The rise, fall and rise of Aprilia: 50 years of motorbikes from Noale

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Just weeks after its world launch, the most eagerly anticipated bike of 2020, Aprilia’s RS660, is proving to be well worth the wait. The 100bhp twin, complete with mould-breaking, ultralight 169kg chassis, has got buyers beating a path to their local dealership in a way not seen since the mid-1990s.

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Not only does 2020 herald Aprilia’s return to lightweight sportsbike dominance, but it also marks 50 years since the Italian firm produced their first significant bike.

Since then the marque, responsible for machines as bizarre and brilliant as the Moto 6.5 and RS250, have ridden a rollercoaster of fortune and failure no other manufacturer can match.

They’ve raced to an astonishing 54 world championships and 294 grand prix victories via the likes of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Max Biaggi. They’ve produced Ducati-challenging V-twin superbikes and Honda-rivalling sports tourers. And their finances have skyrocketted from a turnover of just 7 billion Lire in 1982 to 970 billion – almost 140 times larger – just 15 years later.

Unfortunately, Aprilia also, just as dramatically, overstretched themselves in 2000 with the purchase of Moto Guzzi and Laverda before falling into a financial crisis, which ultimately forced a takeover by Piaggio in 2004.

And although that wasn’t the end of the story and Aprilia have again risen to produce the WSB-winning RSV4 and this year’s hit RS660 and to compete again in MotoGP, it’s still one hell of a tale for a firm that in 1968 had yet to produce their first bike.

Scooter production at the Aprilia factory

It’s a story that begins, and is dominated by, one man: Ivano Beggio. In 1968 the then 24-year-old took over control of his father’s small Noale-based bicycle company and immediately decided to build motorcycles.

The first 50cc mopeds, the Colibri, Daniela and Packi, came soon after with Aprilia’s first proper motorcycle, the 50cc Scarabeo trail bike, arriving in 1970.

The Scarabeo proved particularly popular, remaining in production throughout the 1970s in both 50 and 125cc forms, and its success-helped cement Beggio’s idea to drive publicity and sales by striving for success in motorcycle sport.

In 1975 Aprilia entered the Italian national motocross championships and won both the 125 and 250cc classes as early as 1977, courtesy of Milanese rider Ivan Alborghetti.

Then, in the 1980s, as Aprilia began to focus on road sports lightweights and switched from dirt to road racing, things progressed faster still.

Birth of the Aprilia race rep

Aprilia AF1 wheelie

In 1985 Aprilia made their road racing grand prix debut and also began an association with Austrian engine supplier Rotax, both for their road and race machines.

At their first race, Loris Reggiani took Aprilia’s aluminium beam-framed 250 twin to 12th and progressed to two third places by season’s end.

Then 1986 saw the debut of Aprilia’s first production road ‘racer-replica’ 125 – the AF1. Twelve months on, Reggiani won the firm’s first road racing GP then, in 1988, a 125 joined Aprilia’s grand prix challenge and hit the ground running, grabbing a podium in its first year. Things were moving fast.

But as Aprilia’s sports lightweights became increasingly successful, both on road and track while they continued to participate in trials and enduro, as the Italian firm approached what would prove to be their ‘golden era’ of the 1990s, it was increasingly clear that more, much more, was to come.

Aprilia AF1

In 1988, the first AF1 was superseded by the AF1 Sintesi, complete with snazzy single-sided swingarm, inverted forks, twin beams and more. An RC30 for the teen generation? It certainly looked it.

In 1989 the AF1 Sintesi Reggiani Replica arrived, one of the first of the whole race replica breed. Then, in 1990, it was again completely updated and restyled to become the AF1 Futura.

The speed and ambition of Aprilia’s bike updates were not just incredibly bold, they were far, far ahead of what even the Japanese could manage.

The Futura featured simply mouth-watering styling, a twin-spar alloy frame, updated single-sided swingarm and inverted forks - not to mention a screaming 30bhp from its unrestricted, liquid-cooled, two-stroke single.

As motorcycling entered the 1990s any self-respecting 17-year-old wanted not a Honda, but an Aprilia.

The Biaggi effect

Max Biaggi rides an Aprilia 250 at Donington Park, England

1992 was the year that best summed up this new golden era of Aprilia lightweight dominance. The previous year had seen Aprilia produce 50,000 motorcycles. No mean feat, especially when you realise today’s Triumph barely does more.

But from 1992 those figures went stratospheric, fuelled, on the one hand by an ever more desirable range of bikes - including the latest AF1 125 Sport Pro and Aprilia’s first larger four-stroke, the 600cc Pegaso - and, on the other, by a flurry of racing success and the positive, glamorous publicity that brings.

That year saw Aprilia not only claim their first GP world crown, courtesy of Alessandro Gramigni in the 125s, they grabbed the world trials championship, too, with Finn Tommi Ahvala, who went on to claim the indoor crown the following year.

