by a Japanese CDI unit. The decision to build an on/off roadster was based on market trends, with models such as Yamaha’s Téneré selling very well and other manufacturers jumping on the same bandwagon. The major criticism of the Dakota was its power, or lack of, producing just 33bhp at 7,500 rpm. Although the styling was very much in the current ‘Desert Raid’ idiom, the 23 litre fuel tank was very wide and made for an uncomfortable riding position. The power issue was partially solved by subsequently upping the capacity to 492cc, while the styling was addressed with the introduction of a soft-road version with a 15 litre tank and smaller radiator guards. Importantly, the new 500 Dakota weighed the same as the 350, but at 147 kg was still no lightweight. The frame, made from square section tubing, was extremely strong, and was retained for the next evolution of the Dakota, the 569cc XRT, which produced 47bhp. The XRT made its public bow at the 1987 Milan Show, and although it caused a sensation with its superb styling and impressive specification, it was not the only surprise sprung by Gilera on that occasion.
The Saturno returns
Sitting proudly on the Gilera stand in Milan was a startling looking sports roadster, resplendent in rich red décor – the Nouvo Saturno Bialbero (dual cam) – which used the 500 Dakota engine in an all-new tubular steel trellis chassis. But the real surprise of this model was the fact that it was not completely a Gilera concept, but a collaboration with the Japanese trading house C.Itoh. At this time, the Japanese market was alive with innovative single cylinder four strokes and there was a rapidly emerging cult which clamoured for anything different. Immediately following the Milan Show, the Nuovo Saturno was flown to Japan for the Tokyo Show on December 20, 1987. The new machine had been co-designed by Gilera engineer Sandro Columbo and his Japanese counterpart N. Hagiwara. The idea was to create a very desirable cafe racer which would be available in both 350cc and 500cc variants, both with electric starters. Unlike the Dakota models, which used twin carburettors, the Nouvo Saturno used a single 40mm Dell’Orto. The trellis frame was specially made for the new model, using steel tubing for the main chassis with an aluminium alloy swinging arm that featured chain adjustment via eccentrics. In order to keep weight to a minimum, cast alloy was used for the footrests, rear brake lever, gear lever and, should it be required, the kick starter.
Marzocchi 40mm front forks with 120mm of movement sat at the front, using one leg for compression damping and the other for rebound, with a single vertically-mounted multi-adjustable Marzocchi rear shock operated via a linkage and giving 130mm of rear wheel travel. A single Brembo 300mm with four-piston caliper gripped the front, with a 240mm disc and two-piston calliper at the rear. The wheels were Marvic cast-alloy with the three spokes being hollow. 17 inch wheels were used front and rear, with tyres of 110/70 and 140/70 section respectively. No centre stand was fitted, only a side stand and weight was quoted at 136kg. Around 1,000 units, split approximately 400/600 between 500cc and 350cc, went to Japan, with the Bialbero (Dual cam) moniker on the rear of the seat, finished in either all-red, or black with white frame and red wheels. After deliberating for nearly two years, a small number was also exported to UK, where despite the hefty 5,000 pounds price tag (25% higher than a Honda CBR600), they had little trouble finding owners. In keeping with the café racer theme were clip-on handlebars, a bikini fairing containing an instrument cluster of speedo, tacho and temperature gauge, a single seat with a racing style tail and mock racing number plates. Two different exhaust systems were available; a black-painted twin-pipe from the two exhaust ports which became a single megaphone style silencer, or two separate chromed pipes each with megaphone silencers. The latter specification was marketed as the TT Special in Japan. In Australia, Geoff Radcliffe lusted after a Bialbero, but the enormous price of nearly AU$8,000 turned him off. But after waiting nearly 25 years, Geoff did get his hands on one, via an importer in Queensland who brought in a small number of used machines from Japan. “When this was made, Gilera had the most up to date 500 single in the world, that’s why I wanted one,” says Geoff. “There were a couple brought into Australia in 1988 to have them qualified for Australian Design Rules, but they were too expensive.” Geoff’s Saturno is standard except for the rear shock, which was replaced with a more modern remote-reservoir type. “This is not like, say a Yamaha XT600,” Geoff adds, “You’ve got to rev it. There’s not much happening below 4,000. I believe there are now about ten in Australia and Bob Wright Motorcycles in England does a lot of Gilera stuff and has plenty of parts for these.” On one of Geoff’s first runs, the water pump packed up and these were unobtainable for a while, but are now being made by a firm in Germany. Geoff had the Saturno running again for the 2017 Bathurst Easter Rally, and during a lunch stop in the quaint village of Hill End, offered me the keys. The
tight, narrow streets around the village are hardly the place to unleash a spirited single like the Saturno, and he’s right, there’s not a lot happening below 4,000 rpm. Although it looks a bit challenging, the riding position is surprisingly comfortable, with an easy stretch to the clip-ons and not too much knee bending required. I managed to find a stretch of road a little out of town that had some fairly quick bends, and the Saturno lapped these up, although it gets a little skittish over the bumps, of which there are plenty in this neck of the woods. The twin megaphones emit a throaty roar once you pass the magic 4 grand, and the gearbox works a treat. Geoff likes to punt the Saturno along, and later in the day I was able to stick behind him briefly as he flicked it through the bends on the way to Sofala, savouring that exhaust note as it echoed off the roadside banks. Yes, the Saturno could have been quite a hit here in the late ‘eighties, but not at the mooted price. Regardless of how evocative the Saturno was of the classic British (and Italian) singles, it could not have been a showroom success. But these days, a quarter of a century later, it’s probably well worth considering as a real fun machine with Latin charisma by the bucketload.
The Saturno Bialbero continues the lineage of the famous Saturno singles.
Racing style seat is surprisingly comfortable. Cruising through historic Millthorpe – definitely the only Gilera in town. Plenty to look at in the cockpit.
Owner Geoff Radcliffe enjoying a fang on the open roads near Bathurst.
One pipe exits either side of the engine.
TOP Radiator is well tucked away.
ABOVE Aluminium alloy swinging arm is a weight-saving feature. Spokes of the Marvic wheels are also hollow.
RIGHT Big 300mm disc and Brembo calliper provide the stopping power.