Interesting bikes of yesteryear
I’ll start with this one.
Classic: BENELLI 750 SEI
An exotic Italian six inspired by a successful Japanese four. Seemed like a good idea at the time. How did it turn out? Ian Falloon of Motorcycle Trader magazine tells the story.
Ever since Mike Hailwood intoxicated the world on the shrieking, ear-splitting, Honda RC166 and 174 in 1966 and 1967, the six-cylinder motorcycle has been held in hallowed reverence. And while Honda stole the limelight with the six-cylinder CBX in the late 1970s, in 1972 Benelli unveiled the 750 Sei, the first production six-cylinder motorcycle.
When Argentinean entrepreneur Alejandro De Tomaso bought Benelli in 1971 he envisaged creating a high performance luxury sporting motorcycle in the mould of his De Tomaso Pantera car. This was the era of the emerging Superbike, from the Honda 750 and Kawasaki Z1 fours, to the BMW and Ducati twins, and the easiest, and quickest, way for De Tomaso to enter the Superbike battleground was by copying someone else. As a fan of the Japanese motorcycle industry, De Tomaso looked no further than the Honda 500 Four, already acknowledged as one of the finest motorcycles then in production.
Making no apology for using the Honda CB500F as a basis, the Benelli 750 Sei was essentially a Honda 500 four with two additional cylinders. Even the bore and stroke of 56 x 50.6mm was identical, as were the chain-driven single overhead camshaft layout, two-piece con-rods with plain big-ends, and Hy-Vo chain primary drive.
Where the Benelli differed from the Honda was in its use of three Dell’Orto VHB 24mm carburettors, and to minimise engine width the electric start and alternator were mounted behind the cylinders. The engine was in a moderate state of tune, producing only 71 horsepower at 8,500rpm, but was uncannily smooth, with a beautiful sound emitting from the six individual mufflers that only the Italians somehow manage to achieve.
In this era where powerful Japanese engines generally outperformed the chassis, the Benelli Sei endeavoured to combine Japanese-like horsepower with European handling. Top quality chassis components included Brembo brakes, Marzocchi suspension, and Borrani light alloy wheels. And despite the extremely wide engine the 219kg Benelli Sei was a fine handling machine in the best Italian tradition.
The only problem was it was expensive, and not very fast; definitely more of a grand tourer than Superbike. Most road tests managed a top speed of around 190km/h, and on paper the Benelli didn’t seem to offer more than a Honda 750 Four.
With the Sei, De Tomaso tried hard to overcome many of the problems associated with Italian motorcycles of the early 1970s. Not content with dodgy electrics and unreliable instruments, he fitted the Sei with a proper instrument panel complete with a full set of warning lights. The chrome plating didn’t flake off at the first sight of rain, and the turn signals actually worked.
But it wasn’t enough. Ultimately there was no raison d’ e tre for the Benelli 750 Sei. Neither truly Italian nor Japanese, the expensive Benelli Sei was lost somewhere in no-mans land where it was destined to stay.
SIX SUBLIME THINGS ABOUT THE BENELLI SIX
1. While the Benelli Sei was built at Pesaro, on the Adriatic coast, the six-cylinder engine was manufactured at the Moto Guzzi factory at Mandello del Lario on the shore of Lake Como.
2. The prototype 750 Sei appeared during 1972, but it wasn’t until mid-1974 that it entered production. By then the 750 Sei had been upstaged by 900s from Kawasaki and BMW, and the Laverda 1000.
3. Further emulating Honda, alongside the Benelli 750 Sei was a 500 Quattro, and later a smaller 254. There was also a range of similar Moto Guzzi 400, 350 and 250cc fours.
4. When the 750 Sei finished in 1977, it became the 900 Sei, this lasting until 1988. The 500 Quattro also grew to 600cc with the 654.
5. Despite its Honda resemblance, the 750 Sei suffered from gearbox and crankshaft problems, further hastening its demise.
6. Although a rare sight in Australia, compared with some other Italian motorcycles of the period a considerable number of Benelli 750s were produced. After a slow start of only 293 in 1974, 1479 were built in 1975, 1145 in 1976, and 283 in 1977.
An excellent club for old Italians
The International connection
Benelli book: Benelli Sei Performance Portfolio. (Brooklands Books)
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