Motorcycle Classics

Tempting Fate: Around the World on Ducati 175 Tourismos

Fourteen years ago, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman gave adventure riding its biggest boost when they rode from London across Northern Europe to New York on BMW R1150GS motorcycles.

BMW supplied the bikes, which became a best-seller after McGregor and Boorman’s ratings-winning, seven-episode TV series Long Way Round was released in 2005. But Ewan and Charley weren’t the first corporate adventure riders whose efforts boosted sales of a particular model motorcycle.

That honor falls on Leopoldo Tartarini and Giorgio Monetti, who 60 years ago rode across 42 countries and five continents to promote Ducati’s new 175 Tourismo. Like Ewan and Charley, they filmed their epic adventure, but on 16mm cameras with no sound. Sixty years later, a film and book are finally being released.

Like Ewan and Charley, Leopoldo and Giorgio had factory support (from Ducati), professional assistance in planning their route, and a list of dealers in some of the countries they travelled through if they needed help. Unlike Ewan and Charley, they rode without backup vehicles, did their own filming, took a year and covered over 37,000 miles, not four months and 19,000 miles. This is their story.

Who are they?

Two young lions of Italian youth culture of the 1950s, at first glance Leopoldo Tartarini and Giorgio Monetti appear to be polar opposites. Tartarini was a popular Ducati works racer, forced into premature retirement when a serious leg injury left him with a limp. Born into a Bologna motorcycling family, he had first ridden a minibike-sidecar outfit built by his father when he was just 4 years old. During World War II, Tartarini combined schooling with working as a mechanic at his father’s business. When his father died in a motorcycle race after the war, Tartarini took over the business.

Monetti was from one of Bologna’s wealthiest families, which dictated its sons qualified either in medicine or law. He chose law, but his passion was travel. While Tartarini was taking over his father’s business, Monetti was taking extended breaks from his study to tour Europe on a variety of motorcycles, including a Matchless 500cc single, a tiny NSU 100cc 2-stroke, and a Gilera Saturno.

Meanwhile, Tartarini was olognalancing running the family’s motorcycle business with racing, especially in the new endurance events run along the length of Italy’s rebuilt postwar road system. He first came to national prominence after winning his class in the Milano-Taranto race on a homebuilt BSA 650cc-powered sidecar. He then won the first Moto Giro d’Italia in 1953, covering almost 2,000 miles on his privately owned Benelli. Tartarini quickly elevated to works rider status, first with Benelli and then Ducati, but a high-speed crash in the 1956 Moto Giro forced him to quit racing, and there were fears he would never walk again.

Monetti also developed a passion for speed, but on four wheels. He took part in circuit racing and hill climbs driving Fiats he modified himself. Later, he would help Ducati’s legendary engineer Fabio Taglioni design and develop the 1.5 liter V8 Formula One engine (he still owns it!). Monetti also built the first proof of concept turbo engine for Fiat. He is now long retired to a farm outside Bologna.

Tartarini’s later efforts were even more spectacular. He established Italian motorcycle manufacturer Italjet in 1960, and also worked as a consultant for Ducati, most famously on the green-frame Ducati 750SS race replica of 1973. He died, aged 83, in 2015.

The two adventurers became united after Tartarini suggested to Ducati management that he could promote the new 175 by riding it from Italy to Turkey, or perhaps Africa. Giuseppe Montano, Ducati’s free-thinking managing director, countered with an even more audacious plan: ride the new model around the world. Montano, who was busy transforming Ducati into one of the world’s major motorcycle companies, wasn’t afraid of risk.

With Ducati agreeing to underwrite the adventure, Tartarini needed someone to ride shotgun. Monetti, with both his legal and mechanical skills, fit the bill perfectly.

Why a 175?

In the 1950s, most Italian motorcycle companies produced road models based on their lightweight, long-distance endurance racers. From 1955 to 1957, Ducati dominated many of Italy’s road events, thanks to their brilliant designer, Fabio Taglioni. But as Ducati grew and pushed into export markets in the late-1950s, it needed a larger road-only model to challenge the established European, English and American manufacturers.

Taglioni designed and produced Ducati’s first overhead-camshaft single, the 100 Gran Sport, in 1954. The 100 Gran Sport appeared on the racetrack and soon proved unbeatable in its class, and would shape the company’s future over the next four decades. The strength of the design was amply proven, as it was enlarged from the original 98cc all the way up to 436cc by the late 1960s. Versions of this classic single-cylinder engine remained in production until 1982 via Spanish affiliate Mototrans.

While Ducati developed twin-cam and even three-cam racers, it released the road-going single overhead camshaft 175 Sport at the Milan Show in November 1956. This was followed by the 175T Tourismo version. It was aimed at the touring rider, a new market for Ducati, which was more used to selling its performance models to local café racers.

