FIRST PUBLISHED MAY 2016
OF THE many models that Italian manufacturer Moto Guzzi has released over the past 95 years, there’s one that has copped more flak than any other.
Experts, Guzzi lovers, ambivalentia, Guzzi haters and ignoramuses alike have poured scorn on the Mark 4 (1985-ish) LeMans 1000, and all for the same reason: it wore a 16-inch front wheel, to which the major motorcycling media took an immediate and somewhat vicious dislike. The popular story was that the bike’s geometry demanded an 18-inch front wheel, but that the fashion of the day was 16. The marketing folks won the arm wrestle — so a 16-incher was what the LeMans got. So loud and ferocious was the subsequent bike-scribe vitriol that it continues to reverberate 30 years later.
As recently as late 2014, mostly-respected Australian bike magazine 2 Wheels ran a story that perpetuated the hatred. A three-page feature story tagged ‘Modern Classics’ purported to tell the retrospective tale of the Moto Guzzi Le Mans series. But journo Peter Cox took aim at the 1985 model in particular and took to it with the subtlety and charm of a bovver boy in Doc Martens.
“Just riding the long, 16 inch-wheeled Le Mans home through heavy traffic from the dealer was enough to make me want to torch it,” hissed Cox, describing the model run as “mercifully short-lived”.
Actually, the 16″ hoop was not the only area of complaint. Since they were grumbling anyway, plenty of journos back in the day also grumbled about a heavy throttle, the quintessential Guzzi rock at throttle-blip (sacrilegious!) and howled that it was ugly and heavy compared with the earlier LeMans incarnations. While the poor LeMans was on the floor having its head kicked in, the frenzy of hatred kept flowing. It was low-tech, outdated, slow, and probably molested children on weekends.
Ok, I made that last bit up.
And yet, one of the brightest chapters in Moto Guzzi’s modern sporting history (the V8 ‘Otto’ era aside) came at the same time — and with the same bike. American dentist Dr John Wittner was a Guzzi fan and a wizard when it came to making them go fast. His race team took an 85′ LeMans — yup, 16″ front wheel and all — to victory in the ’85 AMA Endurance class, knocking a multitude of Japanese four cylinders off the track (literally, sometimes). And when I say they took it to victory, I don’t just mean a race or two. They won the title. The hottest bike of the year was Honda’s much loved (and indisputably beautiful) VF1000R but, despite the global adoration and backing from Honda Inc., it never beat the privateer Doctor and his Guzzi. (As a little aside, in stock form the admittedly-porky Honda weighed 25kg more than the Guzzi. And it had a 16″ front wheel.)
So what was the deal? Was there some evil Leyland P76-style conspiracy at play, leading all the journos around by their noses and making them say nasty things? Or was the bike really a dog? To get to the truth of the matter, we asked the only person we trust to have the true story — West Australian Moto Guzzi guru Mario Poggioli.
And his passion for the MkIV took us by surprise.
“The best bike ever made,” he gushed. “You could whack the handlebars at 140kmh on a MkIV and it would just shake its head and then settle back on line. Try that on most bikes and you’d be sliding down the road.”
And the 16″ front wheel?
“I loved the 16″ front wheel,” he said.
“But yes, there was a problem. An error was made machining the steering stems, so when the steering was tensioned up the bearings were being squeezed. That’s where the handling troubles came from. It was simple enough to re-machine the stems and get it right, but from a marketing point of view it was too late. The media took to it very aggressively and the bike’s reputation never recovered.”
Mario says tyre pressure was also important.
“Moto Guzzi made an error here, too. The 16″ tyre needed to run around 36psi, but Guzzi recommended 32. It was an important few extra psi.”
So there it is. A wonderful bike with a couple of modest, easily-remedied flaws at birth. If you see one in the classifieds, pounce.
NOTE: Expat Irishman and now Perth resident Scott Allen fell in love with his MkIV more than 20 years ago. The bike, after a rebuild that was eight years in the making and $13,000 in the ouch department, was one of the stars at the recent York Motorcycle Festival. That’s a picture of it at the head of this story, and it’s polarising 16″ front wheel below. Read it’s story here.