The golden age of Grand Prix racing’s forgotten marque
Exactly 60 years ago in 1957, the pivotal year in what’s widely known as the golden age of Grand Prix racing, the Italian Mondial factory capped its mercurial rise to road racing supremacy by winning both 125cc and 250cc World Championships, only to withdraw from racing at the height of its success. Interestingly, exactly one decade later Yamaha would follow suit in retiring from GP racing while completely supreme in the very same categories.
Mondial was the creation of the Boselli family, wealthy landowning nobility from the Piacenza area in the valley of the River Po, Italy’s breadbasket. Count Giuseppe Boselli treated his motorcycle business very much as a sideline to the family’s agricultural interests – but as a former ISDT gold medal winner himelf, he understood the value of competition success in promoting Mondial’s roadbike range, by exploiting the sport-mad Italian nation's love of racing. He therefore recruited designer Alfonso Drusiani to create a 125GP racer, with a powerful, state-of-the-art engine clad in its vintage-style girder-fork frame. Although at that time two-strokes from MV Agusta and Morini dominated the class, Drusiani instead pioneered a small-scale version of the classic bevel-driven dohc single-cylinder four-stroke format later to be typical of Italian engineering. The many similar designs which followed over the next 20 years – especially the range of Ducati singles created by former Mondial engineer Fabio Taglioni – all owed much to that first small Mondial.
This proved literally unbeatable for the first three years of the 125cc World series, with Mondial riders winning all eleven GP races run in 1949-51. Nello Pagani won the inaugural World Championship for Mondial in 1949, some consolation for narrowly missing out on the prestigious 500GP crown on his Gilera four to Les Graham's AJS Porcupine twin – riding two such contrasting bikes the same day must have been quite a challenge! Mondial’s Bruno Ruffo won the title in 1950, and in ’51 his teammate Carlo Ubbiali opened his run of nine World Championship titles by winning the 125GP crown on the Mondial.
Count Boselli had achieved his promotional goal by winning Mondial’s initial 1949 world title, so the two further World crowns were just icing on the cake. With competition success achieved, it was now time to focus on launching the line of Mondial road bikes debuting in 1950. These beautifully-made series production models were renowned for their quality of manufacture as well as design, and thus proved successful racing in customer hands. This culminated in Remo Venturi's 175cc Mondial incredibly defeating all the 350/500 cc entries to win the 1,000km single-stage Milano-Taranto open road marathon in 1954.
This focus on business meant Mondial played second best to MV Agusta in 1952, then to the all-conquering German NSU team for two seasons in 1953-54. By now Ubbiali had departed to the rival and now more successful MV team owned by another Italian nobleman, Count Domenico Agusta, whose bellicose manner contrasted with the urbane and frankly much classier Count Boselli. This left rising young star Tarquinio Provini to be promoted to team leader of the Mondial équipe on updated machines. Provini scored a valuable morale-booster by winning the Spanish GP for Mondial at the end of 1954, and followed this up by defeating Ubbiali’s MV for the Italian 125cc title the following year.
But Count Boselli now had his sights set on the 250GP class, and after various experimental designs Drusiani produced what many people, not least the late Mike Hailwood, considered to be the greatest single-cylinder racebike ever built. During the winter of 1956/57 Drusiani and his six-man team of mechanics worked overtime on producing a completely new 250 single, and a spinoff 125cc version. But he had expert advice, for Count Boselli would visit the Mondial race department late at night, accompanied by august dinner guests like chief Ferrari designer Aurelio Lampredi, or Maserati’s technical guru Giulio Alfieri. Their suggestions for improvement surely found their way to Drusiani – naturally delivered via Count Boselli’s customary politeness!
