Cast your mind back to 1971 for a minute, as a nine year old I don’t particularly recall the exact events but apparently the government of the day, led by Edward Heath, had changed the rules concerning what a spotty faced youth could legally ride. From that point onwards for any 50cc machine to be legal for sixteen year old bikers to ride it had to be capable of being powered by its own set of pedals, of course the politicians of the day thought that meant a motorised bicycle, probably a butchers delivery bike with a small clip on engine that drives the front wheel, while the manufacturers to a man interpreted this as something altogether different and a new generation of sports mopeds sprang into action. The short sighted men in parliament never mentioned anything about how fast any machine could go so top speed became everything and that magical 50mph, even more if possible, became the prize to be chased. The pedals although present became little more than somewhere to put your feet on and never ever worked effectively enough to actually propel the machine any faster than one could push it.
Although the Japanese were the major players with their huge networks of UK dealers and support no country captured the spirit of this new game better than the Italians who, with a whole gamut of small machine manufacturers, provided us with the fastest and most stylish of learner machines. Here we have a stunning example of exactly those attributes, the Fantic Caballero being one of the most rapid and better looking of all mopeds.
Fantic motor originally began making fun bikes back in 1968 from their factory in Barzago near Milan, the first road machine was produced three years later with the small factory producing around 200 machines a day at their peak. The 1971 Caballero came in two capacity sizes 100cc and 50cc with the smaller of the pair using a similar ultra high compression, four speed engine to the one seen in this later example. The main difference being the recasting of the engine casings to provide the pedal shaft that now runs the full width of the gearbox. While the fizzer, AP etc employed a direct drive onto the front sprocket, pedalling the Fantic involves putting the engine in top gear and holding in the clutch while you pedal away frantically.
The Caballero was first imported into the UK during 1974 and came in both four and six speed versions making them very desirable. From the outset rumours were abound of the Caballeros top speed and youngsters the country over either wanted one or lived in fear of their mates getting one instead of them. They were fast, and indeed still are, like all of the Fantics even the garishly styled Chopper, with the basic version easily capable of 50 mph plus. The big put off back then was the price, listed in 1976 at £499.00 over twice the price of both the Yamaha FSIE and the Suzuki AP50, £230 and £225 respectively, putting the exotic Italian machine well out of reach of all but the wealthiest kids. It would have been hard to justify that lofty price and also difficult to see exactly where the money was as, compared to the leading makes the fit and specification of the components, switch gear etc, simply wasn’t up to the quality of the leading protagonists. Another major factor would have been the lack of a dealer in every town whereas Suzuki and Yamaha were well represented and considerably more accessible. They didn’t need to but Yamaha fought back slightly by introducing the trail styled TY50 in 1976, armed with a mere 2.9bhp the otherwise impressively specified and well built machine limited itself to 30mph without even trying, instead of firing a shot over the Italians bows the bullet went straight through Yamaha’s shoe.
Having ridden virtually every 70’s moped variant possible I must admit the Fantic took me somewhat by surprise in many ways. Its solidity and lightweight lends itself to off road riding superbly and it feels like a proper bike, not some concoction of parts just to satisfy the UK learner laws. On the road too, the short wheelbase Caballero is strong and holds a tight line when pushed with a supple, yet sturdy suspension holding the bike up at both ends. The chassis is physically the same as the larger capacity competition versions intended for some serious off road use so that would explain the build quality to some extent. The frame also is identical to the none moped versions of the previous years, most likely to cut costs as in other countries the pedal law was not in force, as is indicated by the footrest lugs still being welded in place, in fact pedalled Fantics came supplied with a set of front footrests and a conventional kick-start that could be fitted in place of the swinging pedals should you wish to convert this moped into a full on motorcycle at a later date.
Whilst the chassis and cycle parts are entirely made by Fantic, Moto Minarelli provide the get up and go via a four speed screamer of a two stroke engine, which, providing it is kept on the boil keeps the bike moving ahead with as much gusto as a 50cc road going unit ever could. This engine is found in a whole host of Italian bikes and is generally a reliable thing, especially the aluminium barrelled version found in the Caballero, being of relatively basic construction with sturdy components and an uncomplicated design. Compared to the Japanese alternatives the Italian built motor has a longer stroke and smaller bore size than usual but this serves to make the midrange stomp a little greater while making the exhaust note a distinctive one. Technically one would always say that a bigger bore and shorter stroke would produce a faster engine under a given set of circumstances but the Italians are generally faster with this set up than any of the Japanese machines that look so much better on paper.
In true early two stroke competition style the piston is fitted with a Dykes top ring enabling the piston ring to form the actual outer edge of the piston, this allows the ring travel the entire distance of the pistons journey up the barrel and as the gas pressure builds up behind it pushing the ring out onto the barrel on the compression stroke gives a superb compromise between friction and sealing ability. This runs up and down the cast aluminium barrel with great ease squashing the mixture from the 19mm Dell’Orto tightly into the cylinder head at a high ratio of twelve to one before the electronic ignition sets it all off bang and away we go. Porting wise the barrel is quite aggressive with large transfers and a very squarely shaped exhaust port hinting at the sort of power and delivery the Moto Minarelli engine is capable of.
