On yer bike: Corro Pietro Castellani

With business operations curtailed by the nation-wide lockdown, FMM Curator Wayne Harley continues his series of recollections of South Africa’s motorcycling heroes…

It’s amazing how sometimes you come across a person in history who captures your imagination and draws you into a bygone era that makes you wonder just what was it like back then? Corro Pietro Castellani – or ‘Bepe’ as he was more commonly known to everyone – was such a figure.

Bepe was born in 1916 in the gold mining town of Nigel, south-east of the city of Johannesburg.  His Italian immigrant parents unfortunately died while Bepe and his brother Lou were both young, and the boys were both adopted but by different families. Bepe kept his surname while Lou took his adoptive parent’s surname of Cantamessa. Although there is very little known of Bepe’s life growing up, we know he grew up in Nigel and later became a builder in the area, where another interesting personality of the time, Cranley Jarman, also lived. Cranley, who was the subject of last month’s On Yer Bike, was a motorcycle mechanic and tuning wizard and for many years he was Bepe’s personal race mechanic, and it is claimed that he helped Bepe to six South African road racing titles. However, courtesy of research by Wendy Monk and Roger McCleery, we have been able to confirm four of these national titles and twice being awarded his Springbok Colours. Incidentally, Lou most likely would also have been involved as he turned out to be a very accomplished motorcycle racer as well.

At the age of 20, Bepe had become quite the racer and his first recorded success was a 2nd place at the 1936 Blue Riband race at Brandkop in Bloemfontein. Two years later he won the Nigel 100, an event he would go on to win five times. WW2 put a stop to motor sport for a while, but afterwards it didn’t take Bepe long to continue in his race winning ways. By May 1948, Bepe had won his first South African title on a 500cc Norton. He repeated the feat in 1949 and 1950, becoming the first South African rider to win a hat-trick of titles. It would take him another seven years plus an attempt at an international career in 1956, before switching from the Norton to a Matchless G45 to win his fourth South African title in 1957.

World Motorcycle GP champion Jim Redman wrote in his book that in the 1957 season he was beaten by Castellani, who he described as being “just untouchable”. As a matter of interest, the Matchless G45 Bepe used that season was auctioned by Bonham’s in Las Vegas in 2018 for $60 000. In 1958, Ecurie Sportive Norton and Stan Hailwood, father of the infamous Mike ‘the bike’ Hailwood, sponsored Bepe with a bike to ride in the Isle Of Man TT, but due to an old injury from a previous race Bepe couldn’t complete the TT and retired on lap five. He continued racing until 1959 and along the way he would rack up a few more fastest laps together with a couple of podium finishes.

The other two titles that legend accredits him with we weren’t able to trace. However, it was documented that Bepe also campaigned a 350cc AJS 7R from 1948 until the mid-50s, and it might be in this class that the other South African titles were obtained. Hopefully, one of our readers may be able to either confirm or dispel these titles.

These titans from a golden era of motor sport are somewhat different, and I often wonder where their inspiration came from, as there was no-one before them to model themselves on; certainly there was no TV, YouTube or glossy magazines to highlight their achievements.

Bepe Castellani passed away at his home in Nigel in 2003. He was 87 years old.

(Photo credits: Ken MacLeod, Classic Car Africa Winter 2004 edition, and the Rob Young Collection.)