The Peter Calles Collection: 1949 Gilera 125 Touring

Jul 28, 2016 View Comments by

Gilera

Peter Calles, a noted international collector of classic motorcycles, recently finished a three-year-long restoration of this rare Gilera motorcycle. He acquired the bike from a collector in Florida, who had it shipped to the U.S. directly from Italy. Although many in the U.S. may not be familiar with the Gilera marque, it has been around for more than 100 years and has a storied history from across the pond.

Giuseppe Gilera was attracted to motorbikes from a tender age. At 15 he began an apprenticeship with the Bianchi motorcycle company as a mechanic. He honed his skills further at the Italian branch of the Swiss Moto-Rêve company. In 1909, at age 22, he built the first motorcycle of his own design in a small shop in Milan. Hard work and good fortune attracted financial backers, which added scale to the fledgling company’s production capacity.

GilesIn addition to his exceptional mechanical skills, Giuseppe was a shrewd businessman. He reasoned that success on the racetracks of Europe would translate into greater sales volume for Gilera. His passion for racing resulted in Gilera incorporating new engine designs for their race bikes: transverse in-line four cylinders, overhead camshafts, superchargers, and four-valve heads were some of the innovations. From 1950 through 1957, Gileras dominated Grand Prix motorcycle racing and won the 500cc road racing world championship six times in those eight years. Gileras also chalked up wins in the 1955 and 1957 Isle of Man TT races.

Racing did, indeed, foster increased sales, but primarily in the Italian market, because Gilera didn’t have an international business footprint. In Italy, lower tax rates on 125 and 175cc bikes made these displacements the big sellers. To satisfy the growing demand for smaller displacement bikes, Gilera’s new 125cc model was designed in the final months of 1948. The goal was to offer a motorcycle that was suitable for all riders at a reasonable price. The prototype still used side valves, but before it went into production in 1949 this gave way to the more recent design preference for overhead valves. A two-stroke motor, which was more common on small displacement bikes at the time, was rejected because of concerns about gas mileage. The compression ratio was kept low so the engine could run on less expensive low-octane fuel. The company touted the new four-stroke motor, with its light aluminum alloy head, as the most modern four-stroke available in the lower displacement range.

gilera-DSC_1935To help keep production costs low, the traditional Gilera suspension was redesigned to be a lighter and simpler mechanism. The gas tank was either a solid red or had the iconic Gilera “chrome eye.” A sport model was added to the product line-up in 1950. The differences between the original touring model and the newer sport model were relatively minor. The 1950-51 sport version had a larger racing-style gas tank with indentations for the rider’s knees, and the rear luggage/passenger rack was removed.

Advertising for the 125cc Gilera often featured women in everyday clothing riding the bike on city streets and even negotiating a shallow water crossing. It’s notable that Gilera’s “the motorbike for everyone” marketing mantra was, in 1950, more than a decade before the “you meet the nicest people on a Honda” advertising campaign in America. Then there was that iconic 1949 poster of a young woman riding a Gilera blindfolded with her hands in the air while a male companion, riding pillion, held on to her waist. This image supported the company’s contention that anyone could afford and ride the Gilera 125.

Tragedy struck Gilera in 1957 when Giuseppe’s only son, who was on track to take over the business, died suddenly of a heart attack. Ferruccio’s untimely death caused Giuseppe to lose interest in racing and the company in general. By the end of 1957, Gilera motorcycles had won a total of 40 World Grand Prix races and had also chalked up impressive wins in off-road races, including the International Six Days events. But the introduction of new motorcycles then languished for several years. In 1969, Gilera was acquired by Piaggio. The Gilera brand returned to Grand Prix racing in 1992 in the 250cc class and also has competed in Paris-Dakar events. The name lives on in the 21st century in Piaggio’s smaller displacement offerings.

After three years of extensive restoration work, Peter Calles’ 1949 Gilera Turismo model looks like it just rolled off a showroom floor in Italy. Although the fishtail-style silencer didn’t appear on Gilera 125s until 1950, the iconic shape was irresistible when a replica exhaust replacement was needed for restoration. Peter’s restored 1949 Gilera 125 Touring model is a classic mid-20th century beauty that’s a 21st century feast for the eyes and a lasting tribute to the Gilera brand.

 

Text and photography: James T. Parks

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Tags: Categories: Chronicles, Motorcycles