Updated: Aug 20
Words by Alan Cathcart
Edited by Bruce Cox
Location Photography by Kyoichi Nakamura
Studio Photography by Phil Aynsley
In 2021 Moto Guzzi - one of the world’s longest-established motorcycle companies – celebrated its centenary. In fact the idea to start the company was conceived even longer ago than that by two aircraft pilots and their mechanic serving in the Italian Air Corps during World War I - Giovanni Ravelli and Giorgio Parodi and Carlo Guzzi. Assigned to the same Miraglia Squadron based outside Venice, the three became close friends, despite coming from different socio-economic backgrounds. The trio envisioned creating a motorcycle company after the war, the plan being that Guzzi would engineer the bikes, Giorgio Parodi and his brother Angelo (the sons of wealthy Genovese ship-owners) would finance the venture, and Ravelli (already a famous pilot and motorcycle racer) would promote the bikes with his racing prowess. After the war was over, Guzzi and the Parodi brothers did form Moto Guzzi in September 1921 but Ravelli, ironically, had died just days after the war's end in an aircraft crash. His memory is commemorated by the eagle's wings that form the Moto Guzzi logo.
The first machine to come from Carlo Guzzi in the early 1920s featured a 500cc horizontal single cylinder engine, facing forward in line with the frame and with an exposed or 'outside' flywheel. This would remain the signature feature of the engine type that would be the mainstay of the company's large capacity motor cycle range for another three decades.
The horizontal single-cylinder engine with outside flywheel was a Guzzi feature for decades
Racing had always been in the minds of Carlo Guzzi and the Parodi brothers and the Moto Guzzi C4V of 1924, with a four-valve (quattrovalvole) cylinder head for its 500cc engine was immediately competitive on track. The frame was more compact than that of the production road bikes and the top speed was around 80mph from a power output of 25bhp at 4500rpm. Right away it won numerous Italian events before finishing 1st, 2nd and 4th in the very first Championship of Europe race held on Italy's fastest track at Monza in September. Two weeks later a C4V won the German GP on the even-faster Avus autobahn circuit in Berlin.
The Moto Guzzi C4V 500cc racer was an immediate success on track.
Although the horizontal single was the obvious choice as a long term production machine, Carlo Guzzi was certainly prepared to think outside of that particular box as far as racing was concerned. In 1931 he revealed a racer with an 'across the frame' 500cc inline four-cylinder engine. - It was not a success, however, and was soon shelved. Guzzi wisely left that line of development to his contemporary, Pietro Remor of the rival OPRA company. Remor's similar design won races in the early 1930s and later in the decade, refined and redeveloped as the Rondine Gilera, it took Dario Serafini to the 1939 European Championship. His engines were used by both Gilera and MV Agusta to win World Championships in the 1950s and, ironically, the biggest threat to their supremacy was the Moto Guzzi V8. Unfortunately, both Moto Guzzi and Gilera withdrew from racing at the end of 1957 with the potential of the otto cilindri unfulfilled.
Carlo Guzzi's 5oocc four was extensively tested but did not live up to his expectations.
Back to the 1930s... And as originally envisioned, Moto Guzzi did use racing to promote the brand and did so with a long list of impressive successes in both the 250 and 500cc classes in the last half of the decade. These began with the 1935 Isle of Man TT when Guzzi factory rider Stanley Woods scored an impressive double victory with wins in the 250cc Lightweight race as well as the 500cc Senior. The 500 was essentially a doubling up of two 250 horizontal single to form a wide angle (120-degrees) in-line vee-twin and its basic design was still winning Grand Prix races in the early 1950s.
The 1935 500cc V-twin racer that won the Isle of Man Senior TT, ridden by Stanley Woods. That amazing engine won its last Grand Prix in 1951 in the bike's final iteration below.
