The Tesi H2 marks Bimota's return – but where did it all begin?
With orders now being taken for the supercharged, hub-centre-steered Bimota Tesi H2, it’s worth revisiting the Italian brand’s glittering, yet chequered, history.
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Although in business only 47 years, no biking operation has a bigger back-catalogue of ultra-desirable, almost jewel-like machines, nor has delivered so much pioneering engineering.
Bimota’s first road bike, the simply stunning GS750-powered SB2 of 1976, was a fully faired, lightweight, monoshock superbike for the street almost 10 years before engine-donor Suzuki’s first GSX-R.
The mouth-watering 1985 DB1 was a sporting, fully enclosed Ducati V-twin that predated both the Paso and 851. While the aluminium beam-framed and fuel-injected YB4ie almost snatched the first World Superbike title from no less than mighty Honda and the debutante RC30.
And although the 1990s saw Bimota’s star wane and their advantage fade, leading to repeated commercial difficulties, while bikes like the original Tesi, wacky Mantra roadster and over-ambitious two-stroke V-Due, proved financial flops – glorious, true exotica such as 1994’s 147bhp SB6 and the following year’s BB1 ‘Supermono’ proved Bimota could still be brilliant. Not bad for a brand that was founded by three biking mates from Rimini who started out in the air-conditioning and heating appliance business.
Born of better handling
Valerio Bianchi, Giuseppe Morri and Massimo Tamburini, the first two letters of each surname being used to create the company name, first teamed up in 1966 to make air-conditioning ducting.
At weekends, however, bike nut Tamburini, who later found fame designing not only the Ducati Paso and 916 but also the MV Agusta F4 750, took to the track, initially with an MV Agusta 600/4 he had comprehensively modified with his own frame, twin discs, shaft-to-chain conversion and one-piece bodywork.
He also began modifying bikes for other local riders, making them lighter and better handling.
When Honda brought out the game-changing CB750/4 in 1969 Tamburini, unsurprisingly, had to have one but quickly found its handling lacking. The story which has gone into folklore is that Tamburini crashed his at the fast Quercia bend at Misano in September 1972, breaking three ribs and during his convalescence designed and built a much lighter yet stronger tubular steel frame using the SOHC four as a stressed member.
This proved so successful the firm began making replica kits. The company were renamed Bimota Mecchanica in 1973 and the HB1 (for Honda Bimota No. 1 – a naming protocol the firm retained throughout their history) was born.
Initially, Bimota produced only frame kits for race bikes. Ten HB1s were built, along with the YB1 for Yamaha’s TZ250 and SB1 for Suzuki’s TR500.
Indeed, the racers would go on to significant success, providing the chassis on which Johnny Cecotto won the 350cc world crown in 1975, being heavily involved in the Aermacchi Harley-Davidsons Walter Villa championed in 1976 and 1977, carrying Randy Mamola in his grand prix 250 debut in 1979 and rounded off by Jon Ekerold’s 350cc world championship aboard a Bimota-framed TZ in 1980.
From race to road
In 1976 burgeoning Bimota made their boldest move so far by expanding from race kits into fully-built road machines (although many of the bikes would remain available also as a kit for years to come). The first, the Suzuki GS750-powered SB2, was unveiled at that year’s Bologna motor show and caused a sensation.
Everything about the SB2 took road sports machines to an entirely new extreme. Its swoopy, full bodywork had a suede – yes suede – upholstered single seat, while the four-cylinder engine – the biggest Suzuki then produced – was enlarged to 850cc via the use of Yoshimura racing pistons.
But most extreme of all was the chassis: a hand-built, ultra-lightweight tubular steel frame with a monoshock rear (one of the very first road bikes so equipped) holding the very best, race-spec cycle parts – Ceriani forks, magnesium racing wheels, the latest Brembo brakes and more.
Nor did it end there: the swingarm pivot was concentric with the final drive sprocket; the yokes, pegs and brake hangers were milled out of aluminium billet while the rear bodywork, in GP-style, was self-supporting, requiring no subframe. All of this, of course, in 1976 was pure sci-fi.
