Ev­ery­one knows about Benelli’s stun­ning six-cylin­der su­per­bikes, but the com­pany also broke ground with De To­maso’s flash 250. Nolan Wood­bury meets a lively light­weight…

Ev­ery­one knows about Benelli’s stun­ning six-cylin­der su­per­bikes, but the com­pany also broke ground with De To­maso’s flash 250. Nolan Wood­bury meets a lively light­weight…

Real Classic - - What Lies Within - Pho­tos by Nolan Wood­bury

Mo­tor­cy­cling, like life, is shaped by cul­ture. Reg­is­tered as a 1980 ma­chine, the Benelli 254 dis­played here was first in­tro­duced as a sports pocket rocket in Mi­lan around 1975, then left to lan­guish in a dis­place­ment class which was twenty years past its prime. This might ex­plain why Benelli’s 250 four is well known, yet very rare on the ground.

As en­vi­sioned by Ale­jan­dro De To­maso, a wave of new multi-cylin­der ma­chines emerged from Pe­saro from 1974, our fea­ture bike be­ing the small­est of a line lead­ing up to the range-top­ping Benelli 900 six. All ex­cept the 254 drew heav­ily upon pre-ex­ist­ing de­signs from Honda, pos­si­bly ex­plain­ing why some con­sider it the best of the bunch. One glance at its flash, an­gu­lar styling and red/orange colour scheme dates the 254 in­stantly: def­i­nitely a bike of its time.

Logic and rea­son were op­tional on most Ital­ian mo­tor­cy­cles of this era, and this re­mains true to the present day – as demon­strated when Amer­i­can en­thu­si­ast Shane Leathers spied this barely-used ex­am­ple of De To­maso’s hand­i­work, orig­i­nal down to its M38 Miche­lin tyres and show­ing just 3000 miles.

‘A price was paid,’ says Shane’s dad Mike, who col­lected the 254 last year. ‘ The costs for bring­ing it over from Eng­land just snow­balled,’ There’s no re­grets now, be­cause Shane viewed the pur­chase of the 250 (ini­tially called the Quattro, later re-branded as the 254) as a gen­uine op­por­tu­nity to ac­quire a fac­tory-spec ma­chine. Will­ing to in­vest, Mike trucked the tiny Benelli down to the warm west where it was cleaned but oth­er­wise untouched for these pho­tos. ‘It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing bike to spend time with. Smaller than any mod­ern 250 but a real mo­tor­cy­cle, from front to back. For such an odd ma­chine it’s sur­pris­ing how many peo­ple know ex­actly what it is. It’s the first one I’ve seen, but I’m told the 254s are sought af­ter now.’

Not count­ing a vast seg­ment of dirt rid­ers, when the 254 was new its 250cc dis­place­ment class rang hol­low to US rid­ers weaned on 750cc road­sters. Yet these quar­ter-litre ma­chines can hold their own against the big boys. I’ve seen it my­self, and ex­pe­ri­enced true amaze­ment on a cross coun­try trip when a friend’s RD250 Yam­mie matched my twin-cam Honda mile for mile. De­spite my best at­tempts. So you can count me among the be­liev­ers: with proper tun­ing, a 250cc any­thing is more than enough for a rea­son­ably sized adult, and the lack of mass is the hid­den magic you’ll ap­pre­ci­ate most.

When 250s were the stan­dard size of learner / begin­ner bikes, and at­tracted favourable li­cens­ing and other dis­counts, ev­ery ma­jor player kept a 250 on the docket. Benelli hoped that De To­maso’s 254 would lead a re­nais­sance back to those tra­di­tional sport­ing roots. One dash through Italy’s open coun­try­side shows the ap­peal of this size of bike in its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, through quaint moun­tain vil­lages con­nected by short, wind­ing roads that cir­cle fields, or­chards and cat­tle. This is the her­itage De To­maso at­tached to his 254, and call­ing it a ‘clone’ rudely mis­di­rects what is ac­tu­ally a sporty ex­otic for the clas­si­cally trained.

This bike came with a com­plete set of man­u­als and the orig­i­nal rider hand­book, so cor­rectly list­ing the 254’s spec­i­fi­ca­tion is made eas­ier. Pity the same can’t be said of its ac­tual de­signer, where vary­ing opin­ions ex­ist. Re­search from 2002 says fam­ily mem­bers Marko and Luigi Benelli, along with Ing Piero Pram­polini (who cre­ated the Tor­nado 650) had al­ready be­gun work on new mul­ti­cylin­der projects (perhaps an off­shoot of the four-cylin­der works rac­ers?) when De To­maso bought out Benelli in 1971. Later info pointed to Ing Aurelio Ber­toc­chi (son of Guer­rino, a for­mer GP me­chanic at Maserati in the 1950s) who was cred­ited with the en­tire multi cylin­der en­gine group. Still oth­ers say Lino Tonti. The time­line points to Ber­toc­chi as the most likely driv­ing force be­hind the 254. Ber­toc­chi man­aged sev­eral suc­cess­ful projects when De To­maso di­rected Maserati, but lit­tle be­hind the scenes info has been given to this as­pect of Benelli’s Pe­saro works. There’s lit­tle doubt that De To­maso’s in­dus­trial-sized cloak hid many more se­crets…

