Una Storia Italiana

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his motto (Una Storia Italiana) adorns the fuel tank of most of the later models of the beautiful Moto Guzzi motorbikes.

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Moto Guzzi is probably unknown even to the majority of motor bikers (not only outside Europe), most likely because its fame has been overshadowed by the more flashy “race” brands like Ducati, MV-Agusta, Aprilia and so on.

Anyway, Moto Guzzi (which by now has been absorbed into the Piaggio Group, though retaining its name and brand identity), has a prominent place in the Italian rich motorcycling history.

Back to the logo: the word “Storia” has in Italian a twofold meaning: that of “story”, like what is told to children to stimulate their fantasy (or scare them witless) and that of “History”, like what is passed on from generation to generation and becomes part of a Nation’s heritage and culture.

Under that optic, the brand has followed what could be defined as a typical Italian story/history: huge expectations, good prerequisites, excellent technical initial innovations and potentials, counterbalanced by a very poor eye for the market and few or no adaptability to its changing conditions.

This seems like a critic, but it’s not: I appreciate the general disposition of “remaining true to oneself” and that is exactly what Guzzi seems to have decided: We will keep building ‘our’ type of motorcycles that will answer to ‘our’ vision of what a motorcycle should be and if that is not good enough for the big market, then so be it. Let them go to hell. We’ll survive somehow

To its credit, Moto Guzzi holds the record of some important technological innovations like, for example:

  • The CARC system (CArdano Reattivo Compatto – Compact Reactive Shaft Drive), which was developed in 1993 to counteract the elevator-effect on the more powerful shaft-driven models. The CARC system separates the final drive of the transmission (and therefore its drive’s torque reaction) from the suspension, using floating torque arms. This eliminates the jerkiness typical of shaft drive systems during acceleration or throttle-release.
  • In 1928, there was no effective rear suspension design. The existing designs sacrificed torsional rigidity in favour of comfort, at the same time severely compromising handling. Carlo Guzzi and his brother Giuseppe designed an elastic frame, together with a swing-arm in tubes and sheet metal. The elastic frame rear suspension was immediately introduced to production machines and transformed the motorcycle from a specific and experimental machine into an everyday form of transportation.
  • Moto Guzzi created the first 500cc V8 engine for a motorbike, the experimental Grand Prix V8, in 1955. The engine sported 8 (!) cylinders using Dual Overhead Camshafts (DOHC), with two valves per cylinder, able to generate 80 bhp (60 kW) of power at 12,000 rpm. Both engine and bike were unprecedented. The motorcycle proved capable of achieving 280 km/h top speed, more than thirty years before the same speed was reached again in a Grand Prix motorcycle racing.
  • In 1950 Moto Guzzi created the first motorcycle ‘Galleria del Vento’ (wind tunnel), capable of testing 1:1 prototypes at their Mandello del Lario factory. This wind tunnel enabled racers to mimic real-life riding conditions and optimize their seating and body position at varying racing speeds, which gave an unprecedented advantage, while in motorcycle prototyping it made possible to refine the air stream around the motorcycle itself, create an envelope of still air around the rider, reduce frontal area, optimize air penetration, and maximize fuel economy.

Unfortunately, all the promising products and innovative technologies that Moto Guzzi developed, were not met halfway by private or nationalized resources and initiatives, or even some form of support from the Government (from the fascist 1920’s up to our democratic days), which eventually turned into a failure to keep pace with the development costs and the necessities of a fast changing market.

I’m sad to see so few Guzzi’s riding around, but on the other hand when you own one, you own a special piece of mechanical history and that kind of pride is what unfortunately only a restrict number of people in motorcycle land will value, where “need for speed” and “mine is bigger” seem to be the prevalent impulses around brand and model choices.

Anyway, Moto Guzzi is the oldest Italian motorcycle brand and for me it has a special place not only in my heart but also in my family (hi)story, meaning that almost everyone of us at some point or another has owned a motorcycle and that motorcycle was a Guzzi.

We are not a family of  die-hard “Guzzisti”, since a few cousins strayed away from the right path and moved to MV-Agusta, Ducati, or even Kawasaki (traitors…). Nevertheless, the motorcycling stories that are still told in the family are all about one or another Guzzi model.

So we all know the story of my uncle (who since then has been nicknamed “Old Oak”), who went on holiday from Naples to Vahrn (a small village near Brixen, in the Bolzano province) on his Galletto 175cc, a trip of nearly 870 Kms using today’s highways, but which at the time (1952) was probably closer to the 1000 Kms, due to the poor level of post-war highway coverage.

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Moto Guzzi Galletto 175cc

The trip became historic not for the huge distance alone, but mostly because it was completed (and back, after a week!) without any mechanical incidents or failures whatsoever. Not even a punctured tyre…

My father has been a Carabiniere Motociclista (the Carabinieri are the Italian military Police), from 1943 to 1957, stationed in Sardinia, Sicily and Puglia (Apulia), crunching thousands of miles on his Super Alce 500cc.

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My dad and his Super Alce 500cc in 1948

He was shot at, ambushed, crashed, slipped and whatnot while on his motorcycle and no matter what story he told about those years, his Guzzi was always part of it.

