Moto Guzzi's Italian Heritage
Words by Brett Smith
Behind a red metal gate in the small Italian town of Mandello del Lario are the ingredients to building great motorcycles. It’s an imposing 10- or 11-foot-tall barrier that gives the impression of something substantial happening on the other side. But it’s nothing like the foreboding gate Charlie Bucket encountered in front of Willy Wonka’s factory (“Nobody ever goes in … nobody ever comes out”).
No, the century-old façade of Moto Guzzi doesn’t stand in an attempt to shield or withhold secrets. Moto Guzzi wants everyone to know what’s coming out of its factory, which sits a few blocks inland of the Lecchese branch of Lake Como. Looming over the east side of the town is Grigna, the 8,000-foot-tall mountain massif.
Everything is assembled in the Mandello del Lario factory, but what’s even more important to Moto Guzzi is that it’s an all-Italian brand. Even the parts they don’t directly manufacture are made in Italy by Italian companies. “Heritage is our strength,” press officer Alberto Cani told half a dozen journalists as they carefully sipped nuclear-hot coffee and nibbled Italian pastries. That heritage is the reason why we’ve flown to Northern Italy in late March: We did it to ride Guzzi’s lineup of V7III models, because to fully appreciate and write about an all-Italian bike, made by Italians with Italian components, it’s important to ride the bike on the Italian roads near where the bikes are made.
Moto Guzzi isn’t the oldest Italian motorcycle manufacturer – Beta (1904), Gilera (1909), Benelli (1911) and others came first – but Moto Guzzi is the oldest to have been in continuous uninterrupted production, which started in 1921 with the Normale. It was a 500cc model that featured a single horizontal cylinder and produced a whopping 8.5 horsepower. Top speed: 52.8 miles per hour. The bike had no front brake, no headlight and no suspension.
The Guzzi story, however, actually began in the middle of the Great War, when Carlo Guzzi put forth the idea of building a better motorcycle to his friends. Guzzi was an engineer in the Royal Marines; Giorgio Parodi and Giovanni Ravelli were pilots. In 1919, they built a prototype with financial help from Giorgio’s father, Vittorio Emanuele Parodi. In a letter dated January 3, 1919, he wrote to his son:
“Although technically I am little more than a donkey, nevertheless I feel able to give a quite competent and practical judgment on the convenience and the probability of success in a similar imprint …
“The answer that you should then give to your classmates is that I am favorable in maxim, that the 1500 or 2000 lire for the experiment are at your disposal … but that I reserve the right to personally examine the project before granting my support defined to seriously launch the product. That if by chance I liked it I am willing to go a long way without limitation of numbers.”
Two thousand lire (the monetary unit of Italy until 2002) was enough for the young men to start work on “a new kind of moto.” Sadly, before their prototype was finished, Ravelli died in a plane crash. To honor him, the remaining founders designed the eagle logo, which is always looking forward on the motorcycle. The original prototype was called the G.P. (Guzzi-Parodi) but to squash the possibility of G.P. being solely linked to the initials of Giorgio Parodi, they (wisely) settled on Moto Guzzi as the brand name, as Moto Parodi sounds like something one would eat.
Carlo loved racing and realized early on how much that exposure could benefit them. They had success very early. In late May, 1921, only 10 weeks after the official founding date, they raced from Milan to Naples. That September, Gino Finzi won the famous Targa Florio event around the island of Sicily. Three years after that, Guido Mentasti won the first-ever 500cc European Motorcycle Championship riding a Moto Guzzi. Then, in 1935, Irishman Stanley Woods won the Isle of Man Senior TT. It was the first time a non-English brand had ever won the prestigious event.
As sales increased, so did the emphasis on winning. In 1949, the first year of the World Motorcycle Championships, Bruno Ruffo won the 250cc class on a Moto Guzzi; in fact, the brand took 7 of the top 10 positions in the standings. Six years later, with the help of an engineer named Giulio Cesare Carcano, Moto Guzzi showed up at the Belgian Grand Prix with a 500cc eight-cylinder monster. The first version of the “Otto Cilindri,” a 90-degree V8 four-stroke, produced 68 horsepower. But in 1957, Italy dropped a bomb on the racing world. Moto Guzzi, Gilera, Mondial and MV Agusta made a joint announcement that they were abandoning their racing efforts at the end of the season, citing the rising cost to race and a decline in sales. MV Agusta pulled out of the pact and went on to win 17 consecutive championships in the 500cc class.
The V8 motorcycle never had the chance to reach its full potential, but in the end its engineer, Carcano, gave the motorcycling world an even better gift: He developed Moto Guzzi’s first 90-degree transverse V-twin, which was put into the 1967 V7, the original version of what I’m riding around Lake Como. It became the eagle brand’s bestselling motorcycle and the engine style most closely associated with Moto Guzzi. The V7 was considered the first Italian sportbike and remains classic over 50 years later. To continue to call it a sportbike, however, is a bit of a stretch by today’s standards – it’s a 750cc that puts out 52 hp, has plenty of power, and yet is easy to ride.
At first, I was terrified of riding in Italy. I had never ridden in a foreign country. But after several hours of riding wicked tight tornantes (Italian for hairpin bends), I didn’t want to get off the bike. We left the shores of Lake Como and climbed up to 4,000 feet of elevation in the countryside between the southern branches of the lake. My fingertips were already getting stiff when the patches of snow showed up on the sides of the road. Then my fingers just went numb.
Being surrounded by so much beauty, classic architecture and adorable elderly Italians ambling across roads in front of me – or just watching me ride by from their stoops – frigid fingers were easy to ignore. After 100 kilometers of riding, we returned to Mandello del Lario for a factory tour and museum visit. Walking around the inner courtyards felt like taking a step back to the 1920s and ’30s, when these buildings were erected. In 1921, the factory was 3,230 square feet. By 1970, it had ballooned to 383,000 square feet. Much has changed; the wind tunnel built in the 1950s is no longer in use, but it was such a revolutionary testing mechanism that it remains intact and serves as a showpiece. Even though the grounds still have a pre-WWII feel and look, the guts of the buildings now house modern assembly lines, dyno rooms, offices and loading docks.
Standing near the final assembly area, we watched a red-coated inspector critically examine every Moto Guzzi. His process was meticulous, performed with mesmerizing precision. High season at the factory had just started, and the 120-employee workforce can push out 65 bikes a day, depending on the model. Yet, from the engine builders to the shipping department, nobody seemed to move with any kind of urgency. It’s not a race. It’s not how many or how fast; it’s about how good and how enjoyable.
The number of Italian makers that have come and gone since the early 1900s is well into the hundreds. From Acerboni, Aermacchi and Aetos all the way to Zenit, Zepa and Zeta, a list of the defunct marques is as shocking as it is long. It also points out a striking realization that Moto Guzzi has done something special: It has survived wars, dictators, economic crashes, buyouts, major sales declines and model flops, and never once ceased production. And for nearly 100 years, they’ve done it all from a small Italian town that’s home to barely more than 10,000 citizens.
You don’t have to travel all the way to Lake Como to experience a Moto Guzzi. No matter where you ride one, you’re going to experience the decades of development it took to give you that bike – the races done, the feats of endurance, the expeditions, the countless miles spent riding around the Dolomites. Moto Guzzi motorcycles may be manufactured behind a red metal gate, but they’re developed in the tornantes of Northern Italy.