Villa V-2 250 Hand-made in NZ
Bryan Thomas’ Villa 250 GP replica
A miraculous recreation of a never-completed Italian masterpiece, made in a small workshop in New Zealand.
When Mondial joined Gilera and Moto Guzzi in withdrawing factory support for international road racing at the end of 1957, it looked like the end of the line for many a promising rider’s career. One such was Francesco Villa, then aged 24. Modenaborn Villa had achieved considerable success as a rider, becoming Italian Junior Champion in the 125cc class in 1956 on a Ducati, and significantly had joined the Bologna company as both a rider and mechanic, training under the legendary Ing. Fabio Taglioni. These dual skills attracted the attention of rivals Mondial, and at the end of the 1956 season he switched camps, becoming a senior technical member in addition to his racing duties. At Mondial Francesco added to his trophy cabinet with results that included winning a stage of the prestigious Moto Giro, but when Mondial pulled out, he was swiftly on the phone to Ducati and was welcomed back into the competition department. His duties included not just development of domestic racing machinery, but assisting the push into export markets, primarily Spain and the United States. The Ducati factory even sent him to the US in 1960 where he gained several race wins. Villa’s growing stature as a skilled race development engineer persuaded his old employers Mondial, under the passionate hand of Count Guiseppe Boselli, to coax him back into their fold. While a long way short of the well-funded Mondial race team of the ‘fifties, the venture was based around the former race-ware which was still languishing at the factory and was good enough to bring Villa the Italian 125cc Senior title for four consecutive years 1961-64. Villa also helped to develop an all-new 50cc DOHC Mondial which produced 7hp at 14,000 rpm and weighed just 50kg, on which he made a winning debut at Modena in 1962. In addition to the four strokes, Francesco also developed rotary valve two strokes, with his younger brother Walter (ten years his junior) enlisted to help with the riding duties. With Walter in the saddle, the new 60cc 12hp two-stroke gained the 1965 Italian title, successfully defending it in 1966 and 1967. By this stage Mondial were losing interest and the race project became more and more a Villa brothers’ enterprise. To this end, Francesco forged a relationship with the Spanish Montesa concern, and finally sold the racing designs – the 125cc disc valve single and the doubled-up 250cc twin – to Montesa, in return for becoming the company’s exclusive importer for Italy. Both of these designs had originally been campaigned as Mondials. But Montesa was increasingly focussed on motocross and trials machines, and their road racing program was shelved in 1967. It left the Villa brothers as free agents once more, and they took the opportunity to build motorcycles under their own name – Moto Villa. It was envisaged that a grand prix machine would form the flagship of the racing effort, supported by sales of a privateers’ machine, but these would be very different in execution. Two new 250s were designed and built; a single cylinder 40hp, 7-speed racer for sale to private owners, and a four-cylinder, 6-speed ‘works’ machine. There was also to be a new air-cooled 125 twin poking out 30hp at 14,000 rpm, while the V-4 250, which had water-cooled cylinders and air-cooled heads, produced a healthy 48hp at 11,500 rpm. The exciting new V-4, with engine dimensions of 43mm x 43mm, was tested at Monza in 1969, but then came the stunning announcement from the FIM that for the 1970 season, international races in the 250cc class would be restricted to engines of no more than two cylinders, with six-speed gearboxes. It killed the Villa 250-4 dead in its tracks, and Francesco turned away from road racing to focus his attention (and his two-stroke skills) on the rapidly expanding world of motocross. Unsurprisingly, he achieved almost instant success and went on to create many winning designs for the next two decades.
The FIM decision to limit the specification of 250cc class machines was a blow to engineers like Villa, who thrived on innovation, and the initial reaction was to walk away from road racing completely. But as perhaps a parting gesture, Francesco designed a 250 to comply with the new-for-1970 regulations – a 50hp 250cc air-cooled disc-valve narrow-angle (30 degree) v-twin with a 6-speed gearbox, which was effectively half of the V-4, scaled up. With his booming off-roadbased business to concentrate on, progress on the 250 was on-again, off-again. A 125cc version, using similar internal dimensions to the V-4 250, was completed
but saw little track time as Francesco concentrated on building up the off-road side of the business and Walter pursued racing opportunities with Aermacchi, which itself had been rescued by an influx of capital from Harley-Davidson. The Mondial/Montesa/Villa 125cc disc valve single continued in production, and sold well to privateers who wanted a fast and reliable mount for the 125 class. It appears that the 250 V-twin was never fully completed. Villa continued with his motocross and enduro efforts and also branched into small capacity road bikes, as well as producing engines for other companies such as Carabella in Mexico. In 1974, Francesco moved into brand new and more spacious premises near Bologna where the ever-expanding range of off-road bikes – from 50cc to 480cc – was produced. Go kart engines were also produced in the new factory and if this workload were not enough, Francesco also collaborated with the famous engineer Mauro Forghieri on the 3.5 litre Lamborghini Formula One engine. However, as the global motorcycle market contracted in the ‘eighties, Villa, faced with increasing competition from the Japanese factories, gradually opted out of motorcycle production by 1987 and turned to specialist projects for other companies.
