A look back at this summer’s gathering of the Parilla faithful just north of Denver, Colorado, at Parilla Days USA.
Ennis King and Jarl Wathne take PJ Johnson’s Parilla race bikes out on the track.
Glimpsing even a single Parilla, with its shapely lines and graceful hound logo, is uncommon — gazing upon a pack of them is extraordinary. Ten years have passed since the last U.S. Parilla owners gathering. So when smoke signals went up confirming Parilla Days USA 2015, the faithful came, drawn together by their shared passion for a rare Italian motorcycle that’s been out of production for more than 50 years.
Held Aug. 19-22 at Colorado National Speedway just north of Denver, the 2015 Parilla Days USA event was a chance for the Parilla clan to hang out, bench race and scrutinize one another’s bikes. They rode on the street and the track and they shared Parilla lore, listening to stories told by the very people who established Parilla’s presence in the U.S. almost 60 years ago. It was four days of immersion in everything that is endearing about these small, rolling Italian sculptures: their curvaceous shapes, their nimble handling and the raucous barking that emanates from their exhaust pipes — appropriate for a marque whose logo was a greyhound.
If you didn’t know about Parilla Days, don’t feel bad; the event wasn’t publicized. The organizers wanted a Parilla family reunion, so if you don’t own a Parilla, you wouldn’t have heard about it. The focal point for the event was a large tent housing an incredible selection of Parillas brought by their owners, little placards fronting many of the bikes explaining their significance — a welcome touch for those of us not steeped in Parilla history and lore.
The speedway location was no accident, and was chosen to inspire attending owners to exercise the bikes on track. A 3/8-mile short track, Colorado Speedway is perfect for the little Parillas; intimate, but still big enough to let riders get up to speed and flog their dogs.
A rare 350 parallel twin (one of fewer than 100 twins sold here and believed to be the only running example in the U.S.) and some even rarer overhead camshaft models were fired up, and witnessing these exotic machines getting a workout, actually being used as intended, was amazing.
Remarkably, there was no registration fee for the event. In fact, with the exception of the event T-shirts and posters, everything was free, including Parilla caps and pins for all attendees.
Moto Parilla produced roughly 130 distinct models between 1946 and 1964, and a wide range of those models were on hand for the event, including scooters, 2-stroke singles and many of the iconic high-cam 4-stroke singles, for which Parilla is best known.
A few examples of the offroad Wildcat — a successful model for Parilla and one of the first motocross-style motorcycles sold in the U.S. — were present. A rarely-seen Slughi (sold in the U.S. as the Ramjet) was also on display. Suspiciously similar in design to the Aermacchi Chimera introduced in 1956, the 1958-1964 Slughi featured a horizontal single-cylinder 98cc engine and fully enclosed, aerodynamic bodywork.
In the truly exotic category were three different models of factory overhead cam competizione bikes. Parilla made four magnesium-engined 250cc double overhead cam race bikes in 1949-1950. They made four more in 1953, in updated frames to compete in the Motogiro and Milan-Taranto races. The factory also made seven 175cc double overhead cam models for Formula 3 racing. One of each double overhead cam-type racer was on display in Colorado.
Former Norton employee and now technical consultant for the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, Brian Slark brought the museum’s 1956 Parilla 250cc overhead cam race bike, complete with dustbin fairing. The famous 250cc Parilla high-cam race bike known as “Gadget 2,” built by Orrin Hall in Sacramento, California, and campaigned by well-known Ducati racer Frank Scurria and others, was on display. Frank brought the first place trophy he won after racing the bike for his first time in 1964.
Jarl Wathne brought his 1954 Parilla, a bike he has set up for land speed record attempts. “As a teenager, I dreamed of setting land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats,” Jarl says. “When I turned 50, I decided it was now or never so I started researching. I decided to try for a record in the Vintage class (pre-1956) on my 1954 175cc Sport based on its reputation for speed, the unique high-cam motor, and gorgeous Italian curves.” Jarl finally made it to Bonneville three years later. “We went to Bonneville for the 2012 BUB speed trials and set an American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) National record in 175-M-VG at 65.7mph. We returned in 2013 to break our M-VG record with a two-way average of 73.0mph. We also added a small fairing and set a record in 175-MPS-VG at 71.7mph. Those two records still stand.”
Doug Jandebeur is 84, and used to be a Parilla dealer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1961, he talked a friend into flying him and his Parilla to Daytona for the U.S. Motorcycle Club races. Doug qualified third fastest in the 250cc Lightweight class 62-mile race and started on the front row alongside Mike Hailwood on a Mondial and Japanese rider Moto Kitano on a Honda. Doug finished, but had a mechanical problem that cost him some time while Moto (was there ever a better name for a motorcycle racer?) won the race.
Doug, who had his Daytona bike at Parilla Days, told me he’d like to clean it up a bit but his family won’t let him, claiming it’ll reduce its value! Upon receiving a recognition award at the Friday night VIP dinner, Doug told the assembled that events like Parilla Days “just make you want to live another day.”
