Berliner Motor Corporation

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Berliner Motor Corporation
FoundedNew York, NY USA 1951 (1951)
FounderBrothers Joseph and Michael Berliner
DefunctCirca 1984 (1984)
HeadquartersHasbrouck Heights, New Jersey[1]
Area served
North America
Key people
President Joseph Berliner, Vice President or Sales Manager Michael Berliner,[1] Director of Public Relations Walter von Schonfeld[1] Bob Blair Calif. Norton dealer and racing representative, Reno Leoni race bike builder sent by Ducati[2]
ServicesImport, distribution, and retail sale of European motorcycles in the USA
DivisionsPremier Motor Corporation (Moto Guzzi),[3][4] International Motorcycle Co. (Sachs and Zündapp),[1] J-Be,[5] J. B. Matchless Corporation (Matchless)[6]

Berliner Motor Corporation was the US distributor from the 1950s through the 1980s for several European motorcycle marques, including Ducati, J-Be,[5] Matchless, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Sachs and Zündapp, as well as selling Metzeler tires. Berliner Motor was highly influential as the voice of the huge American market to the motorcycle companies they bought bikes from, and their suggestions, and sometimes forceful demands, guided many decisions in Europe as to which bikes to develop, produce, or discontinue.

Joe Berliner [...] a man endowed with great decision-making power in Borgo Panigale

— Heritage Features and News. Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.[7]
Joseph and Michael Berliner at the Earl's Court Show, 1965


Joseph Berliner founded his motorcycle business in New York City distributing and repairing Zündapp motorcycles east of the Mississippi in 1951, using contacts with that German manufacturer he had developed before World War II. He was a Hungarian Jewish refugee from the Holocaust who had spent time in Hungarian slave labor camps, and had lost 16 close family members on arrival at Auschwitz. Michael Berliner, the youngest of 5 brothers, was saved only because Joseph, and another Berliner brother, both of whom the SS intended to exploit for their skill as mechanics, convinced them that young Michael, too, was a mechanic. The Berliner brothers survived by maintaining a fleet of German army trucks. One brother would die of hunger and typhus, leaving only Joseph, Michael, and two other siblings alive after the war.

Prior to the Holocaust, Joseph Berliner worked in his father's radio-bicycle-motorcycle shop, and had received schooling in mechanics and business. After the war he assisted in Jewish relief in Frankfurt, Germany, and was able to find his wife who had been liberated by the Swedish Red Cross. As the sons of a Hungarian anti-Communist World War I war hero, the brothers feared returning to their Soviet-controlled homeland,[8] and so emigrated to the US.

Motorcycles inspired[edit]

1974 Moto Guzzi Eldorado imported by Berliner



  • Joseph Berliner taken to slave labor camp.[24]



  • Emigrated to the US.


  • Distributed Zündapp East of the Mississippi.


  • Took over International Motorcycle Company, where Joseph Berliner had previously been a partner, including their US distributorship of Zündapp.[25]






  • Evel Knievel's new motorcycle stunt troupe secured the sponsorship of Berliner Motor Corporation, who supplied them with a fleet of Norton Scramblers. In one version of the origin of stage name "Evel Knievel," it was Bob Blair of Berliner Motor Corporation who encouraged using the nickname rather than Bobby Knievel.[29]


  • Berliner Motor abruptly refused an entire shipment of over 3,000 Ducati motorcycles they had ordered, as the stocks they had on hand were not selling quickly. To get themselves off the hook from Ducati, they turned to Associated Motor Cycles (AMC) in the UK, and used the leverage of the vast USA market they controlled, informing AMC that they would be needing no more of the struggling factory's Matchless motorcycles unless AMC found someone to purchase the unwanted Ducati shipment. The effect of Berliner's actions rippled through the UK motorcycle world, as this was a sizable flood of stock to enter the smaller, and already soft, UK market. The existing, formerly exclusive, Ducati distributor refused to sell parts to anyone whose bike had been purchased from what they saw as an illegitimate player in the field. These events are related by author Mick Walker, so as to explain how Walker got his start as a Ducati dealer when he came to purchase a substantial portion of this shipment in an effort to secure parts to aid the needy population of orphaned UK Ducati owners.[30]


  • Moto Guzzi distributorship changes hands to Benelli/Moto Guzzi North America.[31]
  • Berliner Motor Corporation is out of business.

