Memories : Meeting Alejandro de Tomaso…

Alessandro De Tomaso

In the late 1970s a television producer who worked on the weekly BBC science magazine programme Tomorrow’s World flew to Bologna. It was just another assignment. The job: make a six-minute insight into how one man was transforming Italy’s industry in the teeth of Communist-inspired disruption. The man’s name was Alejandro de Tomaso. He lived in Modena where his American wife ran a hotel for wealthy car enthusiasts – mostly Maserati owners.

The producer stayed in the hotel with his BBC crew and insisted on paying despite de Tomaso’s operatic objections, including ripping up the bill and throwing it, confetti like, across the lobby. De Tomaso had just wrestled Maserati SpA from the mess of the Michelin dynasty and promptly fired the workforce. The next day, when the producer got there, the factory was shut.

The man himself – grey Brioni suit, Cuban heels, sans helmet or gloves – arrived on a red Benelli Sei, a somewhat overstyled six-cylinder superbike he had flamboyantly fast-tracked into production to beat the forthcoming six-cylinder Honda CBX. Shooting the film meant travelling with the sharply dressed de Tomaso from Modena by road to Mandello del Lario where the oldest company in his empire, Moto Guzzi, built motorcycles. Under his crisply tailored suits de Tomaso packed a Beretta M9 in a tan leather shoulder holster. It turned out he had just overseen the sale of Benelli to Fabbrica Berretta d’Armi Pietro Beretta – hence the Sei.

De Tomaso was an Argentinian who had competed in four Formula 1 races in the late 1950s with his best-placed finish being ninth in the 1957 Argentine Grand Prix at the wheel of a Scuderia Centro Sud-run Ferrari Tipo 500.  As a self-styled industrialist with connections to the Ford family, he had built the fearsome mid-engined, Ford-powered De Tomaso Mangusta, inspired he claimed, by the Ford GT40, but aimed at the AC Cobra – hence its name. De Tomaso had become known in Detroit and eventually Italy as ‘Don Tomato’ because of his capo dei capi management style – being the 1970s, he was inevitably on the left-wing Brigato Rosso wanted list, hence the hidden gun.

Where Innocenti comes into the story

Innocenti Mini de Tomaso
Innocenti Mini de Tomaso

Alejandro de Tomaso had also bought Innocenti, the Milanese company which had invented Lambretta scooters, and for many years built under licence the BMC Mini redesigned to great acclaim through de Tomaso’s recently-acquired Carrozzeria Bertone. His neat and feisty re-bodied ‘hot-hatch’ – now with a turbocharged three-cylinder Daihatsu engine – was the main reason for the producer’s six-minute Tomorrow’s World story topically pegged to British Leyland’s launch of the Mini replacement, the Metro.

The show’s anchorman, Raymond Baxter, thought the producer’s intention to make a film about an Italian Mini rather than the British car was in characteristic poor taste. Over the years, Baxter had been an off-on consultant to Austin-Morris, but even he didn’t know that BL had secretly ‘evaluated’ the natty little Innocenti hatchback and been under some pressure to import it, or make it under licence in order to see-off cars like the Fiat 127. The usual Brummy not-invented-here attitude prevailed. For Britain, the Metro was the car of the future and Baxter was backing it.

At the Moto Guzzi factory with its heroic Fascist-built test track hewn from the side of a rocky outcrop above Lake Como, the television producer took a ride on the company’s latest model. It was called the Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans. He rode the PR version. PR stood for Production Racer because this version of the bike was a ‘homologation special’. That meant just enough were being hand-built by de Tomaso’s factory for it to qualify as a production bike. Although modified like this, it was really a thinly disguised endurance machine for 24-hour road races based on the earlier Guzzi 750 S3. The producer was smitten.

Meanwhile, back in London…

Back in London the producer looked up dealerships for Moto Guzzi. There were two – one in Surrey and another in Wandsworth. The Wandsworth dealership was new. Called Continental Motorcycles, it turned out to be a tiny shop at 51 Huguenot Place – today, it’s an Asian dry cleaner. It had one Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans in silver blue. The producer wanted a red one, but this was the only version available so he bought it for the list price of £1200. The following week it was registered as TGC 971R.