Until the mid-1940s, Carlo Guzzi's design for the traditional horizontal four-stroke single-cylinder 500 cc road bike engines featured one overhead and one side valve for induction and exhaust, but contrary to the usual practice of having inlet over exhaust (IOE), this employed the side valve for induction and the overhead valve for exhaust. Also unusual was the adoption of only one hairpin valve spring to close the exhaust valve. This type of spring was chosen as, unlike coil springs, it could be easily changed without disturbing the valve train. These were the highest performance engines Moto Guzzi sold to the general public in the early days. By contrast, however, the company supplied the official racing team and racing customers with higher performance 250cc and 500cc racing machines using varying overhead camshaft, multi-valve configurations and cylinder designs.
One such machine was the 500cc single cylinder Condor that was intended for use as both a racer and a supersports road bike. It fulfilled those dual roles admirably by winning the 1000km Milan-Taranto race and the Circuito de Lario in the mountains north of Milan, That race was known to the fans as "the Italian TT" because each lap of the road circuit was 36.5-kilometers long with 300 bends. And it was in that race in 1939 that Nello Pagani rode the Condor to a sensational debut victory over the more than twice as powerful supercharged Gilera four-cylinder opposition. This was especially impressive, as the Gilera as the European Championship winner that year, so the Condor was truly a high-flying bird like its Andean namesake. It was the work of engineer Giulio Carcano and he further developed it after the war in the form of the Dondolino and Gambalunga models. In the following photo gallery it is shown in both racing and road-going supersports trim.
The single-cylinder 500cc Moto Guzzi racers were popular with the privateers in the early years after WWII and often used by the factory riders on tight tracks where their light weight and nimble handling paid dividends. The first year of production for the Dondolino which was developed from the 1939 Condor was 1946 and in that year, a Dondolino piloted by Enrico Lorenzetti won the Swiss Grand Prix at Berne and one also won the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, with Nando Balzarotti riding. The name Dondolino means 'rocking chair' and one can only assume that it was given to the bike because of the comfortable ride it provided - in much the same way the the Manx Norton frame was immediately known as the
The Dondolino was the direct descendant of the Condor and made its debut in 1946. It won Grand Prix races that year in Switzerland and Spain. It was intended to be used by privateer racers, whereas the final version of Giulio Carcano's 1939 Condor was the 1950 500cc Gambalunga (translated as 'long legged') racer (below) developed for use by the factory team riders on tight circuits or in bad weather. There was also a successful 250 version which was given the name of Gambalunghino or "little long legged".
The final version of the Moto Guzzi 250 that won three world titles between 1949 and 1952
In the 1950s, Moto Guzzi, along with the Italian factories of Gilera, MV Agusta and Mondial, led the world of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. With durable, fast and lightweight 250 cc and 350 cc bikes designed by Giulio Carcano, the firm dominated the middleweight classes. The factory won three 250cc world titles between 1949 and 1952 and no less than five consecutive 350 cc world championships between 1953 and 1957.
The Guzzi 350 (above) won an incredible five consecutive world titles from 1953 to 1957.
The four cylinder machine on which Moto Guzzi pinned its hopes for similar success in the 500cc class in 1953 was this unique racer with an in-line engine and shaft drive. It was not a Carcano design and it was not a success. It was fast but the use of shaft drive had an adverse effect on its handling and it won only two minor events in two years of racing.
Realizing that low weight alone might not continue to win races for the company, Giulio Carcano next designed the V8 500 cc GP race bike—whose engine was the most complex engines of its time. Despite the bike's having led many races and frequently posted the fastest lap time, it often failed to complete races because of mechanical problems. Ultimately, it was not developed further as Moto Guzzi withdrew from racing after the 1957 season (together with other Italian manufacturers, Gilera and Mondial) citing escalating costs and diminishing motorcycle sales.
The Moto Guzzi 500cc V8 never won a Grand Prix but it has still achieved legendary status.
By the time of its pulling out from Grand Prix racing, Moto Guzzi had won 3,329 official races, eight World Rider’s Championships, six Constructor's Championships and 11 Isle of Man TT victories. Much of that success was due to Moto Guzzi being the only motorcycle factory to have its own wind tunnel.
And the Moto Guzzi engineers and designers certainly made full use of the wind tunnelback in the 1950s when full streamlining was allowed for Grand Prix machines, That was one of the reasons for the successes of the 350 and for the 500cc V8 (pictured below with full 'dustbin style' frontal fairing) being clocked at the astounding speed (for back then in 1957) of just over 178mph during the 1957 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps.
