If for Moto Guzzi the names of motorcycles have for many years been linked to various birds (just to give an example, Albatros, Condor, Airone and so on) for the bitter rival Gilera we look to the planets, especially for the sportier models such as the 250 Nettuno and the 500 Saturno. It must be said that the Gilera has its “bird” exceptions in terms of names, because the first supercharged 500 four-cylinder from Arcore (and first in Rome, where Opra-CNA is located) is called Rondine. And it flies very fast, so much so that it broke the world speed record in 1937 with Piero Taruffi, hurtling at 274.181 km/h.
Returning in the direction of (of) Saturn let’s go and discover one of the most interesting, winning and beautiful single-cylinder bikes, not only in Italy. It was born in 1939, designed by the engineer Giuseppe Salmaggi (who worked on the Belgian Sarolea, and here also on Parilla and Rumi), but its development was practically frozen (only six specimens were built) by the imminent Second World War. The road version arrives after the “Competizione”, and is not far from the model that competes. The evolution of the racing motorcycle comes after the planetary conflict, but largely concerns the chassis, while the engine, which Motorcycling defines “A monument, a work of art that immediately conveys the impression of strength, style and speed”remains faithful to the original scheme consisting of a vertical cylinder (in cast iron for the road models, in aluminum for the racing ones), wet sump lubrication, pushrod and rocker arm distribution, bore x stroke of 84 x 90 mm, measurements chosen by Gilera since the models of the twenties.
The “race” Saturnos are defined as SS, Competizione and Corsa, but are better known as, respectively, Competizione, Sanremo and Piuma. These are the production numbers: they are divided, always following the order of appearance, into 8, 108 and 68 specimens. The Sanremo, so called by everyone (in place of the official Competizione) due to the peremptory affirmation of Carlo Bandirola in 1947 on the Ligurian circuit, derives from the first type, but is revised in the distribution with valves increased to 46 mm for the intake and 44 for the exhaust, in the Dellorto SS carburettor which increases to 35 mm in diameter (from 32 in the first version), in the compression which rises to 8.5:1 (previously 6.5:1). All these modifications increase the power from 32 HP at 5,500 rpm up to 36 HP at 6,000 rpm. The weight decreases by 15 kg to reach a tonnage of 128.6 kg (which in the Piuma version will decrease by another 4 kg). The chassis is modified, again with respect to the Competizione, at the suggestion of the engineer Piero Remor, who built the four-cylinder Gilera 500: the beam that descends from the steering tube has a rhomboidal section like other parts. It seems that torsion bar suspensions, one of the strong points of the Roman engineer, were also tested, but that they were rejected.
The Saturn did not have excessive defects, but it was fragile in timing, alignment of crankshaft flywheels and modest flow rate of the lubrication pump. But if it was treated “well” – as you read in Nello Pagani’s comments – you were dealing with a definitely winning bike, which was the first to cross the finish line in its career (which lasted from 1947 to 1952) 149 times.
One of the most successful riders with this Gilera was Nello Pagani. The former 125cc world champion won with the Saturno from 1946 to 1953. In the “racing” Dossier on the Arcore bike, which Motociclismo d’Epoca published in number 4 of 2001, his memories were collected: “The secret was not to go beyond 6,000 laps, in fact if possible I was traveling around 5,800, in doing so I was sure of reaching the finish line happily. No problem for the push start: two steps were enough. Vibrations? Eh, there were but not more than many, never harmful for both the vehicle and the rider. The much vaunted Manx had more. The Saturno was agile, snappy, even well braked, ideal for post-war street circuits. My Sanremo prepared by the manufacturer reached 180 km/h. Breakups? Only once the hammers of the valves, a couple of misses with the valve springs, which had to be replaced quite often to keep the engine always at its best. Catastrophic breakups ever!”.