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A cafe racer at its best - an austere Moto Guzzi V50 from 1979, a favorite of reader and soon to be first-time father, Joe Licci.

The History of the Italian Automobile

Part 78 – Evolution at Moto Guzzi

By David Cavaliere

The period after World War II was as difficult in Mandello del Lario as it was elsewhere in post-war Europe. Just as was the case in automobiles, for motorcycles, the solution was production of inexpensive, lighter cycles. This was not without its own issues. Motorcycle popularity was waning in Europe, while scooters were gaining enormous popularity; however, Italian scooter manufactures were not keen on Moto Guzzi entering their market. By innovating the first large-wheeled scooter, Guzzi competed less directly with manufacturers of small-wheeled scooters such as Piaggio (Vespa) and Lambretta (See Part 15 Vespa – Happy 70th Birthday! April 28, 2016 and Part 48 – The Story of Innocenti, February 16, 2017).

Just after the war, the 1946 Motoleggera, a 65 cc lightweight motorcycle sold well in Italy, as did the four-stroke 175 cc scooter known as the Galletto. Though modest by the standards of the company, the lighter cycles continued to feature Guzzi’s innovation and commitment to quality. The step-through Galletto initially featured a foot-shifted three-speed, with a four-speed 175 cc engine introduced in 1952. Ultimately the displacement would increase to 192 cc, with an electric starter added in 1961. But to illustrate the delicate balance within the Italian post-war motorcycle and scooter markets, when Guzzi developed their own prototype for a small-wheeled scooter, Lambretta retaliated with a prototype for a small V-twin motorcycle, threatening to directly compete on Moto Guzzi’s turf. The two companies compromised – Guzzi never produced their small-wheeled scooter and Lambretta never manufactured the motorcycle.

By 1964, the company was in full financial crisis. Emanuele Parodi and his son Giorgio had died; Carlo Guzzi had retired to private life and direction passed to Enrico Parodi, Giorgio’s brother. In February 1967, SEIMM (Società Esercizio Industrie Moto Meccaniche), a state-controlled receiver, took ownership of Moto Guzzi. The SEIMM oversight saw Moto Guzzi adapt to a cultural shift away from motorcycles. The company focused on popular lightweight mopeds, including the Dingo and Trotter and the 125 cc Stornello motorcycle. If there was one positive that emerged from the era, it was the development of Carcano’s 90° V twin engine, which would come to define Moto Guzzi in the decades to come.

Though Moto Guzzi has employed engines in a myriad of configurations, none has come to symbolize the company more than the air-cooled 90° V-twin. It began life with a 700 cc displacement and 45 hp, designed to win a competition sponsored by the Italian government for a new police bike. The sturdy shaft-drive, air-cooled V-twin was the winner of the contract, giving Moto Guzzi renewed competitiveness. The engine has been continuously developed and today includes a 1,200 cc, 80 hp version.

After experiencing financial difficulties through the late 1960s and early 70s, De Tomaso Industries Inc. (See Part 24 – De Tomaso Modena SpA, July 7, 2016), purchased SEIMM (along with Moto Guzzi) as well as Benelli motorcycles and Maserati in 1973. Under Tomaso’s stewardship, Moto Guzzi returned to profitability.

In 1976, Guzzi released the 850 Le Mans. It was a stylistic masterpiece and remains one of the most iconic and sought-after of the company’s models. It was a marketing success that would compete with other Italian superbikes and spawned four later models, from the Mark II to its culmination in the 1990s – the Mark V. The initial model was known as the Mark I. Technically, it was named the 850 Le Mans, but as is the case of the Beatles “White Album,” no one uses its correct name. Most Mark I bikes were painted in an eye-catching brilliant red, with a small number in metallic ice blue.

In 1979, a small-block version of the air-cooled V-twin was introduced as the V35. Radical when introduced, the design featured elements of contemporary Japanese motorcycle design that allowed for more efficient mass production. The design also cut the weight of the motorcycle dramatically – from 548 lb. to 385 lb. With its ease of maintenance and durability, the engine was ideally suited for every day, real-world usage. As Guzzi continued to develop the V-twin, power was increased in the mid-1980s when it created four-valve versions of the “small block” series. The series lasted only until the end of the decade.

Still under the De Tomaso umbrella, in 1988, Benelli and SEIMM merged to create Guzzi Benelli Moto (G.B.M. S.p.A.). During this period, Moto Guzzi existed as an entity within the De Tomaso owned G.B.M., but in 1996, the company celebrated its 75th birthday and the return of its name to Moto Guzzi S.p.A. In 1996, De Tomaso became Trident Rowan Group, also known as TRG.

Under the helm of Ivano Beggio, Aprilia S.p.A acquired Moto Guzzi S.p.A on April 14, 2000. According to the original press release, the intention had been that Moto Guzzi would remain headquartered in Mandello del Lario and would share Aprilia’s technological, R&D capabilities and financial resources as well. The arrangement would be short-lived, as Aprilia itself stumbled financially. Nevertheless, Aprilia committed a significant amount of capital to renovate the Mandello Moto Guzzi factory. Ducati Motor Holding (See Part 30 – Ducati Motorcycles, August 18, 2016) made an offer for Moto Guzzi during Aprilia’s financial difficulties. This was Ducati’s second overture, the first occurring in 2000 when Aprilia had purchased Moto Guzzi. Other suitors emerged, some were like sharks who sensed blood in the water, while others sought to preserve the status of the iconic company. For a while, it was difficult to see what the future would hold. In March 2004, Moto Guzzi actually closed its assembly line for a short period, due to the financial difficulties.

On December 30, 2004, Piaggio & C. S.p.A, acting in a role that investors refer to as a ‘White Knight,’ acquired Aprilia. Moto Guzzi S.p.A officially became a Unico Azionista of Piaggio, part of Immsi S.p.A. Investments have allowed introduction of a series of competitive new models in rapid succession. In November 2007, Moto Guzzi unveiled the retro-themed 2008 V7 Classic at the Motorcycle and Bicycle Manufacturers show in Milan, Italy. It was available in Europe in mid-2008 and Moto Guzzi announced plans in late-2008 to make it available to U.S. buyers. The company also began making limited collectors’ editions of Guzzi originals and as the company approaches it 100 year anniversary in 2021, the future looks bright for this motorcycle legend.

Next week the Series feature automobile and racing car manufacturer Officine Nardi. Please send comments to [email protected].