Motorcycles

After Cloudy Skies, the Sun Is Shining on Bimota Once More

by Roland Brown
1 July 2024 6 min read
After Cloudy Skies, the Sun Is Shining on Bimota Once More
Photos courtesy Roland Brown and Bimota

Summer has arrived in Rimini, and the Italian resort town famous for its long beach and nighttime party culture is once again teeming with life. There is new momentum, too, at Bimota, the small Rimini-based firm that is one of motorcycling’s most glamorous marques – and also one of its most erratic.

Bimota, now partially owned by Japanese giant Kawasaki, recently announced that it will be contesting next season’s Superbike World Championship. The news sparked memories of Bimota’s glory days in the 1970s and ’80s, when it created grand prix race bikes and road-going superbikes famed for their advanced design and immaculate detailing.

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Italy’s motorcycle industry is notoriously volatile; no firm more so than Bimota. Along with the world championship victories and state-of-the-art superbikes, its story over the last half century includes several disastrously flawed models and numerous financial crises, several of them close to being terminal.

Bimota was forged on the race track, and it owed much of its impact to design genius Massimo Tamburini, who would become best known for shaping Ducati’s iconic 916 and the 750 F4 that led MV Agusta’s rebirth in the 1990s. Tamburini, who died aged 70 in 2014, was a native of Rimini and had founded a heating systems firm called Bimota in 1966 with his friends Valerio Bianchi and Giuseppe Morri, the name coming from the first two letters of the three mens’ surnames.

Tamburini and Morri were motorcycle enthusiasts and turned their hobby into a business in 1973, after Tamburini had wrecked his Honda CB750 in a crash at the local Misano circuit. The duo rebuilt it with a new frame that was much stiffer and lighter, creating a bike that they named the HB1.

1975 Bimota HB1
1975 HB1

Although the HB1 was far superior to the standard Honda, it was not ridden in that year’s big Imola 200 race, as planned. But a total of 10 were eventually built, and Tamburini and Morri were sufficiently encouraged to found Bimota Meccanica to build motorcycle chassis and parts.

They were soon successful at the highest level, supplying the frames for the 350cc Yamaha on which Venezuelan ace Johnny Cecotto won the world championship in 1975, and the Harley-Davidson–branded (formerly Aermacchi) twins on which Italian Walter Villa won 250cc and 350cc titles. Bimota received no official credit for those victories but South African Jon Ekerold’s 350cc world championship–winning bike of 1980 was listed as a Bimota Yamaha.

By then Bimota had brought its track-honed technology to the street, starting in 1977 with the SB2, which was powered by the four-cylinder engine from Suzuki’s GS750. The standard GS was a fine example of the traditional Japanese naked four. The SB2, featuring a swoopy full fairing and one-piece tank/seat unit, was a machine from a different planet.

Its chassis was based on a tubular steel frame that incorporated adjustable geometry and conical couplings that allowed it to be unbolted to allow easy engine removal. It had a single rear suspension unit with a rising-rate linkage, instead of traditional twin shocks. Other exotic parts included drilled Brembo discs and lightweight magnesium wheels.

The SB2 cost more than twice as much as the GS750 donor bike, but it was a commercial success nonetheless, with a total of 140 being sold. Morri and Tamburini promptly quit the air conditioning business to build bikes full time. The KB1 four that followed a year later, powered by Kawasaki’s Z900 or Z1000 engine, was even more successful.

Tamburini then created a different style of frame, combining steel tubes and aluminium swing-arm plates, for the Honda CB900F-engined HB2 that was launched in 1982. This also sold well, at least by Bimota standards, as did the 1983 HB3 and KB3, featuring Honda and Kawasaki engines, respectively.

Then Tamburini left, following a dispute with Morri. Sales dropped, leaving Bimota in financial trouble – and eventually in receivership.

The firm was saved by the success, in 1985, of new chief designer Federico Martini’s DB1, which wrapped a compact steel ladder-framed chassis and all-enveloping bodywork around a 750cc aircooled Ducati V-twin engine. It was stylish, quick, and sweet-handling, although my own main memory of testing one was of very nearly crashing on a wet road, after dirt in a carburettor had caused the throttle to stick open.

1985 Bimota DB1
1985 DB1

By 1986, Bimota was out of receivership and had struck a deal with Yamaha for supply of engines, including the new four-cylinder unit from the FZ750. The Martini-designed YB4ie held the freshly fuel-injected 20-valve unit in a rigid twin-spar aluminium frame, debuting a superbike format that would soon be adopted by Yamaha and the other major manufacturers.

Bimota proved the YB4’s quality when Italian star Virginio Ferrari rode the factory racer to victory in the 1987 World Formula One championship. The following year, his teammate Davide Tardozzi led the inaugural Superbike World Championship going into the final round, only to crash and finish third. But Bimota’s YB6 roadster, which combined a near-identical chassis with Yamaha’s larger FZR1000 powerplant, was a major success.

