Andrew English: “Saluti Moto Guzzi, here’s to the next 100 years…”

Andrew English

01 Sep 2021

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Moto Guzzi is the oldest motorcycle maker in continuous production, and this year is celebrating 100 years of making bikes. Long-time owner and lover of all thing Guzzi, Andrew English ponders the lore of these legendary machines.

Moto Guzzi is 100 years old, hurrah! As well as being a pretty important watershed, Guzzi is Europe’s oldest motorcycle maker in continuous production. 


What’s more, in all that time this Eagle-badged bike maker has been building its machines in the same place, a tiny factory in Mandello Del Lario on the shores of Lake Como in Northern Italy, with a tiny wind tunnel tucked into the site in 1950. 


So, crack open the vintage Franciacorta and wind up the wind tunnel, this should be a grande celebrazione, which is exactly what Moto Guzzi’s owner Piaggio was planning. 


But then Covid came along and everything has been scaled back and deferred including my ambitious plan to ride my cherished but crochety near 50-year-old Moto Guzzi V7 Sport machine down to participate in the Italian festival of all things Moto Guzzi. 



But what is the appeal of these strange but compelling machines? Here we turn to Nigel Billingsley, a renowned Black Country Guzzi specialist and doyen of Guzzi lore. 


“I had a customer with a California, an Italian chap with his own way with the English language,” he says. “I asked him about the appeal of the Guzzi and he said: ‘it’s like a farm gate’. 


“Well, I’ve thought a lot about that over the years, and I think what he meant was that they were unflashy, without the flair of companies like Ducati or Benelli, but always there and dependable, if you see what I mean.” 


Billingsley works out of an equal-parts charming and ramshackle former army workshop near Stafford. He acknowledges that the race-track glory days of the company are back in the Fifties with the single-cylinder machines, but says the big vee twins are starting to be appreciated and prices are rising. 


“Machines like the V7 Sport and Le Mans were far superior to any Ducati in their day,” he says, “but they just didn’t have the flair. I suppose if it doesn’t catch on, it doesn’t catch on, but it wasn’t until the Le Mans came along that they really started to be appreciated as sporting machines.



“They’ve had a bad press over the years being linked with electrical trouble, but in fact they are very reliable and trouble-free, and most of the electrics are from Bosch which were also fitted to BMWs of the time. The trouble is when the prices were low the bikes fell into the hands of messers and bodgers, so there’s lots of poorly-maintained machines out there.”


“The funny thing is, the company’s always been in and out of financial mess; it’s amazing it’s still in existence, and a miracle it’s made it to 100.”


While Moto Guzzi’s long history is convoluted and as Billingsley says, often shrouded in financial woes, perhaps that’s what we should expect from a company born out of the ashes of World War One. Here we find three comrades in arms serving in the Corpo Aeronautico Militare: Carlo Guzzi the gifted engineer, talented race rider and ace pilot Giovanni Ravelli and fellow pilot the wealthy Giorgio Parodi. 


All served in the same squadron and together dreamed of forming a peacetime motor cycle maker where Guzzi would provide the engineering expertise, Parodi the backing and Ravelli winning races to promote the machines. 


God laughs at those who make plans and so it proved. Ravelli was killed in an air accident just days after the war. And like the Ferrari cavallino prancing-horse emblem, which celebrates the life of air-ace Francesco Baracca, Moto Guzzi’s Eagle badge does the same for Ravelli. 



Where these days the big vee twin, across-the-frame engine is a Moto Guzzi trademark appealing to a neo vintage rider (as well as providing a characteristic look, sound and low centre of gravity), it wasn’t always so. 


The first prototype Moto Guzzi carried the GP badge (for Guzzi-Parodi) and was an innovative design with a single-cylinder over-square (short stroke) horizontally-mounted engine, with four valves to further improve volumetric efficiency. An external flywheel (which became something of a Moto Guzzi trade mark) kept the engine casings small and the 17bhp 500cc unit could propel the GP to speeds of 80mph, which was outstanding for the day. 


Racing was seen as a way to improve breed and advertise the product, so that’s what they did. Their first race was the Milano-Napoli, an arduous event in which they achieved a middle-order finish. There followed a victory in the Targa Florio and good placings in the 1923 Giro d’Italia and Circuito del Lario, the latter described as an Italian Isle of Man TT. 


In 1924, works rider Guido Mentasti, won the European Championship on a Guzzi C4V. In 1926 works rider Pietro Ghersi gave Moto Guzzi their IoM TT debut riding a 250cc Guzzi coming in second to CW Johnson on a Cotton before the Italian was disqualified for having a different brand of spark plug to that listed on the paperwork. 