Influence and legacy[edit]

The Berliner company is recognized by motorcycling pundits and historians as having an influence on the manufacturers they bought bikes from in proportion to the greater size of the American market to the other markets around the world, particularly during the 1950s and 60s. There is wide agreement that "bureaucrats" and "government" are the villains when the factories failed or nearly failed (as all of brands Berliner represented did at some point), as opposed to universally praised figures such as designer Fabio Taglioni.

Some place Berliner Motor Corporation squarely in the camp of those who were bringing disaster, for being "dollars and cents" businessmen. Author John F. Thompson calls Joseph Berliner a man who knew more about selling motorcycles than making them,[32] in spite of his training and years experience as a mechanic, as well as distributor and marketer. Ian Falloon is highly critical of the low-cost pushrod two- and four-stroke single-cylinder models which Berliner demanded for their American customers, calling the entire sector "oddballs" and "dubious," while acknowledging that they did sell in far larger numbers than the much more expensive and highly labor-intensive bevel and desmo engines, whose design required production-limiting processes like shimming by skilled craftsmen.[33] Falloon also admits that the Berliner brainchild Ducati Scrambler single was the most successful Ducati of the 60s and early 70s. On the other side, racer, dealer, and author Mick Walker is critical of the Italian executives' decision to end production of the entry-level singles and two-strokes in the 1970s, arguing, alongside the Berliners, that the brand's customer base would decline if they only catered to the demand for expensive, high-performance machines, while not also attracting new riders and earning their brand loyalty.

The Berliner Motor Corporation's obsession with entering the large and profitable US police motorcycle market against Harley-Davidson is characterized as folly for the unrealistic specification that Berliner demanded of the Ducati Apollo, yet authors like Falloon laud the Apollo for vision of this very specification. The Apollo engine, in V-twin form, would in fact become the heart of Ducatis for the following four decades. Similarly, the Berliners pushed Moto Guzzi to create a big v-twin for the American police market, and had greater success with the production of the Moto Guzzi V7. Like Ducati, this engine type would carry Moto Guzzi from those days up to the present day, and Moto Guzzi in the end found many police department customers for their version of the Berliner dream bike.[34][35]


