Ducati four-cylinder Grand Prix "unicorn" heads Bonham's museum sale
Thought lost for decades, the engine of this Taglioni masterpiece was rediscovered in Latvia and the frame in Croatia.
Unicorns are fabled beasts, and in the collectible motorcycle world, some of the impossibly rare machinery of legend falls into the same category. These are the bikes that almost never reach auction because a deal is done well before a public offering is considered, as opportunity rarely knocks twice and price is not important when something like a Moto Guzzi V8, Honda 250/6 or 125/5, MV Agusta 500/6 or a Ducati 125/4 is concerned.
A decade ago, the Ex Mike Hailwood Honda 297cc 6 cylinder changed hands privately for a price believed to be just shy of a million dollars. Today it would sell for much more. There were only two ever made.
Four years ago, a replica of the Moto Guzzi V8 sold at auction fetching $284,000. There were six real V8s built and two extant, and despite being a replica this one fetched a tidy sum because you'll never get a real one.
Moto Guzzi is now known for it's signature transverse V-twin format, but the engineering audacity of producing a DOHC V8 racer sixty years ago made world headlines and propagated the brand name globally, despite never winning a race. It also set the scene for Honda to perform equally remarkable technological wizardry a decade later, when the Japanese company created the six-cylinder 250cc RC166 and the most outrageous of them all, the five-cylinder 125cc RC149.
The fact that this Ducati four-cylinder 125 Grand Prix Racer has even reached auction is astonishing. It never raced, having been outdated by the two-stroke hordes and Honda's last-gasp four- and five-cylinder 125s that scraped out two more championships before the sound of expansion chambers banished the four-stroke roar for decades.
The tiny air-cooled inline-four engine has twin overhead camshafts (albeit conventional and not the desmodromic valve trains that would become synonymous with the marque) and a bore and stroke of 34.5mm x 34mm.
If you have a ruler handy, go and measure out 34.5 mm, then consider four tiny pistons of that diameter running at a 12:1 compression ratio and needing to spin to 15,000rpm to produce their maximum 23 horsepower. Then imagine rebuilding the engine and how impossibly small those four valves in each cylinder would be, and the engineering challenges faced by motorcycling's Michaelangelo, Fabio Taglioni, in designing and creating the entire bonsai engine's internals. Honda had a battalion of talented and dedicated engineers building its machinery. Ducati had Taglioni. Honda race engineer Nobby Clarke recalls assembling the Honda 125's valve gear with tweezers – this engine would have been quite similar.
Over half a century ago, this 125 could run at 125 mph, and even that wasn't enough for the bike to be considered to be competitive before it was shelved.
Tentatively estimated at £400,000 to £600,000, ($520,000 to $780,000), this Ducati is likely to be the most valuable motorcycle sold this year if it sells, and it stands an outside chance of becoming the most valuable motorcycle ever sold at auction.
The reason this unicorn has come to market is that the Morbidelli Motorcycle Museum of Pesaro, Italy, is being sold off and a world-class collection of 200 post-war road and racing motorcycles from the museum will be the centerpiece of Bonhams' Spring Stafford Sale to be held this year on April 25-26, 2020. Despite being one of the main auctioneers of collectible motorcycles in the world for the last half century, Bonhams claims the Morbidelli Museum is the most significant private collection of motorcycles it has offered to date.
This important collection was built up and curated by the late Giancarlo Morbidelli, the museum's founder, motorcycle manufacturer and Grand Prix boss, over a period of 40 years, and represents the best of Italy, with an emphasis on Italian marques, including Benelli and Ducati.
Here's a brief overview of some of the other motorcycles to be sold at Staffordshire County show ground on the last weekend in April.
1950 Benelli 250cc World-Championship Grand Prix Racing Motorcycle
Seventy years ago, this bike was easily the fastest 250cc motorcycle in the world with Dario Ambrosini aboard, winning the 250 TT at the Isle of Man, the 250 Swiss Grand Prix in Geneva, the 250 Nations Grand Prix at Monza, and the 1950 World Championship for 250cc motorcycles. Only once at Grand Prix level was the bike beaten during the season, and that was at the fearsomely dangerous Clady Circuit used for the Ulster Grand Prix, where it finished second.
