MV Agusta Racing Classics | History

Cascina Costa Beauties

It was Count Domenico Agusta’s obsessive policy to keep the secrets of his racing machines well hidden; many bikes suffered the ignominy of destruction, while others were interred beneath his airstrip’s runway. Some escaped the fate that befell their brethren, however, and three prime examples of MV Agusta’s output now enjoy an honorable retirement in the Southern California collection of former racer Jeff Elghanayan.

Treated to sensitive restorations under the aegis of Todd Millar, they are exercised on racetracks as often as their owner’s schedule allows.

1974 MV Agusta 500cc "four"
(Click image to enlarge)


In certain critical respects, the story of Count Agusta and his motorcycles parallels that of Enzo Ferrari and his cars. Both were sons of a land where a passion for motorsports is as pervasive as the Italian sunshine, and both devoted their energies to racing success. They built road-going machines as much to finance their on-track activities as for profit. Each was an authoritarian figure who achieved success in his respective racing arena with persistence, thoughtful design, and preparation—not with radical ideas and innovation.

And there were other similarities. They quickly established reputations in post–World War II Italy, and ran companies that operated in financial uncertainty with the ebb and flow of demand. It is a near-certainty that neither name would exist today had not better-financed companies stepped in to offer security. But the preeminent attribute uniting Agusta’s motorcycles and Ferrari’s automobiles is their collectibility. Surviving examples—particularly those with a competition pedigree—are prized by enthusiasts and occupy pride of place in the world’s most important collections.

In 1945, Count Agusta founded MV Agusta within what remained of his late father’s aircraft factory near Milan in Cascina Costa. War and economic ruin had left the Agusta family’s enterprise in shambles, and Agusta decided that salvation lay in providing inexpensive transport for the people of his now-defeated nation. Even before the war’s end, Agusta had realized that economic limitations and the restricted availability of raw materials would place automobiles beyond the reach of most Italians. He accordingly began development on a 98cc engine capable of propelling scooters and small motorcycles. By the fall of 1945, he showed the first production-ready MV Agusta to the public.

Agusta initially called the small motorcycle the Vespa—Italian for wasp—but another company had registered that name, so it went on sale simply as the MV Agusta 98. The model range expanded as rapidly as the postwar supply of materials and finances allowed; within a few years, scooters, small motorcycles, and compact three-wheel commercial vehicles emerged from the Cascina Costa factory in ever-increasing numbers.

With the possible exception of the little delivery vehicles, these new machines quickly found their way onto racetracks. In the early days, there was a race for just about anything on wheels—including scooters—and the various MV products found their way onto a variety of strange starting grids. Encouraged, Agusta decided MV would race.

The first purpose-built MV racer appeared in 1950. It owed little, if any, to the designs being mass-produced for the public. While road-going MVs were generally powered by two-cycle powerplants, or four-cycle engines with pushrod-operated valves—which would be the layout of choice for most MV road bikes in the future—the initial 125cc racer set the tone for future competition machines with valves operated by dual overhead camshafts. MV’s factory racing teams soon competed in virtually every class of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, and the Cascina Costa racing department turned out 250, 350, and 500cc machines, in addition to the 125s.

Results speak for themselves. Between 1952 and the end of the company’s factory-backed racing participation in 1974, MV Agustas and their riders scored an incredible string of victories. Riders mounted on MVs won some 38 FIM championships in the various displacement classes, while the bikes themselves brought home 19 Manufacturer’s Championship trophies. Much of the credit for MV’s winning ways must be given to Giacomo Agostini, the brilliant rider whose movie-star looks and flashing smile masked an almost supernatural talent for racing. Agostini personally accounted for 19 Rider’s Championships while riding for MV.

Agostini was not MV’s only brilliant rider. The roster of legendary talents who raced for Agusta’s team is long. Count among them: Carlo Ubaldi, who began with the 98 scooters and progressed to the 125 and 250cc bikes; Leslie Graham, winner of the first FIM Championship in 1949 on an AJS; Nello Pagani, later manager of the MV racing team; as well as John Surtees, Gary Hocking, Mike Hailwood, John Hartle, Phil Read, and others—some less known but all supremely talented.

The machines that brought so much glory to Cascina Costa were seldom innovative. Though MV eschewed traditional chain-type final drives for shafts at times, experimented with a 500cc 6-cylinder powerplant, and tried out a flat-four boxer engine toward the end of its racing days, the company was most successful with its simple—albeit superbly conceived—2-, 3-, and 4-cylinder racers. Another key to MV’s success was perseverance; other companies came into racing, stayed for a while, then left. The MVs were there year after year.

Racing, however, could not keep MV healthy. The motorcycle market in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was cyclical. Increasing prosperity in Italy brought a boom in automobile sales and a corresponding slump in the demand for two-wheelers. MV tried hard to accommodate changing times, but even the sportbike boom of the later 1960s and early ’70s—and the introduction of excellent 600 and 750cc models—did not bring in sufficient funds to keep production going.

Count Agusta’s death in 1971 seemed to take the heart out of the company. After an agreement with Bell in the United States to manufacture helicopters, motorcycle production tapered off. The Castiglioni family—which owns Cagiva and Ducati—acquired the rights to build MV Agusta motorcycles in 1992, and has since offered new models under that name. But the last “real” Cascina Costa MV Agusta was built in 1978 and delivered to a customer in 1980.

During the years when MV made the transition from motorcycles to aviation, the surviving racing bikes from the factory’s extensive museum were being stored in a warehouse on the grounds. In 1986, a space shortage prompted the company to offer all remaining bikes and parts for sale. While competing in a French motorcycle race, Jeff Elghanayan saw an ad for the sale and began negotiations to buy everything in a single lot. His attorney, Italian-American Roberto Iannucci, negotiated with MV on his behalf, and eventually consummated a sale. Included in the treasure trove were 12 complete MV racers, plus frames, engines, and other components for six more motorcycles, plus a substantial quantity of spare parts. Elghanayan chose to keep three machines plus spares for himself, and sold the rest.

Working with restorer Todd Millar, Elghanayan embarked on a painstaking restoration process, involving the creation of detailed notes and extensive parts lists. After several years of effort, Millar completed all three, bringing them back to track-ready condition while keeping virtually every original part in place. Owner and restorer agreed the bikes should be clean and shiny, but not over-restored creampuffs. As such, they accurately represent the work done by the craftsmen at MV.
One in particular, a 500cc 3-cylinder built in 1964, has a most unusual history. After being raced often in its early years, it was apparently set aside until 1972, when Giacomo Agostini asked to have it prepared for that year’s Tourist Trophy race on the Isle of Man. He rode it to victory over a host of newer machines. The others, a 500cc “four” from 1974 and a 1976 350 “four”—one of the last MV racers built—have each racked up a substantial number of racing miles.

These days, the three magnificent machines are housed with an impressive array of bikes—primarily racers—in Elghanayan’s private collection. Brought out and run at various track events, they are, according to their owner, as capable and enjoyable to ride today as they were during their days of glory.