The producer rode the snorting Moto Guzzi to work every day and parked it under the railway bridge that crossed the car park at BBC Kensington House (now a hotel) in a spot just below Esther Rantzen’s office. Rantzen, who by then was a sort of BBC goddess, violently disapproved of the thunderous off-beat noise, often dispatching a young runner, Peter Bazalgette, to complain when the producer warmed up the mighty 850cc V-twin engine. In the end, Phil Daley (known in the BBC as ‘Twice Daley’ because he had been a chemist working for Bayer pharmaceuticals) who was the humourless Head of the BBC Science & Features Department, ordered the bike to be parked in the street using the full force of a BBC memo copied to the controller of BBC2, Brian Wenham.

Wenham, who had a dry sense of humour and enjoyed using the BBC’s faux-civil service haughtiness against the corporation’s stuffy bureaucracy, was known as ‘Wenmo’ because of his acerbic one-line notes to people. Unprompted, one lunchtime he strolled over Shepherd’s Bush Green from Television Centre to have a look at the offending motorcycle and decided it could stay in the car park as long as it was parked next to the yellow Toyota 2000 estate car belonging to the Editor of the Man Alive programme, Desmond Wilcox. It was Wenham’s idea of a joke. Wilcox was Rantzen’s husband…

In the summer of 1977, the producer was in his office working on a Tomorrow’s World special about the prototype fly-by-wire Airbus A300 when Dr Jonathan Miller popped his head around the office door and said he wanted to chat. Miller had been trying and failing to find a way to present a series about the history of man’s perception of the human body. Large sums of licence-fee payers’ money had soaked into the sand trying come up with a way to do it. Miller had heard that this producer – often seen walking around Kensington House wearing jodhpurs, leather officer’s boots, a pudding basin helmet and goggles – was good at visualising complicated ideas. Miller immediately hit it off with the producer and together they cooked up a way to make the show work. Unfortunately, ‘Twice Daily’ was an intellectual snob and regarded the producer as an irresponsible maverick: too ‘lightweight’ to take on the responsibility of a prestigious and expensive thirteen-part mega-series.

The body in question

Moto Guzzi Le Mans

However, two years after this first encounter the producer had shot and edited Miller’s thirteen programmes, now called ‘The Body in Question’. It turned out to be a quirky triumph: an unexpected hit for BBC2. Instead of roaming the world for locations, the producer had shot almost all of it on Stage 2 at Ealing Studios where the first big feature film about the Titanic – ‘A Night to Remember’ – had been made. Standing outside those historic green-painted stage doors the silver-blue Moto Guzzi had been an exotic and rare curiosity attracting the attention of any passing motorcycle enthusiast from the leather-clad actor John Gielgud on his BMW R90S to the diminutive spiv and ETU Shop Steward, Tommy Moran. But on a practical level the Guzzi had given the producer huge flexibility. It had carried him between the locations, the office and the studios running rings around his executive producer, Karl Sabbagh, who shuffled about in taxis.

In Rome, during one of the rare foreign location shoots, the producer had persuaded his sharply dressed electricians from the Italian branch of Mole Richardson to take him to a performance motorcycle wholesaler for a pair of reverse-cone racing Imola open exhaust pipes and two 40mm chokeless Del Orto carburettors. The electricians solemnly closed the shop door and quietly reminded the shopkeeper that the producer ‘knew’ AleJandro de Tomaso. The parts were handed over, cut-price for cash, and squirrelled out of Italy as film equipment. They considerably upped the performance of the big Guzzi…

In the summer of 1980 on a warm Sunday lunchtime the producer was on the Guzzi burbling west along George Street in central London when an oncoming Mini turned right in front of him. The bike buried itself in the front of the car and the producer flew over the roof, landing in the road, bruised and with a fractured wrist. At first the two blokes in the front seat of the Mini, who had been arguing over a map, would only speak Hebrew, but once a police motorcyclist arrived on his BMW it turned out they were just brothers – east London carpet dealers lost in west London’s streets. Their insurance company was in for a hefty rebuild…

Fixing the damage

Once the AA had evaluated the wreckage and filed their report, the producer rebuilt the Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans in a garage attached to the grace-and-favour house of the late Lord and Lady Frazer on Regents Park’s leafy Inner Circle. The producer’s mother and father lived there. They had worked out their retirement caring for Lady Frazer until she died and, as is usual with servants of the Queen’s favoured gentry, the producer’s parents continued to live in the grace-and-favour gate-cottage in the park. Lord Frazer had been blinded in the First World War and founded the RNIB, hence his title.

