Meccanica Verghera Agusta
Refinement becomes a legend. Anyone who has experienced Michelangelo's Pieta immediately recognizes the will of extraordinary talent to refine its potential and achieve the ultimate result. In the presence of legends, one needs do little except marvel, and learn with delight and humility. When the legends are motorcycling's greatest racers and their warhorses, one understands how they transcend time.
“An automobile is transportation. But on a motorcycle, you are transported,” Giacomo Agostini speaks each word with elegance and passion. He exudes the refinement that marked his riding style, as he sits on the deck overlooking the Mid-Ohio track where classic two-wheelers zoom round in celebration. “Ago” is this year's grand marshal of the annual American Motorcycle Association Motorcycle Hall of Fame Vintage Motorcycle Days. (Click image to enlarge)
Receiving a procession of visitors, admirers and friends, many of them racing legends as well, he greets them with warmth and subtle humor. When asked, he provides some insight into how he won more titles than any racer in motorcycle history: “La moto é come un cavallo” (“the motorcycle is like a horse”). His metaphor precisely describes the MV Agusta thoroughbreds that transported him, again and again, to the checkered flag.
The marque's noble lineage was founded on the Agusta family's pedigree and their unmitigated dedication to racing superiority without regard to cost. One must return to the beginning of the 20th century to grasp the origins of the fever that gripped the Agusta family. Perhaps the volatile Sicilian blood of the father, Count Giovanni Agusta, who built his first airplane even before Blériot braved the English Channel, was to blame.
The success of their aircraft factory—their helicopters remain among the industry's best—gave his scions the means to put passion before economic reason. Following his father's passing, eldest son Domenico was determined to build flying machines of a different sort. Starting after the Second World War with a charming scooter (called “Vespa”, until it was discovered aeronautical rivals Piaggio had claimed the name), the company built racing bikes that were victorious in every category. By the 1950s, MV Agusta 500cc triples and 750 fours were at their most feared and revered.
Given decades of domination by the Japanese, it may be difficult for some to imagine an era when Italian bikes ruled the track. The MV stable was ridden by the class of the field—Surtees, Hailwood, Read, Ubbiali and Agostini, among them—legendary competitors who vied for the privilege of being selected by the Count to be his crusader knights in the quest for the grail. MV Agusta was a motorcycle built by aristocrats, rather than technocrats, with a noble fighting spirit emanating from every one. Led by Arturo Magni, who is now enshrined among motorcycling's engineering immortals, MV perpetuated innovation and craftsmanship.
Ago, his movie-star looks matching his marquee performances, was MV's perennial standard bearer, and he continues as the brand's ambassador today. Refinement was the core of his championship approach, and the machine's finesse reciprocated. No one has ever had more success. In less than two decades, 15 world Grand Prix titles, 12 Isle of Man TT crowns, and 120 Grand Prix wins were his. The first superstar of motorcycle racing, his victory at the 1974 Daytona 200 brought unprecedented recognition to the event.As he watches the vintage racers go around the track, one senses him stepping back through the years, seeing himself once again roaring down the straight-aways and slicing through the curves. When he saddles up the MV Agusta models he is to ride this weekend, past and present merge. He is once again, and for all time, the youthful gladiator. Tempus fugit, the Ancient Romans would say.
For those 40,000 people on hand for the largest gathering of machines from Italy's Meccanica Verghera Agusta ever assembled in the United States, this year's edition of Vintage Motorcycle Days is more than just a grande cuvée. It is a historic experience. They have come to see time fly, and are amply served.
“It is fascinating to see how the motorcycle, which was after all a rather humble means of conveyance after the war, has today become a symbol of luxurious pleasure,” observes Agostini. “And it is gratifying for me to see how today the motorcycle is also enjoyed as a work of art.”