The new Mondial 249cc wet-sump single race engine was heavily oversquare at 75 x 56.4 mm, permitting safe revs of 11,400 rpm, with peak power of 29bhp produced at 10,800 rpm. It featured twin overhead camshafts driven by a train of five gears up the right side of the engine, with the uppermost of these attached to the central pinion in another array of another five smaller gears spreading across the top of the cylinder head, the outer ones driving the double overhead camshafts. The 40mm inlet/37mm exhaust valves sat at an 80º included angle, fitted with exposed hairpin springs for ease of replacement in an era when broken valve springs were a constant problem – hence the development of Ducati’s desmodromic system which Mondial also experimented with. The Mondial single’s closely finned light-alloy cylinder carried a cast iron sleeve housing a three-ring piston delivering 10.5:1 compression, mounted via on a German-made Hoeckle crankshaft with a steel conrod and needle-roller big-end, and full-circle flywheels with ball main bearings. A 32mm Dell’Orto SS1 carburettor with remote float was fitted. Total loss coil ignition fired twin sparkplugs, and the gear primary drive drove a five- or seven-speed gearbox, according to rider preference or the type of circuit, via an oil-bath clutch.
With a dry weight of only 100kg without bodywork, and just 110kg complete with voluptuous bodywork, this new Mondial single was clothed in a twin-loop tubular steel frame, with twin bolted-on struts running from the steering head to the front of the crankcase. Clothed in the most effective full streamlining yet seen in the small-capacity classes, developed for Mondial by the Aer Macchi aviation company – yes, the same firm which then also made motorcycles, before selling out to Harley-Davidson in 1960 – and made in elektron alloy, with front and rear wheels more than 50% enclosed, and a long, low tank whose recesses enabled the rider to tuck himself well away behind the alloy tube-supported front screen, the 250 Mondial was timed at Monza at a speed of 219kmh/137mph. This was a truly staggering performance for the era for a 250, and faster than most 500 singles. A tail fairing was later added to stop their rivals slipstreaming the fleet blue and silver streamliners! The 220mm Oldani twin leading-shoe front drum brake with massive cooling scoops and a single-leading-shoe rear had to be specially made for Mondial to cope with the assorted problems of full streamlining. 35mm Marzocchi forks delivered a tight 1270mm wheelbase, with twin Girling rear shocks.
Count Boselli assembled a very strong team of riders, with former 125GP World champion Cecil Sandford (who’d ended Mondial’s initial run of success in 1952 for MV Agusta) alongside Provini, although at the 1957 TT a young Ulsterman who'd been making quite a name for himself in various branches of the sport, from road-racing to scrambles to trials, was drafted into the team: his name was Sammy Miller. A fairytale end to the story so nearly happened when Miller led his first race for the Mondial team, the 10-lap 250cc Lightweight TT race held on the Isle of Man’s shorter 10.79 mile/17.36km Clypse circuit until the last corner, Governors Bridge, on the final lap, where he fell off and so handed victory to teammate Sandford. “I got carried away and took a big handful of throttle coming out of the last corner with the chequered flag in sight, and it went sideways on me,” recalls Sammy ruefully. “I picked it up, but it wouldn’t restart, so I had to push it home the final uphill half-mile to finish fifth. That was the closest I ever came to winning a Grand Prix!”
Sandford duly defeated the MV Agusta team to clinch the 250GP World Championship for Mondial, with Provini and Miller second and third respectively, and Provini winning the 125GP title. “It was the fulfilment of all my dreams,” recalled Count Boselli to me 25 years later at a 25th anniversary gathering of the Mondial Owners Club [see photos] "I felt so much satisfaction for all our team at our double World Championship success, which it's impossible to describe. It seemed a perfect moment, which I knew could never be repeated. Having achieved such success, we could only lose it if we continued racing. So I decided to stop."
So two weeks later, on September 15, 1957 the road racing world was dumbfounded by the announcement that, in conjunction with fellow 1957 World champions Moto Guzzi (350) and Gilera (500), double World title holder FB Mondial was withdrawing from racing. MV Agusta originally agreed to stop too, but Count Agusta later thought better of it, and went back on his agreement. In the case of the two larger companies the decision was made in order to concentrate on propping up their road bike sales, under threat from a combination of the Fiat 500 and the increasing consumer affluence of postwar Italy. FB Mondial, while experiencing similar problems, was not so totally committed to the viability of its two-wheelers thanks to the Bosellis’ extensive interests in other areas, especially agriculture, alongside which Mondial was just a hobby. So in just nine years FB Mondial won five World titles, reaped countless Italian championships, and introduced the dolphin fairing, full streamlining and disc brake to GP racing. Not a bad record!
