Why The MV Agusta 350cc Triple Is One Of The Most Significant Racing Bikes Ever Built
Photography by Will Broadhead
Japan, 1965. A young Italian runs his hands across the bright red tank of his three-cylinder, four-stroke Grand Prix bike. His goggles come down, left hand squeezes the clutch, right hand grips the throttle, and he stares in the direction of the starting flag, awaiting his date with destiny. Giacomo Agostini is his name, and in his debut Grand Prix season he has caused quite the stir. The motorcycle he rides is also brand new for this season, but the marque is no stranger to racing, and winning: MV Agusta.
The bike has already taken three wins in the 350cc class during the ’65 season, all under Agostini. Only Jim Redman has won more and is ahead of “Ago” in the standings, the Rhodesian rider mounted on a—you guessed it—Honda. The 500cc championship is already done and dusted, MV have secured that, again, with Mike Hailwood winning almost every race and Agostini in a solid second. Yes, the same guy; this was a time when racers rode in multiple classes and when the championships included racing on the roads of the Isle of Man to boot.
Hailwood would win that day at Suzuka, on his 350cc MV, although the world championship looked to be going to Ago, until he was forced to retire from a commanding lead with a mechanical failure, handing the championship to Redman and to Honda. Agostini would go on to become arguably the greatest of all time, and the 350cc MV? Well, that would certainly become one of the greatest motorcycles ever to take to the circuits as well.
The one I have in front of me is a replica, the real one’s are scarce and held onto tightly by museum curators, but it comes to something when even the replicas cost well north of 100k. This one, built by the world-renowned Kays, is under the stewardship of my friends at the Motor Hub, and I’ve often stared at it longingly during my visits to the Cotswolds.
There is little to no chance of ever starting the machine, but even swinging a leg over it feels special, its tiny dimensions and light weight make it almost like a toy, but with a top speed of 150mph and kicking out 62 horses at 13,500rpm, it is not for the faint of heart. I’ve had the pleasure of photographing these machines on the Mountain Course on the Isle of Man, and the sound of those three cylinders singing at max revs is something to behold, just thinking about it gives me goosebumps, and laying flat across the tank in the safety of the Hub’s hangar, the hairs on my arms rise yet again. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? But this is the power of the imagination, and the catalyst of my daydreams is the red and silver motorcycle bearing that famous badge.
This recreation is constructed to the 1971 spec of the famous 350 machine, and the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the dual disc setup (it took motorcycle manufacturers much longer to get round to using disc brakes), although it does have the option to run a four leading shoe drum as well, a much more attractive item in my eyes, although I might feel differently about that at the end of the run down into Creg-ny-Baa! Built from factory drawings, it is every inch an accurate replica, with an engine largely manufactured from magnesium, and the correct seven-speed ’box with a righthand side racing shift pattern. Three Dell‘Orto carbs feed the rev-happy powerhouse that is cradled in the center of the frame, their open bell-mouths one of the reasons that I will always love a carburetor.
Then there is the shape. There is just something about Grand Prix motorcycles of this era that always resonates with me; I wasn’t alive when they were competing, but it always feels like my earliest childhood memories of motorcycles looked like this. It just looks fast standing still, and despite its diminutive size, the machine has a presence befitting that of a champion. Its lines are perfect, the narrow-nosed fairing sweeping down over the slim profile of the machine afforded by the three cylinders. The soft curves of the tank, with the cut-outs that fit perfectly to a rider’s proportions and then the perfectly formed seat hump, all rolling along on spoked wheels laced to the most exquisitely formed alloys.
It is a beautiful thing, but its beauty was not only skin deep, and while the rider’s championship evaded man and machine in its first season, over the coming years the nimble MV three-cylinder bikes would win almost everything in sight. 1966 saw the arrival of the 350cc’s sister, with the 500cc triple that was a bored out 350. For the next seven years a 500 “Tre” would bring the title home to Italy in the premier class and the 350 machines would also win six crowns on the bounce, and the pair went on to earn 11 manufacturers’ championships for Count Domenico Agusta’s team.
It’s almost impossible to draw comparisons to MV and Agostini’s domination in this era, with this bike, to anything that has happened since. One must again remember that at this time the world championship included not only the fearsome Isle of Man, but the high-speed Irish Roads of Dundrod, the always-perilous Nürburgring, and other roads circuits, such as Immatra, as well as the purpose-built circuits that are more recognizable today. The variance from one race to the next was massive, the risk to the riders extreme. This isn’t to say that the achievements of those that have come since are any less impressive, just different. The MV triples are rightfully cemented into the history and folklore of racing motorcycles forever, and this 350, despite being a replica, is a great reminder of why.