The large, white-tiled garage where his chauffeur’s pre-War Daimler Fifteen had been stored and where the Guzzi was rebuilt had originally been designed as the abattoir for mad George III where the deer that were driven up to his carriage window so they could be drunkenly shot with his gilt bow and arrow were butchered and hung. Shortly after her death, the Frazers’ spooky and not-quite-empty old house was filmed for the opening scene of the thirteenth and final Body in Question episode as a creepy metaphor for the dead human body.

This metaphor acted as a curtain raiser for the infamously bloody post mortem scene in which Jonathan Miller dissected a very fresh human corpse. After three day’s filming under hot lights in the Middlesex Hospital’s mortuary it wasn’t so fresh. The chirpy ETU Shop Steward who had so admired the producer’s Guzzi called the shoot to a halt when one of his men almost fainted while trying to put spun glass on a 2k backlight for Jonathan’s head and wobbled off his ladder dropping spun glass celluloid filters and a pair of pliers into the clotted chest cavity of the corpse. Air conditioners were brought in, but couldn’t remove the smell of rotting meat. Only Jonathan’s chain smoking could do that… with the cadaver’s removed cranium doubling as an ash tray.

The bike gets rebuilt

Once the series had been broadcast the producer completed the rebuild of the bike with the addition of an imported ‘works’ crosscut close-ratio gearbox (it came in a wooden box with the Moto Guzzi eagle stencilled on it in black), high compression pistons wrapped in greaseproof paper, a racing camshaft, new front forks and a new paint job in red with a black and red frame. It was now to full PR specification – in effect, race-ready. When the bike was first started the constabulary in Regents Park called round to find out who owned the large calibre machine gun they’d heard.

Back on the road and now working on the flagship BBC Horizon science series, the producer one day found his office occupied by a young female researcher. The brightly dressed researcher rode a zippy orange and black Suzuki 125TS trail bike and looked a bit like a Manga doll. The producer’s film she had come to work on was an idea that he had cooked-up about the technical tangle behind the deceptively simple tube map designed in 1931 by the electrical engineer, Harry Beck. It would be a film about London Transport’s Underground: a typically British patch-up job that had lumbered the capital with a hopelessly complicated mass transit system in need of massive modernisation a bit like the way de Tomaso’s functional Bertone bodywork elegantly covered BMC’s ageing engineering.

According to Steve, as soon as it appeared in Jack Lilley’s showroom the gleaming 12-year-old Guzzi was apparently spotted by a senior mechanic at Maranello Concessionaires in Egham. Maranello Concessionaires was Britain’s official Ferrari importer originally set up by Mike Hawthorn in 1958 after winning the Formula 1 World Championship in a Ferrari Dino 246 against. The concession to sell Ferrari’s road cars had been a personal present from the Commendatore to Hawthorn in gratitude for his bravery driving the Scuderia’s lethal racer named after Enzo’s dead son Dino. From 1989 the heavily modified, but rather beautiful red and black Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans PR would stand in the Maranello Concessionaires forecourt alongside the equally beautiful scarlet Ferraris.

A welcome reappearance

After that, the trail goes cold until the very same Moto Guzzi Le Mans 850 PR pops up near Manchester. The name of the new owner was Michael Martin. With no history to go on Martin seems to have had little idea of the bike’s history or internal performance modifications, but to his credit left it largely unchanged save for a flimsy Ducati-style racing fairing. Then, in late 2002, he advertised it for sale in Classic Motorcycle magazine and it was immediately spotted by Darryl Fenton in Cornwall.

Fenton knew his stuff. He had read a magazine article the producer had written describing his painstaking upgrade of the Guzzi. After a call from Fenton, Martin agreed to ride the Guzzi from Manchester to Bristol where he could meet Fenton off the train from Cornwall. It was 11 November 2002. Fenton paid up and rode the snorting Guzzi 160 freezing wet miles back to his home in Padstow. The stubby (and illegal) Imola exhausts had gone, so Fenton fitted chromium pipes, but apart from that and some over-enthusiastic touches of red paint on things like brakes and shock absorbers, the big Guzzi carried its unique and thundering character intact – even the producer’s hand-made leather and suede saddle had survived. However, on 30 September 2010 on a curvy road near Padstow, Fenton missed a corner, threw the big Guzzi 850 Le Mans PR into the scenery and destroyed it…

The story was going to end there and the producer would have known nothing about it, but then came Fenton’s email. The story of his purchase, the vague information about the previous owner, the ride back to Padstow, the detailed catastrophe of the crash – it was all there. But best of all, the Guzzi was on life-support and revivable. He was sure it would live. The months ticked by. Another email arrived. This time the news was better. TGC 971R was a rolling chassis with new factory parts. Then another email, with more pictures. The work was detailed and time-consuming, but the big muscular Guzzi was upright, although rather disappointingly returned to more conventional looks.