It would be another nine years before the firm had its first TT victory in the hands of Stanley Woods on a 250cc single, though to some extent the writing was on the wall as Woods won the Senior TT a few days later on a Guzzi with a wide-angle vee twin. 



Guzzi’s racing star continued to rise what has been described as the greatest decade for road racing, the Fifties. The Gambalunghini (little long leg) machine was superbly nimble and fast with its Giulio Cesare Carcano-designed engine and throughout the decade Moto Guzzi battled for Grand Prix supremacy with Mondial and Gilera. 


By the time it pulled out of GP racing in 1957 it has won eight world championships, six Constructors’ Championships and 11 TT victories. 


It has also produced intriguing innovative designs such as the in-line four cylinder designed in the Fifties by Carlo Gianni, its ‘dustbin’ fairings designed in the little aero-engined powered wind tunnel (Guzzi was the first ever motorcycle manufacturer to have its own wind tunnel) and even the unique Carcano designed 500cc V8 racing engine, which once heard is never, ever forgotten. 


After World War Two Moto Guzzi produced a range of small machines and scooters with names such as Motoleggera and Galletto and machines for the army and police forces around the world. All the same the company was near bankruptcy by the early Sixties and subsequently the Italian state took over in the form of SEIMM a state receiver.


Italians were purchasing cars rather than bikes and Guzzi anticipated the leisure motorcycle market with the Carcano-designed 90-degree 700cc vee twin, that was inspired by and almost fitted to the Fiat 500 Cinquecento and which has subsequently formed the inspiration for most of the modern-era Guzzi machines. 




This engine initially saw service in a weird army trike, the Autoveicolo da Montagna, then the V7 Special, a shaft-drive plodder for the Italian police. That wasn’t fast enough for the American police requirements so the longitudinal-crank, transverse-vee was heavily revised by Lino Tonti, and he and the Guzzi team (including world champion Mike Hailwood) set a load of 750cc speed records. 


Tonti then heavily revised the V7 frame and the engine still further, for use in the first V7 Sport models, which was one of the most potent sports machines of its age. 


Launched in the middle of a slump in big bike sales (and yet-another Moto Guzzi near bankruptcy) the firm conducted extensive market research with the help of Milan University, dipping deep into the Pantone catalogue as a result and painting the first machines an extravagant lime green over a silver base coat with red frames - telaio rosso


Mine, a later black-framed machine has the worthwhile optional Brembo twin front disc set up, which means it stops. Those early machines combine the stunning looks with an adjustable riding position via the unique swan neck clip-on bars. 



Alejandro De Tomaso bought the company in 1973 and showed the iconic 850 Le Mans model at the Milan Show in November 1975. With its more powerful engine, linked brakes and matt-black caf racer style, the Le Mans series carried the company’s sales, spawning a host of smaller-engined versions, while the 1972 California touring series was designed for the Los Angeles Police Department. 


1975 also saw the launch of the more utilitarian T3 model and Guzzi continued with these and subsequent derivatives up to the Nineties with the debut of the four-valve, 1992 Daytona model inspired by Dr John Wittner’s radical tuning efforts in the States. 


Fleet sales to armed forces and the police continued to buoy up the company finances although by the end of the Nineties it was struggling again and in 2000 Aprilia won a battle against Ducati, Rotax and Kymco to own the famous name. The usual Guzzi bad luck struck, however, with a concurrent downturn in motor cycle sales.


Aprilia managed to complete a restoration and expansion of the Mandello del Lario factory and the launch of the ultra-rare road racer, the MGS-01 Corsa before it sold the company onto Piaggio, which revamped the model range with a series of ‘classic’ models which are proving popular. 


These days the company sells a range of vee-twin machines all trading on the history and reputation with loads of derivatives on the theme of the V7, V9 and V85 models. For the anniversary it has launched a series of special Centenario paint finishes on its model and a special version of the V85 TT, called the Centenario, which echoes the colours of the famous eight-cylinder machines.


 


“The Moto Guzzi centenary is a proud moment both for the Piaggio Group and for Italian industry as a whole,” said Roberto Colaninno, chief executive of the Piaggio Group. He praised Moto Guzzi’s 100-year relationship with Mandello del Lario and committed the company to a second century saying: “It has gone down in our country’s history without ever losing its youthful spirit and continues to inspire genuine passion among thousands of Guzzi bikers all over the world.”


Well yes it does, though on September 11 this year, I’ll have to settle for a slap-up Italian lunch rather than a 1,700-mile round trip to the shores of Lake Como. Come to think of it, that does sound a lot more appealing. Now what’s on the menu, cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal cutlets) and Martadella di Ossola (pork and liver sausage), with gelati to follow of course and perhaps a glass of local Montevecchia?


So saluti Moto Guzzi, here’s to the next 100 years…


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Andrew English

01 Sep 2021