Retrospective: Condor A350: 1973-1978
March 21, 2006
Filed under Retro + Vintage Motorcycle Reviews
(This Retrospective article appeared in the March 2006 issue of Rider.)
Probably few of you readers have any idea what a Condor 350 is…unless you have been browsing through encyclopedias about motorcycles.
Condor was a Swiss motorcycle company, and the A350, which used a non-desmo, OHC Ducati 350 single, was built for the Swiss army. Condor built a remarkably tough cradle frame around this motor, and rubber mounted the engine to ensure that a rider could spend all day on the motorcycle and not get tired. This was all good military thinking; reliability and usability were the keys here, not razor-sharp handling.
I should begin with a few words about the Swiss motorcycle industry. Most Americans, when asked about Swiss manufactured products, think about expensive watches, cuckoo clocks and multibladed pocket knives. That small country also had a long, rich history in the manufacture of motorcycles, however, with more than 60 motorcycle companies starting up since 1900.
One of which was Condor, a company that began by building lightweight motorbikes in 1901, and 10 years later was making larger motorcycles, using proprietary engines of up to 1,000cc bought from other companies. After World War II—with most motorcycle manufacturing plants in the countries around Switzerland bombed to rubble—Condor began constructing its own motors, first an opposed side-valve twin of 600cc, lastly a 250 single. It went back to buying proprietary engines in the 1960s.
At that time Condor had a contract with the Swiss army to provide motorcycles with military specs, and anyone who has visited Switzerland can understand the usefulness of nimble two-wheelers in getting around the mountains and through the cities.
To power those 1960s motorcycles the Condor company made a business deal with Ducati to provide its 250cc OHC single-cylinder engine, while Condor would build the chassis. These engines were known as the “narrow-case” variety, and in the late ’60s Ducati revamped the singles into the “wide-case” version…narrow and wide essentially refer to the placement of the engine mounts. Probably the biggest advantage of this wide design was the strengthened kickstart mechanism, which had always been a weak point with the narrow-case models. Condor decided to upgrade to the 350 size; no desmodromics, thank you, the spring-valve version will do very nicely. Which brings us to this A350 model.
Ducati had been producing these unit-construction OHC singles since the late 1950s, and eventually the size range went from a diminutive 98cc to 436cc. The design for all models was basically the same, a wet-sump engine with a bevel-driven overhead camshaft. The 350 that the Condor used was a detuned version based on the sporting Mark 3 engine, with a nearly square bore of 76mm, stroke of 75mm and a compression ratio of 8.2:1; the carburetor was a 27mm Dell’Orto. The fuel flowed down to the float bowl via gravity, so the rider was wise to turn off the petcock when stopped for any length of time. A mild camshaft was used, and the engine produced a maximum of 25 horsepower at 7,500 rpm. The exhaust’s header pipe and muffler were coated with a dull whitish aluminum paint so that they would not reflect light; remember, this is equipment that should be discreet, not flashy.
Ignition was 6-volt, using a battery and coil; the generator could kick out a maximum of 70 watts. Primary drive was by gears, with the kickstarter on the left side—just to confuse the Brits and Yanks. The power went through a multi-plate clutch and a five-speed gearbox, with the final drive by chain. A larger rear sprocket lowered the gearing a little from what would be considered stock, all the better with which to climb mountains.
Maintenance was simple and quick. The cylinder head had two small covers, one for each valve. Pop off the cover, note the mousetrap-style valve springs, adjust the tappet clearance via the screw-and-locknut, button it back up. A paper element inside the right side panel kept the worst of the dust out of the carburetor; take off the panel, unscrew one bolt, and the filter could be cleaned by compressed air, or banging it on a rock. Condor added an oil filter to the lubrication system, mounted out in the open on the left side of the engine—a good touch to ensure longevity.
Of more interest is the chassis. A big double-cradle frame surrounded the engine, and a five-point attachment arrangement used rubber mounts, rather like the Norton Commando’s Isolastic system. The dispatch rider could ride in comfort all day long. The front fork was basic Marzocchi, with no adjustments, while the rear shocks varied according to supplier. On this particular model they are Koni Series D, with spring-preload adjustability. The wheelbase was a short 55 inches, while ground clearance was almost 7 inches.
The 18-inch spoked wheels were not quite quick-detach variety, but the sprocket did stay on the swingarm when the rear wheel was removed, a big help when fixing a flat. Tires were a 3.25 on the front, 3.50 on the rear. The single-leading-shoe brakes worked fine, but served as a reminder not to go too terribly fast while descending from the 5,800-foot Col de la Croix pass when taking a message from Villars to Gstaad. The bike came with both a centerstand and a sidestand, but the latter is missing on this imported model; owner Chris is having one made up. Instrumentation consisted of a 140-kph speedometer, and charging and oil lights. Fueled up, the A350 weighed in at 375 pounds.
The military aspect is all over. The manual under the seat is in three languages, French, Italian and German—all three are spoken in Switzerland. Brackets for holding rifles are fitted on both sides of the saddle, so rider and passenger are suitably armed. A pair of small saddlebags can hold dispatches, and a luggage rack is useful for carrying a crate of grenades.
Three thousand A350s were made for the Swiss army over the six years of its production, and then in 1978 the factory closed its doors. Most of these little workhorses stayed on the job until 2001, when the usually independent Swiss decided to rely on their northern neighbor for motorcycles, and the army switched over to BMW 650s.