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On 15 March this year, one of Europe’s oldest motorcycle manufacturers clocked over a century of continuous motorcycle production. Here are a handful of highlights

Words Ivar de Gier Photography Archives A. Herl, Tenni and Guzzi family archive

During the bloodshed of World War I, two Italian pilots and a mechanic of the Italian Air Force became friends through a common passion for motorcycles.

It’s 1914 and that is Carlo Guzzi seated on his Della Ferrera motorcycle

Giovanni Ravelli was a successful racer in the prewar days, Carlo Guzzi had a background in engineering while Giorgio Parodi was the son of a wealthy Genovese ship broker. The trio decided to start a motorcycle manufacturer after the war and their roles were clear: the rider, the designer and the financier. However Giovanni never got to see the plan through, he was killed in a flying accident in the August of 1919.

Company founder Guzzi was a keen skier

When Giorgio discussed the plans with his father in order to secure the funds, his father had his doubts. So, he asked the pair to show him what they were capable of. Triggered by the opportunity to build his dream motorcycle, Carlo went to work in his hometown, these days called Mandello del Lario. He designed and constructed the GP (Guzzi Parodi) in 1919.

Moto Guzzi engineer Ing Giulio Cesare Carcano, photographed in 1955

An innovative horizontal OHC four-valve 498.4cc single-cylinder measuring 88 x 82mm, the same dimensions, in fact, that Guzzi would produce right up until its very last 500cc single, the 1969-1976 Nuovo Falcone. Shaft-driven bevel gears operated the overhead camshaft, while a twin-spark ignition enhanced performance as the compression ratio was a meagre 3.5:1. To keep the 12hp engine case compact, Carlo placed the 280mm flywheel on the outside – another hallmark of Guzzi’s engineering design until 1976.

Giuseppe Guzzi was a car and motorcycle dealer before his involvement with Moto Guzzi. That’s him driving in Mandello del Lario in 1910

Carlo’s older brother Giuseppe did most of the frame design, he was one of the first employees of the new company. The frame was a combination of tubing and sheet metal, also novel at the time.

Guzzi’s production line in 1946

The prototype was measured to reach a top speed of 100km/h. Emanuele Parodi liked the result but hired a consultant technical engineer to make sure, who was substantially impressed, so he released the funds. The Moto Guzzi name was chosen to remove any association with his shipping empire and an eagle was chosen as the motif in honour of Giovanni.

The company’s Motoleggera 65 saved Guzzi post-war

The company was established on 15 March, 1921 and soon the first production model appeared in a small building on the location where today’s Guzzi factory still resides.

Omobono Tenni astride the 250 Compressore at the 1939 Lightweight TT

That first model was dubbed Normale and it was quite similar to the GP, except the top end used a side inlet valve and to optimise cooling, an overhead exhaust valve was driven by a pushrod. The first two Moto Guzzis built were used in the 869km Raid Nord Sud of 1921, ridden by Mario Cavedini and influential politician and avid rider Aldo Finzi who, excited by the new machines, pressured a reluctant Carlo Guzzi to let the pair participate in this gruelling event.

Stanley Woods on his 250 OHC works racer after winning the Lightweight TT in 1935

Against fierce competition, the pair finished sixth and ninth and the resulting positive publicity was overwhelming. A week later, Aldo’s brother Gino Finzi borrowed the Normale to participate in the Targa Florio for motorcycles. It was only the second Targa ever to be held for bikes – and Gino won. It was the very first victory of many for Moto Guzzi who, by the end of 1957 when it decided to stop its factory roadrace efforts, had racked up 3329 race victories, eight rider world championships, six constructor titles, 11 Isle of Man TT victories and numerous national championships in the 250cc and 500cc classes.

Ken Kavanagh in the Lightweight TT in 1954

The Normale formed the base of the first purpose-built racer, the 1923 C 2V, as well as a series of sports-touring machines produced until 1934, ending with the Sport 15. Early Guzzis all featured rigid rear frames, something that Giuseppe Guzzi tried to improve in the 1920s. His experiments culminated in a 6500km test ride to the Arctic Circle in 1926 and lead to the fully sprung GT of 1928 (and the Norge nickname which is still used today). It was basically a 500 Sport with a rear parallelogram-style swingarm which was sprung by a suspension package under the engine. Despite its modern features, the GT wasn’t the success as was hoped for with just 78 bikes built.

Tenni won the 1937 Lightweight TT

In 1932, Carlo Guzzi developed a new 175cc lightweight with pushrod-driven overhead valves that quickly would grow in capacity to 246cc. With the addition of the fully sprung frame and a four-speed gearbox it would evolve into the famous Airone series, starting in 1939. It remained in production as Guzzi’s only 250 production model until 1957, undergoing several styling and engine modifications.

Moto Guzzi 500cc Astores being assembled in 1949

The new lightweight range of the early 1930s was more far more modern than the existing 500cc engine, so using the 175’s engine design, a 500cc was produced and unveiled during the 1933 Milan Show. The new three-speed 500 was available as both an overhead- or opposed-valve layout, or with a rigid or sprung frame. These machines ultimately lead to the famous 500cc Falcone, which was introduced in 1950 as a 167kg sportsbike capable of 135km/h, and which remained in production in various forms until 1967. It was the last of the classic, open-flywheel Guzzis made and it still featured the same bore and stroke as the 1919 GP machine. Thanks to the talented engineer Giulio Carcano, who joined Guzzi in 1936, they were not only very powerful but also very light.

