There were plenty of times when Craig Congleton was ready to put James Britton’s old Dog to sleep.
In 2000, Britton’s Parilla 200GS began rattling during a practice lap at the Sandia Motor Speedway outside Albuquerque, N.M. After Britton nursed it back to the pits, he discovered that the crankshaft had spun loose and caused what looked like a bomb blast in the case.
“Definitely a disappointment,” Britton says. “I hadn’t even raced it yet.”
Enter Congleton, a machinist who had built a Benelli race bike for himself and agreed to resurrect the GS. At first glance, Congleton was dazzled with the design of the engine, with its shapely side cover and unique high-cam layout. But behind the pretty face, he says, lurked a nightmare.
“It’s beautiful. They’re works of art,” Congleton says. “But they’re just horribly fragile. I find them to be under-engineered and designed from the outside in.”
He then imagines the Parilla engine designer’s pitch to the Italian motorcycle company’s ownership, pointing out that parts of the engine seem to resemble female anatomy — especially a camshaft cover that looks like one of Pamela Anderson’s more, um, prominent features. “I’m-a gonna draw a real pretty woman. It’s-a beautiful. We’re-a gonna sell the crap outta these. Now all we gotta do is-a figure out how to-a make it work.”
Congleton spent five years unraveling the Parilla’s design, which features such quirks as a single cam lobe for both the exhaust and intake ports. A translated factory manual wasn’t much help, offering instructions like bending the connecting rod to make it fit in the cylinder.
These days, Congleton jokes that Parillas must have been designed by guys who couldn’t get a job with Benelli. “The Parilla guys hate me,” he says, smiling.
Not Britton, though. Last September, on the same track where his Parilla suffered its mortal wound, it roared back to life with a third-place finish during American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association racing at the Third Annual Sandia Classic. “That was fun,” Britton says. “To come out and get third place in this bike’s first race, that was great.”
Britton wasn’t the only Parilla owner smiling at Sandia. Parilla Days, organized by collector Paul Johnson and coinciding with the AHRMA event, brought together an international group of owners and some of the rarest and most beautifully restored bikes from the company’s stable.
Road racers, scramblers, a flat tracker and a Ramjet Streamliner scooter — which would have looked at home in George Jetson’s garage — were among the attractions. Rarities included Jim Dillard’s 350cc vertical twin, one of only a handful of surviving examples of the bike.
“That was a difficult restoration,” says Dillard, who maintains a collection of about 150 bikes. “Those bikes were never popular, and when people try something and it flops, the dealers sell a few cheap and never buy any parts. I was lucky, because I got parts from the original distributor.”
Among the faces in the crowd was Norris Rancourt, who started racing Parillas in 1960 and became one of the company’s winningest riders. Teamed with master turner Orin Hall, Rancourt’s exploits included a second-place finish at Daytona. “Because of my racing, I got hooked up with a Honda rep at the track and ended up getting a Honda dealership in 1962. That worked out real well on both ends, because I was racing Parilla and beating Hondas but I was a Honda dealer.” Rancourt eventually left Parilla but is still dealing Hondas in California. The 25 bikes in the Parilla Days display area sparked memories of his favorite bike, the custom-tuned 250cc single nicknamed “The Gadget.”
“That was a sweet bike to ride. Some guys didn’t do the prep that Orin did, but this one was just so easy to race. Orin had it set up for such a wide powerband that we could be lugging out of a corner at a little above 4,000rpm and it would still be pulling hard.”
Giovanni Parrilla had been operating a mechanical repair shop and spark plug dealership near Milan, Italy, when he set out to design and build a motorcycle after World War II. His first creation, a 250cc single inspired by the Norton Manx, debuted in 1946, and a street version became available the following year.
Parrilla, incidentally, dropped one of the r’s in his surname in forming the name of his motorcycle company. The early Fifties brought more variety to the line, starting with 100cc and 125cc single two-strokes in 1950 and the first of the high-cam models in 1952.
The high-cam featured valves operated by short, splayed pushrods that were driven by a single chain-driven camshaft at the top of the timing case. The works were unorthodox, but specially tuned versions of the 175 single — including the GS (Gran Sport) and MSDS — could hit 100mph.
In the 1960s, the 175 was boosted to 200cc and then to 250cc. The 250cc was especially deadly in the hands of riders like Rancourt and Ron Grant, who finished runner-up in the 1964 United States Grand Prix on one. Parilla also concentrated on off-road racing: its 250cc Wildcat Scrambler was the most powerful machine in its class.
Although Parilla’s greyhound logo was a common sight on awards stands, financial problems were eating away at the company’s foundation. In 1967, Parilla quit manufacturing motorcycles.
“After World War II, there were a bunch of companies making motorcycles in Italy because people needed inexpensive transportation,” Dillard says. “But eventually, automobiles got more affordable. It’s the same thing that happened in the U.S.: There were 200 motorcycle manufacturers here in the early 1900s, then the Model T came out and you ended up with a handful.”
Back on the run
Dillard says Congleton can say what he wants about the high-cam. But he says the company’s racing success, coupled with the durability of the engines in the Parilla Days bikes, proves the design and reliability were solid.
“It’s a good engine,” he says. “Every bike I’ve ever restored has had some foibles, but I overlook them because they were built in the Fifties and Sixties, and things were different then. They didn’t design things as well as they do now. They did a lot of it on the back of the envelope and that kind of thing.”
Besides, he says, are Parilla owners supposed to apologize because their machines are nice on the eyes?
“The engine on a modern Honda is not pretty,” he says. “It’s a great engine, but they don’t have any character. You look at any of the Italian bikes, they all have a certain character and they really look different. Parilla was the only company who built that high-cam engine, and it’s designed to be attractive.”
1912 — Giovanni Parrilla is born in southern Italy.
1946 — Parrilla announces his first 250cc models. His newly-formed company drops one “r” to become Moto Parilla.
1947 — Production of the Parilla Corsa and Sportster begin.
1948 — Twin-cam Bialbero released. Horsepower increased from 18 to 21.
1950 — 350cc engine introduced.
1952 — First high-cam produced, a 175cc version. An experimental 125cc, chain-driven double-overhead-cam engine debuts but never goes into production.
1953 — 175cc Competizione production racer released.
1956 — 175cc Sport introduced. This would be Parilla’s best-selling model.
1962 — Giovanni Parrilla sells Moto Parilla to a holding company.
1967 — Moto Parilla goes out of business.