Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mystery machines

Ivar de Gier is an especially good friend to Benzina, and supplies the magnificent period photographs that make producing the magazine such a joy. Ivar’s knowledge of period motorsport is phenomenal, and his patience with the gaps in my knowledge much appreciated. For issue 5 he’s promised to share some little known surprises of Italian motorcycle production. I’ve given him Carte Blanche, but here’s a taster of the sort of thing he’s come across in his research

“Italian born motorcycle legend Alessandro Anzani died in 1956, aged 79, seconds after asking a nurse “Please, do not shut the window” of his hospital ward. A motorcycle was driving by, and the nurse wanted to avoid the hard sound of the engine troubling her very sick patient. But Anzani did not want that: “I like the sound of engines,” he explained, although the energy it took to speak was too much for his ailing body and these were to be his last words. Maybe he wanted to move on that way, accompanied by the sound that always made his heart beat.

Italian born Anzani initially became famous for motorcycles that featured delicate twin and triple cylinder engines, and his bikes were immediately successful in racing. They also raced successfully on boardtracks across France, the country Anzani had moved to in 1900. Motorcycle racing had an incredible (yet today forgotten) birth on wooden velodromes (boardtracks) - the first motorcycles were bicycles with engines, so it made sense they also raced on velodromes. In an era where combustion engines were not yet accepted on the European mainland (apparently they had a tendency to turn milk in cows sour – and they scared horses), it was also an accepted arena for the first battles in motorcycle racing.

The Anzani lightweight motorcycles were absolute works of art. They delivered more power then any other motorcycle of that era with the same cylinder capacity. Alessandro Anzani was able to build these machines because of income generated by building “stayer” motorcycles (bikes that racing cyclists drafted when racing on velodromes). Yesterday I happened to come across a postcard in our archives that is now 107 years old, from 1904. It shows an Anzani twin cylinder stayer motorcycle. I believe it must have been one of his very, very earliest products as his more regular motorcycle production did not start up until 1907. Machines like this formed the bread and butter of the company at the time, and made it possible for him to expand his advanced and incredible engineering exploits further and further.

This early Anzani was truly gigantic and must have been almost impossible to ride. Why they were so big is a mystery and it would make a nice conversation point for the next “Teas and Cakes” of Benzina. I probably won’t be there, but maybe the drag behind these gigantic machines helped the cyclists gain speed. Or maybe the cyclist did not need to pedal at all as the pull of the inlet tract alone must have been gigantic…

But anyway, there is no greater contrast imaginable to Anzani’s early motorcycle racers than his own stayer motorcycles. I thought it would be nice to share this striking and extremely early Anzani find with the readers of Greg’s Benzina Blog. Benzina is about Italian motorcycles - even though Anzani did move to France he never gave up his Italian heritage and choose to keep his Italian nationality! Hopefully that justifies this machine, which, at first sight, seems to be out of place here.”

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