1949 Gilera Saturno Sport
Engine type: 499cc OHV air-cooled vertical single w/aluminum cylinder head and barrel (cast iron stock)
Claimed power: 25 HP @ 5,000rpm (measured, rear wheel)
Top speed: 99mph (est.)
Price then (1949)/now: 500,000 lire ($800) approx. / $8,000-$12,000
“I’m not hearing it! I’m not hearing that special noise it makes when it comes on cam — you’ve got to give it more gas!” I’m riding Luigi Mazzaccherini’s 1949 Gilera Saturno Sport, and these are the first words he offers me as I pull over to check something with Marco the photographer.
My helmet almost makes a squelching noise as I remove it from my head, as I am sweating so much from the heat and effort of pacing lap after lap, and I need to let my brain breathe for half a moment. “I don’t want to break anything,” I reply pathetically. Luigi laughs and says, “Don’t worry, I ride this on the motorway all the time at high speed, and if anything was to break, I would have broken it by now! Give it some gas!” “Ok,” I reply, and put my helmet back on, and get back on the road. I love this man’s attitude.
Luigi is referring to his very red, very imposing, very Italian Gilera Saturno Sport. It is 500cc of proper man’s motorcycle, and it is hard work to handle it and ride it to the full, in that it seems suspiciously quick. I’ve ridden a couple of Gilera Saturnos before, and on the last occasion I was restricted in how far and how fast I could go. Today is a different matter. Thanks to my friends at the Moto Storiche Toscane motorcycle club, I have a local track to play on with straights, corners and esses, and though the effort to ride it fast and neatly is far greater than anticipated, Luigi’s Saturno is absolutely breathtaking in more ways than one.
The bike to own
The Gilera Saturno was available in Turismo or Sport designation. The earliest models had sprung girder forks and Gilera’s patented rear suspension, with horizontal springs running in tubes on the rear subframe and damping provided by manually adjusted friction dampers. The impressive Saturno engine is also notable for its clean unit design and lack of unsightly oil lines. All components are well integrated into the unit.
Valves angled at 70 degrees are actuated by enclosed hairpin springs, and actuation is taken care of by a cascade of precisely cut gears. The wet sump oil system relies on a gear-driven pump to circulate the lubricant, and early Saturnos struggled with inadequate oil ways and just 2.1 quarts of oil in the engine. From 1952 onwards, the Saturno was improved with telescopic forks and rear shock absorbers, though there was also an intermediate period of bikes equipped with front telescopics and Gilera rear suspension.
Early Sports are distinguishable by the chrome “eye” on the fuel tank, though by 1949, the year of our feature bike, Turismos shared this feature, abandoning the previously used tank painted in that slightly dark Gilera red. The Sport always had a solo seat, though a small leather pad mounted on the rear fender behind facilitated a brave passenger.
Other differences between the Sport and Turismo included the much lighter aluminum cylinder head of the Sport; 12 pounds versus the Turismo’s almost 32-pound cast iron head. The Turismo also had a lower compression ratio and a different piston. In fact, though the differences in terms of actual horsepower were small, the Sport outsold the Turismo 4 to 1!
What makes Luigi’s 1949 Gilera Saturno even more interesting is that he has been able to trace more or less its entire history. “I bought the Gilera in 1999 from a friend in Florence, and I had known of the bike for a while,” he explains. “I know from the original documents that the first owner from new in 1949 was from Pisa, and he then sold it on in 1951 to a man called Flavio Puccini, who was a skilled mechanic and looked after the Saturno well. It was then sold to a farrier in our area who would ride it from job to job, changing horseshoes, and in fact my brother remembers him riding it well. The Saturno then ended up in the early 1960s being used by a gamekeeper on a big reserve in the area until the reserve closed in the early 1970s. The Saturno was abandoned from that point, cancelled from the Italian registration system in 1988 as no tax was paid on it, and then my friend discovered it. It’s had an exciting life!”
The Saturno was in such a sad state that it had to be completely restored. Luigi runs a business that fits out luxury yachts, so being skilled with his hands he restored the frame and cycle parts himself. In a very satisfactory way of closing the circle and the history of this Saturno, Luigi asked the second owner, Flavio, or “Jiaio” as he’s called round these parts, to rebuild the engine, which he did. Now 85, Flavio obviously did a very good job. After lapping the circuit at a fast pace many times, there’s no oil to be seen anywhere, a fact that also pays testament to the “hermetic” design of the engine by Salmaggi and Gilera.
With Luigi’s previous words about “cam” and “gas” ringing in my ears, I think, “OK then, I’ll give it more,” so I do. With only a Smiths Chronometric in kilometers-per-hour to guide me, I stop at the beginning of the one kilometer straight. Marco decides to take some shots from the car driven by my mate Nedo, so we agree they will drive alongside. I open up the throttle, and the Saturno Sport simply takes off like a rocket up a runway. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such immediate acceleration on a road machine of this era, and it’s shocking, exhilarating and massively enjoyable all at the same time. I continue to accelerate through the four gears until I reach top, and attempting to crouch down and read the precisely moving needle of the speedo I see it’s showing 140kmh (86mph) and rising quickly. The end of the straight is in sight so I brake, knock it down a gear with the very precise heel-and-toe gear shifter, and turn around again.
The car is back at the start line, and my companions are impressed. “No way we can keep up with that,” says Marco, so we try again, and having tasted the power available, I have to bide my time and comply with a fixed speed limit worthy of any pit lane. After the shots, I continue to lap, still transfixed by the performance of this old Gilera, and the Saturno continues to impress with its speed and torque, especially when pulling out of the esses and through the bends. There’s no sputtering, no popping, and though I barely touch the manual advance/retard mechanism, the fuelling and ignition is precise in any gear and at any speed.
The chassis is also pretty good. Although the telescopic forks on the later Sports were seen to be mechanically more efficient by design, the parallelogram sprung front end feels pretty good, and I suspect Luigi spent a lot of time setting it up correctly when he restored the bike. The Gilera rear suspension system also works smoothly and tautly, much better than the under-slung spring suspension that Moto Guzzi chose for the Moto Guzzi Falcone. The very rigid open cradle frame with its big robust tubes and the decent set of grippy Continental tires that I’m pleased to see Luigi has fitted (he’s a rider, not a polisher) mean that the Saturno really holds the pavement with intent, and the combination of decent suspension and frame plus a fast and strong engine allows it to be ridden fast and furiously.
I pull over again for the last time and Luigi is grinning from ear to ear. “Did I mention about the motor?” he asks. Now he tells me. “When I restored the Saturno, I wanted it to go quickly, like the Saturno racers. So I asked Flavio to hot up the motor, which he did, and did well. It’s got bigger valves [44mm compared to the original 39 and 40mm valves]. It’s got an aluminum cylinder for lightness and better heat dispersion. It’s got a special 10mm camshaft that was developed for racing. It’s got a domed piston, and has had the compression ratio raised. Every component inside has been polished, cleaned and balanced, and the oil ways were slightly modified.”
Now that Luigi has let on that the engine has been breathed on somewhat, I can understand why it goes so quickly compared to other Saturnos I have ridden, and I realize I have now heard the bellowing of the engine in full flight as Luigi was referring to it; on cam and at high speed. Luigi is also chuffed that Flavio, who owned the Saturno when nearly new back in 1951, has been so instrumental in bringing it back to life. “He loves to see it being ridden around the area,” smiles Luigi.
So what do you like most about it, I ask? “Everything. It never breaks down. It goes very well and it’s fast. There’s nothing I don’t like about it!” he says. “I’ll never sell it,” Luigi adds, and I believe him. MC