Inevitably, after founding the magnificent Sammy Miller Museum www.sammymiller.co.uk Sammy looked long and hard for one of the only six such bikes to have been made, before eventually purchasing one in Italy in 1993, bearing engine no. 20M3/13098. There’s no way of knowing if this was his own bike or one of his teammates’, but though it came without bodywork, Sammy was able to use his Italian contacts to have an exquisitely crafted replica of the original voluptuous Aer Macchi-designed ‘dustbin’ fairing made for him, and with this fitted he’s duly demonstrated the bike all over Europe in the past two decades, including in the Isle of Man TT Classic Parade – although his TT outing aboard it was over the full Mountain Course, whereas his debut ’57 race on the bike took place on the shorter Clypse Course. However, I managed to beat him to the privilege of doing so by about a decade, since I also once owned one of the six 1957 Mondial 250cc factory racers myself – making the chance to ride the Miller bike at Sammy’s local airfield test track a very welcome personal trip down memory lane, even if it was the first time I’d ridden a Mondial with the full dustbin streamlining.
For strangely enough it was not the 125 and 250cc crowns obtained in 1957 by Tarquinio Provini and Cecil Sandford respectively aboard the streamlined dohc Mondial singles that stamped the bikes from Milan as being one of the great road racing designs of all time in the eyes of British enthusiasts, so much as the subsequent performances of two of the 250s in the hands of the great Mike Hailwood. After Mondial withdrew from competition officially at the end of its glorious 1957 season, two of the championship-winning bikes found their way into the hands of Stan Hailwood, proprietor of Écurie Sportive – and father of Mike the Bike. Stan Hailwood's excellent Italian contacts enabled him to persuade Mondial owner Count Boselli to supply sufficient spares and technical backup to enable Mike to run the 250 Bialbero as a serious contender for the British 250 championship, as well as in GP racing where he’d already dipped a toe in the water the previous year with a 250 NSU Sportmax and a 125 dohc Paton created by Mondial’s ex-chief race mechanic Giuseppe Pattoni, on the basis of a single-cam Mondial provided by Count Boselli. Both bikes were rebuilt for the start of the 1959 season to as-new specification by the Hailwoods’ tuner, Bill Lacey.
Mike Hailwood's performances on the Italian bikes in what was only his second full year of racing were little short of amazing, and it was as much his rides on the Mondials which first stamped him in the minds of the British public as having that special mark of greatness. On them, he swept all before him in the British 250 title chase, winning practically every race he finished at record speed, and on one occasion, at Castle Combe, equaling the 500cc lap record on the fleet Italian half-pint single, by now adorned with a dolphin fairing after the FIM’s post-1957 ban on full streamlining. In the GPs, though, the two-year old singles were no match for the new MV Agusta twins, and anyway, in his first full season of GP racing Mike himself had much to learn. But a string of leader board finishes culminating in a fine second to Hocking's MZ in the Ulster GP gave Hailwood fifth place in the World Championship at season's end. Needless to say, he won the British 250cc title handsomely, as part of his feat in sweeping all four solo classes. Just amazing.
Aware that the Mondials were too long in the tooth to give Mike any chance of landing a World title, Stan Hailwood arranged with the Ducati factory he did have some commercial clout with to build a brace each of 250 and 350 desmo twins, based on the 125cc version which Mike had occasionally ridden the previous year (though it was with a 125 desmo single that he’d won the 1959 British 125cc title). The Mondials were however retained as backup machines for use during the Ducatis' development, and it was a fortuitous decision, for the Bologna twins were, in Mike's own words, "the fastest five-barred gates in the world, for their handling was atrocious." Thus the Mondials were raced for another year, helping Mike to again earn fifth place in the 250GP World Championship, as well as to retain the British title.
For the 1961 season Mike Hailwood became a Honda works rider for the first time, and though he started out the season still using the faithful Mondials in British events with invariable success, he was already moving on to greater things, and after the bikes were loaned out for a handful of races to riders like John Surtees’ brother Norman, they were both sold to Manchester dealer Reg Dearden. It doesn’t seem that Dearden used them much, if at all: perhaps the already scanty stock of spare parts had already been exhausted. One was certainly ridden by Brian Ball to second place in the 1966 Manx GP, while the previous year David Williams had placed 7th in the Lightweight TT on a bike by then owned by tuner Syd Mularney. One Mondial eventually found its way to Murray's Museum on the IoM, and the other disappeared.
