The brilliant Benellis
The Classic MotorCycle|December 2020
World title success in 1950 was the highlight for the family firm from Pesaro, on the eastern Italy coast.
RACHAEL CLEGG

It was the Gilera that did it. Tucked away, in a back street garage behind the promenade in Douglas, Florian Camathias and his passenger Alfred Herzig worked away on their Gilera-powered outfit ready for the 1964 Isle of Man sidecar TT.

Barely a stone’s throw from the garage, at the Pitcairn boarding house, stayed a 10-year-old boy called Raymond Ainscoe and his parents. Ray happened to be a huge Florian Camathias fan so naturally, when he learned that the Swiss racer’s garage was so close to his digs, there was no hanging about.

“Camathias’ garage was just around the corner in one of the now-demolished garages on Finch Road, which led to the Villa Marina gardens at the back of the Sefton Hotel. I knew that he had entered a Gilera-engined outfit so I wandered round and was hooked by the sight of the multi. I spent hours every day gawping at the outfit and must have been a real pain. Remember that in those days four cylinder engines, especially in a sidecar, were still relatively rare beasts,” said Raymond.

Raymond describes the sight of the Gilera multi as if it was yesterday: “It was a beautiful-looking kneeler in a sleek red-and-white fairing and as for the noise: you only need to find the Stanley Schofield recording of the 1964 TT and listen as Camathias drops down the gears as he approaches Governor’s Bridge…”

Little did Camathias know that his presence at the 1964 TT kick-started Raymond’s lifelong love affair with Italian machines. Barely two decades later, Raymond had published his first book: Gilera Road Racers.

The 1964 Gilera outfit was especially exciting, not least because of its tempestuous pilot, Camathias:

“There are lots of stories about Camathias, such as setting off for TT practice and not noticing that he had no passenger and throwing a baby across a pub because he was so poorly-sighted he thought it was a doll...”

Baby-launching aside, Gilera remains Ainscoe’s main interest but out of it spawned a fascination with other Italian marques. “The Italian race machines are just works of art: they are simply beautiful, and I can remember Gilera and Benelli from the early 1960s. And just look at a tank on a Benelli, on the singles or indeed one of the early fours: they're just fantastically sculptured.”

The list of Raymond’s published books on Italian motorcycles is long, with subjects including Paton Grand Prix racers, Laverda, the Gilera and MV Agusta rivalry, Benelli GP machines and now Benelli GP Racers: the 250 Singles, which he cowrote with Paul Ingham.

Benelli GP Racers is a short, concise treatise of the marque’s 250 singles that takes in the full sweep of Benelli’s early history, starting with the factory’s beginnings through to the mid-1960s. And it’s an unusual, roller-coaster of a history too, packed with victory, tragedy, natural disasters and political cataclysm.

Benelli was originally established as a small engineering firm in 1911, by a widow and mother of six boys. Her name was Signora Teresa Boni (Benelli) and little is known about her, though the longevity and relative success of Benelli suggests she was a strong and driven woman.

Just five years after being founded, however, Benelli was struck by a disaster when an earthquake demolished the firm’s premises. In fact, the small Benelli factory would be beset by misfortune time and time again, only to bounce back each time. And it’s this aspect of the marque’s history – its tenacity in face of tragedy – which provides a context for the 250 singles in Benelli GP Racers.

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