When I think of Italy I think of fantastic looking motorcycles and catwalk models adorned with designer outfits. Both can be expensive and high maintenance, I will leave you to decide if they are worth it to you.
Here, I just talk about the bikes. They are the supermodels here.
I have my personal favourites and have owned Cagiva’s and Laverda’s for years now. One of the latest additions was a beautiful old Aprilia Pegaso that I love too, and I am lucky to have a Laverda SF2 that I have spent years rebuilding. Finally it is nearly there now.
There is a style that seems ubiquitous with Italian motorcycles and love it or not, there are aspects of that “Italian Way” that you have to respect.
Masterful engineering and a clear focus on aesthetic design, they are like no other bikes manufactured, and some models will always stand out from the crowd.
This is the first of 2 videos, in it I cover the period from the 70’s up to the mid nineties.
When the Italian economy crashed in the late seventies and early eighties, the industry took a big hit with all the major Italian companies agreeing to withdraw from racing.
In the second video I will cover the period I will call the renaissance, into to the new millennium.
It may be that I have to add a 3rd part of more modern bikes, but for now only a 2 part series is planned. It was due to be one video, but as you know by now, my lists can grow more than expected once I start working on them. It reached a point where it was going to be over an hour long, so I decided it was better to split it up.
The next episode will follow next week, so keep watching and subscribe to the channel so you get the notification when it is uploaded.
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Now, back to the bikes.
Just for a change I am going to do this list in date order. Each of the bikes has a unique character and putting them into a top ten style list just doesn’t do them justice.
Without further adieu.
MV Agusta 750 Sport
First on this list we have the beguiling MV Agusta 750 Sport. First built in 1970, it was the ultimate “Look at me” motorcycle. The 750 Sport was the first in a long line of 750cc 4 cylinder, race bred MV Agusta motorcycles, developed from the 500cc GP bike. This line led to the now famous 750 America and the equally fabled Arturo Magni Specials.
Made in tiny numbers, completely by hand, these were the work of dedicated engineers in an era when the motorcycle industry was coming of age.
Until this point, no one had achieved more success in GP racing than MV Agusta. When you start to understand that this bike was as famous as the great Giacomo Agostini, then you begin to see why every passing eye turns to see what it is.
Many will have seen the bikes in magazines and some read about their racing prowess in the headlines. Few will have seen one in the flesh and even fewer had the visceral experience of hearing those 4 pipes roar. Even standing at the side of one running, you can feel a tension in the air as the throb of the engine and the cackle of that exhaust seems to challenge and taunt any other motorcycles in the vicinity.
These bikes weren’t just about performance, they exuded quality and engineering skill. The passion with which they had been designed and built was unquestionable.
Ceriani drum brakes were the best in their day and the alloy Borrani rims were straight off the racetrack.
These bikes were the epitome of everything MV Agusta.
The crank runs on a set of 6 main bearings which was unheard of, and you won’t find any plain bearings in this engine. The sand cast casings are a piece of art. The bikes were built to last, but that did come at a cost.
When they do come up for sale now it really is a case of name your price, as there are less bikes available than people who want them. The only criteria really is how fast you want to buy or sell one. Most owners know exactly what they have. A true piece of motorcycling history.
Benelli Tornado 650
This next motorcycle was one of the most advanced pushrod engines ever built, and it won’t cost you as many kidneys as the MV either.
Benelli decided that rather than designing a new overhead cam engine, they would take the pushrod design they knew and make the design as compact, lightweight and high revving as they could. The Benelli Tornado 650 was released onto the market in 1971 and what a bike it was.
The engine had an 84mm bore with just 58mm of stroke making it the most over-square engine of its day. This made the engine shorter and the pushrods lighter helping it to rev more freely. It influenced the major move to oversquare engine design so earns its place here for everyone that loves to rev there bikes hard.
It was developed using ideas from the MotoBenelli racers which revved to an astounding 11,500rpm, but for the road it was retuned and hit 52HP at 7200rpm with the redline set at 7500rpm
It was just as lively as the overhead cam 650’s of the day and had masses of midrange torque. This made it a really easy bike to ride fast compared to the competition.
Cycle World at the time described it as the best 650cc bike for touring they had ever tested, which is some complement when the R65 and Moto Guzzi V65 were ruling that market and bikes like the CB 650 four were breaking new ground.
Overall the Benelli was a great balance between sporty roadster and comfortable tourer, but it never quite hit the mark with sales. In part this was definitely affected by the new Japanese fours that began to expand their foothold in the European market.
Moto Guzzi 750 S
It might surprise some people that the Moto Guzzi 750 S is next on my list. Many would immediately put the Le Mans there instead, but without the 750 S the Le Mans might never have been built.
Released onto the market in 1973, this is a bike that just oozes class. You can already see the silhouette that became the classic lines of the Le Mans in this fantastic Lino Tonti design.
