1973 Benelli Tornado 650S

The 1973 Benelli Tornado 650S had some design idiosyncrasies, but its power and smooth handling made it a great road bike.

Benelli Tornado 650S parked by roadside

The Benelli Tornado 650S is a compact but robust bike — sort of like a Honda Benly that's been pumping iron and abusing steroids.

Photo by James Adam Bolton

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Benelli Tornado 650S
Years produced:
 1968 – 1976
Claimed power: 57hp @ 7,400rpm
Top speed: 97mph (period test)
Engine type: 642cc OHV air-cooled parallel twin
Weight (wet): 480lb (217kg)
Price then: $1,779 (1973)
Price now: $3,500-$6,000
MPG: 40-50

I know absolutely nothing about the story behind this particular 1973 Benelli Tornado 650S. It has no documented history that I know of. No boxes of receipts and musty old records to its name. No “owner Jim bought this bike in 10 boxes, spent five years restoring it and it has won many show prizes” story.

The most specific information I can register by looking at the machine is that it has Benelli badges on the tank, “650S” on the side panels, and it’s a parallel twin. I know that it’s also called a Tornado and I haven’t ridden one like it before. I maybe even unconsciously and sentimentally picked it out from a couple of bikes on offer at a shop because the metal flake lime green looks to have come from the same batch of paint floating around Europe in 1970 that also fabulously adorned the Ford Cortina 1600E my dad used to own.

Perhaps that’s not a logical reason to ride and write about an old motorcycle, but it’s as good as any; non-scientific, random, and more honest, perhaps? It’s also refreshing to try out a bike and have no expectations to fulfill. No concerned owner worried about their pride and joy being ridden by someone else they’ve only known for 10 minutes. No having to recall someone saying “remember what I said about the front brake” or “don’t take her past 3,500rpm.” Walking round and round a motorcycle and taking mental notes, as well as those with pencil and paper, is always best done alone.

First Impressions

On first look, my feelings are slightly mixed. The Benelli Tornado 650S is a very compact but robust looking bike — sort of like a Honda Benly that’s been pumping iron and abusing steroids. A graceful swan it is not. Bits of it just seem, well, big. The massive front brake, the large, slabby side panels, the fat, oversized rubber grips and big, child-friendly black starter button. The aluminum crankcase features generous surfaces, and is topped with a barrel and cylinder head that seem to want to burst out of the confines of the frame. Stubby but tapered silencers sit at an angle that doesn’t help to elongate the profile of the Benelli. The handlebars are low on this bike, and being Tomassellis, I suspect they’re not the original equipment. Researching later, I find that most Tornados had higher bars, though there is one factory photo that shows this same model with bars at just this height. Italian parts bins of the era so often cause the confusions of today.

This bike appears to be in a more or less original, unrestored condition. The chrome is good but slightly dulled, and the alloy is clean but slightly mottled and grubby here and there. The paint work is in good condition but would benefit from half an hour and a can of rubbing compound and some elbow grease. In short, it looks to be a good, classic Italian motorcycle in usable, honest condition. I like bikes like this very much.

I also like the Tornado’s looks a lot, and the bike exudes strength and decent engineering. Its style and components illustrate a crossover period for motorcycles in general; the glitzy metal flake green paint and bold graphic design features put one of the Benelli’s wheels firmly in the early Seventies, yet the big front drum brake and generally slightly old-fashioned design keep the other wheel stuck stubbornly in the Sixties, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Engine First

Looking closely at the parallel twin engine on the Benelli Tornado 650S, it’s hard not to make a comparison to a Triumph twin of the same era; the fact that the cases on the Benelli split horizontally rather than vertically is a plus, and in fact, there’s not a smidgen of oil to be seen anywhere. Two 29mm VHB Dell’Orto carburetors peak out from under the tank, their intakes disappearing into rubber hidden behind the side panels. The exhaust system downpipes are held in by a sensible nut and stud clamp system, so there are no threaded or push fit clamps to come loose. Something else sensible is the oil level sight glass on the right-hand side of the engine — on a Guzzi of the same era, you’d be reaching for a big old 22mm wrench just to get the dipstick out. Less useful is the ignition barrel and key that sticks out of the right-hand side panel, a feature that should have stayed in the previous decade. Lifting the seat with its elegantly shaped and locking seat catch, there’s the ubiquitous CEV fuse box with a mass of original Italian multicolored spaghetti wiring, and a curious tray that I assume accommodated a tool kit at some point in the past.

The battery is deep down underneath where the main upper frame spine meets the two rear sub frame tubes. Though I didn’t attempt to take the side panels off, I see that it might be a bit of a job to access the battery or remove it, especially with one of the side panels being attached to the loom via the ignition barrel. It’s not hard to imagine that with older wiring, this might place some tension on or cause some issues with the electrics, and you end up with the sort of niggling problems that Italian bikes of the Seventies can suffer from — ask me how I know. There are no indicators on this particular model, one less thing to worry about, and the switch on the left bar doesn’t seem that reachable anyway, so I hope I don’t have to use the horn in a hurry.

Let’s Go Riding

Starting the Benelli Tornado 650S is a breeze. Fuel taps are easily accessible on each side of the tank. The big choke lever on the right bar is great, progressive and solid, and so much better than the fiddly and easily-snapped barrel-type ignition found on Guzzis and Ducatis later on in the Seventies. Turning the ignition on lights up a generator — or maybe it’s an oil light — on the simple dash. Then you have a choice, kickstart or electric start. The kickstarter folds out in an unusual manner — on a diagonal instead of the more usual vertical axis — and I use it later in the day without problem.