It can be argued that without the patronage of the elite classes, Italy could have never produced a Michelangelo, a Bernini or a Verdi. That culture has nurtured the pursuit of superlative artistry as an end, rather than a means. The ultimate conceit, perhaps, but without that divine arrogance born of glorious history, we would never have a Ferrari, or the MV Agusta. Respectful of that heritage, MV's contemporary patrons, the Castiglioni brothers' Cagiva SpA, deliberately limit production, to the delight of devoted owners. Collectors have also found their bliss, not only in the renewed fervor for the machines themselves, but in auction prices that are increasingly healthy.
For this gathering of greatness, MV collectors have brought their precious metals, many at their own expense, to honor the champion of champions. Assisted by the Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame, this exceptional agglomeration of classic MV Agustas is presented at an MV Museum erected on the grounds of Mid-Ohio.
In the small town of Pickerington, some 50 miles south of Mid-Ohio, the Motorcycle Museum honors those who have traced the sport's path. This year, the festivities showcased another legend complementing Agostini's presence. SuperMann, a tribute to American racing hero and technical innovator Dick Mann, kicked off the four-day weekend. The ceremony at the Museum was packed to the rafters, as Mann peppered his recollections with the color and mischief that made his winning ways as entertaining as they were thrilling. Though well into his 80s, Mann was full of the spunk that propelled him to the podium at Daytona, the Isle of Man and the TransAtlantic Challenge. Surrounded by the Museum's collection of this country's motorcycle racing milestones, Mann set the stage for Ago's long-awaited debut as grand marshal.
Traveling to the track, one escapes time again, in the farmlands where the Amish folk still guide their horse-drawn sulkies down gentle country roads. In this peaceful, if somewhat paradoxical landscape, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which some call the finest motorcycle race track in the United States, is the setting for a menu of activities generous enough to satiate even the most famished two-wheel fanatic. The days are full, with an all-brand, AMA-sanctioned swap meet, classic displays, police formation riding exhibitions, and a full complement of American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association competition. Afternoon and evening barbecues hosted by the vendors and clubs ensure no one is left with time to kill.It is perhaps fitting that America's heartland be host to MV as Marque of the Year. A first foray into the U.S. market in the 1970s had been tenuous, but the MV Agusta found ardent supporters who longed for its eventual return. Given the throng of enthusiasts, one can say the venue and timing are right.
Agostini puts the passage of time in perspective. “Not so long ago, Italian motorcycles were a rarity here,” he recalls. “Now you have a very important and devoted following. It is wonderful for me to see how the sport has gained in popularity, as this event, for example, demonstrates. It was also very exciting for me to see this year the tremendous audience at Laguna Seca for the Moto GP championship. This gives me reason for great optimism about the future of MV Agusta in a very important market.”
Agostini is grateful for the efforts of the Castiglioni brothers and their company, Cagiva, in restoring the brand. He considers the new motorcycles worthy inheritors of the bloodline, though his favorite MV of all time remains the 500cc triple that brought him so many wins. MV was the perfect racing partner, an almost organic pairing of rider and mount. “Sono nato con la moto,” (“I was born on a motorcycle”) he confides, “and for me to ride a motorcycle is a natural act. The MV Agusta was an extension of myself because it was designed to be so.” Today's models, in his view, continue to celebrate that organic sense of beauty and function.
The current enthusiasm for MV Agusta benefits from the support of Cagiva USA, North America's exclusive importer of the brand. “Having Giacomo preside over this event is a great experience, not only for our dedicated MV owners and fans, but for all motorcyclists,” observed Larry Ferracci, Cagiva USA's Director of Operations. “Ago is a true champion and an icon in the history of motorcycling.” Ferracci knows about icons. His father Eraldo is as key to Italian motorcycles in the U.S. as Luigi Chinetti was to Ferrari's arrival in this country.
Having applied his winning touch to the Ducati superbikes that relaunched the brand in America, Eraldo Ferracci considers his current work with MV Agusta even more special. “While the MV Agusta today is meant to be the finest production street motorcycle one can buy, we are also taking the concept of made-to-measure in motorcycling to a whole new level,” he affirms. Does this mean that master designer Massimo Tamburini, the architect of the current family, has a radical concept in mind? Ferracci smiles.