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Moto Guzzi Super Alce 500cc ‘Militare’

In more modern times, a cousin owned a Stornello 125cc, on which I secretly took driving lessons, even before I was of legal age for a driving license. It must be said that in those times you could get a ‘Patentino’ (literally “small driving license”) when only 16 years of age. The Patentino implied a drive around the corner, in front of an official instructor/examiner, to whom you had to demonstrate that you were capable of remaining on the saddle in a turn, that you understood how to switch gears (both ways) and that you could stop to a standstill and put into neutral without incidents or jerky shifts. Once passed this hurdle, the 16-year-old aspirant biker was allowed to drive any motorcycle with an engine not larger than 125cc., and only without a passenger (the law must have sounded something like: if you want to get killed, go ahead, but do it alone).

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Moto Guzzi Stornello 125cc

Some time later, another cousin bought a beautiful V7 GT 850cc. This particular model was and still is my favourite Guzzi of the 70’s-80’s, a bike that is almost impossible to find nowadays for a reasonable price and even the unreasonably priced ones are very scarce.

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Moto Guzzi V7 GT 850cc.

Despite all the above mix of family stories and history, I must admit (with quite some shame red rising to my cheeks) that in my young years, I was one of the aforementioned “traitors”…

In my defence, it must be said that I never personally owned a motorcycle in those years so if ever, this was more a sort of “sin by proxy”.

I had no money, no driving license age (the Patentino was not enough for the scope), a very anxious mother and a family-peace loving father, who often said: “I have been to war on a motorcycle, I don’t need to have another war because of a motorcycle…”.

Not having a motorbike became a rather compelling problem. Let’s be honest: that was, realistically, the only way for an average-looking guy like myself to get some attention from the young female crowd during those endless summer holidays in the second half of the 1970’s.

So I surreptitiously borrowed one of the bikes owned by my defecting cousins, which meant that I was parading along the boulevard on one of the beauties that will be mentioned further down the post. And yes, I have an extended family (though no siblings) and no, I did not have a driving license yet, but I had an uncle that was the Chief of Police in a small but touristic village where we used to spend some time during summer (when we were not hiking in the mountains…).

This advantageous parentage meant that I was known to all the Policemen in the area as being the Chief’s nephew and therefore a tacit agreement had been reached, along the lines of: “If we see you on a motorbike along the boulevard or in the village, we’ll look the other way or even salute you if you have a girl with you, but If we catch you on the “Statale” or even the “Provinciale” (*), with or without a girl on the bike, we’ll first kick your butt until you won’t be able to sit for the rest of your life, then we’ll impound the motorbike (explain that to your cousin…) and finally we’ll send you straight to the judge for driving without license (explain that to your father…)”.

(*): Statale and Provinciale are the main traffic road types in Italy, first and second in importance after highways.

So I duly respected my part of the bargain, they did not need to kick my butt, or arrest me and they even occasionally honoured me with a salute and an appreciative look to my female passenger.

But before I reached that point, I had to work hard to master the secrets of the two-wheels driving without having a proper instructor, while at the same time juggling with the brand and models that were at hand, their complexity, drive characteristics, their weight compared to mine (I’m not a tall or heavy guy), and most of all their degree of appeal to the young female public.

Over a period of 3-4 summers, I started with the “smallest” of them all, a Gilera 50cc.

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Gilera 50cc

While I could officially drive it without any form of driving license, on the other hand it was not considered a ‘real’ motorcycle, but more a kind of ennobled moped. Nevertheless, it served me in sharpening my “on-the-road-on-two-wheels-feeling” and to learn a few do’s and don’ts about motorcycling without killing myself in the process. On the other hand, I was not making any progress with the girls issue: they either ignored me completely or worse, they turned the other way when I slowed down the boulevard, miserably failing to strike up a conversation, since I was actually too terrified to drive, look at them and speak at the same time.

So I practiced a lot (alone, alas…) and then moved up, borrowing an MV-Agusta 350cc:

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MV-Agusta Twin Sport 350cc

I immediately loved the motor, its nimble driving, the (for the time) terrifying speed, but especially the sport seat (which meant the girl had to seat really close) and the sport handlebars (which meant that the girl automatically bent over into a more than welcome embrace). On the other hand, the model did not impress girls that much…

Time for a change.

I remained faithful to National manufacturers, and borrowed a Ducati Desmo 500cc:

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Ducati Desmo Sport 500cc

I never felt really comfortable on the Ducati, I cannot tell exactly why. Moreover also this bike failed to be a chick-magnet and even though it was a tough and impressive bike, in fact it attracted more guys than girls.

So after having spent quite a few evenings surrounded by admiring guys who wanted to know everything about this monster (of which I knew absolutely nothing), I decided that it was time to move on to more fashionable models and shortly borrowed, from a cousin’s friend (who was away for his military service), a beautiful Suzuki GT 380cc:

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Suzuki GT 380cc

This bike proved to be a much better chick-magnet than any of the previous ones. Maybe it was because of its weird colour (metallic orange with green striping), which somehow must have appealed to the ‘fashionistas’ of the period, while most of the guys could barely suppress a vaguely repelled expression at the sight of it. Besides that, its unusual two-stroke engine sound, between purring and screaming, made it very recognizable and mysterious at the same time.

