Motorcycling Australia Museum

1951 Gilera Saturno ‘Sanremo’ 500cc

The Milano Manx

Post World War 2, road racing boomed in Italy, centred around Monza and many public roads circuits. There were myriad lightweight racers available from factories like Benelli, Mondial, MV Agusta and lesser-known concerns for use in the 125cc, 175cc, 200cc and 250cc classes, but little to choose from in the premier 500cc Senior division. The British Manx Norton was the staple, but these were rare and expensive on the Continent. Just up the road from the Monza circuit in Milan, in the village of Arcore, Gilera set about rectifying gloomy situation facing privateers by producing a racing version of their Saturno road bikes – 500cc overhead valve singles in decisively pre-war chassis. The racing Sanremo took its name from the seaside port of San Remo on the Ligurian Sea, where the annual street races, titled the Ospedaletti Grand Prix  drew huge holiday crowds. In its debut in 1947, the Gilera scored a handsome victory ridden by Carlo Bandirola, and the pressed dubbed the bike the Sanremo – a tag which stuck. Fittingly, Bandirola won again in 1948, with Saturnos ridden by Masetti, Colnago and Valdinoci victorious in the next three years. As well as the road racers, versions of the saturno Sport were made for motocross and for the International Six days Trial. For the 1953 season, two special works Saturnos were built with double overhead camshaft engines, reputedly producing 45 bhp at 8,000 rpm, but they made few appearances.

The 498cc all-alloy pushrod engine of the ‘production’ Saturnoi, with its configuration of 84 x 90mm bore and stroke, was built in unit with a four-speed gearbox, with engine and transmission oil carried in an integrally-cast sump. Power output was quoted as 36 bhp and 6,000 rpm in 1947, breathing through a 32mm Dell Orto carburettor, rising to 42 bhp and 6,500 rpm by the time the model run finished in 1957. The frame was a mixture of pressed steel and tubular components, with  blade girder forks and Gilera’s own style of rear suspension. This used a swinging arm to the rear wheel, with a hollow parallel tube below the seat containing long coil springs. Dampening was controlled by hand-adjusted friction units. Wheels were 21-inch front and 20-inch rear. As the engine was progressively developed for more power (assisted by a larger 35mm carburettor), the chassis also came under review. By 1952, the girder forks had given way to telescopic units, while the frame was fully-tubular with conventional spring/damper units on the swinging arm.

This particular ‘San Remo’ was bought by Australian rider Tony McAlpine in early 1951. After enjoying a very successful year in 1950, where he set a new outright lap record at Bathurst and won several state titles on his Vincent Black Lightning, McAlpine secured a nomination to represent Australia at the Isle of Man in 1951. He ordered a new 350cc AJS 7R, but was tempted by the chance to obtain what he believed to be one of the works four-cylinder 500cc Gileras. Upon arriving in Italy however, he was somewhat dismayed to discover that his mount was not a ‘four’ but one of the handful of production Sanremo singles.

The TT was only weeks away so there was no time to argue, so McAlpine collected his mount and sailed for the Isle of Man. He finished a commendable 13th in the 350cc TT on the AJS, but the Gilera, with its primitive suspension, was a real handful over the bumps and jumps of the 60-kilometre course. On the opening lap of the 500cc Senior TT, the Gilera broke a valve spring soon after the start and he struggled around the lap before retiring at the pits. He rode the Gilera in a handful of other events in England and Europe before shipping it, and a Vincent Black Lightning, back home to Sydney. Both these bikes were placed on consignment at Burling & Simmons’ store in western Sydney; the Vincent being sold to sidecar rider Jack Ehret.

The Gilera proved harder to shift, but eventually went to Keith Tolmie, who raced it at Bathurst in 1953 and 1954. In the latter year, the Gilera was extensively damaged when Tolmie crashed the bike after the rear suspension collapsed on pit straight. Subsequently it was sold to Bruce Veitch and then to Frank Boldi, making its last Bathurst appearance in 1956. As the years went by, bits disappeared from the Gilera, including the very rare carburettor, until it was obtained in a fairly sorry state by Sydney motorcycle historian Brian Greenfield. It took many years and copious correspondence world-wide to track down the missing parts, but eventually the Gilera was returned to its original state, right down to the 20-inch rear tyre.

Gilera marque specialist Raymond Anscoe believes the McCAlpine Saturno is one of the very last of the production run, which numbered fewer than 100 over a seven year period.

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