From Italy’s oldest motorcycle manufacturer, a rare gem.
When Gianni Minisini passed away unexpectedly at his home in Adelaide in 2018, he left behind a collection of brilliantly restored Italian motorcycles, most sourced from his home town of Udine in Northern Italy.
One however, was not quite finished, but needs only minor work to achieve completion. This is one of the latest models in the collection, and the only Bianchi – a 1959 175cc Tonale – the model name taken from a range of hills near the Bianchi factory in Milan.
Bianchi itself was a highly innovative manufacturer that began business in 1885 manufacturing bicycles with pneumatic tyres. By 1897, Edoardo Bianchi began selling bicycles equipped with proprietary engines. In 1901 the first motorcycle to bear the name appeared, fitted with a 1.75hp De Dion Bouton engine and with a bicycle-style pedal assistance. Prior to WW1, the company was producing a wide variety of motorised vehicles including buses, trucks and ambulances. It was a small-scale operation for the first 20 years, but a factory was eventually built in Milan which was to be equipped with its own foundry
and a wheel rolling plant.
At the 1921 Paris Show, Bianchi unveiled a 600cc side-valve V-twin with a 3-speed gearbox built in unit with the engine. One year later, the twin appeared at the Olympia Show in London and a British agent appointed. At the same show, a new 350cc single, looking suspiciously like an AJS, was also displayed. Prices were high, and sales were low.
Back in Milan, the Bianchi factory pressed on with its own agenda, which included competing with a works team at the 1926 Isle of Man TT. The machine was a 350cc DOHC single, and as on the roadsters of the day, the gearbox was a cylindrical unit that could be rotated to tension the primary-drive chain. However the Bianchis were totally outclassed in the race, and beat it home to lick their wounds. It was the company’s only pre-war tilt at the British racing scene. Remarkably, given the tense climate in Europe in the late ‘thirties, Bianchi chose the Milan Show of September 1939 to unveil its piece de resistance – a racer that it hoped would dominate the 1940 Grand Prix season. That machine was a DOHC, supercharged four cylinder, again designed by Baldi, a jaw-dropper that was sadly destined never to be given a serious track debut.
Despite the TT drubbing, Bianchi hired a new designer, Ernesto Gnesa, whose work was presented at the Milan Show in 1926 – a lovely little 175 OHV model which, according to the factory hand-out, used tapered roller bearings for all rotating parts. Around this time, Bianchi decided to re-enter racing and hired Mario Baldi to design a completely new DOHC 350 single to combat the all-conquering Garelli two-stroke split-single. Finished in sky blue and officially called the Freccia Celeste (Blue Arrow), the livery would stay with Bianchi for decades. The factory mounted a serious racing effort with the legendary Tazio Nuvolari among the riders. The DOHC was phenomenally successful at home, winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on five consecutive occasions up to 1929, with Nuvolari winning the first four of these. The 350 also won the prestigious Milano-Taranto race on several occasions, but by 1930 was becoming uncompetitive and was redesigned as a 500.
Then, of course, came the great conflict, which took the wind out of industrial Italy for almost a decade. By 1948 however, the Bianchi company had bounced back, and counted itself amongst the ‘Big Five’ that included Moto Guzzi, Sertum, Gilera and Moto Parilla, which accounted for 98% of all motorcycle registrations in Italy. The mainstay of Bianchi’s sales was the 175cc model, which was still in basically pre-war from, complete with pressed steel blade-style girder forks. At the 1950 Milan Show, Bianchi presented an updated 175 with a telescopic fork – the Tonale Gran Lusso. Later in the ‘50s, the 175 was joined by a 49cc moped called Falco, and a 75cc Gardena motorcycle, both 3-speed two strokes. These were joined by a 125cc road bike and a little later, a 200cc overhead valve model with the pushrods at the rear of the cylinder and the camshaft housed within the gearbox.
Although never engaging in post war road racing to the extent of the likes of Gilera and Moto Guzzi, Bianchi still engaged in competition – including motocross with a neat little OHC 400cc single – and in record attempts. In 1956, Sandro Colombo specially prepared a 203cc Tonale which finished second outright and won the 250cc class in the MilanoTaranto. A fully-streamlined version of the 175 set new records for 100 km and one hour in 1957.
In the meantime, sales of the company’s bicycles were reasonably healthy, as were those for the Autobianchi car, which had been in production since 1900. Along the way, the company also produced ball bearings, surgical instruments and even door furniture – anything to keep the machine tools machining and the foundry in work.
The company also hired the engineer Lino Tonti (later with Aermacchi and Paton) to design new racing machines, with the team headed by British star Derek Minter and Scot Bob McIntyre, but it was a costly and fairly fruitless experience which severely drained Bianchi’s enthusiasm. With Remo Venturi as lead rider, the 500cc Bianchi twin won the 1964 Italian Championship.
But the bubble was about to burst, and by July 1964, creditors were demanding payment for a mounting stack of bills. An administrator was appointed, who immediately halted the racing department, leading to Tonti’s resignation. To raise capital, stocks of motorcycles, moped and spare parts were sold off at the end of the year. The Tonale continued with minor revisions up till 1967, when Bianchi finally ceased motorcycle production altogether.
The Tonale that is the subject of this story dates from approximately
1958 and uses a single-sided front hub, which from 1959 was replaced with a full-width version. Given its overhead camshaft valve operation, the engine is a deceiving design, looking for all the world like an overhead valve, or even a side valve.
The chain drive to the camshaft is totally hidden inside the generous finning on the barrel and head, but despite the specification, the Tonale in 175 road form (racing versions were bored out to 204cc) is no armstretcher, with 153 kg (plus the rider) to lug around, and only 8.3hp to do it with. Mind you, any young Italian with one of these in the ‘fifties or early ‘sixties would have had a ball swooping through the local mountains, the full double loop frame and refined suspension producing a superb handler.
Typically Italian is the rocking pedal gear change on the right hand side, as is the voluptuous petrol tank with the filler cap held down by a pivoting spring arm. The sole instrument is the white Veglia speedometer which is housed in the headlamp.
Gianni Minisini began restoration of the Bianchi in 2011 but it took many years to source missing parts, and there was still detail work, such as cables, to be done when he sadly passed
away. Still, this unfinished job is, like all Gianni’s work, simply stunning in execution, fastidiously original, and in Australia at least, extremely rare.
Glorious curves in the fuel tank, with its snap-shut cap. A 20mm Dell’Orto supplies the mixture.
Cutaway diagram of the 175cc engine unit.
OPPOSITE TOP LEFT Original Silentium silencers are hard to find. ABOVE Conical front and rear brakes gave way to full width hubs in 1959. LEFT Founder’s name on the steering head. TOP RIGHT Radaelli saddles adorned many Italian motorcycles of the period. RIGHT Veglia speedo nestles in the headlight shell.