Moto Guzzi won a great many racing championships in its early history, yet none since the late ‘50s. Their final attempt met with ultimate failure and they withdrew from racing, primarily for economic reasons.
Carlo Guzzi's initial engine design was a horizontal single that dominated the first 45 years of the company's history in various configurations. Through 1934, each engine bore the signature of the mechanic who built it. As originally envisioned, the company used racing to promote the brand. In the 1935 Isle of Man TT, Moto Guzzi factory rider Stanley Woods performed an impressive double victory with wins in the Lightweight TT as well as the Senior TT.
Until the mid-1940s, the traditional horizontal four-stroke single-cylinder 500 cc engines outfitted with one overhead and one side valve (also known as IOE, “inlet over exhaust” or F-head) were the highest performance engines Moto Guzzi sold to the general public. By contrast, the company supplied the official racing team and private racers with higher performance racing machines with varying overhead cam, multi-valve configurations, and cylinder designs.
In the 1950s, Moto Guzzi, along with the Italian factories of Gilera and Mondial, led the world of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. With durable and lightweight 250 cc and 350 cc bikes designed by Giulio Carcano, the firm dominated the middleweight classes. The factory won five consecutive 350 cc world championships between 1953 and 1957. In realizing that low weight alone might not continue to win races for the company, Carcano designed the V8 500 cc GP race bike — whose design was to become one of the most complex engines of its time.
Despite these bikes leading many races and frequently posting 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 (together with the main competitors Gilera and Mondial) 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.
This Moto Guzzi Grand Prix V8, introduced in 1955, was a 500 cc racing motorcycle fitted with a V8 engine using dual overhead camshafts (DOHC). The engine was conceived by Giulio Carcano, Enrico Cantoni, Umberto Todero, Ken Kavanagh and Fergus Anderson just after the 1954 Monza Grand Prix and designed by Dr. Carcano. Power was in the region of 80 bhp at 12,000 rpm, approximately 10–15 bhp more than the rival 4-cylinder MV Agustas and Gileras.
The engine and the bike were unprecedented. The motorcycle proved capable of achieving 172 mph — thirty years before the speed was reached again in Grand Prix motorcycle racing. However, the "Otto Cilindri" (eight cylinder) proved difficult to ride, as well as complex and expensive to build and maintain — bikes suffered broken crankshafts, overheating, and seizing — all in addition to the danger the bike posed to the racers themselves. By 1957 there were two bikes available and no one willing to race the bike without further development and the bike was withdrawn.
A greater success has been their large V-twin machines sold in the US as well as Europe. The Moto Guzzi California (a.k.a. "Cali") is a motorcycle manufactured by Moto Guzzi since 1971, bringing together the company's heritage, their iconic air-cooled 90° V-twin engines, and styling that evokes the classic American Cruiser motorcycle.
The first California was designed with the direct input of the Los Angeles Police Department Traffic Division to be the department's new model of choice. Original features included a left-foot gearshift, a bulletproof Lexan windshield, and a sprung sidestand, along with the requisite siren, radio, extra police lights, and ability to complete a standing quarter mile in 16 seconds or less. The success of the model led to other police departments ordering their own, including the California Highway Patrol.
The company was legally based in Genoa, Italy, with its headquarters in Mandello. The very earliest motorcycles bore the name G.P. (Guzzi-Parodi), though the marque quickly changed to Moto Guzzi. As the only actual shareholders, the Parodi's wanted to shield their shipping fortunes by avoiding confusion of name G.P. with Giorgio Parodi's initials. Carlo Guzzi initially received royalties for each motorcycle produced, holding no ownership in the company that bore his name. In 1946 Moto Guzzi formally incorporated as Moto Guzzi S.p.A. with Giorgio Parodi as chairman.
The period after World War II was as difficult in Mandello del Lario as it was elsewhere in post-war Europe. The solution was production of inexpensive, lighter cycles. The 1946 "Motoleggera", a 65 cc lightweight motorcycle became very popular in post-war Italy. A four-stroke 175 cc scooter known as the "Galletto" also sold well. Though modest cycles for the company, the lighter bikes continue to feature Guzzi's innovation and commitment to quality. The step-through Galletto initially featured a manual, foot-shifted three-speed (160 cc) configuration then later a four-speed (175 cc) set-up by the end of 1952. The displacement was increased to 192 cc in 1954 and electric start was added in 1961.
