The Benelli Sei 750
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The Japanese companies also developed an efficient overseas distribution system. Their products began showing up in Europe in 1959, making further inroads into Brit bike sales. Led by Honda, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing the American market.
Most of the Italian motorcycle factories survived the lean times of the early Sixties, aided at least in part by that country’s sunny weather, which makes it more practical to ride motorcycles on a daily basis. Italian manufacturers also benefited from protectionist legislation that made it more expensive to buy imports; and yet the Italian government had to rescue both Ducati and Moto Guzzi before the motorcycle boom of the late 1960s pushed those companies into the black.
By 1972, thanks primarily to baby boomer sales, Harley Davidson was making money again. But the British, unable to keep up, had been decimated, with only Triumph and Norton still standing. The sole survivor of the German motorcycle industry, BMW, was doing nicely selling newly designed opposed-twin tourers. Even so, most of the world market belonged to Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki.
The Italian motorcycle companies had largely rebounded from the lean years and were ready to go head to head with the Japanese — except the Italian companies didn’t have anywhere near the same resources. Adopting a David versus Goliath mentality, the Italians worked to their strengths: grace, styling and handling.
Benelli is born
Benelli began in 1911 as a repair garage, progressed to the manufacture of parts, built its first complete motorcycle in 1921 and started winning on the track two years later. The factory was destroyed during World War II, but Benelli bounced back and was soon winning races again. When De Tomaso bought the company in 1971, he decided Benelli needed a showpiece — a luxury sporting motorcycle in the spirit of the De Tomaso-designed Pantera sports car.
Within a year, Benelli’s engineers came up with the Sei’s transverse six-cylinder engine, the first to be designed for a production motorcycle. Where the design actually came from is the subject of controversy. Benelli had a history of building racing Fours, but the Sei is not much like them. Many people believe that De Tomaso simply copied a contemporary Honda Four and added two cylinders, and rumors persist that parts are interchangeable between the Sei and the Honda, although the extent of any interchangeability is in question. Other sources opine that De Tomaso was simply following standard automobile practice in the design of the Sei, which makes sense, given his automotive background.
In any event, the bore and stroke of the bike De Tomaso unveiled at his press conference were 56mm x 50.6mm, the same as Honda’s four-cylinder CB500. Other similarities were the single overhead cam run by a chain in the center of the engine, two-piece connecting rods with plain big ends and the Morse Hy-Vo chain primary drive. The engine was only an inch or so wider than a Honda Four with a gap between each cylinder to pass cooling air. It was fed through graceful manifolds by three Dell’Orto VHB 24mm carburetors. The alternator is on the right side behind the cylinders, with the electric starter tucked in nearby. A kickstarter was provided for macho men or a drained battery.