Benelli as a bike manufacturer had been around in Italy for donkeys years. Producing classically designed European style singles and twins with push rod engines the company had a steady turn of business before and after the war years through into the mid-sixties.
Like the UK, Italy suddenly found that an influx of Japanese multi-cylinder machinery started to catch the eye of the general public with a bit of spare cash to hand.
Honda was everywhere and with the overhead camshaft fours making a big impression on the track as well as the road, Benelli realised it was soon going to be in trouble.
Alejandro the saviour
Enter successful industrialist and motor racing star Alejandro de Tomaso from Argentina armed with a swollen bank account, a passion for Italian design and a hunger for success.
He’d cut his motoring teeth, (without huge success it has to be said) on the track – but speed and style ran through his veins.
On settling in his adopted new homeland he set about creating cars with stylish Italian lines and fitted them with inexpensive, heavily tuned american V8s.
The cars looked fantastic, but build quality was somewhat dubious, however, from a shaky double digit start they started to move by the thousand. Very quickly de Tomaso found he had some spare cash in the bank, so he went shopping.
Benelli was struggling and had no problem with the fiery Argentinian taking over the operation. Whilst he was at it he decided to rescue Moto Guzzi which was also having a tough time of it.
New development work started straight away and de Tomaso’s team reverse engineered the Honda 500 four quickly to produce the 350cc and 500cc Quattro’s for the local market.
People were proud to have an Italian machine that could give the Japanese a run for their money and for a while all was good.
The engines did pass more than a subtle resemblance to the Honda’s they were chasing, only the square cylinder head fins could define them to the layman. But it was still a remarkable feat to produce such machinery in a tight time-frame and the company was saved.
A stroke of genius
De Tomaso realised he needed to raise the profile abroad and what better way than to produce the worlds first 6-cylinder machine.
He took the 500 four and effectively added another two cylinders to create a beautiful 750cc beast. It was extremely smooth and won the hearts of many who wanted something that little bit different.
The Benelli Sei 750 caught the eye of the press very quickly with its stylish lines and a fan of three chrome exhausts on either side, it left people in no doubt that this was the worlds first six.
There was some great innovation too. Being a wide engine de Tomasso decided to put the alternator behind the cylinders instead of on the crank shaft, therefor keeping things slim. He also bucked the trend by using three shared carburetors instead of the expected six making the rear of the engine narrower too whilst dissipating a whole load of tuning woes.
The 750 was smooth as silk and pulled well in the mid-range, but this was an era for top-end speed and the press just couldn’t resist a yawn.
With all that metal the bike was a little heavy for its 71bhp and although an above average handler it just didn’t back up the show with the go.
Raining on the parade
And then there was the rain. Italians are well known for style, its like a born talent, but their vehicle manufacturers also had a reputation for dodgy quality and as much as the Benelli looked great, the electrics had a habit of going AWOL in the wet. Word got around and like the electrics, sales caught a cold.
A revamp in design in 1979 saw the Sei re-emerge as the 900cc six, only the clever cooling gaps between the cylinders stopped it from achieving full litre status. It lost four of the exhausts and gained a radical one piece tank and panel design. But Honda had snuck in and stolen the crown with the impressive CBX1000.
All the other bikes in the range were given the facelift treatment and the tiny four cylinder 250cc Quattro introduced, but with retail prices much higher than the competition the Italian party was starting to move into a slow dance. 2-strokes ruled the small bike world and the Japanese had stuck two overhead cams in just about every 4-stroke multi-cylinder bike they had.
With just over 5000 bikes sold, de Tomaso realised the future wasn’t with Benelli. He had Moto Guzzi to play with which seemed to be tuning a decent buck, so he merged the two companies in 1988 and concentrated on the cult of the V-twin.
In later years the Benelli brand would re-emerge under new ownership, giving the name a new lease of life, but for those with good memories it still conjures up a pioneering bike manufacturer that was brave enough to do things differently, but probably fell just a bit short on refinement of the whole package.
But we shouldn’t short change de Tomaso for his outstanding talent. He sure knew how to make vehicles turn heads …even if they ultimately didn’t turn a profit – God bless him.