After this, I became a slightly more sought-after guy along the boulevard and on a few occasions I even had the inconceivable luxury and undeniable privilege to choose between two girls who would both like to go for a spin.

Life was becoming more beautiful and more promising by the day…

The real success came when I could borrow what was generally acknowledged as one of the most ‘hip’ and flashy motorbikes of those years, the Kawasaki Triple 500cc (available in three colours: green, green and green…).

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Kawasaki Triple 500cc

The roaring scream of that two-stroke engine (which in retrospective I can only describe as the sound of a four-stroke engine where a handful of nails and other metal scrap has been trapped in the cylinders…) was enough to have the young ladies (and even some daring almost-30-year-old ones) forming a queue at the head of the promenade, all of them eagerly trying to look uninterested, while at the same time flashing incinerating looks at those who dared to step in front.

The t-shirts and tops became tighter and tighter, bras became more and more an optional garment, while the shorts grew shorter and shorter (a real lady would never wear a skirt on a motorcycle, not even during the 70’s…) and my grin grew broader and broader.

Thanks to this green monster, the evenings soon went over into nights, full of hot whispers, innuendos, stolen kisses, more or less heavy petting and sometimes more…

Then those golden years were gone and responsibilities came into view; university, the necessity to find a job, start a family, make the ends meet and all those little things that, sadly but inevitably, would make a boy grow into a man.

While that is undeniably true for my appearance (I’ve lost most of my hair, have to wear multi-focal glasses, I’m not muscular and slender as when I was 20 or 30), I still remain a dreamer and essentially a boy still in love with motorcycles, not as such, but with the memory of what they had meant for him before.

And that is probably the reason why I eventually decided to go back to the first love and finally buy a motorbike. All around me, guys with grey hair, a pouch and a midlife crisis were buying Harleys, BMWs and Ducati’s in droves and the faster and bigger, the better.

I never considered my decision as one dictated by the midlife crisis. I never felt any of the urges associated with it, nor I felt trapped or cheated by life itself. I have always been and still am a slightly grumpy but otherwise perfectly happy person (an old acquaintance of my mother’s, a poet and philosopher, once said to me that she envied me because I was always “such a serene person”). The main factors driving the choice and its timing were actually more economical than anything else.

Eventually I got enough money to buy a motorbike on the side (a car has been always priority and necessity number one, since my wife would never put her lovely tush on a motorbike and I still have to go to work when it’s raining, snowing or freezing) and to pay for the expensive lessons and license (since my Italian “A” license had been automatically revoked the very moment I moved to the Netherlands. Maybe they knew how we earned those licenses in the first place…).

Initially, I was tempted to go for what seemed to be the most sold brand in the Netherlands: BMW, but after a serious talk to myself, I decided to find out if Guzzi was sold at all over here and I solemnly promised myself that if no Moto Guzzi could be found, then I’d buy no bike at all.

With the modern media available in this digital age, it was easy to find a Guzzi dealer and a few Guzzi occasions (I had saved some money, but I still didn’t want to squander all of it on a brand-new bike), and eventually I found a dealer in the North (Drenthe) where I could buy a Breva 750cc. for a very friendly price.

Once there, the dealer listened carefully to my stories, my motivations and then showed me something else, a bike that had not yet been put on their website… It was love at first sight. I had found my “match made in heaven”: a Breva 850cc. as good as new, with just 4500 Kms on the dashboard, black with a dark red saddle.

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My lovely Breva 850cc. still in the dealer’s showroom

Though I immediately fell in love with it, a very very small part of my still functioning rational mind told me that this model was much larger and heavier than the 750cc., that I was still not a muscular giant and that I might not even be able to put both feet on the ground while astride, let alone being able to handle its nearly 250 Kilograms. Nevertheless, the smart vendor just told me to go sit on it, try to put my both feet on the ground (I could… and both flat, not just the toe-tips!!!) and when that was fine, he encouraged me to take her out for a spin as long and far as I wished.

Needless to say, I had already decided to buy the 850cc. the very instant I touched it. It was not a simple touch, it was more like the intimate caress from a long lost lover, one that sends hot shivers down your spine…

I will never forget the thrill of the slight transverse movement caused by the stationary engine, which is typical of the Guzzi’s V-engine construction itself, where the two cylinders are placed at 90° across the bike’s longitudinal axis instead of along it, like they are on a Harley. This almost erotic tremor brought back to my mind almost forgotten images of those distant summers, that crystallized into a dreamy: “Sculetta come una bella Italiana” (which in Italian sounds much more poetic and suggestive than “She wiggles with her hips like a beautiful Italian”).

I felt I was home, and that feeling has not left me since…

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So this is a small but to me very dear story/history that continues to live on, about this beautiful brand and the special feeling it has given and still gives to its customers.

There’s only one regret: I wish my father was still alive to see me drive this beautiful “Mamma Guzzi” product.

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My dad on his Guzzi in 1945

Everything else is just perfectly fine…

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