It's not often that you can buy a factory racer that has won a Grand Prix, much less one that has been solely responsible for a World Championship, so it will be interesting to see if the final price fits within Bonhams' estimate of £120,000 to £180,000 ($155,000 to $235,000).
The Ex-Tarquinio Provini, 1964 Spanish Grand Prix-Winning 1964 Benelli 250cc Grand Prix Factory Racing Motorcycle
This factory Benelli racer won the 1964 Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuic Park ridden by two-time World Champion Tarquinio Provini, ahead of a field of mixed two-stroke and four-stroke machinery, including Phil Read on a factory Yamaha, Jim Redman and Luigi Taveri on factory Hondas and young Italian named Giacomo Agostini on a Moto Marini in one of his first Grand Prix starts.
This bike is hence one of the last of the four-strokes that fought a valiant rear guard action against the more powerful but less reliable two-strokes of the era. Using the bike's not so prodigious 45 hp engine but absolutely exquisite handling, Provini scrapped his way to a win around the tight Montjuic Park circuit, something that was much more difficult to do once the tracks became faster as the season progressed. Nonetheless, the bike also finished fourth in the 250cc Dutch TT at Assen and fifth in both the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps and the West German Grand Prix at Solitude, finishing the season in fifth place in the World Championship.
With an official estimate of £80,000 to £120,000 ($100,000 to $150,000), this bike offers a real opportunity to own a Grand Prix winner for not much money. The top triple clamp also bears Provini's signature, so it's a very authentic bundle of Grand Prix history in addition to making one of the most glorious sounds you've ever heard when spinning at its maximum 14,500 rpm.
The Ex-Angel Nieto 1973 Morbidelli 125cc Grand Prix Racing Motorcycle
Diminutive Spanish Grand Prix rider Angel Nieto specialized in racing 50cc and 125cc motorcycles, and amassed one of the most formidable CVs ever in the sport: 13 World Championships and 90 Grand Prix victories. By comparison, Valentino Rossi has nine titles and 115 wins, Marc Marquez has eight titles and 82 wins, and Mike Hailwood has nine titles and 76 wins. The bike on offer was ridden by Nieto in 1973 when Nieto swapped to the Morbidelli marque for one season. The move was premature, as both Nieto and Morbidelli went on to great success, but not together. This bike was ridden by Nieto to second place in three Grands Prix, being the his best results in 1973 being 2nd places in West German Grand Prix at Hockenheimring, Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps, and the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. With an official estimate of £80,000 to £120,000 ($100,000 to $150,000), this bike would make an excellent purchase for any collector of Grand Prix machinery or a motorcycle museum as it has elite provenance in several dimensions.
C.1963 Honda 250cc CR72 Racing Motorcycle
We've included this motorcycle from an almost endless field of wonderful racing and road motorcycles going to auction in Stafford, because it is indicative of how easily a bike of rarity and importance can be overlooked. Honda is the world's most successful road and racing motorcycle manufacturer in history, by a fair margin. As yet, that glorious history has not been fully recognized on the auction block (there's an RC30 in this auction too, by the way) but awareness is growing, and it's only a matter of time before early, rare and important Hondas begin to fetch spectacular figures.
With an estimate of £40,000 to £60,000 ($50,000 to $75,000), this bike appears to be a largely complete and thoroughly authentic limited-production CR72 racer of the period. The DOHC four-valve engines featured a central set of spur gears to drive the cams, and although the CR72 produced 40 horsepower at 12,000rpm, it didn't achieve much success compared to its 125cc production racing cousin. This model was however instrumental in promoting the Honda name on the road and track when Honda was beginning to experience Grand Prix success. In 1963, Honda won both the 250cc and 350cc world championships, and although nothing like the bikes that won the titles, it is nonetheless important.
It is a mark of this growing recognition that when one of these production racing bikes comes to market, it invariably sells for a lot of money. One sold in Germany at a Coys auction a few years back for around $80,000, and the above 1962 Honda CR72 Production Racer was sold for $180,000 by Mid-America (now Mecum) in Las Vegas in January, 2009.
The breadth of rare motorcycles with great provenance available at this auction is breathtaking – if you're a collector, it is definitely worth browsing the Bonhams web site to see what's on offer.