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Benelli 650 Tornado S
When in Rome.....okay, no long preamble, I was in Italy, saw a nice 1975 Benelli 650 twin for the equivalent of £500, test rode it and bought it. I then had to ride the beast home to England, which is a good a way as any of becoming fully acquainted with a motorcycle.
This Italian version of the ubiquitous vertical twin had many modern refinements that were lacking in the British rivals. Horizontally split crankcases, wet sump oil supply with a proper oil filter, helical gear primary drive and very short stroke engine, amongst others. That said, it still controlled its valves via pushrods, the camshaft being situated in front of the engine, and managed a mere 52hp from its 643cc.
Or at least it did when new, my machine had a venerable 73,492 miles on the clock when I purchased it had enough past owners to form a motorcycle club. My initial impressions had been that the motor was in good fettle, whirring away with none of the rattles, knocks or grumblings normally associated with large capacity British twins. However, once out on the open road when the throttle could be used in anger, a disturbing reluctance to pull more than 70mph in fifth was experienced.
I took the easy option for the first two hundred miles, pottered along at fairly moderate speeds. The sun was shining, the beat of the vertical twin engine was reassuring and I was not in any particular hurry to return to the UK. In Genova, my stop for the night, I thought I had found the problem, badly worn ignition points, but a quick blast revealed no difference after I'd cleaned them up. I bought a new set from the local dealer, along with a new pair of spark plugs, but still no difference in performance.
Handling was pretty typical for an Italian machine. Basically stable, but tortuously stiff suspension. With so little speed available there was no danger of over-cooking it. At walking speeds the remarkably large mass, for a 650cc twin, of 485lbs was usually present, the machine quite often trying to flop over in low speed corners. Tyres were Pirellis, which appeared to follow every minor road contour and felt very harsh. Trundling into Nice, the motor stuttered into silence, feeling like the fuel had run out. I knew it hadn't because I'd only just added ten Litres to the three gallon petrol tank. The solution to the lack of speed hit me then....the fuel filter was clogged up. Tearing along the coast to Marseille and then up to Lyon, after I'd cleaned it, I was able to put the ton on the clock several times but only at the price of the whole chassis turning into a blur of vibration.
Effective top speed was 75mph, which was pretty insulting actually as low speed torque was conspicuous by its absence, not until 5000 revs were on the clock did the motor take on any urgency and then the vibes came roaring in before the development of power could get seriously underway. I reassured myself that once back in the UK I could sell the machine for three to four times what I'd paid to some foolish collector who would not give a damn about its useability.
Another disappointing factor was that it was a very tiring bike to ride any distance. The seat was like iron, the bars were too high, the footpegs too far forward and the gearbox as clumsy in action as it was necessary in use to keep the engine turning over. The Italian's love of noise was evident in the straight through megas, which soon paled after fifty miles of having one's head buffetted by enough sound to drown a 747 on take off. The enforced leisurely pace was mitigated to some degree by frequent stops, lots of coffee and croissants whilst eyeing fabulously exotic French women.
The next day's ride from Lyon to Paris had a strong wind behind us. On a couple of occasions I sneaked the Benelli up to 110mph, ignoring both the vibes and the way the chassis snaked all over the road. Petrol disappeared at about 35mpg instead of the more usual, but nonetheless very poor, 45mpg. As I had to stop for R & R every 50 miles the poor range offered by the three gallon petrol capacity was of no concern.
Both the Benelli and I had problems hustling around the environs of Paris. The machine was too heavy to haul through the traffic, acceleration was poor at low revs and after too many hours in the saddle my concentration was all shot. A massive rainstorm did not help things one bit, the Pirellis being very nasty in the wet, sending the wheels skidding off in different directions. Okay, I admit it, I fell off! At about 20mph we slid down the road, bounced off a Renault and nearly demolished a front garden.
The bike turned out to be a tough bugger with little bent and no serious damage. I had an arm torn off my well nurtured leather jacket and a dose of gravel rash to my leg. The hospital were very understanding, agreeing to send the bill to an address I made up on the spur of the moment. A couple of days were spent hobbling around Paris, then a mad dash for Calais and the ferry home. The customs were very understanding when I told them I'd lost most of the documents in the crash, consoling themselves by taxing the bike on a value of £1750, which almost doubled the cost of the machine.
My immediate plan of selling the machine at a profit was temporary dislodged when I found that my other machine had been stolen in my absence, so the Benelli was pushed into use as a DR machine in London! The first thing I did was to fit some proper tyres, not that the Venoms offered any better stability, they just held on to the tarmac come what may in the wet.
In theory the Benelli has an electric start, in practice, Italian electrics being dubious at best, it rattles the engine into life about once a week and then takes the rest of the time off to recover. I have never started the 650 first kick, even when hot (the engine not I), usually three to five attempts are necessary. After a couple of days abuse in the city, the multi-plate clutch decided it had had enough, dragging something chronic at traffic lights and junctions. Neutral was next to impossible to find, and even when found had a frightening tendency to jump into first gear all on it own. This meant stalled engines were the order of the day and I was soon knackered kicking the beast back into life.
Just to add to my joy, first the side-stand sheared off then the centre-stand collapsed. No damage to the machine but I then had to find a wall or car to prop the machine against every time I stopped to make a delivery....at the end of a long day it was dead easy to mess up the kickstart, ending up in a heap with the machine in the gutter. I've still got the scars from the burns as evidence of this ineptitude.
A month's worth of despatch riding reduced the machine to rat status. Rust broke through on the tank and frame, the chrome turned brown and the alloy white. As soon as the insurance paid up for the theft I bought something more suitable for despatch riding and spent a weekend tarting up the Benelli. It sold within a day of the advert for £1200, which I thought fair enough as it had kept me in the DR game, amused me through Europe and ended up in a very poor state.
The engine had been most impressive in its reliability. In over 6000 miles it had never given a moment's cause for concern, had received no maintenance other than an oil change and had lost none of its power. However, the power was equivalent to a mere GS450, wasn't usable above 5500rpm and lacked torque below 5000rpm. The machine was also a 100lbs overweight, awkWard in town and poor on fuel. The TLS front brake proved excellent in town and saved me many a time in treacherous conditions.
In the UK they are well overpriced, the usual idiot collectors buying them just because they are rare. I certainly would not be willing to pay silly money for one but when next in Rome I may well pick up another one for a few hundred quid and do the same journey all over again.....I reckon the profit would pay for a couple of weeks frugal holiday in Italy.
Source Dick Lewis