By the time the S3 was built in 1975 the claimed power was up to 70HP but was probably closer to 60 at the back wheel. Not the most powerful, but don’t think of it as an underpowered bike. Where it shone was the way it ate endless miles, with a 5 gallon tank and a smooth character only rivalled by the BMW R series of the day.
The long and low chassis with the top tube tucked between the 2 cylinder blocks made it stable, whether you were on the highway or a mountain pass, and the suspension was firm without being harsh. This was a GT roadster for the motorcycle world and it excelled at that job, bringing a little more luxury and style to the party than most of the bikes of it’s day.
The early models had a drum rear brake but by the time the S3 was made it had a triple disk system coupled to what I believe was the first linked braking system, where both the front and rear brakes was engaged by the handlebar brake lever.
All in all the Moto Guzzi 750 S sat between many of the bikes on the market. It wasn’t as fast as the Ducati’s or the Japanese fours, but it wasn’t as bulky or sedate as some of the more focussed touring bikes, so it made a really good, usable package. It was just not as easy to market as some of the more performance orientated bikes that were flooding the market.
Ducati 900 SD Darmah
Next on the list and I would say one of the best looking motorcycles ever built is the Ducati 900 SD Darmah.
It was 1977, Fabio Taglioni had been updating the Ducati Bevel drive Desmo engines every year since their inception, and this was the peak of the design. Taglioni was a racer and to him, speed was all that mattered.
Then, along comes Leo Tartarini, an ex Ducati racer, retired through injury, who had become one of the most influential dealerships Ducati had.
After becoming involved with a successful advertising campaign, at the behest of the Ducati management, he was appointed to be lead designer in the styling of a new more road focussed motorcycle.
And so the curved, organic lines of the Ducati Darmah came to grace our gravelled roads.
Under the skin this was the same bevel drive, Desmo Ducati as the 900SS but it had been retuned for touring instead of absolute power.
The frame used the engine as a stressed member and the overall weight of 215kg dry still made it lighter than most of the Italian Superbikes of its time.
Never the fastest, the Darmah, as its name implied, had the poise of a crouching tiger ready to pounce.
The torque of the engine made acceleration effortless, but handling was always its forte. With respect to that, it was hard to beat. Ceriani front forks, Marzocchi Strada rear shocks and Brembo brakes made an unrivalled package for the time.
It might never have the outright performance of the 900SS, but it had that all important piece of Italian finesse. It had style, by the bucket-load
Moving down in capacity, but certainly not style we come to the Laverda Montjuic, built from 1979 to 1982.
Named after the Road Racing Circuit in the heart of Barcelona, it was often overshadowed by its bigger brothers, but the Laverda Montjuic was a fantastic bike. Built with the passion for excellence that Laverda had become synonymous with.
The casting facilities at the Breganze factory were second to none at the time. The grade of aluminium used on the engines was simply better than everyone else’s. With the possible exception of MV Agusta of course.
The Montjuic was effectively a road going version of the “Formula” 500cc racing twin. It wasn’t refined, it rattled like a tin can full of ball bearings with a megaphone attached, but it was a stunning motorcycle to ride and loved to be revved.
You could think of it like a Ducati Desmo single fed from birth on steroids as much as a scaled down Laverda SFC. Either way this was a bike that begged to be ridden hard.
Compared to the 500cc bikes of the day it was streets ahead. It was a small, lightweight bike that was more comparable to the RD 350LC in size than any other 500’s of its day, and this showed, with razor sharp handling.
The reality is, it was the size and weight of the average 250 at the time, but with almost 60HP on tap, it could level the playing field very quickly when sat alongside many bigger bikes.
It would never be happy in traffic or around town, but let it free on an open road and get that gorgeous motor spinning and you will be smiling from ear to ear after the very first bend.
During the late 70s and early 80s the Italian economy crashed, and all the Italian motorcycle manufacturers suffered. They collectively withdrew from racing which had been the life blood of international sales. Build quality began to suffer at many companies too. Many of the brands we loved went under, however, there was one significant exception to this.
That was Cagiva, the brainchild of the Castiglioni brothers, Claudio and Giovanni. The motorcycle that was the peak of the companies efforts was the ubiquitous Cagiva Elefant.
Cagiva had taken to racing during the depths of the Italian recession, just as the other Italian manufacturers were withdrawing. They had become recognised for the small 2 stroke engines they produced in the old AMF/Aermacchi factory in Varesi, but in 1983 they began to use engines made by the then failing Ducati.
Their WMX motocross bike had won the world title in 1985 and 86, just 7 years after the company was founded. This led to a focus on the great Paris Dakar, and the Ducati engines made that a real possibility.
So The Castiglioni brothers simply bought Ducati, along with Husqvarna. Over the next few years the basic WMX chassis was adapted and strengthened and the various Ducati engines were mounted in it until in 1985 we saw the very first 900cc Cagiva Elefant, powered by the great Bevel drive Desmo engine from the Ducati 900SS.