The Moto Guzzi factory in Mandello del Lario on the shores of Lake Como is on the same site where its motorcycles have always been produced – an industrial location that has contributed greatly to the history of global motorcycling through the manufacturing of bikes that right from the earliest days have become a part of the collective imagination. Bikes such as the GT 500 Norge, ridden from Italy to the Arctic Circle in Norway in 1928 by Giuseppe Guzzi, brother of company founder Carlo.
In 1928, Giuseppe Guzzi rode one of these 500cc Moto Guzzi singles from Italy all the way to the Arctic Circle in Norway. Hence this model was named the Norge (i.e. Norwegian).
Among the reasons why the Moto Guzzi brand became established in people’s minds were the unusual but memorable names chosen for its motorcycles. For example, there were a number named after birds as diverse as the Condor, the Falcone and the Astore (goshawk); the Lodola (lark), the Stornello (starling) the Zigolo (bunting) and the Cardellino (goldfinch); the Egretta (egret) and the Airone (heron); and the Galletto (cockerel) a scooter from 1950 which contributed to Italy’s mass motorisation in the post-war period.
The 1953 Airone (translation = heron) still had a distinctly pre-WWII look about it.
There was even a model named the Albatros – an unfortunate name, one might think as the albatross is a big clumsy seabird that has difficulty getting off the ground! In fact, Guzzi’s Albatros was quite the opposite. It was a very successful 250cc single overhead camshaft racer that was winning Grand Prix races both before and after World War II. Based on Giulio Carcano's supercharged 250 but normally aspirated, it had a dynamo mounted in the position vacated by the supercharger so that lights could be fitted for the marathon road races like the Milan to Taranto.
Moto Guzzi Albatros was a successful 250cc racer in the years just before and after WWII
The best-known bird in the Moto Guzzi aviary was the 500cc Falcone - which is hardly surprising as it was in the Guzzi model range from 1950 until 1976! It was the last of the classic Guzzi singles that first saw the light of day in 1921. They all featured a horizontal single-cylinder pushrod motor with the 500cc version having the cylinder bore and stroke measurements of 88x82mm that are familiar to all Guzzi enthusiasts. The first version served the company well and was not until 1934 that it was updated with the GTW model.
And it was the GTW that the Falcone replaced 16 years later. There had been various upgrades during that period but the 1950 version still had an old-fashioned pre-WWII air about it, The frame was a twin-tube cradle design with telescopic forks and a rear swinging arm with its movement controlled by a spring under the engine and a pair of friction dampers at the rear. Only the telescopic forks that distinguished it from pre-war models.
The 1950 500cc Falcone was a continuing development of Carlo Guzzi's horizontal single from the 1920s. Further chassis and styling development went on for another twenty years!
The 1975 Moto Guzzi 500cc Nuovo Falcone (New Falcon) was still selling more than 50 years after the first horizontal single model rolled out of the Mandello del Lario factory
Somewhat incredibly, the old-style Falcone from 1950 was still selling well enough in the late 1960s for Moto Guzzi to give it a complete makeover for 1969. From front hub to back, the whole bike was brought right up to date in terms of styling and engineering. The only thing the remained was the venerable old horizontal single cylinder engine but even that got some upgrades in the areas of carburation and ignition, And most significant of all, a cover was put over the old exterior 'bacon slicer' flywheel that had been a feature of every 250, 350 or 500cc Moto Guzzi for close on 50 years. That's how determined the company was to get rid of the old fashioned image of its biggest bike. It was a strategy that worked and the new Falcon - il Nuovo Falcone - was manufactured at Mandello del Lario until 1976.
One reason for the longevity of the old Falcon was that its solid build and reliability had made it the choice of the Italian military and police forces, where style was unimportant compared to those other two attributes. So satisfied had they been with the original Falcone (below) that it was no surprise when Government orders kept flowing in for the new version.