The 175cc engine was very sophisticated, especially in an era when most motorcycles had a long-stroke configuration, with pushrods driving overhead valves, cast-iron cylinders, chain primary drive and dry-sump lubrication. The Ducati had a bore and stroke of 62mm by 57.8mm. Its single overhead camshaft was driven by bevel shafts and gears, and the aluminum cylinder, slanted forward 10 degrees, had a cast-iron liner. A geared primary drive drove a 4-speed gearbox, and lubrication was an automotive-type wet-sump system, driven by a geared pump. In its ultimate Super Sport form, it produced 14 horsepower at 8,000rpm, with a top speed of almost 80mph.

By contrast, the Tourismo model produced 12 horsepower at 7,000rpm, but with a dry weight of only 229 pounds it could nudge 70mph and had a cruising speed of 55mph. It was a near perfect combination of light weight and engine performance that could challenge the best from around the world. Ducati was now on the world map and the path to sales success. All it needed was some heroic achievement to confirm the 175T’s durability and complete its marketing publicity. Enter Leopoldo Tartarini and Giorgio Monetti.

The journey

Much like Ewan and Charley’s 2004 expedition, Tartarini and Monetti, under the sponsorship of Ducati, relied on experts to plan their 1957-1958 world tour. Viaggi Salvadori, one of Italy’s oldest tourist agencies, mapped out a route that took in as many countries as possible that either had Ducati distributors or showed potential to become importers.

Ducati factory technicians gave both motorcycles a thorough going-over. They were mechanically standard, but the rear sub frames were revised to incorporate solo seats and luggage racks that carried special aluminum cases and a spare wheel. Braced handlebars were fitted, along with crash-bars. The riders were given detailed maintenance instructions, including how to undertake complete engine rebuilds if they had to. They were kitted out in leather riding suits and given handguns for personal protection. Possibly becoming the pioneers of adventuring riding sponsorship, the travelers secured assistance from Regina chains and Pirelli tires and cash from other benefactors.

Their farewell from Ducati’s factory on Sept. 30, 1957, was blessed by Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro and over 1,000 assembly workers, motorcycle club riders and Tartarini’s race fans. Soon they were on their own and heading to their first big test.

Shock of the unknown

The world was undergoing huge political change in the 1950s. Many nations were in the process of throwing off the shackles of European colonial rule, while others were tearing themselves apart as populations revolted against corrupt regimes. Although just a day’s ride east of Italy, Yugoslavia was a world away for wide-eyed Tartarini and Monetti.

Under President Marshal Tito, this conglomeration of six socialist republics was on a course of non-alignment with either Russia or the West while it expanded its manufacturing exports. The economy was growing, but it was still largely a closed society with a feared secret police force.

For the two weeks it took Tartarini and Monetti to travel south towards Greece they were shadowed by a man in a raincoat and grubby white nylon, and when they realized that a long jail sentence awaited anyone caught with armaments, they flushed their pistols down a toilet.

In Greece, they soon realized that lack of fuel would be a constant problem. Even with extra cans tied to their luggage, they frequently ran out. Like most explorers, Tartarini and Monetti soon modified their load. Heavy spare parts like pistons and connecting rods were left at local Ducati dealers, and the large and heavy expedition cases were replaced with featherweight cardboard suitcases. Their bulky leather riding suits were shunned for T-shirts and cotton trousers. “Impoverished immigrant style” was the description the riders gave to their new image.

They passed through Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran towards Pakistan and India. Just a few months earlier, a populist uprising had overthrown Iraq’s British-supported monarchy. As Tartarini and Monetti rode into Baghdad, they noticed four people recently hanged under a colonnade.

The vast deserts they now crossed also brought enduring memories. Monetti said later the flat horizon where blue sky met yellow sands brought him “a sense of claustrophobia” that he found “wonderful” and matched later by a similar feeling in the Andes mountains of South America. Tartarini said he remembered “survival problems to find food and water.”

The pair also began to discover that a simple trust of strangers and a non-judgmental attitude was repaid by kindness and honesty, and there were only a few occasions when they felt threatened. As the adventure unfolded, one amazing experience followed another. Sharing a highway in India with elephants used as beasts of burden, bullock carts, naked holy men and sacred cows was just one.

They rode through Burma and Thailand and headed down to opulent Singapore, which had a Ducati showroom. Opting to stay in the more affordable waterfront region found the adventurers caught up in a barroom brawl and rescued by visiting Italian sailors.

More serious problems arose when Tartarini and Monetti entered Indonesia, which was still in the throes of establishing a peaceful self-rule after kicking out the Dutch. The two riders, especially the blond Monetti, were confused by many locals as being Dutch, so authorities detained them for their own safety. After a couple of weeks, President Sukarno released the pair, treated them to a lunch with his ministers and sent an escort from his newly formed police force to accompany them out of the country.