Moto Guzzi was limited in its endeavors to penetrate the important scooter market as motorcycle popularity waned after WWII. Italian scooter competitors would not tolerate an incursion from Moto Guzzi. By innovating the first large-wheeled scooter, Guzzi competed less directly with manufacturers of small-wheeled scooters such as Piaggio (Vespa) and Lambretta.
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. The drive train that Lambretta made in their 1953 motorcycle prototype remarkably resembles the V-twin plus drive shaft arrangement that Guzzi developed more than ten years later, ultimately to become iconic of the company.
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. Carlo Guzzi died in 1964.
Though Moto Guzzi has employed engines of myriad configurations, none has come to symbolize the company more than the air-cooled, 90 degree V-twin with a longitudinal crankshaft orientation and the engine's transverse cylinder heads projecting prominently on either side of the bike. Unlike the in-line V-twin of Harley and others, the Guzzi engine is mounted horizontally with the angled cylinders sticking out on both sides below the gas tank. Not as wide as the horizontal engines of a large BMW, this configuration contributed to better cooling than an in-line design and still gave ample ground clearance for tight cornering and room for the rider’s feet.
The original V-twin was created in the early 1960s by engineer Giulio Cesare Carcano, designer of the DOHC V8 Grand Prix racer. The air-cooled, longitudinal crankshaft, transverse cylinder, pushrod V-twin began life with 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 won, giving Moto Guzzi renewed competitiveness. This 1967 Moto Guzzi V7 with the original Carcano engine has been continuously developed into the 1,200 cc, 80 hp versions offered today. Lino Tonti redesigned the motor for the 1971 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport. This engine is the basis of the currently used 750 cc, 1,100 cc and 1,200 cc Guzzi engines. On the negative side, the longitudinal crankshaft and orientation of the engine creates a slight gyroscope effect, with a slightly asymmetrical behavior in turns.
Back in 1928, long-distance motorcycle travel was limited by the lack of an effective rear suspension design. Until then, alternative designs sacrificed torsional rigidity — gaining comfort but severely compromising handling. Carlo Guzzi and his brother Giuseppe designed an elastic frame using a sheet-steel box enclosing four springs, together with a swingarm in tubes and sheet metal.
The first Moto Guzzi bike to employ the suspension was named the G.T. (for Gran Turismo, Grand Touring), and to prove the suspension — and gain publicity for Moto Guzzi — the brothers conceived a challenging 4,000-mile journey from Mandello del Lario to Capo Nord in northern Norway. Despite the very poor condition of European roads at that time, Giuseppe Guzzi reached the Arctic Circle in four weeks. The elastic frame rear suspension was immediately introduced to production machines, transforming the usability of the motorcycle as an everyday form of transportation. In 2006, Moto Guzzi retraced the 'raid' of 1928 to introduce the Norge 1200. The word "Norge" is Norwegian for “Norway".
Another problem solved by Moto Guzzi is that, above a certain power level, the competing forces of drive-shaft arrangements can severely disrupt the suspension of a motorcycle (especially when rolling on the throttle), a phenomenon called "shaft jacking". Moto Guzzi introduced its first anti-jacking system with the Daytona in 1993 and evolved that design though the 2005 V11 Sport. Guzzi later introduced their CARC system, emulating the BMW Paralever design and serving the same function. Kawasaki introduced its Tetra-lever system for similar reasons on the Kawasaki Concours 14 (also known as the 1400 GTR). Arturo Magni (1925–2005) had sold "parallelogrammo" rear suspension kit in the early 1980s to resolve similar anti-torque issues.
Moto Guzzi's current Breva 750, Nevada 750, and California Vintage fall below the power threshold that requires an anti-jacking drive-shaft system.
To quote from their current Web advertisements:
“Since 1921, Moto Guzzi motorcycles have defined innovation and design that is as legendary as the people who ride them. Timeless character, uncompromising craftsmanship, and an independent spirit — this is the soul of a Moto Guzzi Original.“
“The elements of this tradition are one hundred percent Italian: including exotic, eye-catching style, unique technology, and a spirit and character that is impossible to imitate. From the first bike we ever made to today's latest models, every Moto Guzzi motorcycle is and always will be a classic.”
Well said. Long live timeless style, character, and the Italian spirit.