A Kiwi Villa
Both the V-4 250 Villas built in 1969 survive today; one originally sold to the Canadian Bombardier Corporation and later to a Swiss enthusiast, and the other, re-constructed from parts by Walter Villa shortly before his death in 2002, in the Elings Museum in Solvang, USA. More recently, there has been considerable publicity surrounding the replica V-4 Villa constructed by former Moto Villa employee Giovanni Galafassi. It took ten years, from 1999 to 2008, to complete the machine from the original drawings, during which time Galafassi was assisted by the tireless Francesco Villa. This machine was sold by Bonhams at auction in 2012 and purchased by Sammy Miller for his museum in UK.
However the V-4, splendid as it is, is not the only recreation of Francesco Villa’s art from the halcyon days of the company. In Feilding, New Zealand, Bryan Thomas has built some incredible machines virtually from scratch and often with little more than a few fading photographs as initial inspiration. OBA featured the work of this amazing engineer in issue number 11. From his workshop has come desmodromic 250cc, 350cc and 500cc Manx Norton engines of various bore and stroke combinations, a short run of complete 250cc Manx Nortons, his own take on DOHC desmo Ducati singles, miniaturised versions of classics like the NSU Sportmax, a 125cc 3-valve desmo engine of his own design, plus all manner of machine tools and testing equipment – self-designed and made, of course. It was while in Holland for the Assen Centennial Classic in 1998 that Bryan’s next ‘impossible dream’ surfaced. Former New Zealand GP star and Isle of Man TT winner Rod Coleman had been invited to attend this amazing event, which featured hundreds of former riders, officials and personalities associated with the historic venue. Rod’s machine for the event was one of Bryan’s scaled-down 250 Manx Nortons, and in the crowded paddock, crammed with millions of dollars worth of rare and exotic motorcycles, they found themselves next door to the garage occupied by the Villa brothers. Over the weekend, Bryan and the Villa brothers discussed all manner of racing design, and Francesco revealed some details of the v-twin 125 and 250; machines so rare that very few even knew of their existence. Some engine and frame specifications were exchanged, and a single black and white
photograph of the 125 taken in 1969 was procured. “After meeting the Villa brothers at Assen and seeing their beautifully engineered bikes, I decided I would create a V-twin two stroke similar to theirs. I first saw a picture (of the 125 V-twin) in the Mick Walker book Italian Classic Gallery Racing Bikes which was first published in 1991,” says Bryan. “After a few years, I managed to correspond through another person with Francisco who I was told, was not well but would assist me in any way he could. Unfortunately I lost contact with him. Because the Villa 250 v-twin was not completed, it is that one that I have constructed.” While the idea rolled around in Bryan’s mind, it was another five years before he completed the first stage of the Villa project, the frame. Bryan’s son Garth takes up the story. “Bryan had an old motorbike book and in the back it had several marques, and one was Villa. The photo in the story was the v-twin 125, whereas virtually everything you see on the internet etc is the v-four 250. So Bryan’s recreation came about all from that one picture and the write up that was with it. The project was on again and off again because two strokes with the multi porting takes a long time, and he used some Yamaha components for it. There’s a cassette gearbox inside from the Yamaha – you don’t manufacture what you don’t have to – and the cranks are Yamaha as well with the correct bore and stroke (56mm x 50mm, same as the Yamaha TD1C). The really big job was to manufacture the patterns and do all the machining, and thinking how it could work. He didn’t want to cast everything together so he made it in modules and the modules slipped and pressed together. He was versed in four strokes so a two stroke was something totally new, and to try to get the portings and the way the timings work had to be figured out as he went along. With the frame, he bent up all the tubes and had them welded together locally, and the frame sat there for a few years while he figured out the next stage. I helped make the tank, seat and mudguard which is all fibreglass and it takes a long time with sanding and so on to get it right. The orange frame is correct which we colour matched from photos, however we can’t find where that original bike has gone, it’s just disappeared. When it was finally complete, I drove down from Auckland with a set of starting rollers and I was really surprised, because it fired first crack. I couldn’t believe it, and I don’t think dad could either.”
I first saw the raw bones of the Villa project in Bryan’s home workshop in 2008 – just an unpainted frame with the fibreglass tank and seat also in rudimentary form. Tucked away under the bench were the crankcase patterns and a sheaf of notes and drawings. And from what I have learned, the project remained at that stage for some time due to a number of factors, including some health problems for Bryan. But true to form, he bounced back, and gradually the various aspects of the job were tackled and completed. From the time the frame was completed in 2003, it took another 13 years before the Villa became a complete and running machine. There were myriad small, and not-so-small jobs to attend to, such as the creation of a one-off dual coil ignition system, and the procurement of the correct Ceriani front forks and Fontana front brake, plus the Dell’Orto 27mm carburettors. Bryan made the rear hub and brake himself. As with all Bryan’s work (and with much assistance from Garth) the result is yet another stunning example of engineering art, and until the original machine can be located, if it still exists, totally unique.
Early stages of the project, with the bare frame and fibreglass. Bryan’s original crankcase patterns, photographed back in 2008. Left hand view of the engine with the twin ignition coils on the frame tube. Square slide Dell’Orto carbs feed the mixture...
The Villa V4 constructed by the late Walter Villa in the Solvang Motorcycle Museum in California. The V-twin 125 Villa at Monza in 1970.
Viewed from either end, the Villa presents a slim package. Where the noise comes out. Double sided single-leading shoe Fontana front brake.
ABOVE Bryan with his latest masterpiece. BOTTOM Tank shape was arrived at by studying a single photograph.
Twin-pull front brake cable, ignition switch and air lever all reside on the right clip-on handlebar. The complete instrumentation.