Archives: Morbidelli – The Ultimate David vs Goliath
If you peruse the MotoGP record books, you’ll find Morbidelli won four Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championships – six, if you include the two titles won by Morbidelli spinoff MBA – including winning two classes titles in the same season. I assumed that Morbidelli must have been one of the dozens of motorcycle or scooters manufacturers in Italy during the 1960s and ‘70s, but I was wrong. Turns out that during its racing heyday of the 1970s, Morbidelli didn’t mass produce streetbikes or scooters, in fact the entire operation was run out of the back of a woodworking machine shop by three and sometimes four people!
Archives: Morbidelli – The Ultimate David vs Goliath
That’s right, this tiny Italian cottage shop, met face to face on the track against some of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world and came out on top, not once but four times! In all, Morbidelli scored a total of 35 wins in GP competition (30 in the 125cc class and 5 in the 250cc class). It truly is one of the most remarkable David vs Goliath stories in GP history.
Giancarlo Morbidelli, like many Italians of his generation, grew up loving motorcycles. Born in 1938, Morbidelli’s teen years, the 1950s, was a brilliant period for Italian motorcycle racing. From a young age Giancarlo was constantly tinkering on motorcycles and scooters in a quest to make them faster and more reliable.
During the 1960s Morbidelli built a thriving woodworking machinery company, which exists to this day. By the end of the 1960s his machinery company put Morbidelli into a situation that allowed him to further indulge his passion for motorcycle racing. In 1968 Morbidelli built and tuned machines for Luciano Mele, which earned Mele the Italian Junior Championship. Bolstered by his success, Morbidelli decided to take his involvement to the next level and build a racing motorcycle of his own design. He hired racer and go-kart racing engine designer Franco Ringhini to run a race shop in a small section of Morbidelli’s woodworking machinery plant.
The first Morbidelli racer produced was 50cc machine in 1969. It was state-of-the-art six-speed, water-cooled, two-stroke, rotary valve single. The little Morbidelli made its world championship debut in ’69 with Ringhini and Eugenio Lazzarini riding. Lazzarini scored Morbidelli’s first world championship points when he finished 10th in the 50cc class at the Dutch TT. A couple of rounds later at the Sachsenring, both Lazzarini (6th) and Ringhini (10th) scored points. Not bad for a first-year bike produced out of the back of a woodworking machine shop. 1969 would mark the first of 14 seasons that would see Morbidelli machines entered in Grand Prix competition.
In 1970, in addition to the 50cc class, Morbidelli moved up to the 125cc class with a two-cylinder design. Gilberto Parlotti scored the first ever victory for the maker at Brno that year. Parlotti’s and Morbidelli’s second GP win came on home soil the next season at Monza, over a star-studded field that included Barry Sheene and Angel Nieto.
In ’72 Parlotti hit his stride and was well on his way to winning the 125cc GP title for Morbidelli before tragedy struck at the Isle of Man.
Going into the Isle of Man round in ’72, Parlotti had won at the opening round at the Nürburgring in Germany and then again at the Charade circuit in France, to take a commanding lead in the 125cc World Championships. He further scored podium results at both the Salzburgring and his home Grand Prix at Imola, heading into round five at the Isle of Man – which at that time still counted as a world championship round in the smaller classes.
Parlotti took the early lead under drizzly conditions, by as much as 20 seconds on corrected time over pre-race favorite, Yamaha’s Chas Mortimer, and held that lead until 25 minutes into the second lap. Parlotti crashed on a newly-paved Verandah section on the A18 Mountain Road, said to be especially slick when wet. He was flown by helicopter to the hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival.
Parlotti’s death was a crushing blow to Morbidelli and his small team. It also played a major role in getting the Isle of Man off the GP calendar. The tragedy put the team on a tailspin from which it didn’t appear it would recover.
The turnaround came in 1974 with Morbidelli hired rider Paolo Pileri and engineer Jörg Möller. By the end of the season things began to gel. Pileri won pole and finished second in the race at Brno. With the addition of the talented Pier-Paolo Bianchi to ride alongside Pileri and Möller putting his touches on the bikes, the team was ready for a breakout season in ’75 and that just what happened. Pileri absolutely dominated the season, winning seven 125cc rounds and the title. Icing on the cake came with Bianchi finishing as runner up giving Morbidelli a one-two finish in the world championship. The little Morbidelli 125cc GP machine was an absolute flyer and under optimal conditions was capable of 145 mph! And it was perhaps the most reliable machine on the grid.
Bianchi would then go on to win the 125 GP world title in 1976 and ’77.
After such amazing success, Morbidelli reached an agreement with Benelli Armi (the gun maker, which was located in the same town Adriatic coast town of Pesaro, as Morbidelli’s shop) to build Morbidelli production 125cc 250cc and later 350cc race machines. At the Milan Motorcycle Show at the end of 1975, 60 of the works replica Morbidelli’s were sold and with that, Morbidelli, for the first time, became a motorcycle manufacturer. Later the machines were rebadged as MBA (which stood for Morbidelli Benelli Armi) and continued racing and winning throughout much of the 1980s.
The customer Morbidellis were so good, that by 1977 the 125cc GP class was almost a spec class, with all but two riders in the top 20 that season riding Morbidellis. In addition, Mario Lega won the 250cc GP title on a factory Morbidelli. It’s fair to say 1977 marked the zenith of the company.
On an interesting side note, at Bonneville in October of 1977, racer Peter Grufstedt established five class speed records on a Kevin Cameron-tuned Morbidelli 125cc production racer. It marked the first time in history that a rider set five records during Bonneville Speed Week on a single machine.
Morbidelli made a run at the premier 500cc class with two different engine designs, a square four, then a V-4, mostly ridden by Graziano Rossi and Giovanni Pelletier, but in four years of trying the team only managed a single points-paying finish (Rossi a 9th at Imola in ’79).
By the early ‘80s Morbidelli was beginning to focus more on his son’s auto racing career. Gianni Morbidelli made it all the way to Formula One in the 1990s and scored a podium in Australia in 1995.
Morbidelli faded into history until the mid-1990s when he stunned the motorcycling world with a prototype V-8 Morbidelli sport touring bike. Unfortunately, the V-8 never went into production.
Today Giancarlo Morbidelli suffers from a severe case of Alzheimer’s. His wonderful motorcycle museum in his hometown closed and most of the 350-bike collection look likely to be auctioned off. The family hopes to retain the world championship winning Morbidellis.
Morbidelli’s building of a world-beating racing operation on such a small scale in the back of his woodwork machine plant is one of the all-time inspirational stories in all of racing.