Motorcycle Classics

1957 Parilla 175 Sport and 1962 Parilla 250 GS

Greyhounds are some of the world’s fastest land mammals, capable of sprinting to faster than 45mph. When Giovanni Parrilla (two “r”s, unlike the company name) chose a stylized greyhound for his company logo, he no doubt intended his exquisitely engineered little bikes to be pretty quick, too, as one can see with the 1957 Parilla Sport and 1962 Parilla 250 GS.

The indigenous pup, the Italian Greyhound, is much smaller than the standard breed, however, and its slender bones are notoriously fragile. There are those who would attribute these same characteristics to Moto Parilla motorcycles.

Out of the trap

Giovanni’s company, Moto Parilla, was one of the first Italian motorcycle makers into production after WWII, manufacturing a 250cc racer (and corresponding sports roadster) in 1946. Itinerant engineer Giuseppe Salmaggi (responsible for the Gilera Saturno and Moto Rumi’s racing twins) produced the design to Parrilla’s specification, which was strongly influenced by the most successful racing engine of the day, the Norton Manx. Like Arthur Carroll’s design for the Bracebridge Street boys, Parrilla specified a bevel-drive single overhead camshaft with hairpin valve springs.

The new bike first raced at Lecco in northern Italy in October 1946 with Nino Grieco in the saddle, and was launched at the Milan show in 1947. Arousing particular interest were the huge 10.2-inch drum brakes of the racer (eight inch or smaller was common on small-displacement machines), quickly nicknamed padellone (frying pans).

Like Norton with the Manx, Parilla next produced a DOHC (bialbero) version of its 250cc racer, still using a shaft and bevel gears to drive the camshafts. Salmaggi designed the engine for strength and durability, no doubt with Italy’s long-distance road races in mind, keeping weight down by using magnesium alloy engine castings. The Parilla Bialbero reputedly offered a much wider powerband than other small-capacity racers, attributed to engine development on the track rather than the dynamometer. The Bialbero’s greatest success was probably its 250cc class win in the 1950 Milano-Taranto, the same year a 350cc version was announced. Though rarely outright winners, both bikes placed regularly in road races and helped establish the credibility of the Parilla name.

Giovanni Parrilla’s next venture seemed at first like a step backwards in technology. Credited to Salmaggi and Alfredo Bianchi, the high camshaft (camme rialzata) overhead valve 175cc single was nonetheless unique in execution and remained competitive for more than a decade. The camshaft was mounted at the top of a tower in the left side crankcase cover and driven by chain. The cam acted on two short pushrods, which operated the 90-degree-spaced valves via screw-adjustable rockers. The design offered much of the advantage of an overhead cam engine, but with simple valve adjustment common to most OHV designs. First seen in 1952 as the Fox street bike, the high-cam engine continued in production for 15 years, until Parilla closed its doors in 1967.

Innovation didn’t stop with the valve operation. The built-up crankshaft used a caged roller big end, with primary drive by helical gears mated to a four-speed transmission, all enclosed in the same case as the engine, making for a strong, compact power unit. That the basic Fox engine had considerable tuning potential was demonstrated with the introduction of the 14 horsepower Sport version in 1956 and the race-tuned Gran Sport/MSDS in 1957. Giuseppe Rottigni was first home in the 175cc class in the 1957 Motogiro d’Italia on a Parilla MSDS.

Meanwhile, racers in the U.S. had noticed the success of the 175cc high-cam in competition, and requested (surprise!) bigger engine capacity. Importer Cosmopolitan Motors produced some over-the-counter big-bore kits, but around 1960 the factory recognized the business opportunity and enlarged the engine, first with a larger 64mm bore giving 199cc, and then with 68mm bore and stroke for 247cc. It was in this final form that the high-cam had its best racing success in the U.S., even taking second place in the 1964 U.S. Grand Prix with Ron Grant at the controls. Change was coming, however, and the advent of Yamaha’s TD two-strokers heralded the demise of the classic four-stroke singles in small-capacity racing.

