This Restored Fantic Caballero 50 Is A 1970s Dream Realized In 2020
Photography by Andrea Casano
Making the step up from riding a bicycle to a scooter is a big moment in the life an Italian motorhead, and it has been that way since the earliest Vespas and Lambrettas and Piggios started to flitting around our city streets and cobbled alleyways in the wake of WWII.
For many—for this is certainly not unique to the Italian experience—a scooter represents the same expansive feeling of freedom that a first car does, but there is a difference in context. A first car conjures plans for cross-country road trips and backseat trysts at scenic parking spots along the way; there is a general sense of exploration involved.
A scooter does not lend itself to long trips on the open road like a car does, but scooters have a special ability to make cruising around your hometown feel like an adventure every bit as meaningful. The first time that you can go wherever you want ,whenever you feel like it thanks to an engine and a bit of gas money, that freedom is strong enough to put familiar surroundings into a totally new perspective.
Regardless of how far you travel though, have a scooter is very much like having a car in one key way: it’s not long before you want something faster and prettier. This is not to suggest that every Vespa enthusiast secretly yearns to ride Ducati sport bikes instead, but back as the owner of the machine pictured here tells me, nearly every scooter-riding teenager in the 1970s wanted to a 50cc “mini cross.”
A sort of middle tier between a scooter and a true motorbike, these mini crosses leaned toward the latter, sharing aesthetics and mechanical systems more in line with full-size motocross bikes than your typical scooter. Examples like this Fantic Caballero 50 were beloved for their alluring mixture of style, ability, and price, and as such it’s easy to see why they were more than just a toy for adolescents. Add in the nostalgia factor that comes with a half-century of time, and you’ll find there are plenty of adult enthusiasts who have yet to “outgrow” these wonderfully fun pieces of moto engineering.
Take my friend Renato for example. He is one of the foremost parquet craftsmen in Milan, owns a beautiful collection of vintage motorcycles, and has the know-how and appreciation required to restore them from the ground up on his own. He is a former Alfa Romeo mechanic, has a boundless passion for motorcycles, and a particular fondness for motocross. This is clearly not a teenager scraping together first-job money for a mini cross bike, and yet the last time I visited him he was in the midst of a very thorough restoration of this, a 1974 Fantic Caballero.
I had asked Renato for the chance to follow along with him during one of his motorcycle restorations, and a few days before Italy was quarantined, I received a call from him: “I have something for you!”
As soon as he opened the door to his garage “office,” I found in front of me the chassis of a beautiful Fantic Caballero, with only wheels and a headlight attached to the frame. As Renato tells me, it came to him in an even less complete state, seeing as the previous owner had dismantled it down to the last bolt and put it all in a box. He wasn’t planning to restore it afterwards though, he simply tore it down so it would fit in his car to take to the dump. As you can tell, Renato saved it.
“I did not lose a second once I found out about it. We did the transfer of ownership and I loaded it on the carrier and brought home the same day,” he tells me.
I’m sure you can imagine that rebuilding something from its smallest pieces is not a simple task, and it’s only made more challenging when its something vintage and parts are harder to come by. “But in this case, I was lucky”, Renato explains, “because except for a few small things, the pieces were all there.”
Still, time and effort is required, and when I ask him for his reason for going through with this project he shares it with an almost wistful smile. “When I turned 14 and it was time to upgrade from my bicycle, I had repeatedly asked my father if he would buy the Caballero, but there was no way!
So when I turned 14 I found a beautiful Vespa 50, which I have jealously kept all this time, and it dutifully accompanied me throughout my adolescence. But the dream of owning a Caballero never left my head.”
As he’s talking I start to look around the garage and plan my photos, and I am struck by the juxtaposition of the precious woods that Renato uses for his job and the engine components arranged on one of the work benches for his restoration hobby. A crankshaft, a piston, an ashtray, it is almost as if it has all been arranged perfectly here for a photoshoot to capture the romance of Italian dedication to a craft. But it has not been set up to look a certain way, there is no contrivance here, it is simply the rare instance of truth. He is no poser.
Slowly smoking a cigarette as he aligns the recently rebuilt four-speed gearbox, it feels like I’m looking at the past instead of something right in front of me. There is nothing particularly grand or extravagantly complicated going on, but there is a form of gravitas in this moment all the same; an authentically old school way of being.
The bike itself is equipped with the two-stroke 49cc motor made by Minarelli Motors of Bologna, with a motocross suspension setup , and as Renato tells me, the Caballero second series was available in two versions, the first with the classic four-speed gearbox, and another with the novelty of six-speed. Originally equipped, according to the Highway Code, with a 14mm Dell’Orto carburetor, it immediately became the habit of riders to change these out for 19mm versions, which the company reportedly also used on export models.
Renato also informs me that it takes very little to improve the performance, like changing out the original exhaust—most usually opt for a Proma setup—along with a small adjustment to the carburetion, to get the Fantic up to a 120km/h top speed. Nothing crazy in absolute terms, but a small machine like this at motorway pace is no joke—especially when riding it someplace else.
The restoration of a motorcycle is not a single-day activity, and it’s no different for a mini cross. I happened to catch him on the day of the first startup, but he was quick to point out that when these photos were taken the Caballero was still missing its original exhaust and a livery on the tank that indicates the model. As we know, we are never truly “done” with the machines we love.
As he started to organize his parts and tools in preparation for the first firing of the engine, he shares a couple of anecdotes from when he was a kid, a time when Renato and all his friend used to bring their motorcycles and Vespas to him for some modifications. “Milan, as in the rest of Italy, was invaded by Vespas. And though it was seemingly impossible not to see one on the street, it was even harder to find one that was completely original.”
With the oil and gasoline mixture prepped and our fingers crossed, we arrived at the moment of truth, ignition. The Caballero fired almost instantly on the first attempt, and Renato was already tweaking the carburetion. Seeing him happily bent over on his knees gleefully playing with the bike he built brought his stories of adolescent tinkering into a live retelling.
The smell of the fuel mixture is strong, the sound is overpoweringly echoed, and the haze of the two-stroke’s output is obscuring our faces in the garage interior, but I think you can picture the look on our faces.