Gilera Saturno 500 Competizione

Alan Cathcart tells the story of a lovely race-bred Gilera Saturno.

Gilera Saturno

In Competizione guise, the Gilera Saturno became the dominant force in postwar Italian road racing.

Photo By Kyoichi Nakamura

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1946 Gilera Saturno 500 Competizione
Claimed power
: 35hp @ 5,700rpm (rear wheel)
Top speed: 107mph (Goodwood 2010)
Engine: 499cc air-cooled OHV pushrod single, 84mm x 90mm bore and stroke, 12:1 compression ratio (running methanol/9:1 stock)
Weight: 299lb (136kg) with oil, no fuel 

Most fans of the golden age of 1950s GP racing instinctively think of a 500cc Gilera road racer as being the legendary twin cam 4-cylinder. But in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and for almost two decades thereafter, Europe’s race tracks were inhabited by another successful 500cc Gilera racer, the Saturno single.

It was the most plentiful 500cc Italian post-war GP racer built, a bike that achieved consistent success for years against its more exotic rivals, especially on tight courses where its lighter weight, leaner build and easier power delivery were assets its riders could make the most of.

Between 1940 and 1959, Gilera made 6,026 Saturnos. It is in every way the BSA Gold Star of Italy, with an equally illustrious competition history. The Gilera 500cc pushrod single took Italian team members to gold medals in the International Six Days Trial, was a fearsome dirt sled in early Italian motocross events, powered a succession of championship-winning sidecars, served as a rugged military mount, and could be used with impunity as a mile-eating road bike, yet it also won many road races up to and including the 500 GP level. Indeed, the Saturno even won the race it debuted in, the 1940 Targa Florio, carrying works rider Massimo Masserini. That was before Mussolini took Italy into the war, stymieing development for the next six years.

After the war

In the ashes of postwar Italy, full-scale production of the Saturno street bike began in 1946 in Turismo and Sport guises, with the basic version weighing 385 pounds and producing just 22 horsepower at 5,000rpm. Many customers bought Sport models and stripped off the street equipment to go racing, so Gilera made a Competizione version, a factory-built road-racing single produced in a special department run by Luigi Gilera, brother of the firm’s founder, Giuseppe.

Order the March/April 2013 issue of Motorcycle Classics to read more about the Gilera Saturno 500 Competizione. Contact Customer Service at (800) 880-7567 or contact us by email.