Critically acclaimed food author and television personality Anthony Bourdain would tell us that a steak cooked rare is a pretty common thing.
That’s why Bourdain, sometimes scootering around or riding in a sidecar on his show No Reservations, documents the lesser-known dishes available from around the globe — he’s often seen scarfing down morsels of food that would make the best of us shudder, including ant eggs, savory duck tongue and pig’s head fettuccine. Now, I’m no Anthony Bourdain, and this isn’t a tale about exotic food in a far-off locale, but what’s on offer here is something very delectable, very rare — and very exotic. The serving? Guy Webster’s Circa-1954 Ceccato 75cc Twin Cam Italian racer, the sole survivor of five classic Italian motorcycles produced in Pietro Ceccato’s factory on the outskirts of Vicenza, Italy, 38 miles west of Venice.
Born around 1900, Pietro Ceccato was the son of an aristocratic Italian family. His parents wanted him to become a pharmacist, and while he dutifully obliged, he was never really happy in this occupation. Always fascinated by things mechanical, in the mid-1930s Ceccato quit the pharmaceutical trade and opened a manufacturing facility, building industrial equipment including burners for bakery ovens, air compressors and gas station hardware.
At the end of World War II, Ceccato, like many budding Italian entrepreneurs, surveyed the transportation industry of post-war Italy and decided to build and market a clip-on engine for bicycles. Lightweight motorcycles were not far behind, and the company started looking into motorcycle racing. This is where the story gets interesting, because there’s a connection between Ceccato and Fabio Taglioni, one of Italy’s best-known motorcycle designers.
Before Taglioni pioneered his desmodromic valve train in Ducati singles, and before he engineered the V-twin engine design of the Ducati 750 GT, he drew up a tiny jewel of a double overhead cam engine. In 1949, and long before he’d made a name for himself, Taglioni sketched a twin cam 75cc single-cylinder engine as a design exercise while studying to get his doctorate at the University of Bologna. He sold the engine plans to Ceccato before working for two years with Italian maker Mondial and then finally joining Ducati in 1954.
In Ceccato’s hands the 75cc twin cam engine was improved upon with gears driving the cams as opposed to the chain drive originally envisioned by Taglioni. It is thought that only five of the twin cam 75cc engines were constructed, and that these limited production engines went into Ceccato factory racing motorcycles circa 1954 and 1955. It is one of these five motorcycles Guy Webster now owns.
The Ceccato’s twin cam power plant is all alloy, built in unit with a gear-drive primary transferring power to a 4-speed gearbox. Valve springs are exposed. Installed in a double-downtube frame with swingarm rear suspension and hydraulic forks up front, the overall package weighs approximately 200 pounds. Depending on the type of racing the machine was going to see, either an 18mm, 20mm or 22mm Dell’Orto remote float carburetor was bolted to the integral intake manifold.
A single cam version was also built. In one printed interview, Taglioni was quoted as saying the twin cam was too heavy to effectively compete in the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s famed endurance motorcycle race. Ceccato fairly dominated the races the company entered with machines powered by both the twin cam and single cam 75cc engines. A long list of race victories, including the first nine of 10 positions at the Giro d’Italia in 1956, helped put Ceccato’s name in the record books.
Unfortunately, Pietro Ceccato died an early death, and development of a planned 125cc world championship machine ended. The company, still known as Ceccato, produced street motorcycles and offroad machines until the early 1960s. The company exists yet today as a manufacturer of air compressors and high-tech car wash equipment.
“Ceccato is one of the rarest brands in the world,” collector Webster says. “What Ceccato was able to accomplish in terms of the 75cc twin cam in 1954 and 1955 and the subsequent race victories is exceptional, and with Taglioni as the designer of the engine, it’s remarkable.”
Webster, an acclaimed photographer of literary and film stars, grew up in Beverly Hills. His parents asked him to please never ride a motorcycle. That didn’t work.
“The day they asked us not to ride, my brother and I went out and bought a motorcycle,” Webster says. At 16, he was tooling around Beverly Hills on a Triumph Tiger Cub. He fell down a few times and had to get creative when confronted by his parents. “I just told them I fell off of my bicycle,” he says.
Webster clearly didn’t move in regular circles. He became friends with Dean Martin (yes, the Dean Martin), and this led to getting a Triumph Bonneville. “Dean was presented with a Triumph Bonneville that had been built by Bud Ekins. At the presentation [Dean] comes over to me and he says: ‘Do you want this thing? I’ll kill myself on it.’”
