Leopoldo Tartarini: Italjet Founder and Ducati Designer



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.

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