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Leopoldo Tartarini: Italjet Founder and Ducati Designer

Italjet

The Italjet Grifon: Think of it as an Italian Triton. Photo courtesy Alan Cathcart

Leopoldo Tartarini, 83, designer of the most iconic Ducatis ever made, including the 1971 750 Sport, the green-frame 750SS street version of Paul Smart’s 1972 Imola 200-winning factory racer, the 350cc and 500cc parallel twins (which were built in his Italjet factory) and the 900cc Darmah V-twins, passed away Sept. 11, 2015, at his home outside Bologna, Italy.

Tartarini’s motorcycle career began at the age of 20 in 1952, when he won the sidecar class in the grueling 18-hour, single-stage Milano-Taranto open-roads marathon riding a BSA 650 Golden Flash outfit he designed and built himself. After a test at Monza, Count Domenico Agusta offered him a place in his MV Agusta factory race team for the 1954 GP season — an honor Tartarini was obliged to refuse after his mother asked him to stay home and manage the family motorcycle dealership in Bologna.

In 1955, Tartarini signed to race with Bologna-based Ducati as a works rider and development engineer, working alongside another new arrival, the legendary chief designer, Ing. Fabio Taglioni. A severe injury in 1956 brought Tartarini’s racing career to a premature halt, so in 1957 he embarked upon a 13-month long, 37,000-mile round-the-world trip publicity stunt with Ducati’s export sales manager, Giorgio Monetti, riding two 175cc Ducati singles.

In February 1960 he founded Italemmezeta (as in ItalMZ), initially building MZ and Minarelli-powered café racers, before changing the name to Italjet in 1961. Tartarini was commissioned by BSA-Triumph to develop a prototype lightweight powered by a 160cc 2-stroke Minarelli engine to replace the elderly BSA Bantam best-seller. The Ariel-badged project never reached production, but it led to the 1967 650cc Triumph Bonneville-powered Italjet Grifon, a production Italian take on the Triton café racer popular in Britain. Around 300 were sold in Italy, and a similar number shipped to the U.S. and Australasia.

Floyd Clymer noted Italjet’s activities, commissioning Tartarini to build Minarelli-engined 50cc mini-bikes to give as gifts to U.S. dealers he’d signed up for the Indian bikes he was developing with Friedl Münch in Germany. Called the Papoose, the mini-bikes were so successful Italjet ended up building more than 15,000 for the U.S. market. Clymer also commissioned Tartarini to build full-size Indian motorcycles based on the Italjet Grifon design, but equipped first with Royal Enfield Interceptor 750cc 2-cylinder and then Velocette 500cc single-cylinder engines.

At its height in the mid-1990s, Italjet had 180 workers producing up to 90,000 powered two-wheelers annually. More projects came, but financial difficulties forced Italjet to cancel the acclaimed 3-cylinder Grifon that was launched at the 1999 Milan show. It would have been Italjet’s first large-capacity motorcycle in 35 years, a modern day revival of the 650 Grifon, but powered by the Bloor-era 900cc Triumph 3-cylinder, water-cooled engine.

In 44 years, Italjet developed more than 150 different imaginatively designed motorcycle and scooter models, most created by Tartarini himself. A passionate enthusiast of all forms of motorcycling and a top designer and creative free spirit who thought outside the conventional two-wheeled envelope, Tartarini was a true gentleman, modest and convivial, yet possessed of a depth of vision and thirst for innovation that resulted in a succession of products unlike anything else in the marketplace. — Alan Cathcart