The 175cc Gran Sport built by Giuseppe “Joe” Rottigni and raced by him to victory in the Lightweight class at the 1959 Daytona road race was also on display, as was the 42-pound toolbox that Rottigni and Eraldo Ferracci (better known today as the founder of Fast by Ferracci) used trackside to service the Parilla race bikes. Rottigni, who is credited with bringing Italian-style riding to the U.S., was the racer, tuner and mechanic for many of the bikes from American Parilla distributor Cosmo Motors. The toolbox was brought just as it was when it was last used.
Well-known Parilla aficionado Paul “PJ” Johnson brought his stunning “Killa Parilla” with lovely aluminum bodywork by Evan Wilcox. PJ has been involved with Parillas for decades and organized the previous two Parilla Days events in the U.S., in 1999 and 2005.
Ennis King, a talented rider who’s been riding PJ’s bikes for more than a decade, brought a pair of 250cc Parilla race bikes to the event. In 2005, Ennis was racing a Honda RC51 Superbike when PJ talked him into trying the Parilla. Impressed by the handling and novelty of the little bike, Ennis gave up the modern stuff for the challenge of making the Italian underdog competitive against more powerful 2-strokes. Ennis plans to run the Parillas at several AHRMA events in 2016.
Parilla is best known for its small displacement 175cc-250cc single-cylinder 4-stroke motorcycles featuring the “high-cam” engine introduced in 1952 and used in more than 20 models. The chain-driven camshaft was positioned high on the left side of the engine and was unusual for using a single lobe to open and close both the inlet and exhaust valves via very short pushrods. Both valves had equal lift and duration, and lobe separation was fixed at 105 degrees (the angle included by the two pushrods). Despite these restrictions on cam design, the engine had a broad powerband and performed exceptionally well. The short, lightweight pushrods allowed the high-cam engines to rev to 9,500rpm, making them competitive with the high-revving overhead cam bikes being built by the competition.
In the 1950s, Larry Wise and his father, Ernest, set up Cosmopolitan Motors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to import European bikes including Benelli, Motobi and MV Agusta. In 1957, Cosmo became the U.S. importer and distributor for Parilla, which at one time ranked fifth in size among Italian manufacturers behind Vespa, Lambretta, Moto Guzzi and Bianchi.
Larry, who turned 85 just before the event, is still sharp as a tack, and entertained the group with tales of traveling across the U.S. in the late 1950s with Rottigni. In 1958, founder Giovanni Parrilla (the family name was spelled with two r’s, the company with only one) sent Rottigni, winner of the 1957 Motogiro d’Italia on a 175cc Parilla, to the U.S. with his winning machine to provide technical and sales support for Cosmo.
Parilla Days brought together several racers responsible for creating Parilla’s winning reputation in the 1960s, when manufacturers relied heavily on racing to promote their brands and drive sales. Norris Rancourt won two AFM championships on master tuner Orrin Hall’s Parilla known as “Gadget 1” in the early 1960s. Along with Frank Scurria, former Parilla racers Rod Guy and Doug Jandebeur, now in their 70s and 80s, shared their stories with the assembled.
Parilla’s swan song came in 1964, when Ron Grant and Norris Rancourt rode Orrin’s 250cc bike to a pair of second-place finishes at Daytona races held one month apart. In 1967, Giovanni Parrilla stopped building motorcycles and shifted to building racing karts, an enterprise that Giovanni’s two sons, Angelo and Achille, still pursue today.
Parillas were, are, and will forever be elegant and attractive machines. With enthusiasts and fabricators keeping them running, and racers like Jarl and Ennis keeping them in the hunt for results on tracks and salt flats, maybe we won’t have to wait another decade for the next Parilla Days. MC
The 2015 Parilla Days event would not have happened without the passion, dedication and efforts of two guys named Jim. Jim Dallarosa lives a stone’s throw from Colorado National Speedway in Erie, Colorado, where he runs motorcycle restoration shop Vintage Motorcycles. The second Jim is Jim Dillard III, the son of the late Jim Dillard Jr., a passionate collector of vintage Italian motorcycles and the founder and owner of Vintage Motos Museum in Denver, Colorado.
The original museum contained 220 bikes, 50-60 of which were sold after the museum closed following Jim Jr.’s death in 2011. Since taking over stewardship of the museum, Jim Dillard III has built the collection up to about 350 bikes. While the original collection was largely comprised of small displacement, 50cc-450cc machines, recent additions include large displacement motorcycles — particularly race bikes — Jim III admired as a young enthusiast.
In addition to their close friendship, Jim and Jim work as partners and have received worldwide recognition for their motorcycle restoration efforts. For example, when Eastern European motorcycles were featured in a special class at the 2014 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, their 1952 IFA/MZ BK350 twin won Best in Class.
Dallarosa and Dillard footed the bill for the 2015 Parilla Days event — it was their party and everyone was their guest. It was a labor of love for the Jims, their wives and a few close friends, and it was the fulfillment of a long-held dream of all three Jims — Dallarosa and both Dillards.
The two Jims say that if there is another Parilla Days event in the U.S., they won’t be the ones organizing it. The 2015 event was touted as the largest gathering of Parillas ever in the U.S. and, perhaps, the final such event. Let’s hope not.
The Jims are currently working to find a new home for the Dillard collection, a place where enthusiasts can see and appreciate the exquisite motorcycles the Dillards have collected. Perhaps the new museum will host future Parilla Days events. — Corey Levenson