The Nuovo Falcone of the 1970s was also a stalwart of the military and police forces
It is small wonder that the Falcone found such good favour with the Italian Government purchasing departments as a previous model with the faithful horizontal 500cc single cylinder engine had given sterling service to the army and other government entities during WWII. Introduced in 1938, the army utilized the Moto Guzzi Alce (Elk) and the later Super Alce in areas such as reconnaissance and convoy escort and it saw service on all fronts. One unusual feature was a second set of handlebars for the passenger that helped him maintain his postion when crossing rough terrain as well as steadying him for shooting at the enemy, For this purpose there was also a handlebar mounting for a rifle or sub-machine gun so that the rider could use the bike as a shooting platform when stationary
The Super Alce was low-slung so that the rider could get both feet on the ground and steady himself when, for example, firing his weapon. The passenger handlebars could be folded down when the bike was being ridden solo.
The period after World War II was as difficult in Mandello del Lario as it was elsewhere in post-war Europe. The solution for Moto Guzzi was the production of inexpensive, lightweight motorcycles to satisfy the huge demand for basic transportation. Though modest motorcycles for the company that had made its name via racing and fast road bikes, the lighter machines continued to feature Guzzi's innovative ideas and were the main focus of the company's road bike range for the next 25 years.
The Motoleggera (above) was a two-stroke 65cc lightweight motorcycle (as the name indicates) and it became very popular in post-war Italy as the economy was suffering but people still needed transportation. The engine, which was designed by Antonio Micucci, also used in later models like the Guzzino - i.e. little Guzzi - and the Cardellino.
The Guzzino followed on from the Motoleggera
The Cardellino was another model variant to use the 65cc engine. This one is from 1954
The final iteration of the Cardellino was made from 1959 until 1962 and had a 75cc engine
The four-stroke Galletto 'step through' scooter also sold well. It initially featured a manual, foot-shifted three-speed (160 cc) configuration then went to a four-speed (175 cc) set-up in 1952. The engine size was increased to 192cc in 1954 and electric start was added in 1961.
Moto Guzzi was limited in its endeavors to penetrate the important scooter market as motorcycle popularity waned after WWII. Italian scooter competitors would not tolerate an incursion from Moto Guzzi. So, by innovating the Galletto as the first large-wheeled scooter, Guzzi competed less directly with manufacturers of small-wheeled scooters such as Piaggio (Vespa) and Lambretta. To illustrate the delicate balance between the Italian post-war motorcycle and scooter markets; when Guzzi developed their own prototype for a small-wheeled scooter, Lambretta retaliated in 1953 with a prototype for a small V-twin motorcycle threatening to directly compete on Moto Guzzi's turf.
The 1953 Lambretta prototype 250 racer's across-the-frame V-twin engine and shaft final drive does look remarkably like Moto Guzzi's V7 but pre-dated it by more than a decade.
The two companies compromised: Guzzi never produced their small-wheeled scooter and Lambretta never manufactured the motorcycle. In fact, the drive train that Lambretta made for their 1953 motorcycle prototype remarkably resembles the V-twin plus shaft drive arrangement that Guzzi developed more than ten years later, and which would ultimately to become the primary feature on the company’s line-leading machines.
In the meantime, it was up to the lightweight models to keep the Moto Guzzi brand alive and just how important they were is shown by the fact that the little Zigolo 98 and 110cc two-strokes sold some 130,000 units in the 13 years after their introduction in 1953. It represented the next step up from the Guzzino and Cardellino models.
The Zigolo engine was a horizontal version of Antonio Micucci's two-stroke engine, enlarged to 98 and then 110cc. The pressed steel bodywork covers a central tube frame.
The original Zigolo of 1953 used the familiar Guzzi friction dampers in its rear suspension system before updating to telescopic shock absorbers for the 1960 version and beyond.
Although most people these days do not associate Moto Guzzi with two-strokes, the designs of Antonio Micucci that began with the 50cc Motoleggera in 1946 were essentially what kept the company going for the next 12 years before Carlo Guzzi’s overhead camshaft Lodola came along in 1958 to add another four-stroke to the mix. That was the period when the company’s existing four-strokes like the Falcone were pre-war designs and looked it. Although it was always offered in civilian versions, the Falcone only survived on its military and police sales if truth be told.
