In 1911, six brothers established a mechanic shop in Pesaro, Italy, to repair bicycles. Over the following 105 years, the company that would become Benelli Motorcycles would see the spectacular highs of Grand Prix world championship victory and the first six cylinder super bike, and the lows of many bankruptcies and closures. The 2015 EICMA showed off the latest Benelli, a brand rejigged and ready to take another shot at success.
Benelli is still based in Pesaro, but the modern company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Qianjiang, which took over the ailing brand in 2005. One of the five largest motorcycle manufacturers in China, Qianjiang invested heavily into new models and reorganized Benelli to take advantage of the scale of its China operations and to leverage the Italian brand’s image for ramped up sales in China and India. From a boutique maker of expensive Italian exotica like the infamous Tornado Tre, Benelli was lately known as a hollow badge stuck on Asian-built, low displacement commuter bikes.
It’s all been so confusing.
Like so many European and American legacy brands, Benelli has struggled coming to grips with the realities of the modern marketplace. Nostalgia and the powerful lure of joining the exclusive premium motorcycle segment only went so far (just ask EBR, MV, Horex, Voxan, Mondial, Norton, Laverda…). The actual market for expensive motorcycles is tiny, which is why small brands with terrible marketing and quality problems die so regularly.
Quainjiang understood this and bought Benelli for its name only. But the restructuring was not without its challenges. Taking over a company that had only recently before been a participant in World Superbike racing and won international design awards meant those inside were not too thrilled to be lumped in with new step brothers, like discount scooter brand Keeway, and Goccia e-bikes.
The culture shock extended in both directions, according to the company’s new general manager Haimei Yan. “Rampant Italian bureaucracy, the convoluted system of granting various permits and chaotic business processes hamper Benelli’s growth and development,” he said of doing business in his new Italian empire.
The years immediately after the takeover in 2005 were not kind. Benelli tried repeatedly to inspire some excitement in the European market with offerings like the Tornado 300 and BN600, which were terrible products imported from China, with little of the vehicle dynamics or style that westerners demanded from motorcycles wearing famous Italian nameplates. To be fair they did well in Asia, which brought in money and was, well, the whole point.
In Canada and the US, Benelli had the usual problem of constantly changing importers and sketchy spare parts and dealer availability. The last company to bring the brand to Canada, Crono Motocraft, went dark about five years ago, leaving dealers and owners on their own. None of the Asian built Benellis were ever destined for these shores, which was probably a good thing.
EICMA brings a fresh wind from Pesaro, and with it a triad of new motorcycles that could return the Benelli brand to respectability. The Leoncino and 504TK are interesting not because they are stunning or even particularly original, but because they finally demonstrate what good can come from the east-west marriage of Benelli and Qianjiang.
Stylish, capable, and presumably affordable small capacity motorcycles are precisely what made Benelli a success in the 50s and 60s, and harness the strengths of the two halves of the company’s parentage. The Leoncino is an unashamed imitation of the Ducati Scrambler concept, only in the opinion of many insiders is actually better in execution. It is modern and premium looking enough, with solid Italian chassis components while using low-cost production solutions and a mid-sized power plant.
The new Benelli, to make a meaningful impact on the marketplace, needs to lead with brand and design and deliver on price. Details are not yet available, but if Qianjiang are smart then they will manufacture the new models in China, and send units destined for western markets to Pesaro in knocked down kit form (CKD manufacturing) to be assembled in Italy so as to circumvent import duties and enable them to read “Made in Italy”.
The bikes don’t need to be amazing, only competent. The performance of the motors will be fine, and the use of brand-name Italian suspension and brakes (again, sourced from plants in Asia) ought to ensure the European riding dynamics demanded in the west. The Benelli tank badge, style and accessible price will carry through the clutter to carve a solid market share out of the Honda and Yamaha mid class pie.
Benelli is back. Better said, they are poised and ready for a serious comeback. Exciting new models strategically aimed at the most lucrative niches in motorcycling show that the team in Pesaro and management at Qianjiang know what they are doing and seem to have found each other’s strengths. The ultimate success of Benelli going forward will depend on getting these bikes to market efficiently, in numbers and backing them up with solid after-sales care. Not a trivial task.
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