  1. ^ a b c d "200 BMC Dealers Attend School", American Motorcycling, Westerville, Ohio: American Motorcyclist Association, vol. 19, no. 2, p. 14, February 1965, ISSN 0277-9358, retrieved 2009-04-13
  2. ^ Cameron, Kevin (1998), Top Dead Center, St Paul, MN: MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, pp. 180–202, ISBN 0-7603-2727-0, retrieved 2009-04-22
  3. ^ Walker, Mick (2004-07-01), Moto Guzzi Twins Restoration: All Moto Guzzi V-Twins, 1965-2000, MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, p. 11, ISBN 0-7603-1986-3, retrieved 2009-04-13
  4. ^ Grub, Jake (April 1974), "PM's Guide to the gas-thrifty '74, get-there machines.", Popular Mechanics, Hearst Magazines, vol. 141, no. 4, p. 87, ISSN 0032-4558, retrieved 2009-04-13
  5. ^ a b Tragatsch, Erwin (1964), The world's motorcycles, 1894-1963: a record of 70 years of motorcycle production, Temple Press, p. 86, J-BE. Berliner Motor Corporation, Railroad Street and Plant Road, Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. The J-Be stands for Joe Berliner, the owner of the company who is a leading importer of European machines in America. The J-Be machines were built for this company by a leading German manufacturer and are equipped with 100- and 125-c.c. Fictel & Sachs two-stroke engines.
  6. ^ a b "1963 Matchless Models Introduced", Cycle, Los Angeles, December 1962, During the recent visit to the United States of Matchless Motorcycles Limited Managing Directors, J.B. Smith and A.A. Sugar, arrangements were completed for the sole distribution of Matchless Motorcycles in the United States by the J. B. Matchless Corporation of Hasbrouck Heights, N. J. They visited the West Coast with Mr. Joe Berliner, President of Berliner Motor Corporation, U. S. Norton distributors -- who is also president of the newly formed J. B. Matchless Corporation.
  7. ^ "An Outline of the Apollo's Story". Heritage Features and News. Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A. 2009. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 2009-04-14. In 1963 Joe Berliner, the only official Ducati importer in the United States since 1958, and a man endowed with great decision-making power in Borgo Panigale, decided to begin the construction of a new 1200 cc motorcycle, initially conceived as a potential competitor to Harley-Davidson (which was used in those days by American police) and later as a motorcycle to present to customers across the ocean.
  8. ^ Thompson, Jon F.; Bonnello, Joe (1998), Ducati, Enthusiast Color Series, Osceola, WI: MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, p. 16, ISBN 0-7603-0389-4, retrieved 2009-04-22, With their father, the pair operated a small store in Budapest that sold radios, sewing machines, bicycles, and Zundapp motorcycles. At the end of the war there was no question of returning to Budapest and the business. Their father had been an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, and a fervent anti-Communist. With the Soviet Union in control of Hungary following World War II, says Michael Berliner, now retired in New Jersey, 'We couldn't stay in Hungary.'
  9. ^ "1963 - Apollo". Heritage. Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A. 2009. Archived from the original on 19 May 2008. Retrieved 2009-04-14. In 1963, the Berliner brothers (Ducati importers in America), gave Ducati a really ambitious mission: to create a rival to the Harley-Davidson. Probably this bike, whose technical specifications were almost freakish for the time (and would still be so today), was thought of as an alternative for police departments around the U.S.: the idea of this quantity of orders drove American importers wild.
  10. ^ Cathcart, Alan (May–June 2009), "Ducati's amazing 1,260cc V4 Apollo", Motorcycle Classics, Few motorcycles ever built have enjoyed as mythical a reputation as the Ducati Apollo, a failed Italian attempt at a Harley-style cruiser for the American market. [...] Joe Berliner was convinced of the potential of the U.S. police market, especially since U.S. anti-trust legislation required police departments consider bikes other than Harley-Davidsons. Official police department specifications were increasingly standardized across the U.S., favoring the large-capacity Harleys. [...] the brothers' only stipulation was that the bike have an engine bigger than anything in Harley's range.
  11. ^ Falloon, Ian (2006), The Ducati Story: Racing and Production Models from 1945 to the Present Day (4th ed.), Haynes, p. 42, ISBN 978-1-84425-322-7, At the instigation of Joe Berliner, Ducati was commissioned to build a police bike that could compete with Harley-Davidson.
  12. ^ Thompson, Jon F.; Bonnello, Joe (1998), Ducati, MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, p. 46, ISBN 0-7603-0389-4, 80-horsepower, 1,260-cc contraption called the Apollo. It was done as a prototype police motorcycle for the Berliners, who were looking to attract police business away from Harley-Davidson.