For now, the big CEV starter button begs to be pressed, so over the top and in your face is it. Shame it doesn’t have “Please Press Here” molded into it. I can’t resist, so I press the starter, add a little gas, and in what seems an instant the Tornado starts up with a roar. The sound from the seamed and fluted mufflers is deep, slightly muted but typically Italian, and after a minute or two the choke can be backed off completely, even on a cold day like today, as the engine settles to a low idle. Tipping the bike forward off its main stand requires little effort but takes some knack, and the weight of the Benelli can certainly be felt once off it.

The contrast once underway is huge. The Benelli Tornado seems to shed its weight as soon as it moves, and becomes what feels like a lithe and flickable machine. The dual seat is comfortable, for now, and the riding position is acceptable as the bars aren’t too low, even though I’m taking up a bit of a café-racer crouch.

Quality Marzocchi front forks and Ceriani rear shocks give a typically taught Italian ride, but the bike handles very nicely. The frame is stable and the Tornado tracks true and predictably through bends, despite old tires being fitted to the lovely spoked Borrani alloy rims. I like tires on classic bikes to be from the 21st century, not from the same year the bike came out. The big front double-sided single-leading-shoe 230mm stopper, with a cool Seventies Benelli logo and strengthening ribs intricately cast into it, works very efficiently. It’s progressive and not at all grabby, and doesn’t seem to fade when warm, though to slow down in a hurry the rear 200mm drum brake also needs to be applied keenly.

The Benelli Tornado has a right foot gear change, one up and four down, with the rear brake on the left, nothing unusual for the year of manufacture, which, incidentally is late 1973, and a system most European manufacturers kept for another couple of years. I find the foot controls don’t fall particularly easily to my booted feet, but the gearbox and clutch are slick and easy to use. First gear is so low as to be fairly useless on open rural roads, so getting quickly through the rest of the gears, which are far more intelligently spaced out, is a good thing to do.

The engine is astonishing. Not for outright power or acceleration or top speed, but for the great dollops of torque it pumps out. It’s like a good Bonnie or Commando, but oh so much stronger. It’s unexpected, as the engine initially comes across as being a bit buzzy or peaky. In fact, I discover later while reading the specs that the engine has an incredibly over-square bore and stroke of 84mm by 58mm, large valves and four, yes, four flywheels, meaning that it needs to be revved, revved and then revved some more. The buzziness develops into a rush of quickly building power, as if a tap had been turned on somewhere.

Someone opined the Benelli Tornado engine was hugely over square because designer Piero Prampolini (who would go on to design the legendary Benelli Sei 6-cylinder engine) only knew how to design race engines. The 500cc 4-cylinder GP Benelli ridden by Jarno Saarinen was Prampolini’s, so not such a bad bike to practice his design skills on, and I wouldn’t dare to question Prampolini’s choice.

In fact, the Tornado engine is a jewel. It feels as strong and robust as it looks. Although I expect loads of vibes through the bars and frame, I find them to be negligible. Later research shows that originally the Tornado had unusual rubber footrests with hedgehog-type rubber “spines” in an attempt to dampen vibration, but I didn’t feel they were necessary. Some buzzing and tingling can be felt at constant higher speeds but, hey, it’s an old bike, and it’s smooth as silk compared to a same-year BSA twin.

Quick throttle openings see the Benelli Tornado 650S surging forward in any gear — apart from first — on a wave of torque. I can bumble along at 3,000rpm in top gear, and then just accelerate away strongly, still in top. Benelli claimed at launch that the Tornado gave 57hp at 7,400rpm, and a top speed of 117mph. These were optimistic claims, as were all other Italian manufacturers’ claims in that period. What is most revealing — and I am genuinely and enthusiastically surprised by this — is that the Tornado gives the impression you could ride it all day at 70mph, and it wouldn’t miss a beat. Highway speeds are comfortable, and the bike does its best to behave like a proper “road burner.” Unforeseen wiring hiccups aside, the Benelli looks like it can be a decent and very usable classic bike — take it to the store or take it 500 miles. I like my old Guzzi because it’s just that, and I never honestly expected a similar sort of trust to develop with a Benelli. The Italians have surprised me, yet again. MC 

Press Reports

“It likes nothing better than holding a steady 80mph on the pike … no wind pushes you around and no bump makes you wobble. It’s the only machine around that we enjoy as much as the Honda Four.”
Cycle, February 1971

“The engine has got to be the best big-bore twin we have ever experienced. It’s that simple.”
Popular Cycling, January 1972
 
“This is the road burner Italian-style: neutral, well-damped, geared high, stiff on the butt, sharp to the ear, fleet and masculine.”
Cycle World, November 1972

“Without a doubt the Benelli 650 is the best handling machine in its class. A rider new to the Tornado soon settles down to precise tracking and great straight line stability.”
Motorcycle World, March 1973

“Few bikes we’ve ever ridden are as much fun as Benelli’s 650. It somehow doesn’t matter that it isn’t as fast as some of the oriental multis. And it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t handle as well as a Norton. It’s just plain fun. You get on the bike and ride. And when you get back, you smile a lot.”
Supercycle, May 1973

Information Resources

Benelli Forum
Benelli Motobi Club GB