Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four

September 12, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four
Our man Melling got lived out his childhood dreams, turning laps on the 1957 Gilera Grand Prix bike.

It was a big effort for my parents to find the money but for my 12th birthday. I was given a Dansette record player. In the red, vinyl covered box there was a turntable and at the front a small, built in speaker controlled by knurled, plastic knobs. It was a symbol that I was growing up and ready to become part of the rock ‘n’ roll generation.

My Mum bought me the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and my avant garde older cousin gave me a quite badly scratched long play Vinyl record from the film “GI Blues” and I sang along with Elvis and “Wooden Heart” as I did my homework. But my parents failed in their noble attempt to both civilize, and convert me into a mainstream teenager, for I had a secret sin.

No, not illegal drugs which, in my small, industrial town in the North of England, hadn’t been invented yet. Nor was it looking at partially undressed ladies in magazines which were only sold to grown ups from secret supplies under the counter. No, my addiction had come from the second-hand shop which was located just next to the railway bridge, opposite the “Horse and Jockey” pub. In there, for the princely sum of two shillings and six pence (20 cents) – a whole week’s allowance – I purchased a well worn copy of the Stanley Schofield recordings from the 1957 TT.

And so I would go into my bedroom, close the door tight, put the Dansette under my bed sheets and in the claustrophobic darkness, listen to the wailing, siren call of Bob McIntyre winning the 1957 Golden Jubilee TT on his four-cylinder Gilera.

Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four
Sammy Miller’s Gilera Four is an authentic replica built by Mark and Dave Kay of Meccanica Verghera Engineering, replicating both the good and bad traits of the original.
Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four

The crackle of the British Singles was the heart and body of Grand Prix racing in motorcycling’s golden era but the warbling wail of the four-cylinder Gilera touched my soul. Listening to that song of success takes you back to a monochrome world, which was rent asunder by the technicolour ululation of the Gilera’s war song.

There is an old adage that you should never, ever meet your heroes and so it is with a real sense of trepidation that I sit on Sammy Miller’s Gilera “Four” and receive a briefing from Sam’s super mechanic John Ring.

To be blunt, John is not overwhelmingly happy that I am being allowed to ride the bike. In fact, other than Sam I am the only rider to have ever been allowed to use it. World Champions, media Superstars and biking celebrities have been permitted to sit on the bike, as I have done many times in the past at bike shows and gatherings – but only with the engine cold and lifeless.

Now, John has warmed up the Gilera and I am a few minutes away from riding it.

The briefing begins. “The engine is very free revving and it will spin on until it blows up. That’s what happened in New Zealand when Sam got too enthusiastic. Change gear at 8,500 rpm and don’t let it go anywhere near 10,000 or you will destroy it.

“Don’t let the engine go below 5,000rpm either. It will pull from nothing but the crank doesn’t like very low revs.
“Don’t be rough with the clutch. These bikes were never made for clutch starts, so the clutch sits on a very shallow spline and you’ll break it if you’re rough. Don’t break it!

“Be careful with the front brake. There is a powerful self-servo effect and the front will lock in a flash.

“The rear wheel will too. Don’t lock the brakes.

“If you crash it, don’t even think about coming back…”

Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four
Unusual as an Inline Four, compared to its Single rivals, the Gilera still feels remarkably slim by modern comparisons.

It’s not so much the Gilera’s $125,000 value which concerns John, but rather the horrendous logistical consequences of an accident – or even a mechanical problem. You just don’t phone Motorcycle Superstore and have them ship out replacement parts for a 1957 Gilera Grand Prix bike for next day delivery.

Miller’s bike is interesting in a huge variety of ways. The absolute facts are that it is not an authentic Gilera “Four” but rather one of six replicas which were built by Mark and Dave Kay of Meccanica Verghera Engineering – somewhat ironically based in Walsall in the heart of Britain’s engineering and manufacturing Midlands.

The Kays are nothing short of genius: no other word adequately describes their ability. The two of them are probably responsible for keeping more classic race bikes on the track than any other people in the world.

Dave explains: “A customer brought us a 1952 Gilera for repair and we really liked the bike. It was one of the legendary motorcycles of all time and we enjoyed working on it.

“Later on, the same customer brought us a 1957 Gilera Four which was the last model the factory produced and was the ultimate example of all Gilera’s race bikes.

“We came to an arrangement whereby we could copy the bike and make a small number of replicas.