In reality, it was left to the two-strokes to achieve the volume sales and they delivered. The Motoleggera and its 65cc successor, the Guzzino, between them sold 70,000 units while the subsequent Cardellino, which stretched Micucci’s original design to 75cc and remained in production until 1963 more than doubled that figure with 145,000 sold. Add to that the 130,000 sales of the horizontal-engine Zigolo plus the 71.000 Galleto scooters sold between 1950 and 1966 and it is easy to undersatand what a debt Moto Guzzi owes to Antonio Micucci.
In 1956 Moto Guzzi brought out its first under 200cc four-stroke - the 175cc Lodola - which was designed by none other than the father of the company, Carlo Guzzi himself. At the time the bike was brought to market Carlo was 67 years old, so it was his final contribution to the company he had started 35 years previously, Although it looked nothing like his 'signature' horizontal single, the little single overhead camshaft engine did have one hidden link that was typical Carlo Guzzi. He was always a believer in making the crankcase as narrow a possible to achieve the best crankshaft support and his trademark outside flywheel bore evidence of that via the thousands of the 500 and 250cc machine sold over a fifty year span, The neat little Lodola engine also had its flywheel outside the crankcase but it was hidden by a cover so that the power unit was a compact and good looking package. It sold from 1956 to 1966 and grew from 175cc to 235cc in 1959.
The Moto Guzzi Lodola 235
The neat engine unit of the Lodola hides a secret - an outside flywheel beneath this cover!
Fiat’s 500 Cinquecento car was introduced in 1957 and in making affordable motoring available to the masses, devastated the Italian motorcycle industry in the 1960s. Those companies that survived the decade (Moto Guzzi being one of the few) did so by producing sturdy but sporty small bikes for those people still unable or unwilling to buy a car for daily transportation. This led to the increasing importance of the 125cc class but by 1960 the Lodola had grown from its original 175cc to 235cc while the 75cc two-stroke Cardellino, that remained in the Guzzi line-up until 1962, was considered too small.
Better known for his Grand Prix race bikes, it was Giulio Carcano who designed the little 125 daily driver that was needed. Named the Stornello it was in production from 1961 to 1973. Despite needing to keep production costs down, Carcano came up with a neat little bike that had a dual-downtube, open-cradle steel frame, dual shocks controlling the swinging arm rear suspension and a hydraulically damped telescopic front fork. Its performance was competitive for the 125 class, with a claimed 63mph top speed while, perhaps more importantly, returning around 100mpg.
The Stornello 125 from 196o (above) was designed to be a 'daily driver' although there was also the Sport version (below) offered in the Moto Guzzi model range.
In 1968, a 160cc version was added to the available Stornello options. It had a top speed of 74mph without significantly affecting the frugal fuel consumption. Then, as it was facing serious competition from domestic rivals and more powerful Japanese competitors, the Stornello range was completely revised for 1971. The 160cc model pictured above and the 125cc version pictured below were both part of that re-stylibg exercise.
Both the 125 and 160cc models had more power and a new five-speed transmission while a new fuel tank and bodywork updated the aesthetics. The Stornello continued in this form until the company was acquired by Alejandro de Tomaso in 1973. It was then replaced by a 125cc two-stroke.
The new 125cc two-stroke was a good looking machine and a worthy successor to the Stornello and easily out-performed it, Also during the De Tomaso years Moto Guzzi also offered its first high performance two-stroke - a very stylish 250cc twin (pictured below) that matched the Japanese opposition in every respect.
But in later years it has suffered from a crisis of identity as there is an identical model with the Benelli name on the tank rather than the famous Guzzi 'flying eagle' badge. That's because Alejandro de Tomaso owned both companies and was not above trying (but not always succeeding) to make even more out of a good thing by a bit of 'badge engineering'. He applied the same thinking to a four-cylinder 350 that looked like a Honda CB350/4 (below) but which had different bore and stroke measurements. You could choose either a Moto Guzzi or Benelli version depending upon your brand preference. Neither of these attempts to make Japanese-style motorcycles in Italy were particularly successful.