Pushing on

The next stop was Darwin, Australia, to start 1958. After the lush tropical island, the riders described the Top End as looking like a “wasteland.” The Northern Territory’s capital was a tiny town of basic wooden buildings, not the prosperous city it is now. And the food wasn’t much better. A misunderstanding in a restaurant resulted in another punch-up before the pair headed down to Melbourne. There they visited the Italian Consulate General’s office, where Monetti met the great man’s daughter, and eventually would marry her (they are long amicably separated).

The next stop was the Americas. Rather than traverse the United States, the journey passed through one of the engineering marvels of the modern world, the Panama Canal. Panama City, the country’s capital, also had a Ducati dealership. By March of 1958 they were on their way to Venezuela, a country still simmering with internal tensions after that January’s coup d’état. Two incidents in Venezuela summed up a lot about the adventurers and their attitudes about traveling.

First was the practical joke: A local journalist on the island nation of Curacao, just off the coast of Venezuela, came to interview Monetti. His wandering hands revealed very clearly what he wanted. With great diplomacy Monetti said: “I can’t accept, but my friend is very talented,” ushering him to Tartarini’s room. He then waited outside suppressing his laughter before the sound of a scuffle was heard, followed by the journalist’s hasty departure.

Second was the package from home: A package was waiting when they arrived at their hotel on Isla Margarita, a popular Venezuela holiday island. Tartarini’s sister, Fiorella, had sent news from home and a recording of the new hit song Volare, sung by Italian master croner Domenico Modugno. Tartarini was so excited he insisted the hotel replace their lobby music with Volare. Later Monetti would say: “I wasn’t impressed by this episode. Volare didn’t move me a lot. Poldino [Tartarini’s nickname] missed Italy and tagliatelle (his local pasta). I didn’t miss home.”

Back on the road in April 1958, the pair met unimagined challenges on the Pan-American Highway south of Ecuador, where mud and slush reduced daily distances to less than 15 miles. Then they had to cross the Andes, including the 10,500-foot-elevation Paso del Cristo Redentor pass. When the bikes failed at high altitude, they had to take refuge in a tunnel to escape hypothermia, and then coast with their engines off down to the Mendoza region of Argentina, where they undertook repairs. “Today, you throw away an engine and fit a new one,” Monetti says. “Back then, you fixed your motorcycle in the street.” It took until June for the pair to make it into Brazil.

When they got to Sao Paulo, authorities suggested they spend 10 days off the bikes visiting one of the last traditional tribes living in the Mato Grosso. It left a lasting impression on Monetti, concerned about the changing world and the future it offered. “The authorities gave us a carbine and said that if we had any problems, shoot them,” he remembers, “as if we had a license to kill.”

He was equally unimpressed with the missionaries trying to end the indigenous way of life. “The local tribespeople received us with indifference, and after I met a missionary I took the liberty of telling him that maybe he was pestering them instead of bringing the faith because he was teaching something to somebody who maybe did well even without knowing it.”

The original plan had been to travel by ship to Cape Town and ride up Africa’s east coast, but political unrest in many of those countries found the pair in Dakar, Senegal. Ironically, they followed a large part of the much later and famous Paris-Dakar rally route, but it wasn’t a challenge to these seasoned adventurers. “We felt like we were almost home,” says Monetti, who described the distance from Dakar to Europe as”one finger’s length” on the world map the pair had. The Sahara was just another desert to cross.

Triumphant homecoming

Sept. 5, 1958, was a clear, sunny day in Bologna, Italy. In the late afternoon, a loud hum from a huge fleet of motorcycles drowned out the normal traffic noise on the city’s main road, the Via Rizzoli. Tartarini and Monetti were on the last few miles of their odyssey and heading back to the factory they had left nearly a year earlier, surrounded by fellow Ducati riders.

A few days earlier a message had gone out to all Ducati factory workers: “All employees in possession of light single-camshaft Ducati motorbikes have to come to the factory with their bikes… The employees will escort the two globetrotters from Bologna’s Ducati dealer to the factory’s entrance… It is the director’s desire that this event takes place with the usual given discipline, that doesn’t mean to limit enthusiasm, but to highlight it.”

Waiting at the factory gates with most of its workers was the proud managing director, Giuseppe Montano. Speaking from the heart, he said to Tartarini and Monetti: “We were with you in the wilds of the forests and in the deserts. We heard the nocturnal crackle of the machine guns with you in Syria and Indonesia, the screams of revolt in Venezuela… and now you are here, like two warriors who have won a peaceful battle. And I know what you are feeling today. As all those do, who on long journeys tempt their fate or who leave their homes for war or necessity return with souls matured.” Years later, Tartarini said of the ride, “This feat molded me, completed me. During a year like that everything happens, leaving you with values that will last for life.” MC

  • Published on Oct 23, 2018
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