And although Aprilia narrowly missed out in GPs in 1993, in 1994 Kazuto Sakata reclaimed the 125 title while, in 250s, Max Biaggi grabbed the first of what would be three-successive titles.

1994 also saw new success and bigger ambitions for Aprilia’s road bikes. While the traditional 125s went from strength to strength, that year saw the debut of the radical new RS250, using Suzuki RGV power, which was every inch a replica of Biaggi’s victorious machine.

Aprilia RS250

And at the same time Noale began production of a new 650, too – although this time not badged Aprilia. In a novel arrangement and following the success of its own Pegaso ‘road trailie’, the Italian firm were contracted to produce BMW’s version, the F650 ‘Funduro’.

1995 saw Aprilia’s 500GP debut with a clever, enlarged 410cc version of the 250 while the road saw the introduction of the Moto 6.5, a wacky roadster single by avant-garde designer Philippe Stark, both of which helped fuel 1997 sales of 290,000.

But the boldest moves were yet to come. When the all-new RSV Mille V-twin superbike was unveiled in 1998 Aprilia’s ambitions reached unforeseen heights.

Not only was the Rotax-powered, 128bhp V-twin a credible rival to no less than Ducati both on road and track, Aprilia also had the temerity to take on the likes of Honda with the VFR-rivalling RST1000 Futura sports-tourer and even BMW with the GS-alike Caponord.

And if that wasn’t enough, Aprilia also entered MotoGP in 2002 with the radical, Cosworth triple powered ‘Cube’.

Aprilia Cube

But all of that and more proved a stretch too far. In April 2000, Beggio had also sanctioned Aprilia’s purchase of ailing Italian brand Moto Guzzi for a reported $65 million and in September took over Laverda as well.

The plan, according to Beggio at the time, was: "To establish a leading motorcycle pool that draws from Italian industrial tradition and its extraordinary technological capacity in this sector. It will enable us to take on competition on a global level."

It wasn’t to be. The RSV, though impressive, never achieved ultimate success in WSB, despite Troy Corser winning five races in 2000, and in 2003 Aprilia withdrew to concentrate on MotoGP.

The radical ‘Cube’ fared even worse, failing to finish most of its races in its debut season and in 2003, even with Edwards and Haga on board, doing no better than 6th before bowing out in 2004.

Aprilia’s bold new road bikes had fared little better. The RSV, though capable, proved unattractive and expensive compared to the WSB-winning 996. The Futura and Caponord were both flawed while, worst of all, in 2000, a new Italian helmet law hit scooter sales.

Aprilia RSV1000 Mille

Aprilia were sold to Piaggio in December 2004 and, although retaining the title of honourary president, Beggio’s bold influence was no more. It was the start of a new, more conservative era for the previously flamboyant firm.

Occasionally, however, as they’ve proven with its RSV4 and this year’s RS660, Aprilia are still more than capable of rocking the world. The former finally claimed the WSB title with Biaggi in 2010 before repeating the feat in 2012 and 2014.

Even more importantly, with Piaggio’s backing, the firm are now on a firmer financial footing than ever, even if their wares and ambitions don’t sparkle quite so brightly. But perhaps, the RS660 represents a return to the bold, brilliant Aprilias of yore.

Ivano Beggio - the visionary behind the rise of Aprilia

Ivano Beggio poses with some of Aprilia's awards

No story about the rise of Aprilia is complete without Ivano Beggio. The son of company founder Alberto, who created the firm as a small bicycle company in Noale, like so many others, in the aftermath of World War II.

Beggio junior’s brilliance was in changing the direction of the business and leading its transformation to become one of Europe’s leading, and most innovative motorcycle operations.

He assumed control in 1968 and immediately decided to build motorcycles. A capable businessman, but also a passionate motorcyclist, Beggio capitalised on the popularity of off-road sport in the ’70s before forseeing its demise and moving into lightweight road and sportsbikes.

Recognising the potential for road racing success in establishing and promoting the Aprilia brand, Beggio created a small, flexible racing team that beat all-comers in 125 and 250 GPs.

He also had a knack for spotting future champions. Max Biaggi, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Loris Capirossi, Jorge Lorenzo and more were all propelled into the big time on Aprilias.

In 1998, at the peak of his powers, Beggio was awarded Italy’s ‘Cavaliere del Lavoro’ – literally ‘Knight of Work’ – in recognition of his achievements. He also later received two honorary degrees in mechanical engineering and business administration from Universities in Pisa and Venice.

However, the sale of his company to Piaggio hit him hard and, despite being made honourary president, he left the company in 2006. He remained a resident of Noale until his death in 2018 aged 73.

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Phil West

By Phil West

MCN Contributor and bike tester.