We are always looking for something out of the ordinary on Trials Guru.
We met up with German trials friend, Kurt-Patrik Beckmann at the 2015 Highland Classic Two-Day Trial with his Panda 220 and asked if he may do an article on this rare breed of trials machine, here is the result!
PANDA – a Trials Motorcycle Built by Italian Enthusiasts.
by: Kurt-Patrik Beckmann
Motorcycles made from different nations have their distinctive attributes especially trials machines. To the Italian trials motorcycles, their approach in the sport began near the end of the nineteen-seventies.
There were some Italian motorcycle manufacturers to name, from Aprilia, Beta and Italjet to Fantic and SWM. These were known brands. Nowadays only Beta still produces a trial machine in Italy.
Then there were a few less known companies such as Aspes, Ancillotti, Gori and Malaguti. Another manufacturer is Centromoto. Due to the small production number of bikes made, there is just little known about this company and their product. It was a very small manufacturer of trials motorcycles from the late nineteen-seventies to the early nineteen-eighties in Italy, thus the more interesting is the story of the genesis of the company and their motorcycles.
The following article tells about this career which begins with two Italian enthusiasts of the sport, the first Italian trials production motorcycle and followed by the founding of the company Centromoto, the development and production of their trials machine called the Panda.
The story begins around 1972 when Alessio Bartolini at this time a student at the University of Florence studying for a degree in political science, realised that the chosen subject did not grow on him.
Instead, his spare time was taken up as an enduro and motocross rider on a 125cc KTM, he began a career as a sports photographer, which allowed him to combine his hobby and his work. While visiting the events, Alessio took photographs for the Italian motocross magazine, Moto Toscana.
He lived in Florence and opened a photo studio and became the official photographer for the Ancillotti motorcycle company, which was dedicated to small size motorcycles between 50 and 125cc, which were popular in Italy.
In the mid 1970s, trials riding in Italy was mainly located in the northern Alpine region of the country, especially in Piedmont. The riders there were using on the Spanish motorcycles from Bultaco; Montesa and Ossa. Due to the small number of riders there was little demand for trials motorcycles, thus the Italian motorcycle industry was not interested in building them. In the ‘middle’ and Southern regions of Italy, hardly any trials were ridden, so Alessio had indeed heard but did not know much about this sport.
That changed due to his friendship with Carlo Camarlinghi who studied architecture and owned a BSA 500cc motocross machine. Carlo admired the British trials sport and there was a rumour that they decided to build a trials machine. Alessio previously knew nothing much about it.
They started with a Bultaco Sherpa, measuring the frame geometry and took many photographs. After the motorcycle was evaluated they then came to their own conclusions and drew their own bike on paper, the positions of handlebars and the footrests, the angle of the fork and so forth was set and drawn.
The drawings to the bike as the frame and additional bits were made by Alessio and Carlo Camarlinghi.
Later they used for drawings the drawing boards at the facilities of Ancillotti which where Alessios client for motorcycle photographs.
Now they still needed an engine, coincidentally they had heard about the French brand BPS in France and that BPS planned to develop a trial motorcycle using the Italian Franco Morini engine so they asked the engine company to build them an engine.
This 125cc engine was slightly small, very compact and had 5 gears (the gear ratio was OK for trials riding with the first three gears being very low while the forth and fifth were for faster riding). The engine was no beauty but sufficiently robust and reliable. The engine was also used widely for 125cc bikes from Aspes to Monark.
For the further equipment to the bike, they both went to a local motorcycle parts dealer in Florence and aquired: a 32mm Ceriani fork, Girling shock-absorbers (the same model which KTM used back then), mudguards from Preston Petty and wheels with 110 and 125mm cylindrical hub’s from Grimeca were chosen. The reminding parts like mounts were again made with the help of the blacksmith and metal builder.
The bike was then subjected to a comprehensive test. Corresponding to the circumstances of this one-off build the test went smoothly; however some changes to the design had to be made. While sketching the design they haven’t thought about the little air pressure of the tires so the rear wheel was actually three to four centimeters lower than planned. Fortunately, they had made three different mounts to the rear shock-absorbers and so they were able to fix this issue on site, the gear ratio of the sprockets had to be changed too. After the modifications were done they were satisfied with the results.
However, due to the extensive testing phase the motorcycle had suffered significantly. So the appearance of the motorcycle was therefore revised. A new gas tank made out of aluminium was made, which had a staggered gas tank filler like the Bultaco Sherpa. The fork received air support from a common cartridge connected via tubes and fitted with a valve to adjust the damping by air pressure, they mounted the cartridge to the forks below the triple clamp.