Ac­knowl­edg­ing the her­itage of those mighty Ital­ian fours, De To­maso spun a sur­pris­ingly vast ar­ray of CB500-in­spired Benelli and Benelli-badged Moto Guzzi in­line en­gines. We’ll lump the 350, 400, 500 and 650cc vari­ants to­gether as most of them shared Benelli’s cra­dle chas­sis and ba­sic cy­cle parts, but a clean sheet was needed for the Quattro. Ac­tu­ally 231cc, the air-cooled, SOHC en­gine used the an­gu­lar finning and square mo­tif which be­fit­ted a De To­maso orig­i­nal.

Hold­ing the unit is a steel tube semispine frame, to which was added De To­maso’s cor­po­rate sus­pen­sion, brakes and other com­po­nents eas­ily recog­nised from Guzzi’s small block twins. Laid over the 250 Quattro were sweep­ing pan­els of re­in­forced plas­tic/ny­lon, an ex­tended sad­dle, and a plung­ing spear along the pro­file not un­like that which ap­peared on the 900 SEI. Guzzi’s 254 ver­sion was drawn with a more tra­di­tional belt­line, re­tain­ing

the tank-top in­stru­ments and iden­ti­cal in spec­i­fi­ca­tion. There’s more, as it seems a few un­scripted 254s also wore the Mo­toBi badge, pos­si­bly to main­tain long term ties with im­porters/deal­ers in Sin­ga­pore, South Amer­ica and no doubt places in be­tween.

With bore and stroke di­men­sions of 44 x 38mm, the en­gine’s minia­ture size is em­pha­sised by a crankshaft that’s less than ten inches wide. The rest fol­lows in a con­ven­tional pat­tern, with hor­i­zon­tally split seams for the 2.3 quart sump, crank­case, cylin­der block, one piece cylin­der head, and its cover. Rid­ing on three plain bear­ings in­board and two on the ends, the crankshaft is made of two pieces, joined with a pinned cou­pler in the mid­dle that holds the camshaft and pri­mary drive sprock­ets. Sparks ar­rive from an al­ter­na­tor driven off the left-side taper, the ig­ni­tion’s points plate is sit­u­ated to the right.

Most sources sug­gest a rev ceil­ing around 12,000 (max power at 10.500rpm), which makes you con­sider those or­di­nary-look­ing big ends with plain bear­ing in­serts, and those tiny 10.5:1 pis­tons, The top end is also con­ven­tional with a chain-driven over­head cam, with two valves per cylin­der. The fol­low­ers use lock­nuts for ad­just­ment. Fu­elling is ac­com­plished by an 18mm Dell’Orto carb per cylin­der, these hooked to a sin­gle-ca­ble bell­crank and in­di­vid­ual snorkels lead­ing to the three-piece air­box. The ex­haust head­ers are lit­tle big­ger than the av­er­age gar­den hose, and feed into a twin muf­fler sys­tem. As per usual, the Benelli’s five-speed gear­box and mul­ti­plate clutch share the en­gine oil. Hid­ing un­der a cover, the splines for a kick­start lever might be use­ful if the but­ton/starter combo doesn’t work. Fi­nal drive is by a 400-series chain.

The en­gi­neers at Pe­saro fit an equally com­pact frame over the 254 en­gine, with just 50 inches be­tween its axles. Rear en­gine mount­ing is above and be­low the trans­mis­sion case, with cast-in bosses at­tach­ing a tube for the swing­ing arm pivot through welded plates on the frame. A span­ner nut is used for ad­just­ment, and the arm it­self has a lat­eral brace. Hid­ing be­hind the ex­hausts, a chrome plated strut be­gins at the base of the stem to reach an­other cast-in boss on front of the crank­case. Steer­ing an­gle is a rak­ish 27 de­grees. Tall (18”) and skinny (2.75 / 3.00), the straight spoke wheels are likely from Bezzi, but the 254’s yokes and 32mm forks look as if they were lifted di­rectly from Guzzi’s bin.

