Posted On 08 May 2024
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This entry is part 24 of 29 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#30


People who live in the many nations remote from the Great South Land might be very surprised to discover that the ‘Island/Nation/ Continent’, or ‘Down Under’ – as Australia is so often called – is not only by far the biggest island in the world, but that its area is almost exactly the same as the land mass of the United States of America, if one excludes Alaska. It’s true, because it is almost the same distance from Darwin, in the Northern Territory, to Adelaide in South Australia as it is from America’s Great Lakes to New Orleans. It is also nearly the same distance from Perth in Western Australia to the Nation’s most populous city, Sydney, in New South Wales, as it is from New York to Los Angeles.

But there the comparison ends, because America has a population of some 350-odd million, while Oz has a population of just over 23 million people, most of whom are living almost in the water on the Nation’s east coast, with a few settlements a little further inland. On the other side of the huge Island, Perth, the capital city of Western Australia, sits almost alone as the most isolated major capital city on earth.

In pointing out these facts, I am reminded of the executive from the small, newly-established Ducati motorcycle factory in Italy who arrived in Australia in the early fifties with the all-new 65cc Cucciolo ‘Turismo’ ultra-lightweight motorcycle with a plan to ride from Sydney to Melbourne on the miniscule device as some sort of publicity stunt to help promote the machine.

It was clear from his statements to the Press at the time that the Ducati factory executive had no blind idea of just how huge our land mass was, or how far he had to ride the little bike on his long journey from Sydney to Melbourne. He could also have had no idea how long it would take at the little biker’s stated 44mph (50Km/h!) top speed – downhill?- when he announced his intention to introduce his new, ultra-lightweight machine to the Australian public.

This was of course in the very, very early history of Ducati in this country, for it had crept into Australia, as it did into other countries, without publicity or fanfare. The company had been formed as far back as 1924, but had originally been involved in the manufacture of radio parts; the new lightweight Cucciolo machine was its first serious foray into the manufacture of motorcycles.

Ducati had arrived in Australia in early 1948 with the announcement that its new, bolt-on engine called the Cucciolo (‘Little Pup’, or ‘Puppy’, depending on who you were talking to at the time, and named after its ‘yapping’ exhaust note) was imported into NSW by Nock and Kirby, which was then the biggest hardware store in the country. Nock and Kirby was looking to diversifying its interests and was spreading its wings into new territory with the adoption of this new engine kit for pushbikes as well as a number of inboard marine and outboard engines imported from England.

The little Ducati engine was a 48cc four-stroke with exposed overhead valves operated by pull-rods, not pushrods, a one-piece cylinder head and barrel, a large, external flywheel behind which its magneto lurked, a two-speed gearbox, and its spark plug pointing directly ahead, waiting to be doused by road spray in wet weather. The neat little power-plant was intended to be clamped to your ordinary pushbike where the pedal cranks were, to provide a miniscule power source. There was a set of pedals fitted to the engine which could be used to start the device and then they were held in different positions to change from the low first gear to the (not much) higher second gear. I rode one of these things back then, which was quite an experience, but I cannot remember exactly where the pedals were supposed to be. I think they were at quarter-to-three when you took off, and at quarter-past-nine for the higher gear, or it might have been at six o’clock for one gear and half-past twelve for the other, but I must say I can’t remember if this is right or not.

But what I do remember was the stern admonition to never turn the pedal cranks backwards, but I am not sure why: I suspect it might have confused the gear-change mechanism.

If I don’t know the exact position of the bicycle pedals in selecting one gear or another, what I do know is that any English Vicar’s obese and elderly maiden aunt could probably blow one of these ‘powered’ pushbikes into the weeds while normally seated on a Raleigh pushbike with ‘sit up-and-beg’ handlebars, and do so without raising a sweat.

It has been suggested that the little engine – which was designed in 1945 by Aldo Farinelli and built by Ducati from 1947 onwards, after its original manufacturer S.I.A.T.A couldn’t keep up with demand – was said to be a surprise package in its performance, and perhaps the ‘Little Pup’ might beat pedalling your steed everywhere you went. But not by much, I suggest, because I remember you still had to stand on the pedals to provide much needed assistance to the engine on most ‘reasonable’ gradients. You would probably have to leap off and trot alongside your pushbike in low gear on anything steeper.

