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What's Going on at Moto Guzzi?

So what? Aprilia bought Moto Guzzi a couple of years ago. Lots of vehicle manufacturers are combining, from Kawasaki and Suzuki to General Motors and Saab. Is there reason to think this marriage of Italian motorcycle manufacturers is anything more than business as is now usual? Read on.

Aprilia could well prove to be the best owner of Moto Guzzi since its founder, Carlo Guzzi, died in 1964 because Aprilia is privately held. Guzzi's many and varied owners in the last quarter of the twentieth century were largely a bunch of monopoly players, seemingly more interested in sucking money out of Guzzi, or propping it up to sell to the next guy for a profit, than in building the company. In 1999, it got so bad you could purchase interest in Moto Guzzi by buying any of three different US stocks.

One might guess that Ivano Beggio was bored running the hugely successful Aprilia and needed a new challenge. Actually he always admired Moto Guzzi as a boy growing up in Italy and wanted to rescue it from those damn foreigners (Americans). He purchased Moto Guzzi for a rumored $60 million and has reportedly sunk another $40 million into renovations.

Aprilia, like Triumph, is a closely-held private corporation. It is the rare large company in which one person has all three decisive factors at hand: the vision, the decision-making authority and the money to implement the decisions. Ivano Beggio, like Triumph's John Bloor, is the real thing. Beggio's the reason Aprilia successfully competes against much larger manufacturers, both in the showroom and on the track. The future of Moto Guzzi will apparently enjoy this special advantage as well.

So it's been two years now. What's changing? Visit one of our local dealers (Skagit Powersports in Burlington, Moto International in Seattle, Vince's Motorcycles in Olympia) and you'll see for yourself. Pretty much every model got a new name and a new look for 2002. More importantly, Aprilia surveyed its dealers and distributors, compiling a list of little details needing attention, and fixed them all. So now the handlebars do not shake on the V11 Sport, the neutral light doesn't lie on the Jackal (now called the Stone), the seat feels decently comfortable on the EV and you don't need a 36" inseam to reach the side stand on the California Special. The next logical step might be that we see entirely new models based on existing engines and then eventually new models with new engines, as Guzzi's charismatic power plant will cease to meet ever-more stringent noise and emissions regulations in the future.

Moto Guzzi's apparently not giving up on their classic engine just yet, though. Already appearing in dealer showrooms are a few early-release 2003 models with hydraulically-actuated self-adjusting valves. Local Guzzi guru, Dave Richardson of Moto International, tells me that the necessary oil galleys for this update were added in 1972 with the introduction of the Eldorado! What's with that!? Rome wasn't built in a day? Dave says he bugged Guzzi about this feature in 1997 and was told it couldn't be done with a high-revving (8000 rpm) air-cooled pushrod engine. If the engine turned slower like a Harley or was water cooled it could be done. So what's changed? Simple: lifter technology. Richardson quips that probably no engine needs this new feature less than a Guzzi, what with just two cylinders, two valves per cylinder, screw & nut valve adjustment, and the cylinders conveniently jutting out the sides. I don't think he fully realizes how little most of us like to perform motorcycle maintenance! And just to show the strength of tradition, Dave reports Guzzi stalwarts turning a cold shoulder to the new engine because it lacks the familiar Guzzi valve clatter! Perhaps with Aprilia's technical expertise a device can be attached to the ignition coil and the rider's helmet, reproducing the familiar clang in the rider's ear.

For a test ride I took out the '03 Cal Special Aluminum, named for its unique and very pleasing finish. It's a little less bulky looking than the standard version California Special and a bit more like an American-style cruiser than anything previously offered by Guzzi. The first impression riding it is that it doesn't sit as low as the average cruiser. The second impression is that it's a bunch sportier, both in power and handling, than one could expect from a cruiser. Richardson, as usual, has an explanation: "This bike is a great example of the progression of motorcycle design and performance over the years. The basic chassis here was introduced 30 years ago on the V7 Sport. At that time, it was a front-line sport bike. Soon after, it became the basis for a range of standards, sport tourers, touring, and police models. Now it only serves for cruisers, although granted, an Italian manufacturer can't make a cruiser that doesn't handle. Over the years it's gained some extra bracing and now it's made of chrome moly rather than mild steel. The frame is also why the seat isn't as low as most cruisers: these things have most of the cornering clearance of a sport bike. What's really an amazing progression, though, are the brakes and suspension over the years. The V7 Sport got by with a drum brake held by 35-mm forks. Now this cruiser has 45-mm forks and the same 320-mm discs and 4-piston Brembo calipers as a current sport bike."

The Cal Special enjoys one of the most flexible engines among cruisers. Not long ago, Motorcyclist Magazine proclaimed the Jackal the quickest and fastest big-twin cruiser in the quarter mile. Since then, however, monster twins from Honda and Yamaha have probably taken that record. The Guzzi's 1100 engine, like the bike itself, makes a great balance between the extremes of cruisers and sport bikes. No other 1100-plus cruiser twins spins up to eight grand, not that it's necessary but it sure sounds great while doing it. For anyone who wonders why Guzzi's cruisers soldier on with a five-speed when the company now makes a six-speed, a single ride will convince you of the logic. The cruisers make less horsepower (74 vs. 91) but spread it over a wider powerband, therefore requiring less shifting. The Cal Special is more pleasant at stop-and-go traffic than most bikes, thanks to a hefty flywheel, while remaining so long legged that fifth seems wrong at speeds under 70. Five grand in fifth translates to an even 100 mph and the bike tops out at a touch over 120. In this world of narrowly-focused, overly-specialized motorcycles, here's one that is downright versatile. Guzzi even offers enough touring gear to make this a decent distance bike.

Moto Guzzi's cruiser line includes the non-flashy and curiously-named Stone, the previously-mentioned California Special, and the touring EV. The popular V11 Sport is now called the Sport Naked to help differentiate it from the fairing-equipped V11 LeMans. For 2002 each model had a special edition available, a trend that will likely continue into the future. And speaking of Guzzi's future, I asked Dave if he had any inside information on what's in development. Oddly, he didn't have much to say for a change. Dave is the chair of the US Guzzi Dealer Advisory Council and earlier this year he and three other dealers were invited to the Guzzi factory on Lake Como to talk about the US market. Afterwards, he was thanked for "sacrificing" his time with hopes they could bother him again this way in the future. Needless to say, Dave's not going to blow an ongoing arrangement like that by spilling the beans! It is kind of cool, though, that we have a local dealer with good connections. So be careful what you suggest to Dave; you might be inspiring the next Moto Guzzi!


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