Stanley Woods after winning the 1935 Lightweight TT at the IoM

Unlike some other motorcycle factories, Moto Guzzi escaped from World War II relatively unharmed. After the war Italy was in tatters and cheap transport was needed. But Guzzi was one step ahead and introduced the Motoleggera 65 in 1946. A lightweight, 65cc two-stroke – the first two-stroke production bike produced by Guzzi. It weighed just 45kg, enough for the 2hp engine to propel the bike to a speed of 50km/h and became hugely popular.

A Falcone with sidecar during the 1955 Milan to Taranto road race

Throughout the 1950s more lightweight models would follow, and so would the popular but expensive Galletto big-wheel scooter with a single-sided rear swingarm (decades before ELF, Honda and Ducati made this feature popular), and so would the sporty 175cc and 235cc Lodola which would gain several ISDT gold medals in the 1960s.

At just 56kg Guzzi’s 1956 V8 engine was so light even rider Bill Lomas could carry it

It was a time when the motorcycle market was in a rapid decline. The larger 500cc models were not selling well any more due to the growing popularity of the small car. Lightweight motorcycles kept Guzzi going, but by 1964 the company was in a severe financial crisis. Emanuele Parodi and his son Giorgio had died, Carlo Guzzi had retired to a private life, and management was in the hands of Enrico Parodi, Giorgio’s brother. Carlo Guzzi passed away on 3 November, 1964.

Guzzi’s 1951 160cc Galletto flyer

Even though Moto Guzzi was in dire straits, it was able to develop the shaft driven V7 700. Powered by an air-cooled 703.3cc 90° V-twin engine mounted transversely in the frame, it delivered 40hp at 5000rpm. It was Carcano’s last design for Moto Guzzi and the result of a quest to win a government tender for a new, low-maintenance police and military motorcycle. At the same time, the American Guzzi importer was also looking for a new, larger-capacity motorcycle. Moto Guzzi won the tender and the American importer placed a substantial first order. In 1965 the first V7s were made and the transverse V-twin engine concept quickly became iconic for the brand, however its introduction came too late to aid the ailing factory.

Selling the 1971 V7 750 Ambassador in 1983

In February 1967, a state-controlled receiver took over Moto Guzzi to restructure the plant in a bid to make it profitable again. It focused on popular two-stroke lightweight mopeds and hired motorcycle designer and engineer Lino Tonti to further develop the V7. Soon it grew to the V7 Special and with that it became a huge sales success in both Europe but especially in the USA where it conquered the police market in many states.

In 1965 this V7 debuted at the Milan Motor Show

Tonti evolved the V7 750 into the iconic V7 Sport of 1971. Weighing 206kg and capable of 200km/h, it featured a strengthened, revised engine design delivering a power output of 72hp at 7000rpm, fitted in a new, better-handling frame. The engine was also used in F750 and endurance racing and it spawned not only the 850 and 1000 Le Mans series, but also a range of touring models like the 850 T and California series’.

In 1967 CBS News used this V7 700 to move newsreels

These ‘Tonti-framed’ models were at a moderate level continuously updated, enlarged to 850cc, 1000cc and ultimately 1100cc and manufactured in California EV and Vintage form as late as 2011. They were succeeded by the new 1400cc four-valve California at the end of 2012, followed by the current Audace, Eldorado and MGX01 model series. These models were initiated by Piaggio, owner of Moto Guzzi since it took over from financially troubled Aprilia in 2004, the new V7 and V9 series were introduced, as well as the current V85 TT adventure offering.

1971: A V7 Sport

In the 1990s the sporty but by then rather archaic Le Mans 1000 series were succeeded by the backbone-framed Sport 1100. Developed by John Wittner in 1980s American ProTwin racing, the spine frame fuelled a new series of motorcycles that started with the Daytona which went into production in 1992. The 90-degree V-twin featured belt-driven camshafts that operated four valves per cylinder. Later, the Daytona RS and Daytona Racing were introduced, the RS leading to the naked, avant garde Centauro model designed by Miguel Galluzzi and eventually to the MGS01 supersport machine.

Moto Guzzis through the years: it’s 1976 and the 850 Le Mans I has just hit the market

The four-valve engine would be further developed and formed the base for production models like the Stelvio, the V12 sport series, the Norge and the Griso.

1983: the 850 Le Mans III

The firm’s centennial celebration was held in the Northern Italian town of Mandello del Lario, where Moto Guzzi still resides. Today, the factory is a small player in the motorcycle world and absent on the circuits. But once this was a quite different story!   

1982: the 1000cc California II

1999: the Year of the Jackal? A Jackal 1100

In 2003: the V11 Le Mans Rosso Corsa and Nero Corsa

Where it all started; the Moto Guzzi factory at Mandello del Lario in 1921