The bike got a black frame, swing arm and lower fork tubes, the fenders gas tank and side panels got a green paint job with orange lettering. The motorcycle was given the name Titania. So in the mid of 1976 one of the first Italian trials bike was finally build.
The bike build and its finalization did not go unnoticed by Ancillotti’s managing director Piero Ancillotti who decided to use this prototype to produce a serial trials bike. With the capabilities of the motorcycle plant and its equipment the previous prototype for serial production is revised. This includes the frame geometry and the front fork is replaced by a Marzocchi fork. The appearance like the tank design was changed too. The 125cc engine of Franco Morini was kept.
Ancillotti then made in the beginning of 1977 a couple of pre-production bikes for evaluating the performance of the bike and also engaged three young Italian dirt bike riders that had succeeded in youth enduro and trials competitions.
Mauro Zambonin, Maurizio Morgati who did well in previous regional competitions in the Piemont region of Italy and Marco Barca who had won the youth endure competition of Toscany on a Gori 50cc. The team was supplied by the Ancillotti factory with an van to transport the bikes and also to perform repairs on site. This professionalism was previously unknown for trials events in Italy, the equipment of the team made quite an impression as the trials were more likely held in a more a familiar fashion.
The factory support for the three young riders with their Ancillotti prototypes was rewarded with victory. The team won the 125cc Italian IWF trophy in 1977 and thus received appropriate attention in the press. With minor changes derived from the experience of the trophy the serial production was started. Ancillotti tried to convince the Franco Morini factory to make some changes to the engine design but the engine manufacturer wasn’t interested because the production number was so low. The Ancillotti company then had to do the engine modifications themselves. Anyway in late 1977 the production of a little over 100 125cc models and a number of 50cc models started.
The attention which the trial sport now gained in Italy encouraged more companies to build special trial motorcycles so SWM and Fantic started the launch of their bikes. Notably the 125cc and 50cc models from Fantic occupied the same cylinder capacity class as the bikes from Ancillotti and therefore were quite a rival.
In any case also due to the former public relations work of Ancillotti the followers of the trial sport had grown rapidly. During practice tests, it became obviouse that the bikes from Fantic equipped with a Minarelli engine in fact had a better gear box and engine performance so were in technical specification the better bikes.
Alessio Bartolini who set with the Titania bike the initial ignition for Ancillotti wasn’t very impressed by the output of Ancillotti and wished to make improvements to catch up with the new red bikes but due to economic considerations Ancillotti didn’t do them. In short Alessio decided to leave the Ancillotti company and even his home town of Florence to start his own business building trials bikes. He moved to Viareggio and in his hand luggage he had all the suggestions for improvements of the riders and the comparison test of the magazines.
Alessio teams up with his friends, Giuliano and Lapa who, as experienced sailors, came with the idea up to build and sell own made sailboats. These two self-made men with really different thoughts concerning the product (or one of them) bought an abandoned quarry located behind the village of Piano di Conca, near Viareggio, to start the production. The manufacturing area was set up on just 4 x 20m inside the house.
Alessio then began to revise the concept of the bike from the ground up. The seat height was reduced; saddle and seat were designed fluently, as well as the side panels integrated as flush as possible. The frame was reinforced, and now was designed around a powerful square top tube as the central unit to provide more stiffness. The exhaust and the airbox were revised as well with a more fluid design and bigger volume. Alessio used the Franco Morini engine again.
For testing the first prototype they used an abandoned quarry which was located behind the village cemetery of Piana di Conca.
The name of the model was long discussed, but it was found during a meeting of old friends after dinner at a local restaurant, ‘Let’s call it as the panda bear’. The name for the bike model was really pleasant, known and easy to remember, but later inflicted an issue which will be recorded later.
After the name was found the approval of the bike and homologation of the production had to be achieved. The engine was already approved by Ancillotti in large parts, all which still remains were the permits for the chassis, the road test and the operating facilities.
While the approval of the motorcycle carried out without problems Alessio was not very sure that the previous joint venture with the boat production at his factory inside the farm house, would lead to a positive outcome by the test engineers that were due to visit the location to do the homologation of the bike production.
A new factory was located in a former car-wash in the neighboring village of Montramito. The existing car-wash was converted by plywood sheets to an assembly line, then everything freshly painted, equipped with respective shelves, tools and materials. The Centromoto company finally got certified as an offical manufacturing facility for motorcycles.
