cycling utah June 1999
A man's vision created industry giant
By Greg Overton
If you were asked to name a bike, classic or not, that is immediately identifiable in a peloton, or store, or on a roof rack traveling down the highway, what would come to mind?
For us the answer is Bianchi. That trademark celeste paint is a tribute to a man who was perhaps an Italian equivalent to Henry Ford or any other visionary industrialist of his time.
Edoardo Bianchi was born July 17, 1865, in Milan. No real records exist of his parents, but it is known that he was taken into care by the "Martinitt" Orphanage where he was raised. There he received basic education and the beginnings of mechanical knowledge. As a young adult, Edoardo entered Italy's industrial world as a mechanic's apprentice, and established weekly donations to the "Martinitt" that would continue throughout his life.
Bianchi's vision was evident as he saw the coming of mechanized transportation. He was quick to open his own shop at #7 Via Nirone in August 1885, supplying velocipedes along with a curious mix of other products including ball bearings, wheelchairs, door bells and medical instruments.
He was quite taken by the velocipede, with its efficiency, simplicity and self propulsion. So he concentrated his efforts there. His stated business philosophy: offer high quality finished products using the best raw materials. The business grew steadily, as its reputation for quality became known.
The year 1888 saw the groundwork for Bianchi's first major growth opportunity, once again based upon his business acumen. He moved his company to larger quarters at Via Bertani, anticipating growth. He finalized an idea he had been working on to make both wheels of the velocipede the same size as opposed to the traditional larger front wheel. In redesigning his velocipede, he designed Italy's first bicycle. Edoardo then chose to equip his bicycle with another avant-garde product, air-filled tires invented by Scotsman John Dunlop.
The resulting smoother, quieter ride made the bicycle much more desirable and business virtually boomed. Some say the birth of the legendary bicycle artisan/industry of northern Italy can be traced to this particular point in time, as small shops sprang to life throughout the region. Within five years, Bianchi had outgrown its facility once again, and moved to a larger one at Via Borghetto 16. Edoardo chose this site because it was large enough to set up an assembly line if needed.
Once again Bianchi was one step ahead. At about this time, Queen Margherita summoned Edoardo to Monza. The request was to teach her to ride a bicycle. Seizing the opportunity, he built a special bike and delivered it upon his arrival. The publicity was tremendous, and Bianchi was awarded the title "Official Supplier to the Royal Court". Immediately, the implementation of an assembly line was necessary, as the public wanted to have the same bicycle as the queen. And Edoardo intended to oblige.
The following few years saw Bianchi receive many technical and design awards internationally, as well as royal recognition from France, Astoria, Portugal and Italy. The company's growth was tremendous.
The logical step at this point was man's need for speed and the sport of bicycle racing sprouted. Being a visionary businessman, Bianchi saw racing as a means to add laurels to his company's vest, and in 1899 he contracted the services of Giovanni Tomaselli.
Tomaselli was a budding racing star with increasingly impressive results who caught Edoardo's attention as he attended the local races. Once again Bianchi's Midas touch worked as Tomaselli won that year's Gran Pix de la Ville Paris, the most prestigious race to that point (later known as the Tour de France). Once again, the company saw huge increase in demand for its bicycles, this time throughout Europe.
With the bicycle company doing well, Edoardo turned his attention to another new technology that he saw as an even larger opportunity. He had heard of both Bernardi and Daimler rushing to develop an internal combustion engine, and although his love was bicycles and bike racing, he began preparing his factory for and designing vehicles to include an engine and multiple passengers.
Bianchi's first test of a motorized tricycle ended in flames, literally. But the company's catalog for 1900 included much information on a motorized quadricycle. Bianchi's world was about to change.
Orders began streaming in. With the public's fascination of this new vehicle at a fever pitch, products came quickly. Then a new factory was built in 1901 at via Nino Bixio, Milan.
After the quadricycle came the first "motorbicycle", and in 1902 Bianchi developed its own engine. It was a two horsepower unit built under license from De Dion, a French company. In 1903, Bianchi produced its first vehicle of parts entirely made in- house at the Milan factory. That year's catalog featured six "veturettes" with very elegant aluminum body work and a choice of engines. For the next couple of decades, most of the company's energy was spent on this new, profitable technology.
Where was the bicycle in all of this? Winning races, as usual. Throughout Europe, riders such as Galertl, Oriani, Pavesi, Agostini and Brushera wore the sky blue and white Bianchi colors to victory. In 1906, Rossignelli made headlines by winning Milan - Turin, covering the 180 Kilometers in 4 hours and 47 minutes on a Bianchi. But the most successful racer of the era was Constante Girardengo, who earned great notoriety for Bianchi and great respect as a champion.
By 1912, the company catalog included 14 different bicycle models aimed at "ladies, children, priests and gentlemen". There were eight motor vehicles offered with engines ranging from 12 to 75 horsepower, and body styles from roundabouts to limousines to trucks to ambulances. Bianchi was also producing aircraft engines, maritime engines and motorcycles for the Italian army.
World War One required most industrial facilities, including Bianchi's, to manufacture war-time products, so little commercial production was carried out, and the political unrest after the war had a debilitating effect on the company as well.
Once again the bicycle proved to be the foundation to support the structure, as many people turned to the bike for affordable transportation. But as life normalized, Bianchi reentered the commercial market as strong as ever, even producing racing cars and motorcycles with drivers such as the legendary Tazio Nuvolari, and luxury vehicles for Pope Pio Xl.
Again the company was gaining great exposure. In 1927, company output was 40,000 bicycles, 3,500 motorcycles and 2,000 automobiles. Only Fiat built more cars and Atala more bikes, but neither had more across the board production.
The thirties held tremendous success for Bianchi on the motorcycle tracks of the world. And now this side of the company's production was seeing tremendous growth, as its cars had seen in the twenties. Late in the decade, with the scythe of World War Two approaching, and raw materials and petroleum increasingly difficult to source, Bianchi's diversification would once again prove its savior as bicycles became more and more necessary for transportation.
Buoyed by Giuseppe Olmo's world hour record aboard a Bianchi just as the war was beginning, demand for bikes stayed fairly consistent while once again, the company's major facilities were required to produce military vehicles and products. Bicycles could be produced in smaller shops and in smaller quantities, and so placed lesser demands than their large machinery counterparts.
In the late summer, 1943, major air raids throughout Italy's industrial cities were devastating. The Bianchi works in Milan was destroyed completely probably because of its importance as a production facility. Fifty eight years after its creation, after many innovations and wonderful successes, in the span of two or three days, an industrial empire was erased from existence.
Plans were started shortly after the bombing for reconstruction, headed by Giovanni Tomaselli (the same racer who had such a hand in the beginning was now a top company official). But Tomaselli died in early 1944, yet another setback.
Then in June, 1946, just as the company had begun plans for its rebirth with the 125 2T motorcycle, tragedy struck again. Its founder and driving force Edoardo Bianchi died at age 79 from injuries suffered in an accident while driving one of his company's S9 automobiles.
Look for the conclusion of this Classic Corner in the next issue, as Bianchi rises again on the strength of its foundation, the bicycle.