Gian Luigi Capellino

Gian Luigi Capellino may well be defined as the first frame designer of Ducati.

Right after the war the owners of the company bought a project from Turin-based company Siata: Cucciolo is its name. It was one of the very first micro engines available on the Italian market and the only with a four-stroke, small displacement engine sold individually to be fitted on common bicycles.

Just a few years before Ducati had had to convert its production for the war effort and was now trying to resume its old production and put a fix to the damages caused by the bombings. The idea of a micro engine was a true success, as it catered to the huge need for mobility of a Country being rebuilt with economic and versatile, simple yet strong vehicles.Those pioneering days are still shrouded in mystery. Probably due to the many changes that followed, possibly for the lack of clear and reliable documents. 

One of the key characters of those days was without a doubt Gian Luigi Capellino, the inventor of innovative frames and springs that moved from Genoa to Caproni, and then Ducati.

Gian Luigi Capellino was a good employee who, between the two wars, worked as an accountant for Shell in Genoa. His job soon evolved into a Technical Manager position thanks to his unstoppable urge to optimise machines and systems, which also earned him his first industrial patents. In order to become Technical Manager, passion was not enough; his was a true calling. The war broke out and fearing the bombings on Genoa, he fled with his family to Ormea (Cuneo). He could not leave his job at Shell, therefore he was forced to travel by bicycle (riding 200Km on hard mountain roads) to reach his family as frequently as he could. Back then the roads were truly challenging and having to travel this far on a bicycle could cause countless problems. Capellino didn’t think twice and started developing a spring-suspended frame. In the meantime he lost his job after the shutting down of the British branch of Shell. Therefore he decided to build 11 units of that motorcycle, which he sold for a good profit; in the meanwhile he designed a new version, which he promptly patented.

In 1945 Capellino bought one of the early models of Siata’s Cucciolo and saw an opportunity to match it with his suspended frame to climb steep mountain roads in first gear or tackle challenging slopes in direct drive, thanks to the central engine that made it resemble a true motorcycle. 

In the fall of 1945 Capellino was on the seat of a fully functioning prototype (built entirely by him) on his way to Turin, where he met with Mr. Farinelli: the legend tells that the man from Siata took the vehicle on a test drive and took more than one hour to ride back.

On his way back everyone was concerned for his safety; he confessed that he could not resist the fun and joy of riding that vehicle! Capellino started a small workshop where he began studying, producing and patenting new solutions for suspended bicycle frames. One of these frame specimens was brought by Capellino to Aero Caproni (an aeroplane manufacturer located near Trento, which started manufacturing motorcycles after the Second World War and continued until 1964), where it was added to the production line in 1946 with a cutting-edge telescopic fork.

The engine was assembled on the Capellino-Caproni suspended frame also at Borgo Panigale. Thanks to Capellino, the Cucciolo found a better matching frame and became a full-fledged miniature motorcycle, well known in Italy with the name CCC (Cicli Capellino Caproni).

Among the many documents inherited by his relatives (also thanks to his painstaking care in preserving sketches, documents, letters and notes), there was also a memorandum of understanding where Ducati, in October 1949 was “testing the water” of the Capellino-Caproni collaboration in view of manufacturing the frame internally. At the time a relentless Capellino started other innovative projects, always based on the Ducati 60 cc: some three-wheeled vehicles (with a removable trailer) and a remarkable tubular frame moped with rear traction shock absorber located under the footpeg.

This moped caught the attention of Ducati, this time officially: indeed, two engineers were sent to Genoa to check and test the prototype made by Capellino.

On 11 October 1949 Ducati issued a document of approval. Unfortunately later on it changed its mind and in 1952 launched the cutting edge Cruiser 175 instead: a super modern, yet complicated and expensive, moped, which did not appeal to the market and went down in history as the first Ducati motorcycling fiasco. Maybe with Capellino’s 60cc moped, simple and cost-efficient, thing would have gone differently. The career of the ingenious man from Genoa took a different path, away from Ducati, much like Aero Caproni, which interrupted the collaborative arrangement in May 1950. Ducati went on producing its 60cc model with the frame designed by Capellino: with Giovanni Florio (the mind behind T3), he is therefore the “father” of the first bike made entirely by Ducati.

Capellino went on designing motorcycles on his own, this time bringing the engine into the picture. 

It was probably the most audacious, comprehensive and ambitious feat of his career; the Baio, Capellino-patented engine and frame, was manufactured for about two years by IMN (Industrie Meccaniche Napoletane), also taken over by IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale) like Ducati. The plant was shut down and Baio came to a premature end. For Turin’s Siata, Capellino designed a frame for the Dinghy model, a very popular light motorcycle of the time. His last patent dates back to 1991: Indeed, Capellino designed, studied and produced until the remarkable age of 79 years.

Without the shadow of a doubt we can say that the contribution of this ingenious and very active inventor from Genoa was crucial in the first days of the Ducati motorcycling history.

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