Three years ago today, the motorcycling world lost one of its most progressive designers, Massimo Tamburini, the legendary designer behind landmark motorcycles such as the Ducati 916 and MV Agusta F4, to name only two examples. If you own a sport bike, it’s likely your motorcycle’s design was in some way influenced by Tamburini.
Tamburini produced beautiful, functional works of art that attracted riders and even impressed museum curators. He popularized design elements such as underseat exhausts and single-sided swingarms. Shaped twin headlights, instead of generic round or square ones, became a common staple because of him. Although he is gone, his influence can still be seen in new motorcycles every year.
Farmer’s son to motorcycle legend
Massimo Tamburini was born on Nov. 28, 1943, to a family of farmers in Rimini, Italy, a town full of motorcycle enthusiasts that was located near several motorcycle factories. In post-World War II Italy, there was a great demand for affordable and efficient transportation, so motorcycles were popular. A young Massimo was enthralled with the machines. His mother described his love for them as an obsession.
Though he wanted to study design at the university in Bologna, his family lacked the necessary funds, so he attended a local trade and technical school where he studied HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning). He started his own heating and ductwork business in Rimini at age 18. That same year, he would attend the 1961 Monza World Championship Race, where he would become further inspired to find a way into the motorcycle industry after witnessing the four-stroke MV of the era scream its way around the historic circuit. Little did he know at the time that 37 years later he would design the motorcycle that would resurrect the historic Italian manufacturer.
Tamburini began race tuning machines for riders in Rimini, shaving off some of the bike’s weight while simultaneously improving their handling and power. He built a reputation for being able to transform the MV 600 Four of the era into a bona fide sportster. Through his years tuning existing bikes, he picked up the skills he would need to slowly begin designing motorcycles of his own. In 1971, he would do his own custom fabrication, welding together a frame to house an MV 750 powerplant.
By this time, Tamburini had met other enthusiasts who shared his passion and who also happened to work in HVAC/ductwork. In 1973, his two friends Valerio Bianchi and Giuseppe Morri would team up with Massimo Tamburini to start Bimota (the name being a combination of the first syllable of the founders' names), which originally produced heating and ductwork. After breaking a few ribs as a result of crashing his Honda CB750, Massimo had the idea to build a better frame that wouldn’t twist under the power of the Honda engine. This idea would go on to become the company’s first bike. During his time recovering, he got the idea to transition Bimota’s focus from ductwork to motorcycles.
Bimota was then a very small company that lacked the resources for developing and producing engines that would be comparable to the existing competition. For this reason, they focused on building motorcycles around powerplants made by Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki, and then later incorporating Yamaha and Ducati engines, too.
The frame built for Tamburini’s crashed CB750 became Bimota’s first motorcycle model, the HB1 (Honda Bimota 1). Only 10 were ever built. In 1977, Bimota released the SB2, which had a Suzuki GS750 powerplant in a chromoly tubular chassis with its own full bodywork. The bike was groundbreaking for 1977, with features such as a rear monoshock, adjustable steering geometry, magnesium wheels and top-of-the-line Brembo brakes. The Bimota KB2 was another Tamburini design that took a solid Japanese engine, the Kawasaki GPz550, and dropped it into a new frame. The KB2’s handling was further improved by high-end suspension components on top of its steel trellis frame that already had a leg up on the Kawa.
Though the Bimota Tesi 1D that Massimo designed failed to be a commercial success, it’s nonetheless an extremely innovative and boundary-pushing design. Having spent over a decade designing various parts of motorcycles as well as motorcycles as a whole at Bimota, he eventually left the company.
After leaving Bimota, Tamburini briefly worked for Roberto Gallina’s 500 cc GP World Championship team. Near the beginning of 1985, he started working for Cagiva Group, which would acquire Ducati that very same year.
The work that changed the (motorcycling) world
Tamburini’s first Ducati was the Paso 750, and it made bikes with fully enclosed bodywork more mainstream. Before this time, fully faired bikes weren’t really present on the street and Ducati was more of a small boutique company that was not yet recognized as a common household name.
It was the Ducati 916 that became Tamburini’s most famous work. While it does bear some resemblance to existing models of its era (some speculate about the Honda NR750), it possessed unique qualities such as a combination of rounded, sweeping, curved bodywork and aggressive sharp edges and angles. The bike helped him establish himself at Ducati, but it was his work on the Ducati 851 and 888 that further ensured his reputation as a valuable asset.
The 916 would remain his most famous work until four years later, when he would design the era-defining MV Agusta F4 750. The F4 would be the bike responsible for reintroducing the race-bred Italian manufacturer to the world. Not only was the F4’s design an instant hit, but it was also a wonderful example of the work Massimo was capable of doing when working with a blank canvas. His cutting-edge design for MV would be so successful that the company would go on to produce well over a dozen different F4 models, most of them designed by Tamburini himself. Even though the first F4 was launched in 1998, its look was so enduring it would not get its first substantial facelift until 2010.
Tamburini went on to design the F4’s three-cylinder little sibling, the F3 675. The MV Agusta F4 Brutale was another iconic Tamburini design, this time with a naked bike.
Even in his later years, Tamburini’s passion for motorcycles did not wane. At one point, while working on the 750 F4, his health took a turn for the worse but he continued his work, determined to finish the project.
“I was so scared I would die without designing the bike,” he later explained.
Tamburini did not live long enough to see his final project completed. After he retired from MV Agusta toward the end of 2008, he continued sketching bikes until his death. His last design, the T12 Massimo, will never play as historically important a role as the 916 or the F4, but it shows what incredible designs are possible when mass-production and financial limitations are removed from the equation. The T12 Massimo demonstrated his rich imagination and elegant creativity, his final gift to the world.
The Michelangelo of motorcycles
Tamburini's designs have been displayed in museums, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, but beyond producing motorcycles whose beauty was recognized by museum curators, he was also able to work with engineers so that his creations were outstanding in function, as well as form. (The F4 312 at one point was the fastest production bike in the world.) Tamburini contributed to our appreciation of what we love: riding our motorcycles. The ability to enjoy romping around on a bike that you love both for its performance and its appearance.
Tamburini believed that designs and products should have their own identities and should be recognizable as such. He wanted Italian motorcycles to have their own flavor, style and performance that was distinguishable from that of a Japanese bike. He didn’t exactly love the direction Ducati took with the ST2.
“I think the ST2 is an attempt to follow a Japanese concept, and this shouldn't be done by Italians," he once said.
We can’t know where where Ducati or MV Agusta would be today without Massimo Tamburini’s impact, or how today’s motorcycles might look without his designs and the influence they’ve had. But we can be sure the motorcycle world would be different without the farmer’s son from Rimini.