The Army on two wheels: from bicycles to motorcycles

(To Gianluca Celentano)
12/10/22

At the beginning of the last century the Italian Army could count on a few motor vehicles and some steam vehicles (1899 De Dion-Bouton 3,5hp). The troops moved mainly using railway convoys, horses and the indispensable mules and donkeys to tow the artillery, materials and wagons.

An innovation came with the establishment in 1910 of a battalion of cyclist Bersaglieri, but already at the outbreak of the First World War the Royal Army gave a motorized change to its departments, providing an important and greater work to the metalworking factories for the production of vehicles. military.

1571 Fiat trucks were commissioned and purchased, 298 Isotta-Fraschini, 195 Spa, 120 Itala, 110 Züst, 106 Carosi ambulances built on Fiat 15 and 270 artillery tractors. At the same time, the first motorized bicycles for the plumed infantry were gradually introduced at the team level, then at the company level.

The transformation of two wheels

The concept of a two-wheeled motor vehicle is clearly linked to the frame scheme of a man's bicycle with a barrel, under which (the under-barrel) the tank and components for motor propulsion are set up. The "transformation" basically involved three steps: a structural reinforcement, the application of an engine coinciding with the pedal crown and the addition of a tank containing oil and petrol in two separate spaces. The engines were single-cylinder 4-stroke, therefore fueled only by petrol and not mixed. The SIAMT of Turin, founded in 1905 for the production of bicycles, was the first to provide the Royal Army with a bicycle equipped with a 4-stroke engine weighing 35 kg and 262 cm3 with a power of just over 2 horsepower. This futuristic motorcycle-bicycle which in fact was a real moped (and we will see why) was the first to be used outside the area, in Libya, in 1911 as it was supplied to the 11th Bersaglieri Regiment during the Italo-Turkish war. And it was this Regiment that obtained the Gold Medal for Military Valor.

Frera, first production bike

If you are passionate about motorcycles, you cannot miss a visit to the Frera Motorcycle Museum in Tradate (VA), where Mr. Roberto Colombo, councilor of the museum, is keen to emphasize that the company founded by Corrado Frera in 1905, was the first Italian manufacturer of series motorcycles.

In Lombardy alone there were already 428 small motorcycle workshops but it was the Frera that distinguished itself for mass production, passing from 200 employees to 1000 thanks to the good results obtained in races and advertising.

The first Frera was a bicycle with larger frame diameters and a 4-stroke engine. In the head the valves were placed laterally and the intake valve was pneumatic. Basically the loading valve stem was lowered by suction when the piston went down (to the pmi) and closed when the piston went up in compression (pms). The only cam was for the exhaust valve.

The tank (located at the top) was divided into two chambers, one for petrol and one for oil (disposable oil) as there were no mechanical pumps. The conductor, by means of a vacuum pump on the tank, had to inject a certain amount of oil based on the route to be made, plains, mountains etc. Given the lack of a pump and therefore of a recirculation, the oil was discharged to the ground (and on the chain) during operation and refueling also included the refilling of the lubricant.

The carbide headlight was lit with a match thanks to the reaction of water and acetylene oxide.

The transmission of these first "mopeds" is interesting (a term that Mr. Colombo does not seem to appreciate very much). The connection between the engine and the wheels was direct: the engine pulley reached the rear wheel via a rubber belt and without intermediate parts (clutch, gearbox) where it was connected to a ring nut mounted on the wheel rim. At the same time, on the opposite side of the rubber belt, there was the traditional chain that connected the pinion and crown moved by the pedals.

The engine was started by pedaling as on a normal bicycle until the single-cylinder engine could be started. It is not clear what physical effort the cylinder compression required, but shortly after the 1905 model, a belt tensioner was inserted to replace the clutch: by loosening the belt you could remain stationary with the engine running or start the vehicle (in no descents) with less effort. The engine was switched off by opening the intake valve with a special lever. It is likely that the inlet valve opening throttle was pulled to remove compression, closing it in motion to attempt starting.

The throttle lever on the first examples did not exist, in its place there was a lever similar to that of the brake.

The military Frera

The development of the Frera was very rapid and the real motorcycles continued to evolve, enjoying great success in racing and in sales. The first of them possessed the manual gearbox while those assigned to racing the traditional three-speed pedal. In some versions the wheel hub had three nuts that allowed the wheel to be changed (a system similar to that of the Vespa Piaggio) without having to remove the drum brake. Production for the Royal Army began shortly after the birth of the company and the first motorized departments were the Bersaglieri and the gunners.

With the evolution of models designed for military use, medical wheelchairs with support for wounded people and machine guns were also produced.

Mr. Colombo says that only the Bianchi company was larger than the Frera and this is because, in addition to bicycles and motorcycles, Metallurgical Workshops Edoardo Bianchi they extended production to military trucks - Miles, Supermil500, VM6C - to bus chassis, occupying a space still with little competition. Because of the choices of the Duce which banned Italian companies from selling abroad (and the Frera sold 80% abroad) canceled the supply of motorcycles to the Royal Army, the Frera entered a crisis that led to its closure in 1936 while remaining an icon of military motorcycling of the First World War.

Here is what the Frera motorized motorcycle equipment was between 1914 and 1918: 2,5 hp motor bicycles for the Bersaglieri, 2,5 hp motorcycles with gearbox for the machine gun sections equipped with a water tank for cooling of the weapon, motorcycles mod. G 570 cc and 4 hp also in two-seater version and in the wheelchair version, and logistic motorcycles for transporting ammunition belts.

The moped

Who among you has never driven a Hello or a moped anyway?

The constructive concept of the Frera is the basis of that motorized bicycle that is part of our memories of youth. In fact, even the Hello it had the cycling part distinct from the one connected to the engine, but it was enough to pedal to start it.

In Hello there were two centrifugal clutches, one to block the friction group connected to the engine (massette), the other to allow starting from a standstill. With a gentle pedal stroke the Hello it was like a bicycle, but by applying more force the drum containing the first (starter) clutches made a single body with the crankshaft starting the single cylinder.

As soon as it accelerated, the second centrifugal masses connected to the engine expanded on the drum allowing the transmission of motion to the wheel. A concept still used to separate the engine from the wheels on modern variator scooters.

With a very similar procedure and with the addition of a pulley speed variator (scooter), the Dutch DAF Variomatic vehicle was produced.

Who remembers it?

Read second part "The Army on 2 wheels: motorization expands"

Read the second part bis "The Army on 2 wheels: The success of motorbikes “Throbbing Irrrompo"

Read the third part: "The Army on 2 wheels: logistical roles for motorcycles"

Photo: web / author

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