- Engine: 649cc OHV air-cooled unit construction 4-stroke vertical twin, 71mm x 82mm bore and stroke, 9:1 compression ratio, 54hp @ 7,300rpm
- Top speed: 109mph (175kph) est.
- Carburetion: Dual 30mm Amal Concentric 930
- Electrics: 12v, battery/coil
- Transmission: 4-speed
- Frame/wheelbase: Italjet duplex frame/55.1in (1,400mm)
- Suspension: Marzocchi telescopic fork front, dual shocks rear
- Tires: 3.5 x 18in front and rear
- Brakes: 200mm double sided TLS drum front, 160mm SLS drum rear
- Weight: 389lb (177kg)
- Seat height: 34in (865mm)
- Fuel capacity: 2.4gal (9ltr)
Most enthusiasts would associate the name of Italjet with either quirky mini-bikes or some feisty off-roaders and possibly overlook the impressive 650cc 4-stroke twin that for four years in the late 1960s and early 1970s rolled off the Bolognese factory production lines.
It carried the name Grifon on its beautifully crafted side panels, and it’s believed that this particular bike — now owed by West Country enthusiast Roger Chapman — is possibly the only one of its kind in the U.K.
By the mid-1960s, motorcycling in Italy had lost its appeal and numerous well established firms like Parilla, Mi-Val, Bianchi, Capriolo, MM and Rumi had been forced to close their doors. Even big manufacturers including Moto Guzzi, Ducati and Laverda were running into the red. Largely thanks to government and military orders, they managed to survive. Their salvation came with the huge and burgeoning American market which was crying out for large capacity twins. This proved to be a happy hunting ground for Triumph, who in 1967 exported a staggering 28,700 units stateside. It was the latest unit-construction Bonneville engine which would power the Bolognese masterpiece, the first and only time the Meriden twin engine would be used by another manufacturer.
In its four year production period, around one thousand Grifon’s were made, with the bulk going to the American, Australian and Italian home markets. They are now highly sought after, and Roger needed little to no persuasion when he happened to see — and subsequently purchase — the bike from a most unlikely source when he and his wife were in Bologna about 10 years ago.
We will return to the story of his acquisition of the Grifon later in the article. But first we turn the clock back to the early 1950s and reflect on the company’s founder, Leopoldo Tartarini, a man who turned a hobby and the passion of his youth into a profitable business riding, racing and manufacturing motorcycles. From the age of four, Leopoldo — or “Poldino” as he was better known — was riding a mini bike around the huge family estate near Bologna.
It was not surprising he should take to two wheels, as prior to the outbreak of the World War II, his father was one of Italy’s top motorcycle racers. He ran not only a large Citroen garage in the heart of Emiglia Romana, but after the war he became a Moto Guzzi distributor for the region. The young Tartarini’s racing began at the age of 20, in 1952, when aboard a 650cc BSA Gold Flash he won the sidecar class of the grueling 18-hour, single-stage Milano-Taranto open road marathon on an outfit he designed and built himself. Sadly, his father died before he could witness Poldino’s victory in the epic race. But to prove his talent and versatility, the youngster was equally adept on two wheels, winning countless races on a 160cc Ducati. After testing at Monza, Count Domenico Agusta invited him a place in the MV Agusta team for the 1954 GP season. It was an honor that Tartarini was obliged to refuse after his mother asked him to stay at home and manage the family motorcycle dealership in Bologna.
The following year he was signed as a works rider and development engineer for Ducati working alongside another new arrival, the now legendary chief designer Fabio Taglioni. Sadly, a severe injury in 1956 brought his racing career to a premature halt — at the time the doctors told him he would possibly never walk again — but he proved them wrong. In 1957, along with Ducati’s export manager Giorgio Monetti, he embarked on 13-month-long 37,000 mile around-the-world publicity stunt on a pair of 175cc singles (see Around the World on Ducati 175 Tourismos).
The beginnings of Italjet
On his return from the round-the-world trip, he formed his own company, becoming a motorcycle dealer with franchises for both Benelli and Ducati. However, after a quarrel he abandoned the agencies and started to build a small series of bikes he had designed himself. These were powered by cheap and reliable engines from behind the Iron Curtain. Zschopau-based MZ were delighted to swap their 125cc and 175cc 2-strokes for hard cash. The bikes were sold under the brand name of Italemmezzetta, all manufactured in a tiny workshop and built more or less by hand. In 1959, a change in the law meant that tax became payable for machines in the 125cc class, and with this it saw Tartarini concentrate on the burgeoning 50cc market with a neat looking super-sport café racer carrying the name of Italjet on the gas tank.
From the early days it was the founders’ philosophy to innovate, to be trend setters and to be one jump ahead of the competitors. With this in mind, in 1961 Tartarini was commissioned by BSA-Triumph to develop a prototype lightweight powered by a 160cc 2-stroke to replace the elderly BSA Bantam. Sadly, the Ariel-badged project never reached production, but the British company was highly impressed by the Italjet design team. In later years (1967) this would lead to the 650cc Bonneville-powered Grifon, a bike described by the period press as “a production Italian take on the Triton Café racer popular in Britain.”
As previously mentioned it was the first — and last — occasion that Triumph supplied one of their engines to another manufacturer, and in my research for this article I’ve discovered two different stories on how this came about. The first one indicates that Italjet sidestepped this hurdle by ordering their engines as every number in the spare parts book. That was until some clever storeman at Triumph decided that the easiest way to fulfil the order was to send complete engines to Italy, however that only lasted until Meriden worked out what they were being used for.