Grand Sport

The Parilla Grand Sport (GS) was the company’s top of the line model, effectively a production racer and the bike that was so successful in the hands of U.S. racers like Ron Grant and Norris Rancourt. It came with alloy rims, Dell’Orto SS1 carburetor and Parilla’s hot X1 cam profile.

Early GS models up to 1961 were 175cc capacity and used a steel tube frame similar to the MSDS racer, with distinctive curved rear sub-frame and enclosed spring/damper units. Most came with the classic Parilla “arrow” tank.

In 1961, the 250GS was introduced in a new frame, with characteristic diamond shape and exposed rear springs. These were sold in the U.S. with the Dell’Orto SS1 carburetor and X1 cam. The factory also produced the 250cc Wildcat street scrambler, again with a focus on the U.S. market. Though these later models are better known in the U.S., the factory actually produced far more of the 175cc version. It’s thought that as few as 50 250GS models were sold in the U.S., with the last being produced around 1963.

Fritz Doernberger’s Parillas

That Fritz Doernberger is a committed Italophile is obvious even before he opens his garage door. Parked in the driveway of his North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, home is an Alfa Romeo 1750 sedan. Inside the garage sits a beautiful red Alfa Giulia Sprint GT next to an orange roundcase Ducati 750 Sport. Alongside is a matching orange 1974 Ducati 350 Mk3D, while a 1972 Ducati 450 desmo “Silver Shotgun” lurks in the corner. Literally dozens of Italian racing bicycles hang from the walls. Through another door is the inner sanctum, where Fritz keeps four of the rarest of Italian sportbikes, the high-cam Moto Parilla. A pile of Parilla engine cases sit stacked in a corner, while another sits on a workbench.

At first glance, it would seem he’s cornered the Canadian market on Parillas. The first Parilla he bought, the gray 250cc Grand Sport featured here, came from Todd Fell’s Café Veloce restaurant in Kirkland, Wash. Todd had toured Italy to assemble a random selection of Italian racers to decorate his theme restaurant, but decided to part with the Parilla. Fritz knew the engine had no internals, but there were even more surprises when he started the rebuild. “Inside the forks where top bushes should have been were about 20 tongue depressors,” Fritz says. Fortunately, Todd also sold Fritz a rebuilt Parilla engine, so it wasn’t long before the 250 was rolling.

Fritz bought the red and silver 175cc bike from a collector in Florida. The previous owner imported it from Italy, where it had been raced. “I bought a whole collection of stuff from him,” Fritz says. “He told me there was a brand new Scintilla racing magneto included, but all I could find was an old one held together with tape.” Fritz thinks the seller might have been confused, because what he did find in the collection was a complete, newly-built engine! The engine had been bored out, making it a short-stroke 200, and Fritz has kept the bike pretty much in minimalist racing condition: there’s no lighting or other electrics, and no kickstart lever.

Along the way, Fritz found another 175cc in Texas, and two 250s (from which he was able to assemble one complete machine) in California. Oddly, among all of the parts he’d collected, there was only one kickstart lever. “I must have had a dozen engines with no kickstarters,” he says. Fritz attended the first North American Parilla rally in Albuquerque, N.M., hoping to find a couple, but other Parilla owners wanted to borrow the one he had to copy it! “Bits and pieces for Parillas are very hard to find,” Fritz says. “I can put a Ducati single together in three months, but a Parilla …”

So are Parillas as fragile as Italian Greyhounds? “Not at all,” Fritz says, though admitting they can be difficult to put together right. As for rideability, that depends which cam is fitted. “The X2 cam is a little milder, with the X1 cam you have to rev it quite a bit before it comes on.” They’re also quite noisy, Fritz says, but we reckon he rather likes the noise they make. MC

  • Published on Jun 30, 2011
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