(This Retrospective article was published in the October 2008 issue of Rider.)
Story by Clement Salvadori • Photography by Steve Ready
Back in the 1960s Spanish two-strokes were everywhere, haring along the pavement, scrambling through the hills, flat-tracking around the ovals.
Montesa, Ossa and Bultaco were well-known marques in racing circles, and popular on the street.
As was this Impala Sport 250, a quarter-liter bike claiming some 26 horses, which was a lot in those days. That would equate to a 100-horsepower liter bike—of which there weren’t any back then. The little oversquare ring-ding, with a 72.55mm bore and a 60mm stroke, could rev to 7,500 rpm, and judicious use of the four gears could keep this baby howling.
A stretch of history is needed here, with a touch of politics. There had been a major civil war in Spain in the late 1930s, with more than half a million dead, and by the end in 1939 a dour fascist by the rank and name of General Franco won out. The civil war did do one good thing for the Spanish: it kept the country out of World War II, which allowed entrepreneurs to flourish. The Spaniards were good at agricultural production, and prior to the war had sold food to buy things from abroad like cars and motorcycles. However, with the rest of Europe being bombed to ruins, the Spanish found there was nothing to buy in the way of manufactured goods, and now they had to make their own.
In 1944 two relatively young fellows, Pedro Permanyer and Francis Bulto, decided to go together into the business of producing personal transportation vehicles, like motorcycles. Permanyer wanted to focus on engines, as this was his passion, and let others do the chassis work. Bulto, a minority partner, leaned toward doing the entire machine; he won. They began production of little 98cc two-strokes in a rigid frame, very basic with a separate engine and three-speed transmission—and in transportation-starved Spain they were an instant success.
The company moved into a large, old factory in Barcelona and competed in one of the first races on the local Montjuich circuit in 1945—and took the first five places in their class. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. In 1946 they introduced a 125cc version, which also sold extremely well. In 1949 Montesa won at the International Grand Prix of Barcelona, and the crowd went wild. In 1951 the two-strokes did well at the renamed Spanish Grand Prix, and also at the Isle of Man TT. That same year the factory entered two bikes in the International Six Days Trial, Bulto being one of the riders, and got a bronze medal; not bad for first time out. In 1953 the factory began the Brio series of street bikes, the name translating as “strength, force, vigor, manliness,” and these served to pay for the racing expenses.
In 1954 Montesa took a seventh place in the Ultra Lightweight (125) class at the Isle of Man TT, again surprising the sophisticated four-strokes. A few more GP races were run, with special six-speed gear-boxes, but in 1957 Permanyer pulled the plug on all this professional competition, wishing to focus on machines for the public. Bulto wanted to do more than build road bikes which were occasionally raced; he wanted to build racebikes which were good on the road. They parted company, but when Bulto left with his share of the company in cash, and the latest engine designs, Montesa was in a major hurt.
A new design director, Leopold Mila, took charge, and in 1962 launched the 175 Impala, with an all-new unit-construction engine incorporating an almost square cylinder, 60.9mm bore and 60mm stroke. It was still a piston-port two-stroke, but with an alloy head and an alloy cylinder barrel using a cast-iron liner. Mila wanted to ensure reliability, and so power was limited to 10.5 horses at 5,500 rpm. Primary drive was now by gears, rather than a chain, running power to a four-speed gearbox. A swingarm rear suspension was incorporated.
To promote them the factory sent three bikes and six riders on a 12,500-mile trip through Africa—where the impala antelope is found. Impalas appeared both as street machines and off-road models. A 175 Impala Sport model appeared, boasting 18 horses at 7,000 rpm, with abbreviated fenders to enhance its racy image, and the locals who loved this bike became known as Impalistas. A note here on Montesa business practices: The company chose to concentrate on the European market, while the Bultaco folk were busy promoting their bikes in the United States, which is why Montesa was not a very well-known brand here.
Mila, never a man to rest on his laurels, decided that a quarter-liter version of the engine was in order, and bored it out to 72.55mm, bolting it into a Scorpion Scrambler chassis in 1965. This was a highly competitive motocrosser, and the racing world took it to heart. In 1966 the road-going Impala Sport 250, referred to as a turismo model, was introduced, with the motor rated at the aforesaid 26 horsepower at 7,500 rpm, using a 30mm Amal 389 carburetor to feed the thirsty beast. This was another money-maker—it did everything well at a low price. The engine, chassis and brakes all worked to enviable standards, and a stock model was good for almost 100 mph.
A road-racing version was also built. Immediately a pair of brothers took one to the Barcelona 24 Hours and came out the winner, beating not only the competitor Bultaco but also much bigger bikes like a Triumph Bonneville and a BMW twin. At this point Permanyer decided to go back into racing and show his old partner who was the better man.
Before long there was a trials version of the 250, first called merely the Montesa Trial, but soon retitled as the Cota—the word meaning a heraldic coat of arms. The Impala Sport 250 was a minor sales success; almost 10,000 were built over four years, and sketchy records show that only 700 ever came to the United States. By 1970 the factory was concentrating on off-road bikes, motocross, trials and enduro, and production of the 250 Impala was ceased after 1969. For a few years the only street machines made by Montesa were scooters and mopeds.
As an afterword it should be noted that the company was making good profits in the 1970s, and Montesa and Bultaco were vying hammer and tongs for the trophies. In 1980 the Cota won the World Trials Championship. But that did not save the company from financial crisis, and it partnered with Honda in 1982.