I’ve got used to unlikely motorcycles turning up in even more unlikely places, but when I heard back in 1979 that there was a 250 Mondial for sale somewhere in the USA, I didn't immediately react: surely just another of those ‘Honda 250 six for sale in Transylvania' type stories that get spread around from time to time. But when about six months later I found myself in the States and at a loose end for a day, I decided to do a little detective work. A $100 phone bill later, in a state of mounting excitement, I knew that it was true. It WAS a Mondial, it WAS a racer, it WAS a 250, and since 1957 was the only year that the factory made a proper, full-size 250 single, it had to be one of the works bikes from that year. The only unsolved question was – how on earth did the factory Mondial 250 bearing engine/frame no. 0504 ever wind up in Muskogee, Oklahoma??
Well, the answer to that question is still shrouded in the mists of time, but as many British classic enthusiasts know, I bought the Mondial and my 'Okie from Muskogee' (sorry, country music fans) duly arrived back in the UK in 1980, in shabby but complete state. I say 'back', because it proved to be one of the two Ecurie Sportive machines, with white tank and British dolphin fairing identical to the ones used by the Hailwood team. It even had a Reg Dearden plate fixed to the back of the seat. It wasn’t the Mondial on which Mike finished second to Kitano's Honda in the inaugural 250cc US GP at Daytona in February 1961, because that bike returned to Britain after the race and ended up with Syd Mularney, who kindly gave me the fuel tank off it with Daytona scrutineering sticker as a spare, after I got the bike.
Between them, my mates Ron Lewis and Dick Linton completely rebuilt the engine after getting Hoeckle in Germany to manufacture a new crankpin and conrod, still with the original-type needle roller big end, with Dick taking care of restoring the chassis. I'd planned to ride the Mondial in the 1982 Isle of Man TT Parade, but while running the bike in at Jurby during TT fortnight, we noticed a hairline crack developing in the by now rather fragile crankcases. No choice therefore but to abort the mission and make a date for a year hence, to enable Dr. Lewis to strip the engine down again, weld up the cases, add a bit of strengthening where appropriate, and put everything together again in time for the 1983 TT Parade. And that's exactly what happened, giving me a rather longer hands-on assessment of what in its day was arguably the ultimate racing single, than the succession of shorter runs I was able to make exactly 30 years later on Sammy Miller’s similar but fully streamlined bike on his airfield test track and round the access roads of the Museum.
So it was that I found myself lined up on the Glencutchery Road startline of the TT Mountain Course on the Friday afternoon of the 1983 Isle of Man TT races, surrounded by wafting clouds of Castrol R-tinged smoke, being deafened even inside my full-face helmet by the thunderous bellow of copious Manx Nortons. A long wait at the start meant that the Mondial coughed a couple of times heading down Bray Hill, but once under way and into top gear on the five-speed gearbox, the little single was soon thumping away happily beneath me. With no less than ten gear pinions in the drive train to the double overhead camshafts, there's a huge amunt of mechanical noise, the whirring of the gears joined by the clatter of the exposed hairpin valve springs, which in traditional fashion were to perform a comprehensive lube job on my left boot and the long, gently tapering exhaust. This ends only just inside the back wheel, and gives out a sturdy bellow more reminiscent of a 350 Manx than a tautly-strung Italian 250 single, even at the upper end of the 10,800 rpm revband. In deference to the engine's age and fragility, and my own lack of spares, I kept the revs down to 9,000 rpm throughout the lap, but in spite of the quite lumpy camshafts fitted I had enough of a powerband to play with exiting slower turns like Quarter Bridge or Ramsey Hairpin. There was a spell of megaphonitis around 4,600 rpm, before power came in quite strongly from 5,200 rpm upwards, giving a very usable 4,000 rpm revband even with the lower rev ceiling. Having already raced a 350cc Aermacchi single several times in the TT I had a basis for comparison, and the 250 Mondial’s cammy motor wasn’t a lot slower or any less tractable than its slightly larger capacity pushrod compatriot.
