Moto Guzzi History… A Look Back

Moto Guzzi Museum

I would finally get the opportunity to walk through the factory gates and step into motorcycling history that started back in 1917 during the First World War. At the time, three young Italian pilots were fighting for their country in the Italian Air force: Carlo Guzzi, Giorgio Ripamonti and a well-known racer of the day, Giovanni Ravelli.

As uncertain as life must have been, they still managed to think about what they would do after the war, and the three young men shared a collective dream of building their own motorcycles. A loan from Giorgio Ripamonti’s father would get them going, and Giovanni Ravelli would race their new motorcycle, as success on the circuits of Europe would be vital for the new company. In a cruel twist of fate, Ripamonti survived the war; only to die some days later, but it didn’t stop Carlo and Giorgio from going ahead with their original business plan.

By 1920, the first machine had been built, a 500 cc single cylinder, with a total of 17 being produced at the new factory in Mandello by the end of 1921. Moto Guzzi was born. Proudly displaying their Air Corps flying eagle on the gas tank in honor of their fallen friend, the pair immediately went racing and took their first win at the torturous Targa Florio. By 1924, Moto Guzzi was a dominant force in the world of motorcycle racing, and by the time they retired in 1957 they had won more than 3,000 races, taken eight world championships, and eleven victories at the grueling Isle of Man. Under the constant supervision of Carlo and Giorgio, there were many highlights in the journey, including the incredible Otto Cilindri (eight cylinder) Grand Prix race bike by designer Giulio Cesare Carcano, which was the only motorcycle of its type ever built, and very successful as a racing machine to boot.

After the death of Carlo Guzzi in 1964 financial troubles hit the Mandello based company, and during an Italian bank take over, Carcano was let go. The innovative and imaginative Lino Tonti would replace him, and under the guidance of the investment group his V7 Sport appeared, followed by the 850GT and the highly successful California range. Argentinean Industrialist "Alejandro De Tomaso" was the next owner of the company and held the reigns until the take over by Aprilia. More recently, the company has changed hands again, this time coming under the vast Piaggio umbrella. With all of this turmoil and change over the decades, it is incredible to think the company still lives and breaths in the same set of buildings it started in, way back in 1921.

A sprawling labyrinth of workshops and offices, the factory is huge, and I almost felt like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs when I left one area in case I needed to find my way back. Peering through grimy windows into different rooms revealed testing, tuning, development, and even customer service with all manner of motorcycles in various states of repair as I wandered around. Down one long outdoor corridor I bumped into a mad professor look-alike, who was strapping all sorts of electronic equipment to a standard looking Moto Guzzi with a mock up fairing in primer. Smiling politely I thought twice about shooting spy photos, so meandered off in the direction of the museum, making a mental note to take a tour through the assembly area later.

Talk about stepping back in time! Moving along on creaky wooden floors, I had the museum to myself, as I noticed the many places the old plaster walls had been repaired. Disguising the neglect that must have occurred through the lean years, I’m sure the museum wasn’t a priority when there was no money in the coffers for day-to-day business. The history, the triumphs and disasters, financial takeovers, and glory on the world’s racetracks, all right there in the long, stark, narrow corridors filled with over 150 motorcycles. Walking alone, the light filtering in through the grimy, multi-pane metal windows reminded me of old World War II Prisoner of War movies.

Retracing my steps to the gift shop, and pausing to take a snapshot of a race prepped Coppa Italia; I decided to start at the beginning of the chronological display featuring motorcycles from 1921-1945. Entitled, "The birth of a legend" the first room starts with a 498cc single cylinder machine called a Normale. Based on the first machine produced by Carlo and Giorgio, this simple looking motorcycle produced 8.5 horsepower at 3,400 rpm and was capable of over 50mph. The vast majority of the bikes produced in the early decades were simple, single cylinder machines, and it isn’t until the ‘40s section that twin cylinder machines begin to appear. My particular favorite was a gnarly looking 1948 500cc twin racer that produced a healthy 44 horsepower. Interestingly, the engine layout appears very similar to the early Ducati V-twins, which would come much later. Moto Guzzi did win the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy the year earlier, but I am not sure if the winning machine is in the museum as there was no mention. The bike that won the 1955 350cc World Championship is on display though, and looking at its battered and bruised form made me realize how far modern racing machinery has come.

Taking a break from the solitude of the museum after a few magical hours, I followed the breadcrumbs over to the assembly line. Entering the large building, the place was alive with energy as the workers in their bright red boiler suits, sporting various fashion accessories from nose rings to hair gel, attended to the production line. Smiling and joking with each other, they were working on a batch of brand new Grisos. Compared to the thoroughly modern Triumph factory in England, it is a bit old fashioned, but it is definitely very up to date and spotlessly clean and organized.

Meandering back through them museum after lunch in the staff cafeteria, some of the old bikes looked like the sort of picture your old, senile Aunt might have on the wall. Antiquated and an inch thick in dust, a few had small puddles of oil underneath, while others looked as if they had just rolled off a battlefield, tired, weary and in need of rest. Taking photographs specifically for detail drew me in closer and closer to the beautifully crafted parts. The exposed valve springs of the 1928 Norge, the tiny cylinders of the phenomenal V-eight, or the neatly restored single equipped with skis on the side. Winding up and down the narrow stone staircases between the floors reminded me of my first High School, with the musty smell that only old buildings seem to have. And later, taking a sit down in Carlo Guzzi’s chair in the mock up of his office, the sparseness of his workspace was powerful, with simple metal cabinets, a few pictures, and an assortment of relevant engineering books. Like the machines he produced, there were few frills.

Leaving the past behind and arriving amongst the modern era bikes, it felt good to recognize a lot of the featured machines, although there were a lot of small mopeds and scooters I never even knew existed. An MGS O1 had a small display area to itself, a visceral minimalist race bike that I have had the pleasure to ride, a Dr. John Daytona 1000 race replica, an old Le Mans 1 endurance race machine with full complement of battle scars, the diversity and range of the machinery was outstanding. Old Police bikes, off-road bikes, and lots of quirky little single cylinder transportation specials. And at one point in the tour, I found a 250 cc four-cylinder, identical to the Benelli Quatro in every detail except the badges on the gas tank. Across the room a pair of Paris-Dakar race machines, based on the dual purpose Quota, sat next to a Baja version of the same machine. The word "diverse" certainly came to mind. Ancient and modern, side-by-side in the timeless museum dating back to 1921, with the long rich history of Moto Guzzi displayed without pomp and ceremony in the long, narrow halls.

A good number of the modern bikes are new with a lot of the models fully restored, but there are still plenty of rough, raw original machines in the exact condition they were parked. And as all of these quirks and imperfections grow to be more obvious, so the museum becomes more charming and more delightful. To the accompaniment of some very eclectic music somewhere into the light, hazy mist that floats across Lake Como eight hours slipped by, and the hands of the clock made their way to closing time, consigning my day to the past tense. Hanging on to the last moments, I took one last look at my favorite machine in the museum, the V-8 racer. A machine of elegant, unrefined beauty, with an engine that stunned the world in the 1950s, a few moments alone with the V-8 is a ticket back in time. Just like a day at the Moto Guzzi museum in Mandello Del Lario alongside the beautiful waters of Lake Como.