Alessio then looked for suppliers that could prefabricate the needed semi-finished products and parts. The first batch should include 30 motorcycles, which was the minimum quantity which had to be made so the moulds and specially made parts would be worthwhile. The tank, the side panels, the support of the seat and fenders were made of fiberglass on the farm in Piano di Conca, where he could count on the knowledge and skills of the boat builders. Most of the other components were manufactured in Bologna, one of the traditional strongholds of the Italian motorcycle and supplier industry.
At this time the Panda got its final shape and colour with a white frame and blue tank. The first 125cc Panda’s came the end of 1978 in Italy on the market. The bike was well received by the press and riders, the Panda was sold rather quickly. The German motorcycle press tested the trialsbike and was pleased with the 125cc machine.
This came to the attention of an enthusiastic trials rider and Suzuki dealer in Germany. The dealer, Siegfried Schülbe from Bad Sooden Allendorf, was looking for a trial machine for the 175cc youth class in Germany and wanted to offer them a special trials motorcycle for their needs.
In the spring of 1979 Siegfried Schülbe talked to Alessio about his thoughts and thanks to Alessio’s south Tyrolean origin they could discuss his matter in German and could quickly agreed to build a 175cc model from the 125cc Panda.
A first request to Franco Morini the enlarge of the engine was sadly rejected for economic reasons. Therefore Alessio was forced to do the conversion by himself. For this task he took pistons from the Italian manufacturer Mondial, (today Mahle) with 64mm diameter and used specially crafted cylinder liners.
For the cylinder he used the model from the 125cc Sachs motocross model. The ports of the cylinder were customized and the dimension of the bore was enlarged to fit the dimension of the crafted liners. The cylinder heads of Franco Morini engines could still be used with some milling to match with the bigger barrel.
The crankcase of the 125cc Franco Morini engine was too small for the larger cylinder and its socket, therefore the mating surface and channels had to be increased in two steps, first by build-up weldings on the engine blocks, secondly by milling the channels for the cylinder ports and the barrel skirt.
For carburation a larger Dell’Orto carburetor with 25mm in diameter was mounted. The exhaust manifold was too increased from 35mm to 38mm in nominal diameter.
Due to the retained stroke of 54mm of the engine, a displacement of 174cc was achieved. The first tests were promising and the engine seemed to have a significantly higher engine power. In the meantime Fantic had released their model 200, which had 156cc. To get ahead of the red bike and because the Panda had more displacement the model was named 220.
Since the first request of Siegfried Schülbe already six months had passed, and in the fall of 1979 one prototype was sent to Germany and prototypes of the 175cc and 125cc Panda were made for the motorcycle show in Milan.
The prototypes also had some improvements over the first 30 bike batch, the conical hub from Grimeca were now used as they provided a better braking performance. Furthermore, instead of Betors now Marzocchi shocks were mounted to the rear.
To show the differences between the 125 and 220 model, the engines with 175cc were painted black, while the model with the smaller capacity got an unpainted alloy engine. The new models were then presented officially for the first time at the Milan motorcycle show.
In about the same time the prototype that was sent to Germany, was also presented by Siegfried Schülbe and tested a short time later extensively by the press. The verdict, however, was mixed.
In one of the first published article from German Mo Magazine in January 1980 the testers praised the chassis, suspension, brakes and overall handling of the bike being very easy to turn even on a slope. The front wheel did not slide away in nearly every case and had at all times full ground contact. The suspension did soak up every bump very well, also slippery ground could be ridden with ease.
But the engine of the prototype did not fulfill the expectations the testers had; the motor had power and turned up from lowest revolution to peak but lacked torque in any operating mode. The testers had claimed too that it was only possible with much body effort to lift the front wheel or climb big rocks in a stream: “ …even with more effort than a good running 125cc engine needs… “.
The testers do also claimed that the complete build of the prototype was still quite a bit basic and should be improved. In summary they wished a better engine and better build quality. It is not known to the author, how Siegfried Schülbe as well as Alessio in Italy reacted directly to this article. However it was obvious that the engine to the bike needed some attention and further development.