Once back on-board any niggling concerns Fenton harboured about the bike’s damage vanished and the uneven thunder of that vee-twin motor swept him away again, just as it had smitten the Tomorrow’s World producer all those years ago in Mandello del Lario. Occasionally, after storing it over the damp Cornish winter months, Darryl told the producer he had thought of selling the 36-year-old bike, but it is fleeting.

His annual ride to the MoT station puts paid to that…

14 Comments

  1. Great story I have read it three times but am having difficulty with the detail!

    Has it been edited?

    Who is Steve? He seemed to pop up towards the end.

    Who is Fenton? He also appears in the last paragraph.

    Why has the Bike been SORN and its MOT expired in April 2015 according to the DVLA Website

    It seems like there is more to be added?

  2. A300 was NOT fly by wire. Perhaps he was thinking of the A320, but that came a long time after 1977 ( First flight 1987 in fact ). A sub-editor to provide a modest degree of factual accuracy might have helped.

    • No, the article is correct. Originally, FBW was tested on the third A300 prototype (F-WUAD / F-BUAD) back in 1978, in support of the A300-600 and A320 programmes.

    • I’ll place a job ad in The Guardian forthwith.

      Wanted: Full time sub-editor for popular enthusiast website.
      A modest degree of factual accuracy required, annual salary c. £0,000 per year.

  3. “The job: make a six-minute insight into how one man was transforming Italy’s industry in the teeth of Communist-inspired disruption.” Wow! Imagine today’s leftist BBC allowing a presenter to show how he was doing anything anti-left? I presume the Italian Communists were left wing and not right wing!

  4. Reply to GRAHAM : I stand by what I said, although without access to the logs of airframe 103 , it is rather difficult to say on what dates that airframe was fitted with an experimental FBW system. It certainly was not demonstrated as FBW until the 1985/86 airshow season, despite having first flown in c 1974 . I dare say Keith Adams will be well suited to the post he proposes to advertise

    • You can stand by whatever you want, but you are still wrong.

      The Airbus fly by wire testing program started in the mid 70s as a follow on to work done on Concorde, amongst other things this involved the using 3rd prototype A300, (Sn3) to flight test digital computers to control spoilers, flats and slats as part of the A300-600 program, she was tested from 76 on ground rigs and she first flew in this configuration in 1978. With the A300 -600 first flight was in 1983.

      The Airbus fly by wire program however did not stop with that as had always been intendended, the wanted end state of the program was full FBW system, having also in 1978 used a modified Concorde to prove the side stick viability, it continued throughout the late 70s and early 80s with Sn3 to develop the system as seen on the A320.

      As part of this in 1981 (Sn3) returned to the ground rigs and in 1983 Sn3 made her first flight with a full fly by wire controls and in 1985 she started the fly by wire test campaign of the definitive A320 cockpit As part of closing stages of this program, she made a global tour demonstrating the system and its advantages as part of the A320 launch and sales campaign. But this was very much the end game of a programme that run for over a decade.

      From this we can conclude that i was perfectly reasonable for BBC TV’s Tomorrow’s world to be going to look at a A300 prototype on the ground rigs, testing a FBW control system for its secondary controls.

  5. I’ll bow to your obviously greater knowledge, Graham. Unfortunately, it does not alter the fact that it was not until the 1983 – 1986 period that any FBW flight for the Airbus programme was done, and that was not for the A300 programme, with even the dash 600 retaining conventional operation except as I recall for the signalling of flaps and spoilers . It may be a question of emphasis about which we shall have to agree to differ, because of course many aircraft prototypes have been used as mules for later prgrammes once their original purpose had been fulfilled . It’s interesting that I see that 103 is now back with conventional controls

  6. I can’t help but picture Ronnie Corbett telling this tale. It’s all the mentions of “the Producer” …

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