One thing that De Tomaso did get right when he acquired the Moto Guzzi company in 1973 was to maintain the momentum built up by the transverse vee-twin that is now Guzzi's 'signature' style. In 1967, after its lightweight motorcycles had kept the company afloat, Guzzi had gone to the other extreme and brought out the V7 - a 700cc 90-degree V-twin designed by Giulio Caracano, the engineering genius who had designed power units ranging from the incredible 500cc V8 Grand Prix racer of the mid-1950s to the little 125cc Stornello that had kept the compny cash flowing through the 1960s. For a V-twin his new motor was unusually fitted across the frame with the cylinders opposed to one another in the same manner as BMW's more familiar flat twins. The reason for this was that, like the BMWs, the new Guzzi V-twin had an integral gearbox and shaft final drive. Based on that layout, it has been claimed that Carcano designed the V7 engine for use in a minicar like Fiat's 500 cinquecento but that has never been substantiated. On the other hand, the claim does have some logic to it as BMW fitted a 700cc version of it's flat twin motorcycle engine into a small car in the 196os and the French Citroen 2CV workhorse also has a horizontally opposed flat twin power unit. And apparently a small number of an original V-twin by Carcano were used in a small all-terrain workhorse commissioned by the Italian Army for testing by Alpine troops.
Whatever the reason behind Carcano's creation, the V7 transverse V-twin was destined to become the basic design that, in many forms, would eventually be the sole focus of the manufacturer from Mandello through many different versions including legendary early models like the California cruiser, the V7 Special & V7 Sport and the racer-styled Le Mans.
The design of the original 1967 version of Moto Guzzi's V-twin (above) exuded strength rather than speed and only had 50bhp at a lazy 6000rpm provided by its 'oversquare' (80mm bore x 70mm stroke) 703cc engine. Even so, the top speed was a comfortable 106mph. This was the kind of performance that prompted an early variant on the V7 theme. The California was designed as a big and comfortable freeway cruiser in the same mould as the Harley Davidson Duoglide. Thus it came equipped with footboards instead of footrests an a 'rocking pedal' gearshift lever for heel & toe gearchanges. A Harley-style, full-width, flat-fronted windshield was an optional extra to complete the American 'highway patrol' look. No surprise then, when the California (as seen below) soon took over from the Falcone as Italy's first choice for police work and the US Moto Guzzi importer, Berliner Corporation was able to persuade some police departments in the USA to 'go Italian'. In fact, another story about the creation of the V7 (again unsubstantiated) claims that it was in direct response to an Italian government request for a new police bike. Maybe, maybe not. But those early bikes certainly have that 'law enforcement' look about them...
No surprise that the V7 soon found favour with the police. It already looked the part!
The next step early on the long Moto Guzzi V7 timeline was an increase in engine capacity to 750cc, achieved by increasing the cylinder bore size of 80mm to 83mm while the piston stroke remained at 70mm. The first bikes with the bigger engine were the V7 Special tourer (above) and the V7 Sport (below).
By 197o the Moto Guzzi marketing department was worried that the company's new V-twin range might get set in the motorcycling public's mind as being just heavyweight tourers with a few occasional styling changes here and there. The V7 Sport was the design department's answer to that Still using the V7 roadster's engine, but with a new frame and clip-on handlebars, the V7 Sport was the company's first café racer. The frame was the work of another star of Italian motorcycle design and racing specialist, Lino Tonti, and it showed its racing pedigree immediately on inspection. It was lighter than the standard V7, it handled well, it proved popular and it pointed the way towards the iconic Moto Guzzi Le Mans.
The Moto Guzzi Le Mans Mk1 has become an icon of sporting motorcycle design
Moto Guzzi’s V7 Sport and Special models in 1971 had combined Giulio Cesare Carcano’s transverse V-twin with a sporting new frame by Lino Tonti, which required that the belt-driven generator be replaced by a pan-type alternator at the front of the engine. The result was a marriage of brilliance. Four years later the V7 Special and Sport were prominent in the 750 class but the Japanese superbikes were getting bigger and there was the feeling that future Guzzi models should be as close to 1000cc as possible. Therefore the engine's piston stroke was lengthened and the V7’s iron cylinder liners done away with and the alloy cylinder bores directly chrome plated, The nett result was an engine capacity of 844cc.