In the normal process of evolution there was – God help us! – a 60cc road-race version of the Cucciolo engine fitted into its own frame, but without pedals, and it in fact won quite a number of races – including a nine-day ( 9 DAY!!) event held in Italy. I don’t know what these pocket rockets were actually racing against, but it’s a fair bet the things were not overly endowed with anything from great speed to even greater handling or brakes, though fuel consumption (which was said to be an astounding 225 mpg!) was probably not much of a concern.

A larger, 55cc version of the little 48cc Ducati engine shortly appeared as a complete machine with a slightly heavier frame, drum brakes, pedals and lightweight front forks. It is said that somewhat more than 200,000 Cuccioli were sold by 1950, I assume as bolt-on kits just prior to the introduction of complete machines. This would have greatly helped the Ducati coffers, and almost certainly established the factory as a serious manufacturer of lightweight motorcycles. The success of the little engine may have provided the reason for the Italian’s executive’s promotional visit to Sydney.

Further into the Cucciolo’s evolution, the 65cc upgrade in 1950, which the Italian visitor rode, had the bigger engine mounted into a ‘proper’ lightweight frame, and it was fitted with a modern looking swing-arm rear suspension and slightly heavier telescopic front forks. Though not far removed from a heavy pushbike, it was nonetheless built as an ultra-light motorcycle, with a power output from the ‘larger’ engine of some 2 (that’s TWO) horsepower. Valve gear was now enclosed, the cylinder head detachable, with the bicycle pedals removed and a three-speed gearbox incorporated.

This is the machine our earnest Italian was going to ride from Sydney to Melbourne, poor bugger. If he had no idea how far this distance was, then he was soon to find out as he was pointed in the right direction one morning and waved away from Sydney’s GPO, replete with floppy, black felt hat and large overcoat, a photo of the event carried in one of Sydney’s morning newspapers. Quite some time later – probably three or four days! – he arrived in Goulburn, and asked one of the friendly natives if this was indeed Melbourne! According to legend, he was told that he had just covered less than one fifth of the journey, but there is no record of how he felt about that, or what he did.

I cannot recall hearing any more about this brave soul, but can only assume he may have managed to get a lift back to Sydney, with his bike either flung savagely into the roadside bushes or tucked underneath his arm.

For all I know he may still be on the road somewhere between both cities, a bit like a precursor to Forrest Gump, who, if you remember the film, started running one day and didn’t know how to stop again for some considerable time.

If this was the case, by now the hapless Italian may well be heavily bearded and unkempt, his large felt hat bleached by the sun to an ugly grey and stiff as an ironing board, his large, flapping coat tattered and filthy with age. He would by then have every right to be twitching and muttering to himself, the while still searching the horizon with bloodshot, red-rimmed eyes, aching for his first glimpse of this Great Southern Metropolis.

He may also have the shards of many an overtaking semi-trailer’s mirrors adorning his garments, or even the powdered rubber of numerous shredded tyres glued to his face.

What an absurd scenario I hear you groan, as the highly-steamed Editor of this odd piece has assuredly done – and not for the first time.

On the other hand, of course, our hero probably told us all to get stuffed and simply flew back home again. In the first available DC3 aircraft!

If he had waited two years until 1953 he could have given the new Ducati Cruiser motor scooter a squirt and enjoyed a somewhat quicker, and certainly more comfortable, ride. The smart looking new scooter employed a 175cc, 12BHP, four-stroke engine, with electric starter and automatic transmission. It was amongst the best of its time, and would have been amongst the fastest as well, but was too expensive to compete with the biggest selling machines, the Vespa and the infinitely better Lambretta, both of which also hailed from Italy.

Ducati managed to manufacture just 2000 of their fine scooters, the other two Italian scooters accounting for many millions between them.

