“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” — Orson Welles as Harry Lime, “The Third Man” 1949
OK, Orson, the Swiss never produced cuckoo clocks. But they did a nice line in music boxes, produced in small villages in the mountains of northern Switzerland, where the motorcycle shown in these pages was also assembled. A Swiss motorcycle? Not only that, a Swiss army motorcycle called the Condor A350.
The engine is unmistakably Italian. (Or is it? We’ll come to that later.) The frame, tank and seat are Swiss made, the electrics are a mixture of Italian, German and Spanish components, while wheels, brakes and suspension are also Italian. With such a mélange of a motorcycle, you won’t be surprised to learn that the manual comes in three languages, none of which is English.
From bicycles to motorcycles
Our story begins in the small village of Courfaivre in the Jura Mountains of northern Switzerland, the watch-making center of the country, where the firm of Cycles Condor sought to fulfill a government demand for army motorcycles, which had to be made in Switzerland.
Condor began producing bicycles for the Swiss army in 1904, and it continued to produce the same heavyweight military bicycle, with a few improvements, right up to 1993 when a modern mountain bike finally replaced it. The company’s motorcycle-producing history is a little more complicated.
Condor started selling motorcycles in the early 1900s. Many early models used engines and transmissions bought from other manufacturers like Motosache and Villiers. During World War II, the Swiss army coveted the German army’s Zundapp- and BMW-powered sidecar outfits, so Condor set out to design its own shaft-drive army boxer, the A580.
Built to withstand military use and abuse, it was tough but, with cast iron cylinders and side-valve heads, was too heavy for anyone else, and also too expensive. While the A580 and its sidecar-dragging brother, the A750, were marketed to the public in Switzerland, they cost twice as much as comparable BMW models. Understandably, civilian sales were slow, but the army bought plenty: its riders couldn’t complain.
Lighter is better
In the early 1950s, responding to criticism of its heavyweight bikes and the demand for cheaper transport, the company developed a 350cc 2-stroke twin called the Racer, which was successful in the civilian market. For the army, which also started to demand lighter transport as the A580 was replaced by lightweight trucks, Condor developed a 250cc 4-stroke single, the C350. Cycles Condor also started marketing a range of scooters and mopeds powered by Puch and other small engines from outside suppliers.
By the 1970s, the Swiss army was looking for a replacement for its aging motorcycle fleet. As before, the specifications called for a Swiss-made motorcycle, and Condor was again chosen. This time Condor elected to use a 350cc Ducati-made single-cylinder engine, detuned from 30hp to just under 17hp by using a smaller (27mm versus 29mm) carburetor and mild cams. Rubber mounted in its own Swiss-made frame, the Condor A350 was produced from 1973 to 1978, and around 3,000 were made. Some Condors were still being used by the Swiss military as late as 2001, though by then most had been replaced with BMW Funduro 650 singles.
Italian or Spanish engines?
Ducati’s single-cylinder, bevel-drive overhead cam engine was produced from 1956 on, starting as a 100cc and eventually growing to a 450cc model. Desmodromic valve actuation was introduced for some models beginning in 1968, with the standard valve spring version retained for others. Ducati stopped producing singles around 1974 in Italy, although Mototrans in Spain produced them under license until the early 1980s, which brings us to an interesting question: Were these Condor motorcycles, built from 1973 to 1978, powered by Spanish- or Italian-built engines? After all, Mototrans provided engines for the 350cc Scrambler models sold in Italy in 1974, so might Ducati have supplied Condor with Mototrans engines?
Further, there’s the basic question: How can you tell the engines apart? Mick Walker lists a couple of ways in his Ducati Singles Restoration book: “Spanish engines can be identified by rougher grain, matte and unpolished finish on the outer covers, or in the case of the 1974 Mark 3/350 models, which were made in Spain for the Italian market, the lack of the words ‘Made in Italy’ on the small clutch inspection cover on the left side of the engine.” Other sources point out that the Spanish singles were fitted with infamously unreliable Motoplat electronic ignition systems, while the Italian-made engines used a Ducati Electronica system.
And the Condor engine? The quality of castings is poorer than earlier Ducati models, but the outer covers are polished. The clutch inspection cover says “Condor” and nothing else; remember, this is supposed to be a Swiss-made motorcycle. Ignition is by points and a Ducati Electronica coil, although a Spanish Motoplat voltage regulator is fitted. Without stripping a Condor engine down side-by-side with a known Ducati engine, it’s hard to say whether the Condor used a “true” Ducati engine or one from Mototrans, but it would make sense if it was the latter, especially on machines made after 1974.
Wherever its engine was built, the Condor demonstrates Swiss attention to detail. Late-model “wide case” Ducati singles (so named because the rear engine to frame mounting points are set wider apart than the front) hold 3 quarts of SAE10/30 oil that also has to lubricate the transmission and clutch, and Ducati’s original screen-type oil filters don’t do much to extend the life of the engine. On a Condor, an external oil filter, fed from the timing chest, cleans the oil, helping to ensure longevity.
In an attempt to make servicing the bike almost soldier-proof, the oil dipstick and filler plug are painted red and both can be opened by hand instead of a wrench as on a standard Ducati single. Toolboxes on either side of the machine originally held a complete toolkit, down to a cleaning sponge and a selection of spares mounted in foam-rubber — including carburetor jets and spare bulbs.
The headlamp will be familiar to many BMW owners of the period, with the same nail-type ignition key, Bosch internals and a power take-off plug on the underside. Not that you’ll get much power — the electrical system is 6 volt, powered by a Ducati Electronica alternator. Ignition, as previously noted, is by points and Ducati coil, not the electronic system fitted to Ducati production bikes of the era, and it is here that a failure occurred that may have caused a previous owner to park the bike and pull the fuel system apart in frustration. Even if the battery is fully charged, the bike will not run unless there’s a good external ground connection between engine and frame. That’s because of the rubber engine mounts that isolate the engine from the frame. That problem sorted, and another carburetor fitted, we were ready to give our little Swiss a run — that is, after reading the instruction manual, which is printed in French, German and Italian!
Fire it up
The Swiss civilized the starting ritual with a handlebar-mounted choke lever, and the low-compression single responds to a single prod on the left-side kickstart with a quiet chuffing. Opening the throttle results in only tiny increases in noise from the huge muffler — this is one of the quietest motorcycles you’ll never hear; helpful in allowing the Swiss army patrols a modicum of surprise, perhaps?
What does surprise is the sight of the engine shaking in the frame at idle, just like a rubber-mounted Harley. The gearshift is on the right and shifts up for first, down for second through fifth. Once you’re on the move, you realize some of the differences between this bike and a factory Ducati single. First, this bike is built to suit normal people, not shrimps. Second, it really is de-tuned. The power output of around 17hp is little more than half that of a well-prepared Ducati 350, so the bike doesn’t lunge forward like a Duck. Smooth forward progress is more like it, with less vibration, thanks to the rubber mounted engine.
Handling is less than razor sharp, although there are no nasty surprises. The frame is solid enough, and both front and rear suspension is made by Marzocchi, so it works well enough, which is, unfortunately, more than you can say for the brakes. The front single-leading-shoe setup is grabby and lacks power, and after an initial bite you find yourself relying on the leverage of the rear brake pedal for much of your stopping.
That said, the well-mannered single left no oil drips on the garage floor, always started easily in a couple of kicks and didn’t disturb the neighbors, an important consideration for some of us.
Sixties sport bike it’s not, but as an around-town runabout or a mount for a relaxing Sunday ride, it would be hard to find a more practical classic. MC