  13. ^ Falloon, Ian (2006), The Ducati 750 Bible, Veloce Publishing Ltd, p. 46, ISBN 1-84584-012-7, retrieved 2009-04-15, The US distributor Berliner had traditionally influenced the direction of Ducati's production line-up. It was instrumental in the creation of the Apollo, the fan-cooled two-strokes, and the Ducati 450 R/T, and as such, was indirectly responsible for the dire financial crisis Ducati was faced with at the end of the 1960.
  14. ^ Walker, Mick (2002), Illustrated Ducati Buyer's Guide (3rd ed.), MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, p. 13, ISBN 0-7603-1309-1, retrieved 2009-04-28, The first 85, the N, appeared late in 1958, a strange mishmash from the Ducati parts bins -- frame from the 125 TV, forks from a 98 S, and an engine based on the three-speed 65 unit! Hardly a potion to set the motorcycling scene alight. the 85 T came in 1959 and this had a new tank (similar to the early Monza 250) and larger 130mm headlight. [...] The Bronco was the final model. It first appeared in 1960 expressly for the north American Market. It was basically an 85T, but with four speeds, dual-seat, and high, wide bars.
  15. ^ Walker, Mick (1997), Ducati Singles: All Two-And Four-Stroke Single-Cylinder Motorcycles, Including Mototrans - 1945 Onwards (2nd ed.), London: Osprey Pub Co, p. 18, ISBN 978-1-85532-717-7
  16. ^ " -- Photogallery". The Ducati Story 5. Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A. 2009. Archived from the original on 2011-09-28. Retrieved 2009-04-14. Berliner had great vision. It was due to him that Ducati began production of the 250 Scrambler in 1964.
  17. ^ Giulio, Decio; Carugati, Decio G. R.; Sadleir, Richard (2001), Ducati: Design and Emotion, MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, p. 64, ISBN 0-7603-1199-4, In 1961 the 250cc version of the Scrambler fulfilled the dream of Ducati lovers across the Atlantic, thanks to its importer Joe Berliner; this was even before it was marketed in Europe, where it arrived later among the symbols of the American dream. "In the 1965s-'60s Joe Berliner was far and away the best of Ducati's customers," states Livio Lodi, "and so he had the power to influence the firms policies. He encouraged the project of an all-purpose bike that would appeal to young people but also revive the youth of the not-so-young. Remember that in those years in Europe and above all in Italy, the utilitarie like the new Fiat 500 penalized sales of motorbikes with medium-large engines. Berliner knew that in the states cars would never affect motorcycles sales, the two market segments were nurtured by completely different dreams..." Page 102: "But while Ducati owed the Scrambler to the insistence of Joe Berliner, the firm's American importer, the Monster was the fruit of the intuition of Miguel ..."
  18. ^ Woollett, Mick (2004), Norton: The Complete Illustrated History, MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, ISBN 0-7603-1984-7, ...following requests from the go-ahead Berliner brothers in America, a 750 cc twin named Atlas was shown for the first time at Earls Court late in 1962, just before Nortons moved.
  19. ^ AMC/Norton Hybrids, AJS & Matchless Owners Club, North American Section, 2002, archived from the original on 2008-12-27, Joe Berliner (or so the story goes) persuaded Bob Blair of ZDS Motors to combine the G15 power train with the lightweight G85CS chassis to produce the final, and most sought-after hybrid - the Norton P11/P11A/Ranger 750 series. As Joe Berliner was by far and away the biggest customer for AMC machinery, the factory lost little time in accommodating his demand for factory-built machines to this specification, and the Norton (or Matchless, according to one sales brochure) P11 was made available for export for 1967 and the early part of '68.
  20. ^ Falloon, Ian (2007), The Moto Guzzi Sport & Le Mans Bible, Veloce Publishing Ltd, p. 16, ISBN 978-1-84584-064-8, Soon after joining Moto Guzzi, Tonti set about developing the V7. At the time the United States was the largest market for the model but Berliner, the US importer, wanted a larger capacity motorcycle. The V7 proved too slow in police acceleration tests, and Berliner needed a faster machine to secure the big police contracts. Guzzi responded by sending two tuned 750s to the US, specifically for police speed trials, and quickened development of the 750.
  21. ^ Field, Greg (1998), Moto Guzzi Big Twins, MBI Pub., p. 18, ISBN 0-7603-0363-0, About the same time as the Apollo production deal fell through, Joe Berliner first set eyes on an interesting new project from his other Italian affiliate. On a visit to the Moto Guzzi factory, Berliner was shown a prototype of the new V700 and realized immediately the possibilities. Before him was a motorcycle that struck an almost perfect balance between the too-massive Harley and the reliable but anemic BMW. To Berliner, it must have seemed that Guzzi engineers had read his mind. He is reputed to have exclaimed, 'Build it for us. Now! ' While Moto Guzzi had no doubt been considering the possibilities of a civilian version of its new military/police prototype, this was just the push the nearly bankrupt company needed to make the civilian V700 a reality.
  22. ^ Ric Anderson and Richard Backus (November–December 2005). "1972 Moto Guzzi Eldorado". Motorcycle Classics. Retrieved 2009-08-18.