“From the start, we wanted to make a bike which was an absolute clone of the original bike. We could have easily improved it, in the same way which many British racing Singles have been modernized to increase performance. But we were determined to make machines which were absolutely identical to the original bikes. This means that what was good on the original bikes is good on our machines and what is bad stays bad.

“We know we got things right because we keep a lot of the original Gileras in Italy on the track using our parts.

Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four
Instrumention includes an anti-clockwise tachometer, which Frank was kindly warned to keep under 10,000 rpm lest he cause thousands of dollars worth of damage.

“Making a Gilera Four is every bit as difficult as you would imagine. The job was particularly challenging because the bike we had to copy was incomplete. We had to get inside the minds of designer Franco Passoni, and the Gilera race team, and work out what they intended to do rather than just use modern techniques to solve the questions.

“Once we understood what they had been thinking, the actual manufacturing was extremely demanding. For example, the cylinder head is a nightmare and is made in multiple parts. Through years of living with the bikes, the Gilera staff had come to understand the manufacturing tolerances.

“We had to use our experience to get things right first time and it wasn’t easy.

“As well as being exact replicas of the original bikes, we wanted them to be 100% race worthy – not just bits of dead metal to be used as ornaments.

“We achieved this aim too with Pat Sefton just failing to reach Bob McIntyre’s 100mph lap when we raced the “Four” in the 2005 Manx Grand Prix.

“That bike was sold to fund the MV Agusta project (Dave is currently manufacturing clones of Agostini’s World Championship-winning three-cylinder MV Agusta) but I always have a soft spot for the Gilera so I am making a new bike for myself.”

Gilera’s history of racing four-cylinder machines goes all the way back to 1936 when the factory bought the rights to the CNA “Rondine” four-cylinder machine. This was the first practical bike to have the cylinders transposed across the frame in the manner which, much later, the Japanese made the industry standard.

Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera FourMemorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four
The Gilera Four had many re-designs until its peak year in 1957 when it won the 500cc World Championship.

Gilera was owned, and very tightly controled, by founder Giuseppe Gilera and he had ambitions to make his company a world leader in motorcycle design and production. As well as being an astute businessman Gilera was a talented motorcycle racer, and mechanic, and understood the potential of the four-cylinder engine – and the publicity it could bring to the Arcore factory.

Always retaining an across the frame design for cooling, the Gilera “Four” underwent many re-designs until it reach its, almost, ultimate form in Kay’s recreation of the five-speed, 1957 design which gave Bob McIntyre the 500cc World Championship.

The motor was still a two-valve per cylinder design but the highly talented, and practical, Franco Passoni increased the cylinder bore to 58.8mm with two pairs of cylinder heads. There were four separate cylinder barrels and one long magnesium cam cover – and the whole lot was bolted to the crankcases via 12 long studs: all very practical if you were a Gilera mechanic in 1957 but a nightmare for the Kays to re-create.

The valves were opened by a gear train because this was considered to be the most reliable method available at the time. Gears were also used for the primary drive to the clutch, again for reliability, and they feed the power to a five speed gearbox with the classic, right-hand side, European gear shift pattern of “one up and four down.”

A one gallon oil sump was positioned beneath the engine to help the lower the center of gravity.
In this trim, the motor produced around 70 horsepower and the bike weighed 330 pounds. This was 40 pounds heavier than the best Manx Norton or Matchless G50s – but a whopping 20 horsepower more than the British Singles.

A top quality Manx was good for around 135mph – and that was a really world class example – in contrast with the Gilera which would, in the right conditions, be nudging 155mph. Far more importantly, the Gilera would simply slaughter a Manx or G.50 in terms of acceleration.

Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four
Geoff Duke used his previous experience racing the Norton Manx 30M to improve the Gilera’s handling.

When Geoff Duke left Norton to join Gilera he came with an intimate knowledge of the best handling race bike in the world at the time: the Norton 30M Manx. Geoff made a number of suggestions to bring the Gilera closer to the Norton in terms of handling performance and a new frame, which lowered the engine and was shorter, became standard. This is the frame used on the Miller bike.

Also used on this bike are the formidable 220mm, double sided, four leading shoe front brake and the single sided twin leading shoe rear brake.

It’s worth exploding a myth at this point. The truth is that drum brakes can provide epic braking power when compared with a disc. The problem is that they are hugely more complex to make; much more difficult to use and fade under severe use.

