Featured: For Italian Superbikes, Moto Guzzi Le Mans Is The Anti-Vespa

For Italian Superbikes, Moto Guzzi Le Mans Is The Anti-Vespa

By Alex Sobran
June 12, 2017
19 comments

Photography by Kieran Buttrick

The nationality adjective “Italian” is unique in the sense that it has the most broad-based range of examples to define it, much more than any other country. Put it this way: the connotations of “French” can include a bicycle with a baguette in the basket, or else maybe a little street-side Parisian cafe where said bicycle is leaning against a wrought iron table that charmingly wobbles on the cobblestones. For “English,” this could be Big Ben chiming 1 o’clock in the fog, or Big Ben chiming 2 o’clock in the heavier fog. What I mean is that the distilled ideas of these places (in many peoples’ minds anyway) are pretty much going to converge around a particular kind of tableau. This is not the case with “Italian.”

For examples of this pertaining to our interests, the name can conjure a creaky Venetian gondola being guided through the canals, propelled by the Gondolier singing “O sole mio” as you meander among the vast provenance of culture, or it can provide the mental scene of a gleaming Riva Aquarama with twin Lamborghini V12s singing their own tune as it streaks across Lake Como, forming scowls and smiles alike on the on-shore faces that cannot help but become part of the event. Another example of the dichotomy: a vintage Nuovo 500, or a Ferrari 375 Plus. I think you get the picture; the former soothes the soul and the latter stirs it. But here’s one more: A Vespa scooter and mid-70s Italian superbikes!

Motorcycles manufactured by MV Agusta, Ducati, Laverda, Moto Guzzi, Gilera, Mondial, et all, all share a rich history of racing in their Italian blood. Most notable of course being MV Agusta, with its sensational winning streak in the big GP classes. In the mid-70s, MV, Moto Guzzi, Laverda, and Ducati built big-bore, mostly race bikes, but they were called street machines all the same, and they collectively stunned the motorcycle world at the time, and still today for that matter. Along with their nosebleed prices, their paint jobs, swept fairings, barely-muffled pipes, clip-ons, and filterless Dell’Orto carbs, they projected a presence that many in the press found “lurid” as the best word to get the point across.

One such example of the bikes profiled above is the focus of this piece: a 1976 Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans. With its shaft drive and rugged pushrod engine, it was the least exotic of the bunch, especially compared to the skeletal Ducati with its overtly complex valve actuation. But, all the same, the Le Mans’ performance was right up there with the rest. And you can do maintenance on the side of the road. Its frame was designed by the eminently capable Lino Tonti, and was one that allowed its top structure to nestle low inside the “V” of the longitudinal V-Twin motor. The overall height of the bike was the lowest of the bunch as a result, and its styling—which was capped off with a daintily sized, but handsomely styled fairing—gave it an undeniable presence even among its beloved peers.

Maybe a locomotive isn’t a favorable comparison to a race-bred bike like this, but its boxy, long, low, and muscular stance made it a fitting one I think. This bike absolutely looked the business. The extensive external webbing on the engine block and transmission, the alloy wheels, and large, uniquely-linked triple-disc brakes added to that aura provided by the overall form. As mentioned earlier, the Guzzi’s performance left nothing to be desired when compared with its superbike contemporaries; deft handling and 130 mph capabilities were what it was about. On the throttle, the intake sound of the 36mm Dell’Ortos’ velocity stacks, aggressive cam, big valves, high compression pistons, and a level of exhaust muffling that can generously be called “some,” all worked together to make the definition of Italian opera more confusing; is it this thing you are riding or one of the country’s more notable Tenors?

One might find that last sentence sacrilegious; of course, the aural awe of Italian opera can bring one to tears. But, so can a lot of things Italian, not the least of which are its machinario, which includes the 850 Le Mans. All of these things make Italy a uniquely enthralling country, but what best exemplifies “Italian” remains elusive, and that’s not so bad, is it?

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Gregory Timmons
Gregory Timmons
3 years ago

The linked braking system incorporates the rear disc and one of the two front disc’s when the back brake is applied. Any benefit of the dual disc’s up front is only realised by squeezing the front brake lever in conjunction with the back brake being applied and the attendant application of a certain percentage of front brake force added during the back brake application via the linked braking system. A Moto Guzzi innovation that provides just the right balance of braking force to stop quickly without locking up the rear brake or wanting to pitch you over the bars due to too much force on the front binder that operates when using the back brake due to the linked brake system. Moto Guzzi engineered their linked system well indeed.

Mike
Mike
4 years ago

Nice article but Gilera is written with one L, not two…cheers and keep up the good work

Tim
Tim
4 years ago

Like the following

Francesco Motti
Francesco Motti
4 years ago

A venetian gondoliere that sings the neapolitan song “o sole mio” is like a scottish highlander that sings “sweet home alabama” ….wtf??

