Benelli is planning to re-enter the Superbike market within the next three years, with either a 1000cc V5 or an in-line four-cylinder sportbike. But, before that, Benelli will produce its first-ever contender for the Supersport category, building on its recent three-cylinder heritage to produce a 675cc triple to rival Triumph’s established Daytona and the forthcoming MV Agusta 675-3.
These are just two of a series of high-profile new projects confirmed by the company’s CEO Pierluigi Marconi as accelerating Benelli’s drive towards a full-range model lineup by 2010, fuelled by the ongoing substantial investment made by Qianjiang in both product development and manufacturing facilities, as Benelli’s march along the comeback trail moves into top gear.
Production of the existing range reached 2000 units in the 2007 model year, with the existing Pesaro factory targeted to manufacture 3500 motorcycles in 2008, according to Marconi. But in 2009 he reveals that Benelli will step up production to 10,000 bikes aimed at several new market sectors, with 20,000 units the target for 2010. This will come with the planned construction of a new factory in the region of Pesaro.
This will entail substantially increasing the workforce from the present 108 staff employed by Benelli - already more than double the 45 employees working there when Qianjiang took over the company in October 2005, and brought Benelli’s engine manufacturing operation in-house. This is already capable of producing up to 70 motors daily – important since all the several new Benelli models under development will be powered by dedicated liquid-cooled engines to be manufactured exclusively in Italy, albeit using many Chinese components either equalling or surpassing their European equivalents in terms of quality and value for money, in their construction.
Although production of the Tornado sportbike has now ended, after the final 250 were built in 2007. “The engine is too large and heavy to make the bike competitive in the Superbike category today,” says Marconi, “but we’re focusing instead on a much lighter and more compact all-new design which will allow us to produce a 675 Tre contender for the Supersport class.”
The dohc in-line 12-valve triple motor for this has already been designed, and will run on the dyno for the first time this winter, with the complete bike on schedule to be launched at the EICMA Milan Show in November next year as a ‘09 model, to kickstart production in Benelli QJ’s new factory. “Though the bike is 100% created in Italy and is being designed by our resident Spanish stylist, Carlos Solsona, the intensive testing facilities available in China will enable us to fast-forward its development, while still delivering reliability and quality, as well as performance,” says Marconi. “Things get done much faster in China than in Europe, and Benelli’s expansion is being driven at a speed our owners are accustomed to.” Benelli intends to go World Supersport racing in 2009 with the new 675 Tre, as a means of promoting its re-emergence on the World stage as a major full-product manufacturer, with a Naked TnT version following soon after as a Latin rival to Triumph’s new Street Triple.
Benelli’s fast pace of product development sees the range of fuel-injected single-cylinder Mono offroad bikes launched in prototype form one year ago at Intermot 2006 entering production in January 2008, first with the debut of its 449cc MX contender, followed in February by the bored-out 505cc Enduro model. These five-speeders were already displayed a year ago at Intermot, but they’ll be followed in March by a new 570cc bored and stroked streetlegal six-speed Supermono version (also available with a racekit), which will be launched at the EICMA Milan Show in November.
These will be available for sale in the first part of 2008 via Benelli’s expanding worldwide dealer network, with a factory team scheduled to take part in next year’s Italian National MX/Enduro championships, to further ongoing development. All three models are powered by Benelli’s own very compact liquid-cooled dohc four-valve motor with one-piece crankcase for extra stiffness (just like its classic era four-cylinder World champion 250cc GP racers), extractable cassette gearbox, gear-driven balance shaft and modular gear/chain drive via beryllium followers to the four titanium valves sitting at a very flat 21-degree included angle.
Created by Benelli in consultation with the Vertemati brothers Alvaro and Guido (whose eponymous offroad bikes, also produced under the VOR label, have given them extensive experience now at Benelli’s disposal), the Mono engine has been designed to allow the side-loading crankshaft to be removed for servicing or replacement with the motor still in situ within the extremely avant-garde chassis. This is a cast aluminium twin-spar design representing a new departure for the offroad category, in which the engine is mounted rigidly, with removable carbon fibre struts of varying stiffness bolted to connect the twin chassis spars to the vestigial front downtube, thus allowing the rigidity of the chassis to be varied according to the track conditions - sand, hard-packed dirt, mud, etc.
