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Difazio History

Archive of the History of Difazio Motorcycles

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History of Difazio Motorcycles

In the tough days of the early twentieth century the young Pascal made the long trip to England from his family home in central Italy; times were hard and much of his journey was made on foot. After crossing the channel to Falmouth he eventually arrived at the market town of Frome where soon after in 1914 he opened a shop at 25 Catherine Street selling and repairing bicycles. In the same year his son John was born and very soon the business expanded into motorcycles, the new bikes delivered from the huge Midland motorcycle factories by train into Frome station.

Very soon Difazio's were selling all the major British makes including BSA, Triumph and Brough; the latter made by George Brough and ridden by the famous T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia); two men who John recalls visited the shop in the middle nineteen twenties.

Ed: Possibly Difazio sold both Brough and Brough-Superior, related but very different marques.

Shortly after his sixteenth birthday John started grass track racing on a BSA Blue star and soon began to make a name for him self on the British single. Later he progressed to a Rudge Ulster; a bike which both pre and post war he campaigned with great success.
Incidentally it was during the time he began grass tracking he became known as Jack so not to create any confusion John and Jack Difazio are the same person.

By 1947 Pascal was looking to retire so John - who was by then working for Pinks in London - returned to take over the family business.

When post war racing started again John was again one of the top racers of his era although by now he had progressed to BSA's and was successful on both two and three wheels. Ever mindful that the race bikes could be improved he explored many ideas and carried out numerous modifications over the standard set up. These included a duel sided front brake on the solo and home made leading link axle forks on the outfit.

Not one to sit on his laurels John looked at ways of improving on the standard front fork set up and in 1956 the first hub centre steered machine appeared. A radically different machine which used a Reliant type swinging arm grafted on to the front of the BSA and incorporating the front brake drum from a Ford Prefect car. It immediately showed a vast improvement over the conventional telescopic forks but it would be twelve more years before he would be able to take his idea another stage forward and incorporate hub centre steering into a solo.

In the bread and butter side of things the shop continued to thrive and Difazio's became agents for all of the big British manufacturers of the time; BSA, Triumph, Ariel, Velocette, Norton, Francis Barnett and James; all of which were sold in large numbers. As in earlier days these bikes were delivered to Frome station by train; the job of taking them to the shop entrusted to the young Richard aboard the businesses 'works' BSA and float sidecar. Richard joined the family concern on leaving school in 1957 and after two seasons spent as grass track passenger to his father began road racing in 1959 on a Gold Star and later progressed to a brace of very potent Manx Norton's.

It was the start of thirteen very successful seasons; ones which saw the young Difazio achieve many podium finishes in National meetings. This usually aboard the Manx Norton's prepared by his father although by the early seventies the ageing British single was replaced by a Difazio hub centre steered Suzuki twin.

It was the concept of hub centre steering which took the name of Difazio to a wider audience and during the next decade over fifty of these unusual machines would be constructed from the labyrinth of workshops at the rear of 25 Catherine Street. The whole of the construction process carried out by Jack and his small team which usually comprised of Pat Hooper, Trevor Burridge and Tim Tucker.

As tests carried out by the University of Manchester proved hub centre steering offered many advantages over the conventional telescopic front forks. It was undoubtedly a great step forward but sadly major manufacturers were slow to embrace the idea and it would be two more decades before the hub steered Yamaha GTS 1000 appeared.

For the first fifty years the business concentrated on selling and servicing British bikes but by the early sixties the first Japanese machines started to appear and in 1962 Difazio's became agents for Honda's; the bikes supplied via Len Meredith's in Bristol. Honda's were followed the following year by Suzuki and two years later by Yamaha.

The ruggedly constructed Suzuki two stroke triples and twins proved to be ideally suited to both road and race use especially when fitted with hub centre steering. Several were put through some searching tests by period motorcycle journalists; many who reaped high praise on the unusual looking bikes from Frome. Special mention was made of essentials like enclosed chains, a decent luggage carrying capacity and top notch handling and braking, items sadly lacking on most production machines of the period.
Suzuki, Honda, Triumph and several BMW twins received the hub steering makeover but with no major manufacturer picking up on the idea the operation was gradually run down and during the nineteen eighties the business turned its attention to specialising in the sale and repair of BMW twins.