  23. ^ Falloon, Ian (2007), The Moto Guzzi Sport & Le Mans Bible, Veloce Publishing Ltd, p. 81, ISBN 978-1-84584-064-8, As the high compression, big valve, 850cc engine couldn't satisfy US emission standards imposed on motorcycles manufactured after January 1, 1978, a specific Le Mans was created for the US for 1979. American buyers also required larger displacement engines, and the importer, Berliner, asked for a 1000cc Le Mans.
  24. ^ a b Brown, Barry (April 1966), "The Mystical, Magical Motorcycle [column]", Car and Driver Magazine, vol. 11, no. 10, pp. 20–24, ISSN 0008-6002, [Joseph Berliner said,] 'One Sunday in 1941, I was dragged from my home in chains and taken to a slave labor camp. During the years 1941 to 1944 I spent 14 months in this camp, on and off.' Then came the occupation by units of the German Army.
  25. ^ "Joseph Berliner Acquires U.S. Distributorship of Zundapp", American Motorcycling, Westerville, Ohio: American Motorcyclist Association, no. 1, p. 27, April 1957, ISSN 0277-9358, retrieved 2009-04-13
  26. ^ Thompson, Jon F.; Bonnello, Joe (1998), Ducati, Enthusiast Color Series, Osceola, WI: MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, p. 15, ISBN 0-7603-0389-4, retrieved 2009-04-22, Even as Ducati struggled to increase production of road bikes, it expanded its dealer network through Europe and as far afield as Australia, Asia, and Europe. In the United States, however, Ducati remained largely unknown. That was soon to change [in 1958], thanks to a pair of enterprising brothers who didn't know a lot about motorcycles, but who knew a great deal about how to sell them-- so much so that they helped shape Ducati's product for decades.
  27. ^ "JERSEY FACTORY FIGURES IN DEAL; Hasbrouck Heights Plant Taken by Auto Concern -- Leases at Teaneck", The New York Times, p. 56, 1959-11-04, Nov 4, 1959 - The one - story industrial building containing 20000 square feet of floor space at Plant Road and Railroad Avenue, Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, has been purchased by the Berliner Motor Corporation, formerly of New York.
  28. ^ "Berliner Named Sole Norton Distributor", American Motorcycling, American Motorcyclist Association, vol. 15, no. 10, p. 40, October 1961, ISSN 0277-9358, retrieved 2009-04-15, The Berliner Motor Corp., following their successful appointment as sole distributor of Norton motorcycles for the 25 Easter states plus Colorado, Kansas and Washington last year, have now been appointed Norton's sole distributor for the entire United States.
  29. ^ Barker, Stuart (2008), Life of Evel: Evel Knievel, Macmillan, p. 44, ISBN 978-0-312-54735-6, retrieved 2009-12-13
  30. ^ Walker, Mick (1997), Ducati Singles: All Two-And Four-Stroke Single-Cylinder Motorcycles, Including Mototrans - 1945 Onwards (2nd ed.), London: Osprey Pub Co, ISBN 978-1-85532-717-7
  31. ^ "Tire Kickin': Guzzi Gratification", American Motorcyclist, American Motorcyclist Association, vol. 38, no. 3, p. 60, March 1984, ISSN 0277-9358, retrieved 2009-04-15, Guzzi gratification -- Benelli/Moto Guzzi North America, a division of Maserati Automobiles Inc., will now import and distribute Moto Guzzi motorcycles and replacement parts. A result of the changeover from Berliner Motors of New Jersey, according to George Garbutt, president of Maserati, is an expanded motorcycle parts inventory and, possibly, a larger dealer network.
  32. ^ Thompson, Jon F.; Bonnello, Joe (1998), Ducati, MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, p. 46, ISBN 0-7603-0389-4
  33. ^ Falloon, Ian (2006), The Ducati Story: Racing and Production Models from 1945 to the Present Day (4th ed.), Haynes, p. 42, ISBN 978-1-84425-322-7, [chapter title]Oddballs. [...] These outnumbered the entire line of ohc bikes, both in production and model range. [...] they were the result of poor management decisions. As would happen in the future, Taglioni refused to be involved with most of these projects, and he was ultimately proved right.
  34. ^ Walker, Mick (2004-07-01), Moto Guzzi Twins Restoration: All Moto Guzzi V-Twins, 1965-2000, Osceola, WI: Published by MotorBooks/MBI Publishing Company, p. 11, ISBN 0-7603-1986-3, 1969 saw the introduction of the V7 Special, which would use the larger 757cc (83 x 70 mm) version of the 90 degree V-twin. In the North American market the Special sold under the Ambassador label. where Guzzi imports were handled by the Premier Motor Corporation (part of the Berliner Group)
  35. ^ "Ducati Motorcycle History". Ducati Trader Ducati Motorcycle Classifieds. Ducati Moto Corse Performance of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Archived from the original on May 5, 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-22. The Berliner Brothers, who took on the US Ducati franchise in the late 1950s, brought an american-style flair to the company. The Berliner corporation, because of the brothers' forceful personalities, began playing an increasingly important role in the direction the bologna company would take.Though this ultimately ended up having disastrous consequences for all concerned, in the short run it secured for Ducati a much larger slice of the U.S. market than they would otherwise have had.