An all-new 250cc dohc motor following the same broad outline, but setting new class records for light weight and compact build, will be launched at EICMA Milan in November 2008, promises Marconi, with both MX and Enduro versions set to be available. The new Benellis will go head-to-head as 2010-model European contenders for this key offroad capacity segment with the existing products of both KTM and BMW’s new acquisition Husqvarna, as well as with the Aprilia range of 250 singles (representing one-half of the Piaggio-owned Italian marque’s current World title-winning 77-degree V-twin models) also expected in 2008.
The next new Benelli family of models to reach production will be the twin-cylinder Due range launched a year ago at Intermot 2006 in 756cc Naked guise, which will also be available as entry-level 600cc products competing both in terms of specification and price with the Kawasaki 650 Versys. Even so, when it reaches the showrooms in July next year with a Euro 7,500 pricetag the Due 756 will represent a distinctive alternative in the largest-volume European market segment.
Its compact new 88 x 62 mm dohc eight-valve engine has the same dimensions as the 1130cc triple motor currently powering Benelli’s existing range of motorcycles, with a 180-degree crank, a single gear-driven counterbalancer, and a six-speed gearbox with stacked shafts which help deliver a very short motor, permitting a long swingarm to be used in a bike with a 1440mm wheelbase. The parallel-twin engine has a steep angle of downdraught for the twin throttle bodies, and will deliver around 90 bhp and more than 8.0 mkg of torque in production form, depending on the model it powers, declares Marconi. “We’re starting out with a Naked bike like the one launched at Intermot,” he says, “but we’ll also produce dual-purpose Street Enduro, Café Racer and Adventure touring versions, all of which will have the same cast aluminium chassis as this prototype.”
Future Benelli projects include a 1000cc Superbike replacing the now deleted Tornado 900/1130 triple. “Ideally, we’d prefer to position a V5 sportbike at the top of our range, which would give Benelli a strong identity in the marketplace, as well as differentiating it from our 675 Tre,” says Marconi. “I also believe this has several dynamic advantages which would allow us to offer a bike which would be the reference point of the category - I’m still very surprised that Hondas didn’t make a street version of their RC211V MotoGP bike.
But it would be a requirement that such a bike could be raced in the Superbike category - we’re not talking about an expensive limited edition model like the Ducati Desmosedici RR, but a volume production model at affordable cost. However, we have repeatedly asked FGSport, the World Superbike promoters, and also the FIM, to confirm a set of regulations for five-cylinder Superbikes, but we can’t get them to respond to this request. It’s as if they’re afraid of upsetting the four Japanese manufacturers any more than they already are by allowing 1200cc twins to please Ducati! We only seek confirmation that there will indeed be a category for 1000cc five-cylinder Superbikes, and the minimum weight for that. Then we’ll know what our target is!” Sportbike fans around the globe will be hoping they go the V5 route - but Benelli will focus on the 675 Tre in the short term, before starting development work on the new Superbike next year, with a view to launching it at the EICMA Milan show in November 2009.
Outline designs for both the 1000 V5 and an alternative, more conventional, in-line four have already been produced, but a decision will be made in six months’ time which development path to follow.
Finally, Benelli plans further down the line to develop its own line of V-twin custom bikes with which to attack the US market - but not any time soon. It has indeed produced a prototype twin-crank 2260cc Vee-six engine, effectively consisting of two of the company’s existing 1130cc three-cylinder engines on a common crankcase - but the British tabloid bike paper whose reporter was left alone in an office of the Benelli factory, saw the mockup drawing of a Rocket III-type cruiser made as a practical joke, and put two and two together to make five (or, actually, six!), got it wrong. The V6 motor has been developed without any gearbox as a powerboat engine prototype to be manufactured in the Benelli QJ marine engine offshoot in the factory next door to the motorcycle operation.
Wheeow, now I must get the prize for the looooooooooongest post ever!!!!