The issue with the Gilera brake is that it has a ferocious self-servo effect, Once the brake shoes bite, the rider has to ease the lever pressure to prevent the front wheel from locking uncontrollably. With the astonishing levels of grip offered by modern classic race tyres, even an ordinary club rider of my standard can use the power of the brakes but in 1957 it must have a taken a genius to prevent them locking.

Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four
As if the fear of piloting a $125,000 bike wasn’t enough, our contributor had its owner, racing legend Sammy Miller (above), watching his every step – or misstep.

Sammy Miller issued no threats or warnings – just a smile and the instruction; “Go and enjoy yourself.”
The test track was perfect for a 1950s GP bike because it was the narrow, bumpy roads used for the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power – a very good replica of the surfaces on which GPs were run 50 years ago.

The first thing which hits me is how small is the Gilera. Maybe simply because of its reputation, or perhaps the width of those legendary four cylinders, whenever you see the bike at a show there is the feeling that it is a bulky thing. In real life, the opposite is true. It is physically smaller than the Matchless G.50 which I normally race and feels more like our much later Seeley Suzuki.

The ergonomics are superb. Everything falls to hand in the most natural way possible. The clutch is feather light and the bike just begs the rider to get down into a racing crouch. First, last and middle this is a GP bike – and there is no mistaking the fact.

John hands the Gilera over to me fully warmed up and now it’s the moment of truth. Will my mechanical hero prove to be a Disney World illusion made from re-cycled Chinese plastic?

The throttle is light and the revs soar with the merest hint of throttle. The rev counter needle scorches anti-clockwise round the dial with worrying speed. The old adage is true: there are no atheists on the battle field. I babble a prayer under my Arai: “Please God, don’t let me wreck the bike even before the start line.”

I roll the Gilera down to the timing lights with the bike in neutral to protect the fragile clutch. Then, with no fanfare of trumpets, chariots of fire descending from the clouds or any other heavenly sign, the starting light goes green and I have an empty track and control of a legend.

The Gilera wail is much softer and more sonorous than a modern, unsilenced four-cylinder engine. I bring the revs up to 5500 and then gently ease in the clutch, so that the bike is balanced just on the edge of the powerband, and then we are away.
It is impossible not to fall into the racing position and once I am on the fuel tank the bike is beautifully balanced. The gears pop in effortlessly and in seconds I am running at 9000 rpm – the bottom edge of the GP power-band – which is 90mph through Cholmondeley’s wooded avenue.

Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four
Rather than intimidating the Gilera was very responsive, its silky motor pulling up to racing pace without trouble.Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four

In just a few seconds, I am at home. Rather than being some exotic monster, the Gilera is as friendly and helpful as a working Collie bitch.

Turning left at the end of the Chestnut Avenue, it takes only light pressure to get that huge front brake working and I am grateful for John’s timely advice. Again, what a dream it would be to have a brake like this in a modern classic race.

Out of the hairpin, the Gilera pulls well with the clutch in. Okay, if I were racing I would want to get into the power quicker but the motor spins up easily and we’re off again, head in the tank and trying desperately not to get near racing speeds.

Through the chicane, the Gilera’s relaxed steering makes itself known with a reluctance to flick from one angle of lean to the other but there were no chicanes in 1957 when true road racing ruled the GP world.
Downhill, and off-camber, at Chapel Bends the Gilera is rock solid and trustworthy. I catch a glimpse of the Armco on the right and for a split second imagine the consequences of getting the left-hander wrong – for me and the bike.

As every yard goes by, I get to like the bike more and more until by the end of the lap I am beginning to dream terrible, fantasy dreams.

I need two, not one, Gileras. I need one in the original trim so that on every day which is less than perfect I can go across to the workshop, crack it up and feel better about life.

I then need a second “Four” silenced to current racing levels so that I can race it hard in classic events. If the Gilera is fantastic here, ridden gently and with respect to the bike and its owner, what would it be like at Spa with the back end hanging out at 130mph?

Memorable MC: 1957 Gilera Four
Frank’s smile, sheer joy mixed with relief, more than glad to deliver the Gilera safe and sound back to its owner.

So, if any MCUSA reader has a spare $250,000 to fulfil a bike junkie’s dreams, do let me know.

With many thanks to Sammy Miller for showing me greater trust than I reasonably deserve and to Pippa Lomax and the CPOP team for allowing me to use their event for this test.

And a Post Script:

I gave the bike back to John with a very real sense of relief along with the comments. “Well there we go. Back in one piece and no scratches.”

John half smiled and commented: “Yes, I know, I was watching you every inch of the way on the big screen TV.”

It was just like giving in my homework on time…