Meanwhile, in the infield area of the Motorhead Café, fans are swirling around as Ago signs autographs. The official MV merchandise display nearby is bursting with activity. Walking through the tent that is the de facto “MV Museum” is a shock to the system. There are almost $5 million worth of motorcycles on view, many never seen outside their private collections. Rows of fire-engine red racers, from the tiny 125s to the world-beating heavyweights, explode with history and achievement, echoing the names of their immortal riders. Among them, the hand-built 1956 500/4 ex-Surtees, courtesy of the Barber Museum, stands beside the 1972 750/4 ex-Ago, one of only two ever made.
Acknowledging the full scope of the factory's heritage, an overwhelming array of production bikes and one-offs tantalize the viewer. The path to the modern era is bridged by the 1999 F4 Oro, chosen for the Guggenheim Museum's “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibition, the sexy, matte black 2004 F4 SPR, all of which were sold before they left the factory, and the F4 1000MT Tamburini edition, prepared by the factory's CRC special performance division.It is no accident that the late Ayrton Senna, the most passionate competitor among motor racing legends, collected MV Agusta motorcycles. The proceeds from 300 F4 Senna Special Edition examples support the charitable foundation his sister administers. From its podium inside the tent, this 174-horsepower stallion pays eloquent tribute.
Matthew Stutzman, Cagiva USA's General Manager, explains the brand's renaissance. “The charisma of these motorcycles is so strong, so enduring, that it never went away. So we have needed very little in the way of advertising,” he says. “We simply try to do what it best for the brand, and ensure each owner feels the bike is made just for them.” The success of that approach means MV Agusta's production models are spoken for, and its limited editions are sold out. Stutzman adds that the factory is also sensitive to the desires of aspiring, affluent motorcyclists. “This is where the new Brutale extends the reach of MV Agusta,” he explains, “and grows our market for the future.”
Sunday morning was the pinnacle of the event. Ago arrived in the paddock in his period leathers and trademark green, white and red helmet. Addressing the crowd, he thanks everyone and, with a wink to the organizers says, “I don't know why you waited so long to invite me, but I hope you will have me back again.”
He push starts the 1956 Isle of Man winning 500cc triple. It responds with a roar that thrills the crowd. “This is a rare motorcycle, so I must go slowly and be careful,” he quips. Then he leaps aboard, as if shot out of a cannon, and produces a series of fluid laps that transport us back to the glory days. His speed seems effortless. One observer captures the sensation felt by all with an apt remark: “A golden man from a golden motorcycling era.”
Agostini transitions to the shaft-driven 1976 MV Agusta 750S America, last of the original breed. The big bike responds to the master with another series of flawless flights around the circuit. Then, it is announced that Ago will take the new 2007 F4 for its very first ride in this country. When the pair blast off from the start line, it is a moment for all time. The sight and sound evoke the era of gentlemen racers. As Ago and the MV sweep again and again across the start-finish line, each lap he completes takes us back to that epoch. As we see him lean into each curve, man and machine in perfect fusion, we know he does not want that voyage through time to end, and neither do we.
On this day at Mid-Ohio, the story of Meccanica Verghera Agusta has every heart beating in unison. The factory's motto, “Molding matter with the force of passion”, has never resounded so clearly.
As Vintage Motorcycle Days ends, the fires it has stoked will rage in the souls of those who have been witness. Each of the 500 units of the F4 Ago and the certificate of authenticity signed by il campione di tutti i campioni himself will be coveted by ardent suitors. The 2007 MV Agusta F4 1000R will go off to set a Bonneville Land Speed Record. Between forays far and wide on his mission for the marque, Ago will return to building his new house in Italy and taking his own MV for its daily exercise on his favorite road around Lago Lovere.
For the rest of us, bitten by the same fever as the Count, we will live with the dream of our own time machine.