As personal touring transport Richard had covered many thousands of miles touring on the Bavaria twins; experiences which quickly allowed Difazio's to become one of the UK's leading independent BMW dealerships.

During the last twenty years countless numbers of BMW's have been through our well equipped workshops and - as from the early days of the business - their riders have become friends and not just customers.

If you are looking for spares or a rebuild for your BMW then please give us a call on 01373 462913 and speak to Richard; we are open most weekday mornings but please check if travelling a long way as we close most afternoons and also at the weekend.

Happy motorcycling
Text by Andy Westlake andrewwestlake <at>

Difazio hub steering then and now

'If you're not part of the solution then you're part of the problem' Eldridge Cleaver

The 'problem' was that while the new breed of '70's superbikes offered previously unparalleled levels of engine performance, contemporary braking and handling were left floundering. It's perhaps no small wonder that because of their ability to tie themselves in knots certain machines earned notoriety: earning names like 'Flexi Flyer' and 'The widow maker'.

Whether manufacturers should lead through design innovation or be led by an often conservative bike buying public is open to debate but what is clear there was (and still is) a stubborn reluctance to move away from the ubiquitous telescopic front fork. In the early 1970's disc brakes were also in their infancy and if you've ever sampled one I'm sure that you'll agree their ability to stop 500lbs of metal - especially in the rain - was sadly lagging (excuse the pun) behind the engines rapid rate of acceleration. Tele's are cheap to make and to most people's eyes fairly aesthetically pleasing but they're easily affected - and sometimes badly influenced by heavy braking or heavy loads. If you've ever experienced fork stiction or gone into a tank slapper when carrying a load you'll know exactly what I mean!

Mainstream designers and manufacturers might have been 'the problem' but in Frome Jack Difazio presented the answer and possible 'solution' with his hub centre steering, a concept well-reported in period motorcycle magazines.

Searching for alternatives to the conventional girders or tele's wasn't something new though as from the early days there were individuals and small manufacturers like Ner-a-car who ploughed their own individual furrow. However during the next decade it would be the name of Difazio, who from his labyrinth of workshops behind 25 Catherine Street became synonymous with this trend setting and perhaps quirky alternative.

In total some fifty machines would be made - many of which survive to this day- so perhaps it's time to remind ourselves of how fifty years ago the first hub steerer came into being. Not through rose coloured spectacles or anecdotes but by talking to the man who designed and constructed them all and also to some of the enthusiasts who still own and ride these innovative machines.

To pre war grass track enthusiasts John Difazio became well known as a spectacular and tenacious rider aboard a Rudge Ulster: a bike he would also campaign immediately post war. - Incidentally he earned the name of 'Jack' when he started road racing- Later he progressed to solo and sidecar BSA's which showed some interesting modifications including a twin front brake and sported leading axle front forks on which he'd cut the spindle clamps and re welded them in front of the fork tubes. With decreased trail this made the bike much easier to steer and undoubtedly an improvement but as he told me he already was looking beyond the accepted norm'.

'The king pin set up had been around for years in cars so my idea was to graft a Reliant type single side swinging arm, suspended by a car shock absorber onto the front of the Gold Flash outfit. This left the wheel to turn and swivel on the king pin while steering direction was controlled by a pivoting rod which connected the bottom of the steering stem to a plate welded on the back of a Ford Prefect brake drum. The result was that all the bone jarring forces going through a conventional set of forks were done away with and the whole steering geometry became much more stable and consistent'.

Jack told me this in a rather matter of fact way but his modesty belies the many frustrating hours which went into designing and constructing this first machine: remember the only template or plans were those he carried in his head.

Jack and passenger Brian Sherwood raced the outfit on both grass tracks and road race circuits with considerable success but when son Richard started racing in 1959 he hung up his leathers and the outfit was bought and raced by the Body brothers. I also managed to talk to Henry Body and he told me some bone chilling tales of being high sided when, with the outfit broadsiding on full opposite lock they were spat off, often with painful results. The BSA twin engine would be later used in sidecars of Henry's own construction but the original Difazio hub steering chassis was kept and amazingly forty seven years later he's still got it!

It had been proven that hub centre steering worked but as Jack explained it would be another ten years before a solo was built.