It took 5 years, but in 1990 Edi Orioli finally gave Cagiva the win they had worked for. Against the might of Honda, Yamaha and BMW, the tiny factory in Varesi had done it. This victory alone would have sealed their place in Italian motorcycle history, but not content, they continued to push, and won again in 1994, by which time the great Randy Mamola and Eddy Lawson were also tearing up the 500cc GP championship on Cagiva’s.
It will always be the Elefant that Cagiva are remembered so fondly for. There is some more about it in the “ADV Gems” video linked above.
This bike was so famous, and so well loved, that 30 years later, despite having no real connection to the company built by the Castiglioni brothers, both Ducati and MV Agusta have tried to revive the spirit of the original Cagiva Elefant with the Desert X and Lucky Explorer adventure bikes.
Personally, I don’t like the fact these companies have tried to cash in on the Legacy of the great Cagiva brand, but I guess that is the way of big business. I do wonder what the Castiglioni brothers would have to say about it outside of the press box.
Gilera RC 600
Another company that used the Paris Dakar to boost sales was Gilera. In 1991 they won the Dakar Silhouette class for production based bikes, and the RC600, designed by the great Federico Martini of Bimota fame, would seal its place in the motorcycle hall of fame.
The RC600 came in 2 guises as a road legal bike. One, the RC600C was more of an adventure bike while the other, the RC600R, was a lighter and more dirt focussed dual sport motorcycle. Both were exceptional bikes, built to the same exacting standards as the incredible Gilera road racing bikes of the 50’s, 60s and 70s.
The 600cc single was a truly great and innovative engine in its day, with a toothed belt driving the twin overhead cams. By 1992 it was producing 53HP and unlike many singles would happily rev past its 7300 rpm redline until maximum power was reached at around 8000 rpm.
These are another rare motorcycle nowadays. They were never imported officially to the UK but a few did make it over here, especially after the trade barriers came down when the European single market began to take effect.
Next and the last bike in this first episode, we have the bike that saved Ducati.
You could say the Ducati Monster was another one of the happy accidents of the motorcycle industry, but one man fought hard to make it a reality.
Miguel Galluzzi was designing cars for GM/Opel in Germany, but he was bored with the car industry. Then, in 1987 he was hired by Soichiro Honda and set up in a studio in Italy. His job, to help Honda understand the way the Italian industry worked.
His original sketches were thrown out by Honda who refused to acknowledge the benefits of stripping back the bodywork that had become synonymous with many of their bikes. Bikes like the then new CBR600F were where they saw the future.
Two years later they parted company, and the frustrated designer had a chance meeting with the Castiglioni brothers who then owned Cagiva, Ducati and Husqvarna. In 1990, he was hired with the express idea of developing an all new 900SS.
Despite its success, Galluzzi was never happy with the fully faired 900SS which he had originally proposed a half fairing for. At one point it is even reported that he simply took a hacksaw to a 750SS to cut off the lower fairing to reveal the engine in order to make his point.
His philosophy was simple, That the form of a bike should be just enough to enjoy the ride. Nothing more and nothing less.
He took the engine from the 900SS and an existing trellis chassis and began to cut away everything that wasn’t essential to the design. From engine to chassis each piece was minimised or removed until a basic shape began to appear, revealing a motorcycle reminiscent of the past but also looking to the future.
When some “wise” journalist commented that “this is so futuristic” Galluzi just laughed, asking where had he been for the last 50 years.
Even the name was an accident. The Marketing men at Cagiva called late one evening to ask “What is the name of your new project?”. It had been given the code name M900 but it didn’t have a name, Galluzi saw his children’s favourite rubber toys on the floor and smiled, they were called little “Monsters” and so the Monster was born.
Even then it wasn’t a smooth path. The Cagiva marketing team hated the name, but the French importers who were at the meeting loved it and said it was perfect. The rest, shall we say, is history. The Monster became Ducati’s biggest selling bike of all time and saved the company. The same design philosophy was continued for the next 25 years and has only been slightly moved away from that vision with the latest 2023 model.
Few bikes can boast a production run that long. You can see several of the variations of the Monster in the footage. It is a great example of a Bare Bones Motorcycle. Everything you need and nothing you don’t, and the early Monsters will always be sat high on the podium in the motorcycle hall of fame.
Words From The Shed
Well, that’s it for this episode, I will get the second part of the video finished and posted next week so keep an eye out.
The Bimota Tesi
Just a quick final mention here goes to another bike that will feature more in part 2. That is possibly one of the most technically advanced motorcycles ever built, the Bimota Tesi. The first Tesi hit the market in 1990, powered by the Ducati 851cc engine, but it evolved over many years. I will talk about it in the next episode because that is the time period when it turned into something more than a designers dream.
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The renaissance of the Italian motorcycle industry became a very exciting time to ride so there is plenty more to come.
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