Bianchi Tonale

From Italy’s old­est mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­turer, a rare gem.

Old Bike Australasia - - CONTENTS - Story Jim Scaysbrook

Un­fin­ished sym­phony

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.

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