1987 YB4 Tardozzi Ferrari
1987 YB4s of Davide Tardozzi and Virginio Ferrari

The YB6 was followed by more imaginatively titled derivatives including the Dieci (“Ten”) and Tuatara. Fastest and best of the series was the 1991 Furano, which was powered by Yamaha’s latest 1002cc motor and produced a claimed 164bhp – which was plenty, despite Bimota’s notoriously optimistic statistics. It was also considerably lighter than the standard FZR, and in most markets cost three times as much.

Martini left in 1989 and was replaced by Pierluigi Marconi. Six years earlier, while an engineering student at Bologna University, Marconi had worked with Bimota on his thesis – “tesi” in Italian – on motorcycle hub-centre steering. As Bimota’s technical chief, Marconi revived the Tesi project, and a year later launched the Tesi 1D, powered by the engine from Ducati’s eight-valve 851.

Some hailed the Tesi as motorcycling’s future but its practical advantage was dubious. It also suffered with handling issues caused by wear in its complex steering linkage, and it was far too expensive to sell in the required numbers. Bimota production dropped below 500 bikes per year and the firm’s future again hung in the balance.

The saviour was a more conventional model: the SB6, powered by Suzuki’s GSX-R1100 engine. Marconi’s aluminium frame was imaginative in the way that its large main spars wrapped around the swing-arm pivot, as well as the four-cylinder unit. More than 1100 units of the SB6 were produced between 1994 and ’96, making it Bimota’s most successful model yet.

Through the mid-1990s, the firm attempted to broaden its range with a variety of models. The SB7 and YB9 were beam-framed sports bikes with 750cc and 600cc four-cylinder engines from Suzuki and Yamaha. The Supermono had a single-cylinder BMW engine; the Mantra was a curiously styled naked roadster powered by a 750cc Ducati V-twin.

None sold particularly well, but the real disaster came in 1997 and was another example of Bimota betting the house on unproven technology. The futuristic 500 Vdue was a “clean-burning” direct-injection two-stroke. The lean super-sports bike looked sensational, offered light weight and fine handling, and promised a new era of performance. Demand was huge, and Bimota’s first-ever bike powered by the firm’s own engine looked destined to be profitable as well as influential.

1997 Bimota 500 Vdue
The lovely but flawed Vdue

But its direct-injection engine didn’t work properly or reliably. The bikes that had been delivered to eager customers had to be returned at vast expense, and the factory was closed for much of 1998 while the mess was resolved. Desperate to sell the Vdues, Bimota converted them to use carburettors and organised a one-make “Trophy” race series. Most people were simply no longer interested. Many staff left, including Marconi, who joined Aprilia.

The firm limped on, restarting production in 1999 under the control of former Laverda boss Francesco Tognon. It even managed another spectacular racing result, when in 2000 the charismatic Australian ace Anthony Gobert won a damp race at his home round of the Superbike World Championship, riding the SB8R, powered by Suzuki’s TL1000 V-twin engine. But by the end of that season, the team’s main sponsor had disappeared leaving unpaid bills, and the Rimini factory was closed yet again.

1998 Bimota SB8R
1998 SB8R

But Bimota refused to die. In 2005, after being relaunched under new ownership of Milan-based businessman Roberto Comini, the firm released a quick and stylish Ducati-powered V-twin, the DB5, and a naked variant, the DB6. Further models followed, most powered by Ducati engines, including a stripped-down version of the Tesi. But the financial struggles continued. By 2017 the factory was again closed, and the company’s prospects looked bleaker than ever.

It was clear that the premise on which Bimota had been founded, and once thrived – that a small, specialist firm could build superior, better-handling superbikes than the big manufacturers, and sell them at a premium price – was outdated. On the contrary, mass-produced superbikes, created by well-resourced development teams and featuring advanced electronics, were so good that a small firm could not compete. And in any case, the market for sport bikes had shrunk to a fraction of its former size.

All of which might finally have proved fatal for Bimota, but its name and reputation meant there was one hugely significant event still to come. By 2019, several historic Italian marques including Benelli, Fantic, and Mondial had been revived under the control of Chinese companies. Bimota’s salvation also came from Asia. In October of that year, Kawasaki, searching for some Rimini stardust, bought a 49.9 per cent stake in the firm.

Bimota, its resources and development ability transformed, rehired former design chief Pierluigi Marconi and began work on the Tesi H2, which held the 998cc, 228bhp supercharged four-cylinder engine from Kawasaki’s Ninja H2 in a familiar forkless chassis. It reached production in 2022, followed by the retro-styled KB4, powered by the 142bhp engine from the Ninja 1000SX sports-tourer.

As a small, stand-alone company, Bimota had been a basket case. As a sporting arm of Kawasaki, adding hand-built Italian pizazz to a marque that is itself just one small part of a vast corporation that also makes ships and aerospace equipment, it makes plenty of sense. Future models will surely never approach the impact of forebears such as the SB2, KB1, and YB4. But Bimota’s future once again looks set to involve rapid race bikes and exotic, exciting street bikes with one of motorcycling’s most glamorous names on the tank.

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Comments

  • Richard Yamane says:

    I’m surprised there was no mention of the DB2. Powered by the 900SS 2-valve engine it was the entry level Bimota of the mid-nineties and probably the most numerous of the marque. I had one for several years and it was a great motorcycle.

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