Motorcycle Classics

Different by Design: 1957 Aermacchi Chimera

1957 Aermacchi Chimera 175
Claimed power: 13 horsepower @ 6,500rpm
Engine: 172.4cc air-cooled OHV horizontal single-cylinder, 60mm x 61mm bore and stroke, 7:1 compression ratio
Top Speed: 68mph (110kmh)
Weight (dry): 269lb (122kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 5.3gal (20ltr)
Price then/now: $212 (approx.)/$15,000-$25,000 

Being different doesn’t guarantee success. Consider the Italian-made Aermacchi Chimera. Unlike many small-bore motorcycles of the 1950s, the Chimera was sleek, chic and packaged in a jazzy space age design.

Equipped with alloy body panels and monoshock rear suspension — none of which was truly new, but definitely unusual — the machine didn’t capture the imagination of the motoring public. That’s not to say the Chimera wasn’t a great little motorcycle. It was; it just didn’t sell. Built from 1956 to 1964, production was minimal, with only 119 of the 175cc models and 177 of the larger 250cc machines rolling out of Aermacchi’s Varese-based factory.

The name Aermacchi literally translates as “air machine.” Founded by Giulio Macchi in 1912, the company built airplanes that saw use in both World War I and World War II. As part of the peace treaties after World War II, the Marshall Plan prohibited manufacturers of war equipment from producing any products of a military nature. In an effort to get its aeronautical engineers back to work in the postwar era, Aermacchi diversified and began producing mopeds, scooters and small motorcycles. It’s no surprise then that Aermacchi used aeronautical styling cues when it developed the Chimera.

Designed by Alfredo Bianchi, the Chimera, which means “dream” in Italian, was inspired by a sketch of the “ideal motorcycle” penciled by car designer and motorcycle racer Count Mario Revelli. Bianchi had joined Aermacchi as motorcycle design chief early in 1956, and the Chimera was his first project. The finished machine was displayed at the Milan Show in early December. Period magazines marveled at its smooth, flowing design and referred to the Chimera as the peak of engineering elegance.

Those attributes are exactly why the Chimera caught the attention of Chicago-based collector and rider Burt Richmond. An industrial designer by education and architect by career, Burt developed a keen appreciation for well-executed and thoughtful design as it pertains to both vehicles and structures.

Alfredo Bianchi’s Chimera featured a tubular steel spine frame. Suspended below the backbone was a 172.4cc pushrod horizontal single-cylinder engine with vertically split aluminum crankcases, a 60mm by 61mm bore and stroke, and a 7:1 compression ratio. Good for just a bit more than 13 horsepower at 6,500rpm, the engine had a roller bearing big end, aluminum cylinder head, a crankshaft driven generator and coil ignition with automatic advance. Oil was carried in a wet sump, and it had a 4-speed unit construction gearbox. Primary drive was by helical gear, with a multi-plate clutch and a right side heel/toe shift lever. The kickstarter is on the left.

An enlarged 250cc engine was introduced in short order, and Aermacchi offered the Chimera with both engines simultaneously. Apart from engine capacity, nothing else was different between the two Chimera models.

Directly behind the engine is a swingarm pivot point. A vertical arm at the front of the swingarm connects to a single hydraulically damped spring shock, which sits at a roughly 45-degree angle atop the spine frame. A subframe of tubular and flat steel extends rearward above the swingarm for the purpose of attaching body panels, of which there are a few.

First and foremost is the gas tank and rear fender, both made up of pressed steel, complete with the long seat and kneepads. A front cowl that meets up with mid-section lower panels guides air over the engine’s head and cylinder. The mid-section panels, which feature polished aluminum and painted sections, are actually the engine crankcase side covers. Pressed steel covers run to the rear, the one on the left enclosing the final drive chain.

Between the lower covers and the gas tank and seat are two light alloy castings, which meet up at the front to surround and encase the horn. On the left side there’s a small lockable toolbox and an opening through which a finger can reach the tickler of the 22mm Dell’Orto carburetor, and on the right a three-position fuel petcock.

A conventional front fork is at the front, with the headlight, ignition switch and speedometer housed in a steel nacelle. The handlebars and the control cables are all neatly hidden by a quickly detachable enclosure, which, when removed, also provides access to adjust the steering head bearings. A well-valanced front fender is mounted to the lower steering stem — the 17-inch front wheel travels into the guard, rather than the guard moving with the wheel. The rear wheel is also 17-inches, and both rims are chrome-plated.

Chimeras came in four colors: green, salmon pink, gold and blue. Each color was offset with a creamy ivory front fender, rear fender and mid section. The seat and fuel tank kneepads were also covered in matching ivory vinyl.

A love of motorcycles

Born and raised on Long Island, N.Y., Burt was given an old Husqvarna motorcycle when he was 13. The bike rolled off the pickup truck, but his mother made him roll it right back on again. Instead, he got a 1939 Crosley, a miniscule car powered by a 2-cylinder boxer-style opposed twin engine. “Both of my passions were tripped almost immediately,” Burt says. “Motorcycles, because I couldn’t keep that one, and a lifelong fascination with microcars.”

Burt studied industrial design at Syracuse University with plans to design cars one day. Upon graduating, however, he turned his hand to architecture, eventually building up a firm with seven offices across the country.

Burt was 28 before he swung a leg over another motorcycle, a Honda Super 90. He rode the small, sporting motorcycle back and forth to work, and then moved up to a Honda CB175. Around the same time he was introduced to enduro racing, and for two years he campaigned an Ossa Pioneer. After giving up enduro, he built a Honda CB500 café racer/commuter utilizing a fiberglass tank, seat and fairing.