This, in re­al­ity is what makes the Benelli work: ex­cept for size, all its vi­tal com­po­nents mimic big-bike prac­tice. Brak­ing is trusted to a sin­gle front 266mm Brembo and 165mm rear drum. More Guzzi radar says the ad­justable twin shocks are from Lispa, but there’s Man­dello over­lap ev­ery­where; con­trols, switches and clocks, flush-mounted on the 254’s tank. In a pre-re­lease ex­clu­sive for Mo­tor­cy­cle

News, journo Brian Tar­box penned a favourable re­port on the 254 af­ter sam­pling Guzzi’s ver­sion at the Man­dello fac­tory. Dated from 1977, this is the ear­li­est cov­er­age I found, which points to mo­tor­cy­cles ac­tu­ally ar­riv­ing in UK show­rooms in early 1978. Tar­box re­marked on fuel ca­pac­ity (only 2.2 gal­lons) and the plas­tic fuel cell rea­sons for re­jec­tion by UK im­porters, but these nig­gles

were clearly reme­died on later ma­chines which in­clude our fea­ture bike. As the model gained trac­tion with the press and pub­lic, so pos­i­tive ink for the 254 / Quattro flowed with 14-sec­ond quar­ter mile times, tales of re­mark­able han­dling, and speeds ap­proach­ing the ton. In ev­ery re­port a clear point was made of the 254’s ex­cel­lence, cit­ing con­fi­dence in the road­hold­ing, brakes, even its rel­a­tive ease of main­te­nance. True, it was no match for the RD 250 twin, but much en­ter­tain­ment was gained whizzing the en­gine into the strato­sphere and ef­fort­lessly sail­ing past larger, more pow­er­ful ma­chines in the bends. Made un­til 1988 in 305 form, the sprint times grad­u­ally de­clined un­til in­ter­est dried com­pletely. Still, the praise as a sta­ble, easy to ride road­ster never waned, and top speeds re­mained at or near 90mph.

By far the most crit­i­cised as­pect of all ver­sions was the Benelli’s snap-to­gether ther­mo­plas­tic pan­els (very likely to be brit­tle these days, so han­dle with care), and the lines they were styled in. Still, the heavy use of plas­tic and alu­minium is what kept weight at a re­mark­ably svelte – and per­for­mance boost­ing – 257lb. In the top com­part­ment lives the fuel filler, tools and brake reser­voir. The mas­ter cylin­der hid­den be­low con­nects a ca­ble to the brake lever. Study the pro­duc­tion stats and you’ll see vari­ance in spec over time: Leathers’ 1980 Benelli wears the orig­i­nal Guzzi plas­tic dec­o­rated with a rain­bow of sweep­ing spears. The fair­ing is shared with the pe­riod 900 SEI.

Be it fair com­ment or oth­er­wise, the mix of Ja­panese-type en­gine and Ital­ian mo­tor­cy­cle didn’t work for any­one but Bi­mota, and it all ended qui­etly for Benelli in 1988 when the coastal fac­tory in Pe­saro closed. The mar­que’s six-cylin­der ma­chines are adored and ev­ery­one un­der­stands why, and much the

mh l r for the 254.

Oddly, few hold De To­maso re­spon­si­ble for the failed ideas, at least those fa­mil­iar with his­tory and Italy’s glo­ri­ous her­itage of in­line en­gines. For the 254 owner it’s good luck and hearty hand­shakes when look­ing for parts, even with the Honda over­lap. But that’s ex­pected. Nearly dou­ble the price of a 250cc con­tem­po­rary from Asia, the Quattro was a jewel-like bike toy, but one with real sport­ing sub­stance and an in­cred­i­ble sound­track. Italy has a long, dis­tin­guished line of small mo­tor­cy­cles cat­e­gorised un­der that same ex­act de­scrip­tion. Benelli’s 254 Quattro adds one more to the list.

Above: Trans­verse fours are of course com­mon­place … un­less they’re 250s!Right: Ma­chines like this are ar­guably all about the en­gine. Sin­gle ohc, and four quite small cylin­ders… While some man­u­fac­tur­ers might have shrunk a 500/4 to cre­ate a four-cylin­der 250, Benelli built their mini-multi by start­ing with a 125 twin and scal­ing things up Rather un­usu­ally, when viewed away from its bi­cy­cle, the en­gine ap­pears less re­mark­able. It’s all a ques­tion of scale. It may have a mul­ti­tude of cylin­ders, but the 254 en­gine weighed just 78lb with­out its bank of four Dell ’Orto carbs Many bikes are easy to over­look. This might not be one of them

In its day, the Benelli 254 was the only four­cylin­der 250 in pro­duc­tion (apart from its badgeengi­neered stable­mates). No won­der the buy­ing pub­lic didn’t know quite what to make of it

Few 4-pot mo­tor­cy­cles are as slen­der as this one The ini­tial ver­sions of the 254 came with a teeny-tiny petrol tank, giv­ing the ma­chines a range of just 75 miles if the rider used all the avail­able per­for­mance In­stru­ments are packed into an ex­ten­sion of the fuel tank, and are tiny, stylish and in­ter­est­ing, like the rest of the ma­chine The se­cret of good han­dling is a stiff frame. Like this. What ap­pears to be a front down­tube ac­tu­ally clamps the en­gine to the main frame

De­spite the com­plex­ity, the 254 is still a light ma­chine, and a sin­gle disc at the front is ad­e­quate Light, lithe, lit­tle and love­able – what more could any­one want? Above: The en­tire ma­chine is fas­ci­nat­ing. Even the rear seat hump, which is rarely the caseLeft: Rear stop­ping is han­dled by an sls drum brake

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