Bonhams and Benelli – A Million Dollar Marriage
In 1958, Benelli decided to officially return to racing, and the company’s efforts were then focused on a single-cylinder entry, but by that point the formerly formidable Benelli single-cylinder was showing its age in a technological sense and was retired.
Bonhams, the world’s leading auctioneer of motorcycles, is proud to announce that it has been entrusted to represent two significant Benelli racing motorcycles – a 1958 250cc Grand Prix Factory Racer and a 1998 Four 350cc Racer – at its second annual Las Vegas Motorcycle Sale in January.
This announcement follows the news of the world record-making sale of the 1954 AJS E-95 ‘Porcupine’ Factory Racer offered earlier by Bonhams at its summer Quail Lodge Sale in Carmel. The British Porcupine carried a pre-sale estimate of $750,000-950,000 – a sum spiritedly discussed in motoring publications and forums around world – and sold to a private collector near estimate soon after the sale, creating a new world record for any motorcycle offered by an auction house.
The venerable brand is Italy’s oldest surviving motorcycle manufacturer (founded in 1911), Benelli’s relative obscurity despite its illustrious racing history has helped fuel its legendary status among enthusiasts. Ridden to success by such champions as Mike Hailwood, Renzo Pasolini and Geoff Duke, the lightweight factory racers were marvels of engineering and performance, providing formidable competition to the roster of international motorcycle manufacturers.
The 1958 Benelli single-cylinder, 250cc Grand Prix Factory racer is one of only four made and one of just three surviving. Formerly the property of famed Italian motorcycle manufacturer, race team owner, restorer and collector Giancarlo Morbidelli, this extremely rare competition machine is the epitome of period Italian racing prowess and ingenuity.
The 1998 Benelli 4-cylinder, 16-valve, 7-speed, 350cc racer is a replica of the fabled 1969 GP model meticulously made by that maestro of builders George Beale. It was sold to renowned collector Jack Silverman who campaigned it at prestigious events at Daytona, Willow Springs and Laguna Seca.
These two exotic racing machines will join a very impressive group of more than 120 motorcycles – including the ‘time capsule’ collection of nearly 50 original condition bikes from the eminent du Pont family – in January. The second annual Bonhams Las Vegas Motorcycle Sale takes place on Thursday, January 12th, inside the Auto Collections museum at the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino on The Strip. Buyers interested in registering to bid, in person or remotely, may visit www.bonhams.com/vegas for more information.
In 1962 Benelli went back into racing again with a new 250, a four-cylinder model this time, thus passing from the traditional to the avant-garde in a single step. The four-cylinder formula had been advocated by Gilera and MV Agusta since the beginning of the world championship and was followed by Honda when the Japanese company went to Europe.
The Benelli 250 four-cylinder was ridden by Silvio Grassetti in its racing debut. He won his second race in 1962, at the Cesenatico International Circuit. But the old single-cylinder Morini kept the Benelli in check. Until the end of 1963 the Benelli and the Morini fought it out in Italian 250-class racing. The Benelli four-cylinder was continually improved, but it never succeeded in overcoming the opposition of the Morini.
Benelli got Morini’s racing ace, Tarquinio Pro-vini, but even that was not enough. In 1964 the improvements made on the vehicle bore fruit. Provini won the Barcelona Grand Prix and turned in fine placings in the world championship. But again the championship went to a Morini, which was driven by Giacomo Agostini.
In 1965 the Benelli 250 four-cylinder became the Italian champion, aided by Morini’s retirement from racing. The motorcycle drove a modest world championship, but it won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza under a torrential rain, coming in ahead of the Yamaha four-cylinder two-stroke driven in its debut by Phil Read. Meanwhile Benelli had also prepared a 350 four-cylinder model. At first it was simply an enlarged 250. Later a new engine was built. Tarquinio Pro-vini began riding the new 350 in mid-1966. His high hopes for the motorcycle were dashed when he had a bad fall at the Tourist Trophy trials, resulting in his retirement from racing.
Then Benelli hired Renzo Pasolini as its new official driver. Pasolini had made his debut in the 500 class by winning at Vallelunga with an enlarged Benelli 350 sixteen-valve model. He introduced the new vehicle, which had 491-cc. displacement, at Modena in the opening race of the 1967 season. Pasolini won, beating out Agostini’s MV by a nose.
Thus began one of motorcycle racing’s most interesting rivalries—Benelli versus MV Agusta and Pasolini versus Agostini. In the races held along the Adriatic coast, Pasolini often beat his rival, especially in the 350 class, where Benelli’s engine was better tuned. But in the world championship it was Agostini who led the way.
This constant challenge resulted In significant improvements in the Benelli 250 and 350. The vehicles were made lighter and more powerful, but not enough to face Grand Prix competition. In 1968 Renzo Pasolini came in second in the 350-class world championship. The following year the Japanese manufacturers withdrew and Benelli concentrated all its efforts in the 250 class, preparing a very competitive four-cylinder vehicle.
The first world championship Grand Prix was won that year by the new single-cylinder two-stroke Ossa ridden by Santiago Herrero. The second race was won by Kent Andersson’s semiofficial Yamaha. The third race went to the surprising Ossa 250. At the Tourist Trophy, the fourth race of the season, the Australian racer Kel Carruthers (replacing the injured Pasolini) rode the Benelli to first place. This was the company’s first major victory since the 1965 Italian Grand Prix.
Pasolini came back after recovering from his injury and won in Holland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. In Finland he had another accident. Carruthers won in Ireland and Yugoslavia, and Benelli had its second world title (Ambrosini had won one in 1950).
Benelli 250-350 Four-cylinder
Manufacturer: Moto Benelli, Pesaro
- Type: Racing Years: 1968, 1969
- Engine: Benelli four-cylinder, in-line, transverse, four-stroke, with two-shaft overhead geared distribution, four valves per cylinder. Displacement 246.3 cc. (44 mm. x 40.5 mm.—250); 343.1 cc. (51 mm. X 42 mm.—350)
- Cooling: Air
- Transmission: Eight-speed block (250); seven-speed block (350)
- Power: 50 h.p. at 16,000 r.p.m. (250); 64 h.p. at 14,500 r.p.m. (350)
- Maximum speed: About 150 m.p.h. (250); over 160 m.p.h. (350)
- Chassis: Double cradle, continuous, tubular. Front and rear, telescopic suspension
- Brakes: Front, central drum, four shoes, four-cam; rear, central drum, two-cam.