This week we shift from four wheels to two and cover the early years of the one of the world’s most legendary motorcycle manufacturers. Established in 1921 in Mandello del Lario, Moto Guzzi is the oldest European manufacturer in continuous motorcycle production. Throughout its long history, the company has played an important and historic role in Italy’s motorcycling manufacturing industry, not only through its worldwide prominence in racing, but also by its technical innovations.Since 2004, Moto Guzzi has been a subsidiary (and one of seven brands) owned by Piaggio & C. SpA, Europe’s largest and the world’s fourth largest motorcycle manufacturer. But long before Piaggio, there is the story of the rise of a racing titan.
Moto Guzzi was conceived by two aircraft pilots and their mechanic while serving in the Corpo Aeronautico Militare (the Italian Air Corps) during World War I – Carlo Guzzi, Giovanni Ravelli and Giorgio Parodi. The three were assigned to the same Miraglia Squadron based outside of Venice. They came from very different backgrounds, but together envisioned creating a motorcycle company once the war had ended. Guzzi would engineer the motor bikes; Parodi, the son 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 exploits. Guzzi and Parodi, along with Parodi’s brother, formed Moto Guzzi in 1921. Tragically, Ravelli died just days after the war’s end in an aircraft crash, but is still commemorated by the eagle’s wings that form the Moto Guzzi logo.
With funding from Parodi Sr., the company was legally based in Genoa, Italy, but its headquarters was located more than 100 miles away in Mandello del Lario, located on the eastern shores of Lake Como Lake. The very earliest motorcycles bore the name G.P. (Guzzi-Parodi), though the marque quickly changed to Moto Guzzi.
Carlo Guzzi’s first engine design was a horizontal single-cylinder engine that was produced throughout the first 45 years of the company’s history in various configurations. Initiating a practice many decades before AMG took up the banner, through 1934, each engine bore the signature of the mechanic who built it. True to Ravelli’s vision, the company used racing to promote the brand. In the prestigious 1935 Isle of Man TT, Moto Guzzi factory rider Stanley Woods scored wins in both the Lightweight and Senior Tourist Trophies.
Until the mid-1940s, the company’s horizontal four-stroke single-cylinder 500 cc engines were the highest performance motors sold to the general public. By contrast, the company supplied the official racing team and private racers with exceptionally high performance racing machines with varying overhead cam, multi-valve configurations and cylinder designs.
In the 1950s, Moto Guzzi led the world of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Its durable and lightweight 250 cc and 350 cc bikes dominated the mid-weight classes, with the factory winning five consecutive 350 cc world championships between 1953 and 1957. The designer of the motorcycle, Giulio Carcano, became a legend. Born in 1910, he was an engineer with Guzzi from 1936 to 1966, after which he became a naval architect, but he remained in service with the company for many years following his official retirement. He is best remembered as the inventor of the DOHC V8 engine and the air-cooled V-twin that became synonymous with Moto Guzzi.
Realizing that low weight alone might not continue to win races for the company, Carcano designed the V8 500 cc GP race bike. The engine was one of 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, the V8 was not developed further as Moto Guzzi withdrew from racing after the 1957 season, citing escalating costs and diminishing motorcycle sales. By the time of its pull out from Grand Prix racing, Moto Guzzi had won 3,329 official races, 8 World Championships, 6 Constructor’s Championships and 11 Isle of Man TT victories.
Next week the Series will continue with the later generations of Moto Guzzi. Please send comments to [email protected].