Yumping into the dip at the bottom of Bray Hill, and then again later at the bottom of Barregaroo, which I was able to take wide open, I noticed with relief that we'd got the damping exactly right on the Norton Roadholder front forks. No bottoming, but not so hard sprung that on the then ultra-bumpy Cronk-y-Voddy straight I couldn't hold the throttle hard open while the Mondial leaped around beneath me, as I weighted the footpegs. How the Roadholders came to be fitted is an interesting story, for when Hailwood raced the bike it sported an original set of forks and Oldani front brake. However, Reg Dearden apparently suffered a series of break-ins at his premises, so in desperation he took to removing the front ends from his various bikes and storing them separately to render their removal more difficult by thieves. You guessed it – the next lot of burglars removed the pile of front wheels and forks, hence the British forks and proprietary Oldani front brake fitted to ‘my’ bike. Sammy Miller’s Mondial has the original Marzocchis, and while I didn’t ride it as hard as I did mine in the Isle of Man, his airfield test track is pretty bumpy, and they seemed to damp OK.
In spite of its tiny 1270mm wheelbase, the Mondial's riding position was ideal for me (and so would have been for Hailwood too), thanks to the position of the seat far back over the rear axle. It’s actually quite tall and therefore spacious for a 250, because of the vertical cylinder and tall motor. At a time when every effort was made to take full advantage of the streamlining then in vogue (and Mondial were amongst the very best of the wind-cheating dustbin-clad machines in terms of drag coefficients), it seems strange that designer Alfonso Drusiani and his assistant Lino Tonti, later to win fame not only as designer of the Bianchi, Paton and Linto twins, but also of the Moto Guzzi Le Mans, didn’t pencil a lower design with an inclined cylinder.
Having said that, for all that the Mondial chassis package looks compromised, it handled like a dream. Mike Hailwood told me to expect that when I asked him about the bike once I knew I’d acquired it, but it wasn't till I rode the bike in the Island, fitted with modern-compound Dunlop triangulars, that I was able to find out just how true that was. Flicking the little 250 through the twists and turns of the Glen Helen section was a delight, with the exhaust note bouncing off the rock faces and stone walls while I played gentle tunes with the sweet-shifting right-foot gearchange – and tried hard to remember that it's one DOWN and four up. The Mondial's handling – and braking too – passed every exam I set for it on that lap of the Island with flying colours.
Occasionally, though, the engine would suddenly hiccup and miss a beat, then chiming in again seemingly as happy as before. I put it down to dirt in the carb from the newly-painted tank possibly having evaded the filters in the taps, but then as we started climbing the Mountain it gradually became worse, till I was forced to ease the throttle and change down going up the Mountain Mile. The problem of course was that what may have worked well in the carb jetting department at Brands Hatch was much too rich for the Isle of Man, and the black colour of the exhaust as well as of the main plug at the end of the lap proved as much. Still, this relatively minor problem by no means spoilt my ride on the little bike, because once we got to Windy Corner on the descent it had cleared again, and much to my surprise the clutch had held out all the way, not even slipping after I'd had to give it a fair degree of abuse at Ramsey Hairpin and the Gooseneck.
That the 250cc Mondial was a truly great motorcycle is born out not only by its stellar 1957 record in its solitary season as a title-winning streamliner, but by its later success in the hands of Mike Hailwood, winning copious short circuit races in the UK, as well as competing effectively as a three/four year-old design against the latest and greatest from MV and Honda in GP racing. Essentially a soundly-designed and well-built but relatively conventional machine, it owed its successes in 1957 mainly to the extremely efficient streamlining it wore, which Sammy Miller says was very little affected by side winds, and thereafter in dolphin-faired form to the extraordinary skills of Mike Hailwood. Still, it was a very fine motorcycle, and Sammy Miller is to be congratulated on the excellent restoration he and his colleague have made of the bike in his Museum.
But what happened to ‘my’ Mike the Bike Mondial, I hear you ask? Well, after realising the engine was really too fragile to race it in Classic events, I sold it to buy the first of my Patons, the 250 twin that I did indeed win the Classic Race of the Year on in 1984. Today the Mondial lives back in the USA in the hands of a collector – but next time you hear about that Honda six for sale somewhere improbable, just go there. It might be true!