The end result is about double the horsepower of the Japanese ped’s of the day with just over 6.2 bhp being produced, some Fantic models are capable of over 9bhp, this creates a superb sound, both from the cackle of the up and over exhaust pipe to the raunchy bellow of the virtually open carburettor, fed by a flexible hose from a tin air box but for all intents and purposes free to create what ever noise it wishes. Adding some backing vocals to the exhaust and inlets lead is the extensive finning around the head and barrel, the falsetto tones adding an extra octave or two on top of the lower notes adding greatly to the excitement while at the same time making 9,000rpm sound more like 19,000! As previously mentioned instead of footrests the Fantic employs a pair of pedals that can swing freely into any position luckily they can be set, by pulling one of them away from the engine so it disengages with its cam, so they sit level instead of 180 degrees apart, at least they form some sort of conventional riding position albeit a constantly free swinging one. This movement does take a little getting used to and can lead to the odd missed gear until you get fully used to them.
Starting the Fantic is an easy affair just swing a pedal up so it stands vertical, if cold add a little choke via the lever on the handlebar which in turn pulls a cable running down to the Dell’Orto carburettor, and kick the pedal backwards engaging a Bendix mechanism onto the clutch the engine as you would a conventional kick start and away you go. The choke set up was a great improvement upon the original method, which required clicking a small lever down on the Dell’Orto and leaving it down until the first time you gave the bike full throttle then the lever would return automatically.
The Fantic, once warmed up, is a real screamer, with all of its power being created right up high in the rev range, let the piston port engine drop off the boil however and its time to dig down into the bag of gears for another ratio to pep up the bike and get it singing again. Surprisingly the engine will pull back up into the power band if given a big handful of throttle and left to its own devices but it does take longer and the noise that the “off the pipe” engine makes will win you no fans at the bus stop when the school girls are standing there, by comparison get the engine screaming as you drive past and their knickers will be as damp as a Boscastle hall carpet, well in the seventies that was the case. Revving the Fantic for all it is worth over prolonged periods doesn’t seem to have any undue effect other than increasing the forward motion and providing it has the all important aluminium barrel fitted rather than the earlier cast iron one it will continue to do this all day long.
Each and every gear adds around 15 mph to the speedo dial, adding up to a potential and very real 60mph under the correct set of circumstances, tail wind, flat road, head down, bum up etc.
The Fantic Caballero looks well-proportioned and very well put together, the choice of scaled down, slightly smaller diameter wheels keeps the big off road bike look perfectly. Between the lower frame rails sits a very purposeful looking steel bash plate once again reinforcing the machines serious off road ability although with the pedals hanging down well below this level one wonders how good the UK specification one would be over and above the footrest equipped version. It looks business like too with its Enduro styling complete with little zipped pouch attached to the tank for whatever Enduro riders need to carry with them, it is too small to hold a 500cc bottle of 2 stroke oil so would be of little use for everyday travelling. In the absence of any kind of auto lube system there would be a need to carry some oil to add to your petrol as you filled up but back then in the 70’s this wouldn’t have been a major problem as most forecourts offered the facility to add a pump or two of lube with every tank full. Adding a finishing touch to the whole style proceedings is the large and flat exhaust expansion chamber, complete with its massive chrome grill, as it sweeps around the front frame tube keeping your right leg warm as it heads off to the rear of the bike, it just wouldn’t look the same without it.
In use the controls are light, from the clutch to throttle, making handling this Italian machine an easy task, the steering is precise as is the engine and gearbox. Basic construction sees little in the way of modern niceties, no battery is fitted as the electrics work, or don’t what ever the case may be, directly off the flywheel making the headlight a hit and miss affair at night. There is a speedo, sat in the middle of the top yolk, but in typical Latin un damped style this goes from the optimistic to the down right ridiculous, often within a couple of feet with the needle swinging away wildly as if connected to the pedals rather that the front wheel. You can get an average reading of your probable pace by looking at the middle of the arc covered by the speedo needle, or like most kids of the day just go for the highest point and say bugger it.
Despite being small in diameter the brakes, although never overpowering, are adequate for the job of hauling this tiny machine up of course back in those days stopping was never an issue of great concern, I cannot recall lusting after better brakes or even suspension components, it was always go faster goodies that attracted your hard earned cash. They exhibit a good initial bite and stay strong no matter how long you hold them on for unlike the equivalent Japanese drum stoppers that fade badly from the outset only to continue degrading after that point and never improve.
On July the 31st 1977 the laws changed one more time and, although the pedals could be dispensed with, the machines were to be castrated and limited to a ridiculous 30mph. A whole chapter of UK motorcycling was closed as it marked the end of the nifty fifty as we knew and loved them.
The Fantic Caballero, the fastest of the fifties? Perhaps we will never know but it is certainly one of the most stylish.
Fantic Caballero 50 4 speed Specifications
- Engine: 2 stroke single cylinder air-cooled piston port
- Capacity: 49.9cc
- Bore & stroke: 38.8mm x 42mm
- Compression Ratio: 12:1
- Carburetion: Dell’Orto VHB19mm
- Max Power: 6.2 bhp @ 9,000rpm
- Torque: 7ft lb @ 6,000 rpm
- Ignition: electronic
- Transmission: 4 speed, wet clutch
- Starter: kick via the pedals
- Frame: steel dual loop
- Suspension: 28 mm telescopic forks, twin hydraulic shocks
- Wheels: 2.50 x 19 front 3.50 x 17 rear
- Brakes: 127 mm single leading shoe front 127 mm single leading shoe rear
- Wheelbase: 1270 mm
- Weight: 68kgs
- Fuel capacity: 8 ltrs inc 1.5 ltr reserve
- Top speed: 50 mph plus
Fantic Caballero Gallery
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