The first bike to use the new bigger engine was the 850T tourer. The Le Mans used the same basic engine but with high-compression pistons running in the chrome-lined alloy barrels, larger valves, new camshaft and two 36mm “pumper” Del’Orto carbs. There were twin drilled cast iron front brake discs with Brembo calipers and one of these discs was linked to the rear disc through the brake pedal,
The V7 Sport had been a good looking motorcycle but the Le Mans was simply stunning. The clip-on bars, rear-set footrests and humped seat running up on to the rear of the fuel tank all combined to make it one of the best looking bikes of its generation - if not the best. With 71bhp and capable of 124mph (when introduced in 1976) it may not have been as quick as the quickest Japanese bikes but it could certainly hold its own with its European rivals. In fact it proved as such by racing wheel to wheel with the BMW and Ducati opposition in the early years of the Superbike class in the USA at a time when that was, as often as not, for the outright win as it was in the period before the Japanese factories had sorted out their bikes' handling deficiencies. What they gained in speed over the Le Mans the four-cylinder 1000cc Japanese bikes sacrificed by uncertain handling.
Deservedly popular in its day and still stylish and eye-catching as well as being totally comfortable in modern highway conditions, the Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans Mk1 has justifiably acquired cult status. And the Guzzi Le Mans story didn't end with the Mark One. The Tonti-framed models stayed in production until 1991 and went through five different Mark series, with capacity upped to 1,000cc for the Mark Four and Five. Finally, of course, the iconic style has lived on via various 'retroracer' models with backbone-frame and single shock rear suspension. Following is a selection of images of 21st century machines that reflect the magic of the original Le Mans model of 45 years ago.
The Moto Guzzi V85 850cc Le Mans
This V11 pays homage to 1930s Moto Guzzi hero Omobono Tenni by carrying the green and silver livery with brown suede-covered seat that featured on the old works team machines.
While the V7 continued growing in capacity from its original 703cc through the 1970s, Moto Guzzi still wanted to have a share of the middleweight market so a 'small-block' version of the air-cooled V-twin powered a new range that was introduced in 1977 with the 350cc V35 and 500cc V50 while the 650cc V65 followed in 1982, All featured horizontally split crankcases and Heron cylinder heads. (the internal side of a Heron head is machined flat, with recesses only for inlet and exhaust valves, spark plugs and so on. The combustion chamber itself is contained within a dished depression in the top of the piston. as can clearly be seen in the following photograph of an 'exploded' small block engine..
These features were deemed somewhat radical by the Moto Guzzi faithful when the new range was launched, despite the fact that horizontally split crankcases were, in fact, a common feature of contemporary Japanese motorcycle design and the Heron heads were widely used in car engines. Both features allowed more efficient mass production and significant weight reductions compared to previous engine designs. As Moto Guzzi continued to develop the smaller V-twins, power was increased in the mid-1980s when versions with four-valve (two inlet and two exhaust) cylinder heads were created. The 650 and the 750 produced 60 bhp and 65 bhp respectively before the production of the four-valve “small block” engines ended in the late 1980s because it was felt that the four small valves were actually overcrowding the combustion chamber and that two larger ones would allow more efficient gas flow and combustion. For over a decade the middleweight Moto Guzzis did well in the market place and, as the following gallery shows, came in a number of distinctly different versions.
Over the years, the 'small block' vee-twins gradually grew out of the middleweight market and ended up at 750cc with the 2021 V7 Breva and Nevada (above) models able to trace a direct line back to that first 350cc V35 of 1977. Meanwhile the across-the-frame V-twin 'big block' engine has consistently evolved on the same basic architecture for over fifty years with Moto Guzzi constantly refining and updating the original concept, supported by utilization of the latest available chassis and engine technology, including the most advanced electronic control features. It too has grown in size, with some models having 1400cc engines - twice the size of the 1967 original...!