It was Klaus Simon, back in the days a motor engineer deployed at the Sachs engine factory who in his spare time enhanced the engine performance and riders with the transformed bike showed very good results. There were a number of modifications that were done by Simon and Siegfried Schülbe:
- The exhaust was heavily modified with a bigger nominal diameter,
- The carb initially a 25mm Dell’Orto was switched to a 20-21mm Bing carburator,
- The airbox was enlarged quite a bit,
- The barrel was once again replaced with different timing and porting,
- The bike got an cast aluminum bash plate instead the fiberglass unit mounted before.
It took Centromoto in Italy some time to implement the proposals made by Klaus Simon, some were still modified in Germany by Siegfried Schülbe.
A later test in German Trialsport Magazine which came out in autumn 1981 gave a short summary about the tasks that came up in 1980 but reported too that some riders had fixed the problems and made the bike suitable for trials riding. In the test of the modified bike, Felix Krahnstöver wrote that the engine still felt a bit lazy but did not lack power or torque. The benefit of this behavior was on firsthand the smooth ride that could be accomplished. On the other hand the second gear seemed to him still a bit too high geared as the engine takes its time to rev up. The chassis was still good the approximatly 40mm lengthend wheelbase made it very manoeuvrable but could still be in his favor and the riding style back then be a tad longer.
I personally liked the bike back then a lot but decided in 1981 to buy a 175cc Sherpa instead. In retrospect, I believe the fact that there were no Panda ridden in trials in my region was the reason for my decision. I think most of them were sold in mid and south Germany. Jörg Reimers rode a Panda and had very good results on the bike. He also participated in the world trials cup in Gefrees in 1981 but did not finish, this was the only occasion as far as I know that the bike participated in a WTC.
The end of the Panda models came abruptly due to FIAT automobiles, because the car company wanted to use the name Panda for their new car model. Centromoto never protected the name of the bike but FIAT did for their new car model, thus they had to choose between a costly court trial or to drop the name which they did in the end. Centromoto developed a predecessor to the Panda first a worksbike for the regional Tuscany championship fitted with a 125cc Tau engine and too used as a prototype for testing the 310 Tau engine for the next model called Valenti.
The Valenti was a custom build, the bike was also used in the Tuscany championship in 1982.
In Germany Klaus Simon later transplanted a Sachs engine into his Panda and reported about this conversion later in German Trials Magazine. He is still sometimes around with his Sachs-powered Panda trials bike seen here sat the InterNordic Cup in 2015.
All in all from the former protagonists in motorcycle engineering no one survived in his profession until today:
– Ancillotti had laid down bike production in the mid eighties, now producing bicycles,
– Fantic went out of business in 1997,
– Franco Morini did well producing just engines,
later bought Moto Morini in 1999 and got too in liquidation in 2010.
– Minarelli as an engine company was absorbed in 2002 by Yamaha,
– SWM went in liquidation already in 1984 lived up again as SVM until the final closure in 1987.
Chapter two, personal, technical view and experience:
By accident I once found a used Panda for sale in a German internet classifieds but lost the trace again memory came up from the late eighties where I had to decide. Anyway I was thrilled and looked around in Italian motorcycle and trials forums and to their classifieds. Then I got in contact with an Italian collector and we both looked up for a Panda and found a non runner in poor condition in Rom. He bought the bike for me and even organized some spare parts to the engine which are still available. When I got the parts here I realized that in short many parts were broken and the rebuild would not be an easy one as I had literary no technical information just the road registration papers and an Italian certification of ownership. So I decided to store the parts away and to look up for further information and parts before considering any further going rebuild.
Just 3 weeks later a friend of mine found another Panda in a German classified and informed me immediately. The bike seemed to be in very good condition by pictures, instantly I phoned to the owner and we agreed an appointment for inspection and in forehand a price. The next weekend I went down around 500km for looking up the bike and indeed the bike was after a brief look through in very good condition, then a spin on the road in front of the house and yes the engine is running. I paid the seller and took the bike home.
The first ride out in terrain was sadly not so pleasingly as the brakes didn’t show much effect, the suspension wasn’t working as expected, the engine frequently fouled plugs, the petrol tank was leaking and so forth. It took some time to repair, rearrange and adjust the components of the bike until everything worked again as it should.
I had to go through nearly every technical “department” step by step to get the bike sorted, after 6 weeks of dismantling and reassembling while changing bearings, seals, tires, shafts, sprockets, jets, reproducing cables, rubber parts, filters, new rear shocks, swapped the fenders as plastics are not available anymore and a sealing session with liquid metal for the tank and the bike was back in former glory.