Vespa, of course, survives to this day, while Lambretta, made under licence in Germany for years as the NSU Prima, and in nearly a score of other countries including India, is currently in limbo, with vague promises of someday re-appearing in all its glory.

As a postscript to this story, Lambretta once announced a world wide competition for the longest single ride on one of its scooters, and offered several million lira (which was probably worth about Twenty Five Pounds ( $50 then, but about $1000 in today’s money) to the stalwart who could manage to achieve this feat. A local lad, who must have been at once desperate and should have known better, decided the simplest way to achieve his fortune was to ride his little scooter half-way around Australia, which he then proceeded to do.

It wasn’t too bad, he said, (I suggest it wasn’t too good, either) when riding along sealed roads but the device must have been more than a handful on the unsealed road across the Nullarbor Plains back in the early fifties, where potholes hidden in loose bulldust and long stretches of corrugations were a challenge to the skateboard-sized 8” wheels and short-travel, rudimentary damped suspension system.

Again, he would have had nothing to grip with his knees, other than his wedding tackle – which he probably gripped by hand every now and again for a swift, relieving massage, particularly after negotiating several potholes and numerous other irregularities into which the little scooter’s wheels would surely have plunged. Perhaps he carried a ten gallon fuel tank on the machine’s footboard to ensure he managed to cross the forbidding stretch of track without running out of fuel. He could certainly grip that with his knees, but at what cost to the little bike’s handling?

I (exceedingly) dimly recall reading something about the bloke’s ordeal, in which he related, as he was just near the end of the Nullarbor Plain at the first sighting of some foothills near Kalgoorlie, that he spotted a small cloud of dust which seemed to be descending a small hillock in the middle distance. As the cloud approached it proved to be a pack of wild dogs: not dingoes, he said, but previously domestic canines which were probably wild because someone had dumped them on the side of the road and then driven off. They were barking like crazy and looking not only mean but lean as well.

With the throttle wide open and the little bike gyrating underneath him like a Mallee bull with a flank strap attached, he ploughed – why put a pun in at this stage of the drama, you might ask? – through the dirt ahead, hoping against hope that one of the three most likely things that could happen wouldn’t happen. He could (a) fall off the bloody thing, and be consumed on the spot; (b) the engine could overheat and seize or have the spark plug conk out; (c) the spark plug could grow a whisker across its terminals and conk out anyway; (d) he could run out of petrol; or (e) be overtaken by the swiftest of the meat eaters and be plucked from his scooter. That’s five I know, but (f) he said he was about half-a-mile an hour quicker than the fastest of the pursuers, and was just able to keep them at bay, though I am sure he would not have looked over his shoulder to see how far behind they were! He rode that thing as far and as fast as he could before pulling up for a rest to void his loins or to throw up his lunch at the side of the road, and there can be no doubt he was mightily relieved (Please, not another pun!) to find no sight, or sound, of his erstwhile pursuers.

To traverse this large Island Continent from one side to the other, or one end to the other on two wheels has always been a daunting task, but to have attempted the feat on a small, softly-sprung, mini-wheeled, under-powered scooter over a mostly unmade, pot-holed, corrugated and dust covered ‘road’ more than sixty years ago? That would have to have been an act of either supreme courage, or the act of a hare-brained crackpot, for it was said at the time that there was no support vehicle of any type to accompany the youth.

Quite apart from the distinct possibility of being gleefully consumed by a pack of ravenous wild dogs at some point of that long and perilous journey, it remains a wonder that he managed to survive to tell the tale.

Happily, the Island Continent of Australia is not peopled by predatory animals like lions, tigers, leopards, bears or other dangerous man-eating critters, while the inquisitive Dingo or large (herbivorous) kangaroo can be shooed away fairly easily, but there are sometimes small packs of ‘wild’ dogs to be seen which can be quite menacing. It was probably quite a surprise to our enterprising youth to have come across such a small pack of ravenous creatures which were camped just outside that first glimpse of civilisation at Kalgoorlie, but it might have been a different matter had they crept up to his flickering camp fire in the dead of night to descend savagely upon him!

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