'I was keen to build a solo but the main stumbling block was the fact that the brake drum and the king pin were always wanting to share the same space. It wasn't until the Rickman brothers started experimenting with disc brakes that I could see a way forward'.

That 'Eureka' moment suddenly came to Jack while he was on a Sunday drive near Stonehenge with wife Sylvia and he hastily scribbled his design on the back of an old envelope. Where it differed from the outfit was that it sported a twin sided swinging arm - not dissimilar to the rear - except that is was wider to allow for the wheel to turn from side to side. In the wheel there were two hubs held apart by ball bearing races with the swinging arm 'spindle' attached to a king pin located in the inner hub. The outer hub would carry the twin disc brakes and the inner hub the calliper anchors which would also serve as track rod ends for the steering mechanism. It might sound incredibly complicated but this belies its simplicity, and if you're still in any doubt as to how it works refer to the cut away illustration below.
'Of course disc brakes on motorcycles were very much in their infancy so I approached Lockheed for some technical help on my proposed twin disc set up. They were amazed when I said I was going to use two discs and replied earnestly that 'a single disc is the ultimate for any motorcycle'. I didn't take any notice of them and initially plumped for twin discs for no other reason than it gave a much better balanced look. The first hub was made from cast iron although all of the later ones were turned out of solid aluminium billet in our workshops.

The first rolling chassis was in fact a racer into which we slotted an ex Hailwood AJS 7R engine and a six speed gearbox. Richard raced it a couple of times at Thruxton and Cadwell Park but at that time the chassis was little more than a 'tub' so the 7R was rehoused in its original frame and I made another powered by a 500cc Suzuki. We took it to a windy Westonzoyland airfield for testing but it wouldn't track in a straight line: after a lot of head scratching we eventually overcame this by altering the angle of trail to 22 degrees. We were Suzuki agents at the time and they supplied us with a lot of tuning tips on how to bring the engines up to 'Daytona spec': the result was that it was turning out much the same power as a Manx Norton so at least we could be competitive'.

Jack told me enough tales from the racing days to fill an article on their own but it's now time to return to the first road bike - a bike which was being developed in tandem to the racer. It was powered by a Triumph Trident, a strange looking machine which I first saw as it whistled past my front door in Frome in the autumn of 1969. It would be my first -albeit brief at the time- association with hub steering and the rider with the pudding basin helmet although little could I have realised that 38 years later I would be writing an article about the same man and his unusual looking machines, or that I would own one.

No doubt when compared to what was deemed 'normal' Jacks bikes were undeniably different but remember he wasn't constrained by committees or convention: he had a clean sheet of paper and a very open mind. With a ready supply of the rugged 500cc Suzuki engines available the Trident was quickly followed by EYB 999J: a bike tested by several eminent contemporary motorcycle journalists and later sold to a customer in the USA. They discovered -and reacted enthusiastically - to a bike which at last covered some of the gaps between two and four wheels. Not that it was Jacks intention to create a two wheeled car but to introduce some of the niceties (essentials?) like weather protection, luggage space in the fairing, easy to use stands, single toggle switches, calibrated fuel gauge and fully enclosed drive chains which had been long overlooked or ignored. It wasn't just the press who reacted favourably to hub steering as the University of Manchester in England became interested and took one away to conduct a 500 mile handling and stability test.

The report makes for some interesting reading and their observations included
'Awkward low speed handling and limited steering lock, slight 'roll' under 20mph' above 20mph the situation was transformed. The front wheel took care of itself with the minimum of correction from the rider. Indeed up to 80mph the handlebars were almost superfluous and with the low air motion behind the windscreen riding was completely relaxed. One could almost indulge in secondary pastimes like glancing at a map or eating a sandwich in the 'cockpit'. The load carrying capacity of the machine was quite remarkable. 40lbs placed anywhere on the machine produced no detectable effect on stability'.

It concluded with
'The Difazio is the best overall machine currently available for high speed touring, by virtue of its high general stability, good handling, high comfort, excellent front brake and exceptional load capacity. Hub centre steering is one solution to the motorcycle stability problems that manufacturers will understandably not admit to or discuss openly'.
One might well imagine that armed with such endorsements hub steering might have been fully embraced by a major manufacturer but as history records it would be another two decades before Yamaha put a 'toe in the water' with its GTS 1000.