Traveling by bike

In the mid-1970s, Burt planned a trip to France by way of England. He had £8,000 (roughly $16,000!) in his pocket and rented a car upon his arrival. Completely unplanned, he stumbled across the Beaulieu Autojumble, the biggest automotive swap meet in Europe. “There were all these vintage motorcycles you could buy, and I did,” Burt says as he explains how he became enthusiastic about older machines. “It was serious — I was in the right place at the right time with a full wallet, and I hit Beaulieu with a reckless abandon.”

In 1979 he met a friend in Italy who was picking up a new Ducati. Burt ordered a new Moto Guzzi, and the pair joined up in Venice. “I was hooked,” Burt says of the Italian scenery. More than the scenery, however, Burt was hooked on touring by motorcycle. When another friend spoke about renting motorcycles and touring Nepal and Thailand in 1984, he was ready to go. “It turned out to be just an incredible trip,” Burt says.

By this time a few people had heard Burt’s touring stories and told Burt if he ever decided to do another trip they’d like to go. He didn’t disappoint, as eight or nine friends joined him a few months later on a trip to Italy. With his background, Burt proved to be a fascinating guide as he could succinctly describe the Italian architecture and other conspicuous examples of history.

With those touring successes under his belt, Burt decided it was time for a career change, so in 1987 he fired himself from his architecture firm and started Lotus Tours. By 2007 — the year he closed the business — he figures he’d visited more than 150 countries via motorcycle. A mainstay of the tours continued to be Italy, and Burt visited the country six to eight times a year. He soon found the Italian equivalent of Beaulieu at Imola Mostra Scambio and Mostra Scambio di Reggio Emilia — basically swap meets. The first year he bought a Mondial Turismo Veloce, and he’s returned almost every year since, researching and buying rare Italian motorcycles.

Burt’s Chimera

“The magic of all of the Italian machinery for me is the design,” Burt says, adding, “I’d always kept my eyes especially peeled for an Aermacchi Chimera.” While Chimeras did occasionally show up for sale, most were in rough condition and were missing important pieces such as the front cowling or rear shrouds.

Burt finally found his Chimera in 2008 at the Mostra Scambio di Reggio Emilia. A first year 1957 175cc, it was all in one piece, and it ran. Burt had the Chimera shipped home to the U.S., where he says he sat and looked at it for a long time. The machine showed its age, and the gold color it was painted did nothing for him.

With little extra time on his hands to undertake the restoration himself, Burt entrusted the Chimera to the care of Jeff Dietz of Classic Italian Cycles in Davenport, Iowa. Jeff has restored other Italian machines for Burt, and the two have a good working relationship. Jeff jumped at the opportunity to work on the Chimera. “I love those bikes. They’ve got great lines and the styling is simply iconic,” he says.

Jeff disassembled the bike and delivered the frame and panels to his painter, Mike Hull of Colona, Ill. “He figured the bike had been laid down on its right hand side, because some of the rear fender panel had been pounded out and painted over,” Jeff explains. Burt decided to change the color, and Mike spent time getting the right mix for the Aermacchi powder blue.

The engine side covers were first polished and then masked before being sprayed, and the frame was also painted blue. Mike used urethane paint, with no clear coat on top. “Mike’s a great painter, and that’s what really makes the Chimera look so good,” Jeff says.

Although the engine ran, Jeff pulled the top end and found it needed work. He sent it to Ron Lancaster of Lancaster Sprints in Tampico, Ill. The cases were never split, but Ron honed the cylinder and installed a new piston and rings, and finished the head with new guides and valves. The middle section of the muffler was rusted out, so Jeff formed and welded up a new one, then sent it out for chrome.

New bearings went in the hubs, and the spokes were blasted and zinc-plated before being laced into the cleaned and freshly re-chromed rims. The brake shoes were in good shape, but new tires were installed. “We kept as many of the original parts as possible,” Jeff says. Burt did use his contacts in Italy, however, to source pieces such as new cables, grips, a foot peg and shifter, and kickstarter rubbers. Jeff restored the seat, but Burt wasn’t satisfied with the profile at the rear and had it redone.

The Chimera was finished in 2010, and Burt says it’s won so many awards at shows he’s stopped taking it to events. He has ridden the Chimera, adding around 162 miles (the Veglia speedometer, however, is in kilometers). “I rode it for 40 miles when I led a group at Road America, and I rode it about 70 miles on the MotoGiro-USA in Birmingham [Alabama] in 2012,” Burt says.

Starting is straightforward. After turning the large, round petcock to “A” for aperto (open) and tickling the carburetor, Burt says, “give a gentle but firm kick, and she starts with a gentle purr that increases to a soft growl. Once the crowd lets you leave after their many questions, the fun begins. The engine is very responsive, and picks up speed quickly for a 175; it has the torque of a 250.”

Burt’s equally impressed with the monoshock rear suspension. “It certainly does provide a sense of confidence in the handling department,” Burt says. “The Chimera holds a corner as though the bike is on rails. The Aermacchi OHV single will fly along at 60mph with ease, which translates into giant rider smiles. It’s worth it, even if you get bugs in your teeth!”

Regardless, because of dismal sales, designer Bianchi was forced to re-pen the Chimera for 1960. The body panels were ditched, and a traditional twin shock rear suspension system, fenders, gas tank and café-style seat were added, giving Aermacchi the more conventional looking 175cc Ala Rossa and 250cc Ala Verde. These motorcycles, with their clean and unmistakable Italian lines, sold very well, and the beleaguered Chimera was dropped by 1964. However different they might have been, though, it’s the Chimera that is remembered today. MC

  • Published on Feb 13, 2014
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