The engine itself is still in superb condition the bike had run now around 3000 km and there is no wear noticeable, the processing of this high volume production motor is very good. In my experience the chassis is as already mentioned very well designed.
I would even say a bit ahead of it’s time as the wheelbase is very short and the fork has a steep angle so it really turns extremely well like being on rails. The brakes after being overhauled are excellent for drum brakes. The footrest position is too quite modern in comparison to other bikes of that era. The seat is indeed very high and could be lower but I’ve got used to it and it doesn’t affect riding very much. The swing arm is short so the rear feels a bit nervous or lively over rocks and as the turns so well the bike does need a stronger hand to go straight.
- As the insertion point for comparison the front wheel axle was used,
- Fork angle of the panda is very similar to modern bikes*
- Also the steering steam has an likewise angle*
- Very high seat compared to modern bikes
- Around 3 – 4 cm more space under the bash plate compared to modern bikes
- At the Panda the Footrest position is 4 – 5 cm higher and around 1 cm more to the front
- The swing arm axle is around 4 cm higher and 6 cm more towards the rear mounted,
The swing arm is shorter and steeper, thus the Panda has a shorter wheelbase.
* Slightly longer rear shocks (+ 15mm) are mounted
The engine is not very lively in lower revs and reacts a bit slow on throttle, once waked up you can rev the motor up to highest revs without problem, there are no disturbing vibrations even in highest revolution, it seems to me that the engine was initially build to be more used for street or enduro use. The torque delivery is OK somehow smooth due to the later throttle reaction. I think that has to do with the small diameter of the carburetor, for tight sections and in slippery conditions here the bike performs excellent as bigger the obstacles get and if you need instant power you have to turn the throttle in foresight.
Due to the small carburetor the motor is too very picky about the carb adjustment even an air filter that has collected some dirt affects the engine behavior.
The build quality of the finally serial production had improved a lot, the paint – still the original – is still in good shape, even at the other bike that came from the Italian junk yard, still no basecoat but thick and even applied. The fiberglass tank and side panels are still in good shape for their age. The side panels are very thin, still flexible just the applied paint has some cracks in the coating due to it’s age. The fuel tank on the German Panda is sadly affected by modern fuels, as mentioned I had to seal the seams with 2K epoxy fluid metal which works in my experience perfect if the you have cleaned the surfaces very well, while from inside the gas tank is attacked by modern fuel. I now just use ethanol free gasoline so the flaking of resin inside and thus the clogging of the petcocks has finally stopped. The fuel tank of the Italian Panda still shows no cracks and is still perfect inside!
On the German Panda, the mid and rear section of the exhaust is a bit basic in the welds here the Panda form Italy has a significant better build quality. Another feature of the bike is it’s lightness it weights just 76 kg thus it’s very easy to handle.
Although I am satisfied with the components there are three things I’ am recently modifying, the bash plate made out of cast aluminum will be replaced by a welded one made out of plates as I managed to get some cracks from hitting stones and the material is difficult to weld. Second the sidepanels as they are so old and third the seat here I personal don’t like the color so much (white get’s too easy dirty and I am afraid the seat cover -still intact- could get damaged so a custom made in black is on the way).
All in all I am very satisfied with the performance of the bike and for tight trials in wooden terrain and on slippery ground I personal do best on it. For heavy trials with bigger obstacles were you need momentum and a more straight runner the bike has its drawbacks. I think here we have to remember that the Panda was created for young trial riders of age between 16 and 18 and just not for trials of national or international significance. That the bike didn’t had bigger success although it has so good genes is certainly based to the facts of small production numbers and that here were enthusiast involved with only a small budget, it should have earned – in my personal opinion – more.
Photographic Credits and Copyright:
(1) photos and pictures of Kurt-Patrik Beckmann
(2) photos and pictures, all rights belong to Alessio Bartolini, Italy
(4) article/photos of Motorrad Magazine MO in 01-1980, © to Motorrad Magazin MO,Stuttgart
(3) article/photos of Trialsport Magazin in 09-1981, © to TRIALSPORT Verlag, Freudenberg-Ebenheid
I would like to thank:
- Alessio Bartolini, who allowed me to publish a brief summary of his story about
Centromoto and the Panda bike
- Siegfried Schülbe for his input
- Trialsport Magazine Germany
- Ross Thompson, Edinburgh, Scotland for sorting out the major language flaws in my English
Panda 220 today:
…Trials Guru wishes to thank enthusiast, Kurt-Patrik Beckmann for his co-operation with this article