During the seventies however the Difazio workshops were forever busy and as previously mentioned approximately fifty machines were either converted from standard or built from the ground up. Remember that the whole process of making frames, turning hubs, laying fibre glass and assembly was all carried out by a small team which usually comprised of Jack, Trevor Burridge, Tim Tucker and Pat Hooper, very much a cottage industry if ever there was one?

It was impossible to maintain the momentum and over a period of time production was gradually wound down and by the early nineteen nineties the old workshops were facing the developers hammer. The moulds, machinery and all of the attendant hubs and spares could have been consigned to the local tip and hub steering to the history books but thankfully all was not lost. John Ransome - who had worked for Difazio's during the heyday of hub production - now ran his own motorcycle and car garage in the town and acquired all of the 'relics' although at that stage for what he wasn't clear. He was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the original machines were still running, indeed several of them were still owned by those who had commissioned them including local enthusiast Kevin Charles and his BSA Rocket three. With his cache of spares - allied to an upsurge of interest in hub centre steering in the classic press - John has now built two recreations of '70's racers, a 500cc Suzuki twin and the huge Laverda powered 'Nessie' endurance racer. [by Meade and Tomkinson. Ed]
I've been lucky enough to ride both of these on the race track and can vouch that he's done a superb job. Obviously building something from scratch with little more than a few photographs to work from would be extremely difficult but not a problem when the man who originally made them is still around. Not only is Jack a walking reference library his vitality and enthusiasm should an inspiration to us all. He regularly drives himself to John's workshop. Not to dwell on the past but to talk about the future - like addressing the technical problems of alloy welding - when affixing a hub to a Honda Fireblade: Jack Difazio was and still is at 93 a man of vision: As for the 'problem', yes it still exists!

It's an unashamed privilege to call Jack and his son Richard good friends and acknowledge in print how much they've have influenced my own motorcycling career. Big thanks also to Kevin and John for their ongoing enthusiasm and to all of the owners for their time and help in compiling this article.

The Survivors: the owners and their bikes

Kevin Charles BSA Rocket three
The only Rocket three to be fitted in a hub steerer - although there were four Triumph Tridents. Kevin has owned the bike since 1975 although he sold it in 1977 as a deposit on his first house but managed to buy it back 18 months later. Originally badged as a Triumph - later discovered to be a BSA of 1971 vintage- it was originally finished in white but following an accident when a myopic van driver reversed into it is now in the red sported by BSA racers from the early seventies. Regularly ridden on the continent its seen track action at Coupes Moto Legende and also at Cadwell Park for the BSA/Triumph triples annual rally.

Dave Ayesthorpe Honda Gold wing
One of only two Gold wings converted to hub steering its now covered well over 100,000 miles and all but 900 of them have been with Dave. He bought it in 1977 but it wasn't until 1985 it was fitted with hub centre steering, two years later it was involved in an accident which almost destroyed it (the other vehicle was) and a second hub fitted in 1987. With the four into four exhaust system it's probably one of the fruitiest sounding wings in existence and gets ridden in a very spirited manner. Occasionally has a change of tank and side panels so you can be never too sure what colour it's going to be next?

John May BMW R90S
John's started life fitted with one of the huge Falcon touring fairings but when he bought it was all a bit tatty and in need of refurbishment'. Incidentally he told me that such was its weight and complexity it took him and a friend three hours to remove it from its mountings! The Falcon might have been effective but it was not particularly pleasing to the eye and it's now been replaced by a non standard - but very much in keeping - seventies style top half fairing and finished in silver with gold pin striping it looks superb and has proven to be an excellent mile muncher.

Andy Westlake Suzuki GT550
Originally made up from a written off standard GT550K in 1973 it was first owned by RAF fitter Roger Margetts and featured in a Bike magazine article in 1974. The fairing which is a half way house between the giant Falcon and the sports is perhaps the best fitted on any hub steerer although the colour -which is original- is something of an acquired taste! Bought over the telephone for £1,500 when it came up for auction in 2005 it had only covered 17,000 miles from new and only required a new master cylinder to get it back on the road. Since recommissioning it's covered 4,000 trouble free miles in the last year.

Text by Andy Westlake andrewwestlake <at>

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