Webster rode the customized Bonneville around Southern California in the early 1960s until a friend offered him another motorcycle, an older MV Agusta 175cc Sport. This was Webster’s introduction to Italian machines, and he was smitten. “It was beautiful; all red and gorgeous to look at. I gave him $300, took the bike and learned how to make it run properly,” he says. “I liked the look of it so much I stopped riding the Bonneville.”
Shortly thereafter, Webster went into the service and sold both bikes. Following his stint in the military in 1971, he moved to Italy where he was surrounded by exotic machinery including Laverdas and Ducatis, and bought a few Italian motorcycles. “When I was in Italy I knew all of the guys who sold bikes, and they’d always show me these old bikes,” Webster says. “The Italians all wanted new Yamahas, and $300 or $400 would get you an old MV or a Moto Morini. I always said if I ever make good money, I’d like to buy some of these motorcycles.”
As his photography career became established that’s exactly what he did, compiling an impressive collection of Italian motorcycles, most of them later stored at his property in Ojai, Calif.
“I’ve sold down some of the collection, and now I have about 60 bikes, mostly 1950s Italian and 1960s Honda,” Webster says. “I like tinkering with these bikes and I love to ride — I’ll ride across country here, or rent bikes in Italy, Spain, South America and Germany, and ride them there.”
But vintage Italian is what Webster really appreciates: “It’s the lines of the Italian bikes, the colors — even the decals are works of art. They are light and nimble and I love all of that about them.” In 2006, Webster remodeled his museum in Ojai, and held a large grand opening. It was to this function that friend and ex-Ceccato motorcycle racer Ted (Teodoro) Galelli brought his video camera. He panned the lens across the barn, sweeping the machines and memorabilia, and happened to catch a Ceccato 100cc single cam engine displayed on a shelf.
The video found its way to Italy, and to collector and restorer Giampietro Vezzaro. Vezzaro saw the 100cc Ceccato engine and had to have it, and a deal was brokered with Webster. In exchange for the Ceccato engine Webster would get a 75cc Laverda Mi-Ta, so named because similar machines quite simply cleaned house at the 1953 Milano-Taranto (Mi-Ta) race.
Galelli’s videography skills play a big role here. During a visit to Vezzaro’s home in Italy, Galelli shot footage showcasing Vezzaro’s twin cam 75cc Ceccato. Back in California, Galelli showed the film to Webster. Now it was Webster’s turn to get excited; he told Vezzaro that if he ever wanted to part with the Ceccato, he would buy it and place it in his museum in Ojai. It took a little more than two years before Vezzaro, in 2008, finally decided to sell the Ceccato to Webster.
“It took a long time to get the Ceccato out of Italy,” Webster says. “These bikes are national treasures.” Webster’s daughter lives in Florence and works as an importer/exporter and had a hand in helping him get the machine stateside early in 2009. “She let them know it was going to a respectable museum in the U.S.,” Webster says.
To bring it to the U.S., Webster disassembled the bike and shipped the pieces, putting the machine back together when it arrived. He says the Ceccato is so small and simple it’s like a bicycle. Funny, because that’s what Ceccato racer Galelli remembers about campaigning a 75cc single cam Ceccato in Argentina.
“I used to have a 1,000cc Vincent to ride on the streets,” Galelli says. “Getting on the Ceccato was like getting on a bicycle in comparison.” Italian-born Galelli moved with his family to South America when he was 14. In 1959, he finished first in the Argentinian 75cc road racing championship aboard a single cam Ceccato, which used essentially the same engine as Webster’s twin cam, minus one camshaft.
The Ceccatos Galelli rode came about thanks to a connection between Zanella motorcycles in Argentina and Ceccato in Italy. Zanella (which is still in business today) produced some Italian designed machines, including Ceccato, under license, and Ceccato sent race-prepared machines to Zanella. “The Ceccatos were used race motorcycles, but they came with lots of spare parts,” Galelli recalls.
During part of 1958 and all of 1959, Galelli raced Ceccatos in either the 75cc or 100cc classes. “Racing the 75cc was about as exciting as racing a 250cc might be today,” he says. “The tires on the 75cc were like a balloon-bicycle tire. The Ceccato had an 11,000rpm limit, and the handling was no problem at all. The Ceccato had a very long first gear, and you had to slip the clutch for a few seconds in order not to stall the motor.” Although he remembers his 75cc single cam Ceccato racer as being very reliable, he did on one occasion hole a piston while simply warming up the engine.
Between Galelli, Webster and Vezzaro the three are keepers of the Ceccato faith. For now, Webster’s Ceccato 75cc twin cam resides in his museum, but he brings it out for demonstrations. The machine recently made an appearance at the December 2009 Concours d’Elegance at the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Las Vegas, where it drew top honors. MC
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