The second story is slightly longer, and possibly nearer the truth. The executives of the BSA/Triumph group had obviously been impressed by the design of the prototype, and Ivor Davies — the then-export and marketing boss for the group — was sent a formal letter asking about the availability of Triumph engines for Italjet to use in their proposed machine. It didn’t take too long for a reply to arrive. Signed by W. L. Robertson, the letter politely stated that, “all of the Triumph engines had to be used to satisfy the current demand.” Undeterred, Tartarini sent a second letter for which he didn’t receive a reply. A third was written regretting the fact that the last one had obviously gotten lost in the post, and stated that a copy had been forwarded. This time Leopoldo was lucky as his enquiry was given to Harry Sturgeon, Triumph boss and managing director of the BSA group, who was very interested in the idea. A meeting was arranged in Meriden to discuss the matter. A contract was signed, and a few weeks later the first brand new T100 unit engine arrived at the San Lazzaro Di Savenna factory.
Work on the 500 started immediately and progressed quickly enough for the prototype to be displayed at the 39th Milan Show in 1965. At this stage it was known as the Grifo — the mythical bird — but after a letter was received from Guazzoni — a small manufacturer in Milan who already had this name on a sporty 150 — the Italjet machine was renamed the Grifon. This wasn’t the only change before production commenced, as by then the 500cc unit was swapped for the 650cc Bonneville engine. It fitted the Featherbed-style, twin-downtube frame like a glove, and it was agreed that the first 300 engines would be sent to Italy by the end of 1966.
The contract for the first 15 engines dates from February 1966, but difficulties with the Italian authorities resulted in homologation not being completed until August 10, 1968. Rather optimistically, Italjet quoted a top speed of 129mph (208km) for the British-powered twin. But with a power output said to be 54hp, the homologation papers tell the truth of 109mph (176kmh) and 40.2hp @ 7,200rpm.
With its huge four-leading-shoe Grimeca front brake and stunning paintwork, there is no doubt that the production Grifon was a very handsome machine, but also an expensive one with Italian enthusiasts having to fork out a staggering 675,000 lira in 1969 (then roughly $1,080). Roger’s example was manufactured the following year, but unlike most of its siblings which were sold with a pair of low lever mufflers, his is fitted with two high-level exhaust pipes, and with high, wide bars is very much in the mold of a street scrambler.
As already mentioned, records would suggest that around 1,000 Grifon’s were manufactured before production ceased at the end of 1971. By then the cost of the bike had increased to 800,000 lira in Italy (roughly $1,280 in 1971), and the supply of engines had become unreliable. With the arrival of Honda’s CB 750 Four and Moto Guzzi’s V7 Sport, Leopoldo Tartarini finally decided to end production of his very special 650 twin. How many survive is unknown but there is no doubt that Roger’s example — which I first saw and photographed at the 2015 Bristol Classic Bike show where it won second best in the postwar class — is now an extremely rare beast. With the bike glistening in the bright spring morning sun it would be easy to imagine that I was in Italy and not in North Somerset, but before I fired the Bonneville engine into life, Roger told me how he came to locate and subsequently purchase the bike on a wet and cold day in 2013.
“In February 2013 my wife and I were in Bologna — the streets were full of snow — celebrating my 50th birthday when we came across a small clothes shop which not only had plenty of fashion and designer articles in its sale, but also two motorcycles acting as props. One of these was an incredibly beautiful machine with the name of Italjet on the petrol tank and Grifon on the side panels. Up until then I had never heard of the manufacturer, but I was immediately taken by the Italian design and found it extraordinary. It was powered by the legendary 650cc Triumph Bonneville engine. Better still, I discovered that it was for sale and had been treated to a complete nut and bolt restoration. The engine had been rebuilt by an ex-Ferrari mechanic, and it didn’t take too long for a deal to be struck. My immediate plan was to fly out and ride it back to the U.K, however it turned out to be a very wet winter with weeks of rain and no respite in sight, so reluctantly I had to have it transported from Italy. As it turned out this was probably a good thing, as I soon discovered. With its small fuel tank and high wide handlebars, it’s definitely not a tourer, but a Sunday afternoon bike for posing at the local piazza, drinking an espresso in the sunshine and admiring this beautiful piece of Italian automotive art.”
There is no doubt from any angle the Anglo/Italian twin looks a thing of beauty, but what’s it like to ride when compared to a Bonneville of the same vintage? To get a bit more weight on the front wheel, the engine was placed a few inches further to the front than in the single downtube frame from Meriden. The wheelbase is also a touch shorter at 55.1 inches (1,400mm) versus the standard Bonny’s 56 inches (1,420mm). As you mount the Italian thoroughbred you are instantly made aware of its seat height, which is nearly 3 inches taller than the all-British offering, and definitely not a bike for the vertically challenged pilot.
With ignition turned on, carbs primed and the choke on, it just took a couple of swings on the kickstarter to bring the big vertical twin bursting into life with a healthy bark through the pair of high upswept pipes. Once free of town and into top gear, the Italjet was in its element at the national speed limit. I soon discovered that the engine was undoubtedly one of the smoothest Bonneville engines I have ever experienced, with none of the vibration usually found when riding most of its siblings. Although the high, wide bars would not make it the perfect bike for long touring days, it was ideal for tearing though the North Somerset twisties. The combination of the Marzocchi telescopic forks and the double sided twin-leading-shoe Grimeca front brake put it on a par with the best of the late 1960s/early 1970s opposition. It is certainly a bike to put a smile on your face and it’s certainly a great shame that the combination of previously mentioned factors brought production of the Anglo/Italian twin to an end in 1971. The memory of Leopoldo Tartarini — who passed away in September 2015 — lives on in his creations and I’m extremely grateful to Roger for allowing me to ride this superb piece of motorcycling’s rich history. MC
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