Gil­era Bial­bero

Spir­ited sin­gle

Old Bike Australasia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos Jim Scaysbrook

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.

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