Motobi 125: When Small Is Better

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Alberto Sisso's 1955 Motobi Catria Imperiale Sport 125cc.
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The 125cc engine is fed by a single 18mm Dell’Orto carburetor.
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Alberto Sisso's 1955 Motobi Catria Imperiale Sport 125cc.
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Alberto Sisso's 1955 Motobi Catria Imperiale Sport 125cc.
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The small “latch” arm that holds the fuel filler cap shut is pure art.
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Alberto Sisso's 1955 Motobi Catria Imperiale Sport 125cc.
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Alberto Sisso's 1955 Motobi Catria Imperiale Sport 125cc.
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Light and fun to ride, the Motobi is an enjoyable cornering partner.
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Alberto Sisso's 1955 Motobi Catria Imperiale Sport 125cc.

1955 Motobi Catria Imperiale Sport 125cc
125cc air-cooled OHV 4-stroke, 54mm  x 54mm bore and stroke, 6.5:1 compression ratio
Claimed power: 5.8hp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed: 75mph (est.)
Weight: 205lb (93kg)
Fuel capacity: 4gal (15ltr)

It’s an ill wind that blows no good, goes the old saw — though the good sometimes arrives in unexpected ways. When an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease caused the Isle of Man TT races to be canceled in 2001, Ducati maven Vicki Smith changed plans, diverted to Bologna instead, and hitched a ride in the Motogiro d’Italia. It was the beginning of a love affair that has lasted 12 years.

Riding the Motogiro

“Ducati sourced me a vintage bike” for the Motogiro, Vicki says. “I showed up at the Ducati factory and there was this Motobi. I had never ridden a vintage bike farther than around the block, and I’d never really kickstarted anything. I developed a passion for Ducati singles because of that Motobi. I think it had been dragged out of someone’s shed. It had cracked tires that were more than 20 years old. The bike was terrible. Honestly, I can’t possibly begin to describe how bad the bike was. And yet with simple tools that I carried in my tool roll and the help of those who were willing to stop and help me, I managed to be the first woman to ever start and complete a Motogiro. They put me in the Motogiro d’Italia hall of fame!”

That Giro experience turned Vicki on to small Italian singles in general, and Motobis in particular (though Ducati remains her first love). “The Motobi was uniquely suited for the Motogiro. What I liked about it was that it had a lot of power even though it’s a small, relatively slow bike. They’re very bulletproof, and they’re attractive — that ‘egg’ motor alone was remarkable. And what I like about the little bikes in particular is that they have made me a much better rider than I ever could have become on the big bikes,” Vicki says.

A Motobi of her own

After her experience with the Motobi during the Motogiro, Vicki decided she needed a Motobi of her own. “I went to the Imola Swap Meet (the Mostra Scambio) in Italy in search of a Motobi. I found the one that I wanted.”

After a day of searching the meet, Vicki Smith had decided on a red Motobi 175. But when she went back the next day to buy it, she discovered the vendor had left early. But she quickly spotted another — the blue 125cc featured in this story — in the back of a truck heading back to Germany. Knowing no German, Vicki tried to explain that she wanted to buy the Motobi. It was when she produced a copy of a magazine showing her participating in the Motogiro that they understood — and recognized her: “Ahhh, Motogiro Vicki!”

In a remarkable twist, on her way back from the Mostra Scambio, Vicki’s vehicle was passed by a trailer — with her first choice Motobi, the red 175, on board. So she fashioned a sign saying “Motobi in vendita?” (Motobi for sale?), and then pulled alongside and waved the sign at the driver — in a rainstorm on the Autostrada! “The guy pulled over,” Vicki says, “but he didn’t speak English, so I called my friend who spoke to him in Italian. I gave him a deposit, and I bought the bike on the side of the road.” Both bikes ended up with Vicki in Florida.

“The blue one was beautiful,” she says. “The red one was scruffy, and like a typical mother I love them both equally. I kept the blue one for many years and rode it a lot. The blue one was a 125, the red one was a 175, so I could train for either class, because the Motogiro has two classes, basically. That was my justification, but really I just wanted to buy all the Motobis. If I could have, I’d have brought them all home like puppies.”

Vicki kept the little blue Motobi for the next 10 years, riding it regularly while amassing a legend of great experiences, “like riding as fast as it would go through a radar trap, and the cop just keeps looking down the road. I thought I was flying. I couldn’t even get a ticket on it!” she says.

Motogiro South

It was Vicki’s good friend Alberto Sisso who persuaded her to part with the blue bike. Alberto had caught Vicki’s enthusiasm for giro-type events, and wanted to take part in the inaugural Motogiro-South being held over the Barber Vintage Festival weekend in October 2012. He didn’t own a suitable bike, so Vicki sold him the 125.

“I sold it to him because I knew it would find a good home, and Alberto would not move the bike. So it’s still in my shop. I can still ride it every day if I want to,” Vicki says. “He rode it on the Motogiro and he came away charmed,” Vicki continues. “He’s a pretty big guy. It was his first really little bike, and we couldn’t get him off of it. It was fun for me to watch Alberto fall in love with this little bike. The level to which these little bikes charm people … they have no idea how much fun these little bikes are.”

“The first time I saw the bike, I fell in love with it,” Alberto says. “The lines, the design and the special character of the Motobi immediately caught my attention. That same first day, I urged Vicki to promise me that the day she was going to sell the bike she would offer it to me first. More than seven years passed after that first encounter, until one day Vicki called me with the good news that she was going to sell the Motobi to me. And finally, I was the owner of it. My intentions are to preserve it as original as possible, and take good care of Vicki’s baby for many, many years to come.”

Alberto continues: “The ‘egg motor’ engine is, in my opinion, a beautiful piece of industrial design, and it is a great representation of the innovations of that era. Also, over the years I have read a lot about the Motobi factory and always was attracted to their manufacturing. They have a great reputation of being very reliable.

“Each motorcycle has its own personality,” he says, “and the Motobi can be described as very playful. The bike is very light. The brakes by modern standards have a very poor performance, but the steering and handling is awesome. You will never believe how easy and fun it is to drive this bike in corners. The Motobi is fun to ride, it always puts a smile on your face. If you are used to driving modern bikes, the Motobi may feel a little strange at the beginning. You may need some time to get used to it, because the shifter is on the right side and the brake is on the left.

“In October 2012 I ran the Motogiro in Birmingham, Ala.,” Alberto says. “For me it was a spectacular experience. I had never ridden the Motobi before for such a long period of time, more than eight hours a day, and with every minute the experience was more rewarding. I have to say that the Motobi behaved like a Swiss watch, its performance was flawless throughout the whole Motogiro. Additionally, the camaraderie of all the participants enhanced the experience. I strongly recommend to the motorcycle aficionado to buy a vintage bike and participate in a Motogiro. It is such an extraordinary experience that will give them memories for a lifetime.” MC

Read more about Motobi bikes in The Motobi Story.

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