Giuseppe Maranghi
Giuseppe Maranghi
5 years ago

Baritones, not tenors… And a locomotive indeed, when running on motorways.
Giuseppe Maranghi – Laveno (VA – Italy)

martin hone
martin hone
5 years ago

Having raced both a Mk 1 LeMans and Mark III, I have always preferred the simplicity and timeless style of the Mark 1. But to say they had ‘deft handling’ is being kind. Rather ponderous, with slow steering, poor suspension but rock solid handling. It’s relatively light weight and benign 85 hp helped keep things in check. Nevertheless, a lovely bike with real character.

Gregory Timmons
Gregory Timmons
3 years ago
Reply to  martin hone

The Le Mans just has a bit too long of wheelbase to be described as “flickable.” It seems more a bike designed to gobble up the miles at a high rate of speed a la The Isle of Man TT race although it lacks the power to maintain the pace needed to log a decent result in that racing environment. Still be a lot of fun to ride in a vintage race of some sort.

Deryl Clark
Deryl Clark
5 years ago

That form of Italian is still spoken along the Double Mountain fork of the Brazos, where even cowboys understand it.

Doug Anderson
Doug Anderson
5 years ago

Way back in the day , we budding motorcycle racers tried to run against the MG race bikes prepared by Dr. John Winter. If memory serves he was a dentist stricken by the MG racing bug and went on to a position in their factory race efforts. His bikes always had a certain sound that captivated us in the garages.
Great story here, super pictures !!

Gregory Timmons
Gregory Timmons
3 years ago
Reply to  Doug Anderson

Yes, Dr. Winter caught the racing bug big time and achieved remarkable success with his well prepped Moto Guzzi race bikes and liberal interpretation of the rules along with a fearless dare devil rider pushing those racing bikes to their limits, and sometimes beyond. That Japanese multi’s

Søren Dybdal
Søren Dybdal
5 years ago

Sold my 1978 Le Mans 12 years ago. A bike with character – Still miss it!

George Millwood
George Millwood
5 years ago

i owned a Le Mans III. I tricked it out to look like a Mk I. it was a glorious combination of speed and endurance that needed little maintenance, It had rock solid handling. it was particularly suited to Australia with our long distances where the shaft drive was a real benefit.

Jan
Jan
5 years ago

One of the greatest bikes ever. That aura, that style. That sound.
But i’m a laverda man. The understated style, the offbeat sound and pure power of the 180degree 3cyl 1000cc gets under your skin to stay.

Guitarslinger
Guitarslinger
5 years ago

1) ‘ Italian ‘ can actually be summed up quite well in fact be it Gondolas in Venice … Colnago’s on the Giro .. Ferrari’s at Monza … Armani et al etc .. as ..Style con brio

2) Moto Guzzi’s racing glory days were the 20’s thru the late 50’s . By the 60’s they’d been made redundant on the racing scene and by the 70’s all but non- existent with M-G’s road bikes being relegated to Cult status

3) Therefore claiming this little beauty was in any way race inspired or engineered is blatantly false . Suffice it to say its LeMans in name only

4) To this day M-G remains a cult figure in the motorcycling world . A glorious quirky … more often than not beautiful ( con brio ) more than a bit iconoclastic cult bike barely hanging on by a financial thread .. but a cult bike
never the less

5) For one of the best reads on M-G and especially the joys , trials and tribulations of owning a Moto Guzzi … read ; ” The Perfect Vehicle ” by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Eco .. va bene … Italian and Moto Guzzi 101 e’ finita . An might I suggest in the future the author consult with the facts before posting an erroneous article such as this about such a glorious che bela macchina . 😎

Evan Bedford
Evan Bedford
5 years ago
Reply to  Guitarslinger

I have to agree on the Pierson book. One of the very, very few books I’ve read twice.

testa daria
testa daria
5 years ago
Reply to  Guitarslinger

Hey Slinger – If you want to impress us by sprinkling in Italian words in your next negative comment, at least learn how to spell them.

RedGrey
RedGrey
5 years ago
Reply to  Guitarslinger

You should have taken your own advice and consulted with someone who actually knows Italian before posting …

A A Wilson
A A Wilson
4 years ago
Reply to  Guitarslinger

Actually, the Le Mans was developed from the V7 Sport, it’s immediate predecessor which participated in FIM Endurance events such as the Bol d’Or at Le Mans…hence the name
Le Mans.
There is as much race blood in the Le Mans as there is in any of the other bikes mentioned in the article.
The first Dr John race bikes were in fact later Tonti frame Le Mans’ which inspired his larger race effort leading to the development of the Spine Frame.

A A Wilson
A A Wilson
4 years ago
Reply to  Guitarslinger

An 850cc three disk brake Le Mans prototype at the 74’ Bol d’Or endurance race at Le Man. Le Mans production began at the end of 75’. These “little beauties” as you call them definitely had race engineering designed into them. Look up Lino Tonti the frame engineer for Guzzi who developed the frame for the V7’s which became the frame for most Guzzis produced at that time. The longitude mounted Vtwin too came from the same engineer who designed the famed Guzzi V8 GP race bike of the mid fifties. This engine caught the attention of the moto world as a V700 when that special broke several 24 hour time vs distance records.
To say that the Le Mans wasn’t race inspired is to say that you don’t know much about Moto Guzzi.