And although none of that came cheap – at around £3800 it cost three times that of the stock GS750 – so much so that only 140 were built, the SB2 put Bimota on the map and set the template for all the machines to follow.
The SB2 was succeeded by the more sober Kawasaki-engined KB1, of which over 300 were sold. The GS1000-powered SB3 in 1980 sold better still and, by the early 1980s, Bimotas were established as the most exotic, finest-handling, best-looking and most desirable Japanese-engined ‘specials’.
Back then Japanese bikes’ handling was still wanting, reframed ‘UJMs’ were relatively common and you could alternatively buy a British Harris Magnum 2, French Moto Martin or Swiss Egli – but Bimota were most desirable of all.
The dawn of the Tesi
Tamburini fell out with Morri and left Bimota in 1984, initially going to Roberto Gallina’s GP squad before, in 1985, joining Claudio Castiglioni’s Cagiva/Ducati empire – but he continued to have influence.
In 1985 Bimota were in dire straits financially, largely as none of the Japanese were willing to supply engines so sourcing them came from complete, cannibalised bikes. And although that year’s Ducati-engined DB1, which would prove the company’s saviour by proving hugely popular, particularly in Japan, was engineered by his successor, Federico Martini, its all-enclosing bodywork was actually styled by Tamburini.
Thereafter, the remainder of the 80s would be a period of reasonable success: Martini, assisted by young ex-student Pier-Luigi Marconi, steered Bimota to a series of higher volume, aluminium beam frame Yamahas, highlighted by the FZ750-engined YB4ie (which nearly won WSB in 1988) but also by the 1988’s FZR1000-powered YB6 (546 built); EXUP-engined YB8 (500+) and even the smaller, FZR600-powered YB9 (almost 1000).
The 1990s, however, was another story. Although Martini had been working on a hub-centre-steered machine since 1983, it wasn’t until after he left to join Gilera in early 1989 that, with Marconi now at the helm, the Tesi saw light of day, first with an FZ750 engine then for a season of racing in the Italian Superbike prototype class with a Ducati 851 motor. It was then launched as a production bike at the October 1990 Cologne Show.
Yet, despite a £20K+ price and over 400 sales in three years it wasn’t a success in a world where a FireBlade cost around a third of that and Yamaha’s hub-centre GTS1000 two years later was less than half.
More follies followed. The bizarrely-styled (by Frenchman Sacha Lakic) 1995 DB3 Mantra, a Ducati 900SS-powered, walnut-dashed (yes, really) roadster that cost three times as much as a Monster and, of course, the infamous, fuel-injected two-stroke, V-twin V-Due.
And although 1994’s GSX-R11-powered SB6 proved Bimota’s biggest-ever seller, with over 1100 sold, it couldn’t last and in 2000 Bimota filed for bankruptcy.
The Kawasaki connection
Bimota weren’t finished, of course, if the firm have proved one thing over the years it’s their resilience and bloody-minded refusal to lie down and die. Two years later, Milan-based Roberto Comini bought the brand and Bimota restarted under the technical direction of Sergio Robbiano who focused on Ducati-powered machines creating the DB5, DB6 and, in cooperation with Vyrus, the rebirth of the Tesi.
Then, in 2013, Bimota were sold again to Swiss-based Italian duo Daniele Longoni and Marco Chiancianesi, who pinned their hopes on the BMW S1000RR-powered BB3. That bike’s failure said it all. No longer could little Bimota significantly enhance and improve the then sportsbike standard.
In 2017 Bimota closed once more, this time apparently for good. The Rimini factory was reportedly stripped, its remaining assets switched to Switzerland.
How could Bimota possibly rise again? Then, out of the blue at Eicma in November 2019, it was announced Kawasaki had bought 49% of the brand and the Tesi H2 was unveiled using an evolution of the Tesi hub-centre chassis and the supercharged engine from the Kawasaki H2.
Whether this new incarnation succeeds is yet to be seen, but Kawasaki have already started building the first of the proposed 200 bikes a year to be succeeded by a Z1000-powered retro-racer-inspired KB4, which has already been seen testing. It’s good to have you back, Bimota.