Pioneering manufacturers from around the Globe who endeavoured to top the two wheel sales charts but lapsed into distant motorcycle memories…
Italy – Aermacchi 1950-1978
Guilio Macchi founded his aircraft company in Northern Italy just prior to WW1 and enjoyed great success, even competing in the Schneider Trophy of 1934 setting a new world record of 440mph with the MC72 seaplane. After WW2 Aermacchi sought to diversify from aircraft production as there was little custom for their flying machines. Italians in the late 40’s wanted cheap transport and motorcycles became the transport of choice; Aermacchi persuaded ex-Benelli designer Lino Tonti to join and his first offering was a 123cc two-stroke in 1951. Real success followed with Tonti designed streamline record braking 48 and 74cc machines both with chain driven OHC engines; Tonti was lured away to FB Mondial soon after. Alfredo Bianchi replaced him and designed the brilliant 4-stroke Chimera (Dream) in 1956, of 172cc with space age looks which proved too far ahead of its time; sales were slow. Bianchi removed the futuristic body work and in doing so created Italy’s best sports and race bikes of the era. 1960 saw a 250cc version, the ‘Golden Wing’ followed by a race machine at the Dutch TT; all this created interest from Harley Davidson and a deal was struck. Aermacchi would produce small capacity machines for the US market via Harley dealerships. 1967 and Aermacchi produced a new range offering two stroke power and they chased Yamaha’s crown in the early 1970s. From 1972-78 Aermacchi traded under the AMF Harley-Davidson banner until the company was sold out and became part of the Cagiva empire.
Motobecane – France 1922-1984
Whilst most with a passion for two wheels will recognise this French manufacture for its highly successful Mobylette mopeds, Motobecane dominated its home market for many years with a wide range of machines. Abel Bardin and Charles Benoit produced their first prototype in 1922 which went into production 2 years later; a two stroke 175cc with a forward facing carb, decompressor and belt drive. The frame design was available with ‘ladies or gentlemen’s options and 150k machines were sold in just seven years. They began to build larger machines utilising the reliable Blackburn unit of both 350 and 500cc four strokes in 1928. A limited number of four cylinder OHC engines of 750cc arrived in 1931 but the shaft drive machine was complicated and expensive to produce. Post war the range was mainly four stroke with telescopic forks and plunger rear suspension but the need for cheap transport produced the D45 series, 125cc four stroke commuter with no luxuries. The Mobylette arrived in 1949 and ran until the company’s demise. A range of microcars/vans were developed during the late 50s powered by their own 125cc motor but went no further. Two strokes from the far east began to dominate the market so Motobecane produced a 125cc twin the LT3 and entered the world of GP racing. The 1980 season saw them finish runner up with works rider Guy Bertin taking three victories. A tie up with Benelli saw Motobecane return to endurance racing at the Bol d’or, an event they had won in 1939. In 1977 a six-cylinder air cooled beast of a racer promised more than it delivered, featuring 9.2 metres of exhaust pipe and a 24 litre fuel tank under the mighty engine lined up to take on the 24-hour race. One commentator described it as a mobile ‘gas plant’ and whilst the Motobecane-Benelli entry failed to achieve a result, its engineering is still impressive today. Motobecane were a daring and forward looking manufacturer and produced bikes that were ‘typically French’ and mostly for the home market. Yamaha took over when the company collapsed in 1981 and renamed it MBK in 1984, under which they would produce scooters.
MZ – East Germany 1953-2013
Motorrad- und Zweiradwerk is a motorcycle manufacturer that can trace its roots to the dawn of motoring from the cutting edge of two wheeled transport; time relegated the marque to decades of mediocre machines. DKW arrived post WW1 and would be a dominant player for 20 years but WW2 would leave the company on the wrong side of post war Germany. Controlled by the Soviets their heavily damaged Zschopau factory was dismantled under Stalin orders. Nationalized the plant became active again in 1950 and launched their first bike the RT125, followed by a range of horizontally opposed twins that offered much to the BMW design; these though were 2 strokes. The DKW name was replaced by MZ (Motorraderwerke Zschopau) in the mid-50s and Walter Kaaden founded the MZ sport dept; developing race and trails machines. Their 1961 GP 125cc offered 25bhp at 10,800rpm and 125mph looked a certainty for World Championship success until their star rider Ernst Degner defected after the Swedish GP. Mechanical failure forced his retirement in a race that could have sealed the championship; MZ accused Degner of deliberately wrecking his engine. He also took many tuning secrets (including exhaust expansion chamber technology) to his next employers Suzuki who won their first championship the following year in the 50cc class ridden by Degner. 1970 saw the 1 millionth bike leave the East German production line and the quality improved slowly as each model progressed, even incorporating Brembo front disc brakes in 1983; the same year that saw the 2 millionth machine produced. The company’s road bikes of the eighties were neither performance oriented or attractive but they were cheap and reliable if maintained. The reunification of Germany spelt the beginning of the end as all state owned businesses were put into a trust, sales stuttered and then stopped and MZ went bust within 18 months. MuZ was formed with just 80 employees compared to 3000 that worked at the abandoned Zschopau plant; their new home just six miles away at Hohndorf. The two-stroke machines were left behind in favor of first Rotax followed by Yamaha engines. MuZ got into trouble again in 1996 and was bought out by a Malaysian Group who injected £8 million into MuZ and in 1998 dropped the ‘U’ in the name; the range was of good quality but for the next decade MZ struggled. 2008 and the Hong Leong Group ceased financial input, after several attempts to restart MZ including a group with German ex GP stars Ralf Waldmann and Martin Wimmer involved. In 2013, ninety years after DKW was formed MZ was declared insolvent.
Zenith – England 1905-50
The phrase ‘ahead of their time’ is used more than it need be but not in the case of F.W ‘Freddie’ Barnes, Zenith Motorcycles. Barnes took the Tooley Bicar, improved and put it into production with a frame that consisted of two tubes per side running from rear to front hub. The rider seated over the rear wheel, no rear shock or front forks and for direction the first example of ‘hub centre steering’; all this in 1905. The claim of this design was minimal vibration and was supplied from the companies premises in Finsbury Park. The price 43 Guinee’s or 50 should you require 2 speeds; Zenith poster boasted ‘no deals, no exchanges and no easy payments’. In 1907 Barnes patented the Gradua Gear System, offering for the first time belt drive machines, alternate gearing whilst on the move. Developed by 1910 so the system could be operated by one lever by the rider without stopping, consequently it would reign supreme during trails or hill climb events and was barred from competing. Zenith made use of this decision by including the word ‘BARRED’ in all their future trademarks. The company had set up new premises in Weybridge Surrey close to Brooklands and set the first records climbing the infamous Test Hill. The Zenith Gradua was the machine to be seen on post WW1 and whilst world conflict interrupted their success the company took the time to setup in Hampton Court. Post war, the range increased as did the competition victories in many disciplines, including speed record attempts. In 1928 O.M Baldwin took the first motorcycle over 200kph (124mph) on a Zenith with a 996 supercharged JAP engine. Things slowed during the depression and Zenith was taken over by Writers of Kennington, a large dealership that had offered Zenith machines via their showrooms. The company survived up until the second world war but their machines were no longer updated and became dated with a smaller range. Post WW2 the showrooms featured the same design as before and by 1950 Zenith was gone. The machine pictured is a 1913 Zenith Gradua with a 996 Jap power plant, it has motor sport history mainly on long distance events and spent most of its early life just yards from the famous Brooklands Circuit.