The story of the more than five decades of Moto Guzzi history since the introduction of that first transverse-opposed vee-twin is one of ups and downs and the occasional misguided merger and trips down a blind alley or two.
While under the De Tomaso umbrella, as it had been since 1973, Moto Guzzi was merged with Benelli in 1988. The two famous old companies would operate together as GBM (Guzzi Benelli Moto) although the individual brand names would still be used. Eight years later, the Moto Guzzi marque celebrated its 75th birthday by separating from Benelli when the GBM pairing was broken up. It still operated within De Tomaso’s TRG group of companies, however, but only for another four years. In the year 2000 (three years before his death aged 75) Alejandro de Tomaso had celebrated the arrival of the new millennium by selling Moto Guzzi to another entrepreneur, Ivano Beggio, for $65 million US dollars.
Beggio was the owner of the Aprilia brand but his intention had been that Moto Guzzi would remain separate and still headquartered in Mandello del Lario, though it would share Aprilia's technological, R&D capabilities and financial resources. That arrangement would remain short-lived, however, as Aprilia itself stumbled financially and the Moto Guzzi assembly line closed for a short period in March 2004, due to the financial difficulties. Prior to those problems Biaggio had completed extensive renovations of the Guzzi factory and the company had re-engineered and restyled its product line in 2003 – albeit still sensibly based on the tried and true transverse-opposed V-twins that had established a sizeable and faithful following over the previous 35 years. It was a sensible and logical approach as the De Tomaso years had proved that trying to match the Japanese giants with several different engine configurations was an expensive blind alley to go down – and an even more expensive one to come back up!
The Breva 75o was one of the great new Moto Guzzi models for 2004
There was also a 1100cc version of the Moto Guzzi Breva for 2004
The California was another popular model in the Moto Guzzi 2004 range
Another hit with Moto Guzzi fans in 2004 was the 750cc Nevada
So in 2004, despite a renovated factory and a fresh new product line, the financially beleaguered and vulnerable Moto Guzzi company was a plum ripe for the picking. Several companies were interested, including Ducati, but the prize went to the Piaggio Group which had become wealthy by manufacturing the perennially popular Vespa scooter Somewhat ironically, Moto Guzzi, famous for its big capacity motorcycles for a hundred years, is now owned by the Piaggio Group, that initially made its considerable fortune as manufacturers of the small-wheeled and small-engined Vespa scooters. These days Piaggio is by far the biggest player in the European two-wheeler market and can compete with the Japanese giants on the world stage via the huge output of its factories in Vietnam and India and its links in the Chinese motorcycle marketplace.
Two other famous Italian motorcycle companies, Aprilia and Gilera are also in the group - alongside Moto Guzzi and for that be thankful. Piaggio's upper management seem content to allow each brand to maintain its own identity without any crossovers but there is still strength in numbers and the financial muscle of Piaggio is what is likely to keep the Moto Guzzi eagle flying high, strong and healthy in the decades to come.
MOTO GUZZI IN 2021
While still relying on the tried and trusted transverse V-twin engines (and why not?) Moto Guzzi has a widespread range with which to mark its 100 year anniversary - a range covering every genre from cruisers and customs to sports and adventure bikes and one that we will show a selection from in our closing gallery, Before that, however, let us show you the model with which Moto Guzzi itself celebrates its first 100 years - the V7 Stone Centenario which reprises the traditional transverse V-twin styling and has the same green and silver livery of the factory racers that were winning World Championships back in the 1950s.
MOTO GUZZI 2021 CENTENARY GALLERY
MOTO GUZZI CLASSIC GP RACERS - BUY THE BOOK
Read the full story of the legendary Otto Cilindri V8 and Bicilindrica V-Twin Grand Prix racers from Moto Guzzi. Written by Alan Cathcart and including full technical details, an in depth history and even a double track test. Its 130 pages are illustrated with modern digital photography and archive material from back in the day. Available as a Special Colour Edition or a Standard Edition with high resolution black & white photographs. Also available as a full colour e-book, as are individual e-books on the V8 and V-Twin. Go to the website for a direct link to Amazon for purchase and order fulfilment of all books published by BRG.