HOWZIT MY GUZZI?

By Stuart Grant

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If you have a two-wheel fascination, chances are you have picked up a copy of Bike SA. Once you manage to tear your eyes away from the classified section, you will probably stumble across content written by one Charley Cooper.

More often than not, Cooper’s stories would revolve around impressing a ‘cherrie’, evading a klap or even arrest. And for the most part it seemed this would be done using his ‘Guzzi’. Of course, the ‘Guzzi’ was a Moto Guzzi, and the fact that he saw himself as one of the cool kids means it must have been an 850 Le Mans version.

The first 850 Le Mans was a sporting bit of kit styled in the café racer fashion, with clip-on handlebars and bikini nose fairing, and went head-to-head with the sports offerings from BMW, Ducati and Laverda – not to mention the onslaught from Japan.

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The story goes that back in ’71, Dutch-based Jan Kampen set out to build a Moto Guzzi to compete in the Zandvoort 6-hour race. Kampen’s bike was developed from the existing 750 V7 Sport, but with the capacity bumped up from 748cc to 810cc. While putting in the long build hours he was in constant comms with Moto Guzzi engineer Lino Tonti and, inspired by the idea of a bigger-capacity performance bike, Tonti set about designing his own competition engine.

And bigger Tonti went with an 844cc version of the V-Twin, which was entered in the 1971 Bol d’Or 24-hour race at Le Mans. Ten hours into the gruelling race, the Moto Guzzi held first place but then slowed with a broken rocker and eventually limped home 14 hours later in an impressive third place.

Riding the wave, Tonti set to further improve the race bike while at the same time developing a road bike with the racing technology at its core. His design thoughts were shown in ’72, and by 1973 the concept matured to such a degree that a full works prototype was entered in the 1973 Barcelona 24-hour. The new bike rode in fifth and the design was ready for production.

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But it wasn’t to be just yet as Argentinian businessman Alejandro de Tomaso threw a spanner in the works. De Tomaso owned both Moto Guzzi and Benelli brands and had decided that the Benelli Six was his chosen attack on the sport bike market. Tonti’s project was put on ice, only coming to light at the Milan Motorcycle Show in November 1975, and production finally got underway in ’76.

It was an interesting time in the motorcycle world with the British and American bike industry crumbling and Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha rising in status. But the Japanese didn’t have it all their own way, with a resurgence from Italian and German manufacturers. In fact, the top three on the list of fastest bikes were all Italian, namely the Ducati 900SS, Moto Guzzi Le Mans and Laverda Jota. And the BMW R90S was a close speed contender too, but led the ranks as the best all-rounder, mixing sporting abilities with touring comfort. With a large-bore, air-cooled twin and shaft drive layout, the BMW was on paper the closest to the Le Mans. While the R90S was regarded as better finished and offering a suppler ride, the Guzzi was considered hairier-chested with a stronger frame, stiffer suspension and ability to trounce the German in the acceleration and top-speed department, thanks to the brutish 71hp enabling a max of 130mph.

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Fire up a first-generation Le Mans and you’ll notice that the exhaust note is surprisingly quiet. But like any good Italian bit of motoring, blip the throttle and the induction noise is very notable and addictive – this due to the fact that the 36mm Dellorto pumper carburettors are only protected by a wire mesh. Thanks to a heavy crankshaft running in line with the wheels, this same throttle action results in the whole bike twisting sideways. It might all seem very agricultural – the notchy five-speed gear action doesn’t help – but once up and running, the Guzzi gallops.

Cornering and stopping ability impressed the press, who referred to the former as confident with sure-footed handling, and the latter, provided by Brembo calliper/discs, as excellent. Oddly, the handlebar brake lever operated the front right disc while the foot brake pedal operated the left front disc and single rear brake. It is plenty feasible that Charley Cooper, tucked in behind the original Le Mans small bubble fairing and holding his knees out to prevent them being sucked into the carbs, was telling the truth about outrunning the coppers…

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The first 2 000 or so 850 Le Mans featured a round rear light but soon changed to a De Tomaso-designed rectangular unit and new mudguard. At the same stage, the seat was stepped to allow a pillion passenger a better view, and black fork sliders were added. Paint was usually red and black, but some were done in a metallic blue with orange nose, and a very small number left the factory in white. Production of the 850 Le Mans seems to have topped out at about 6 000 when the 850 Le Mans II launched in 1978.

Le Mans II was essentially the same bike as the ’76 model but with a front fairing redesign. The petite first-generation fairing that many said only protected the ignition keys from the wind was replaced with a larger unit that had been developed in Moto Guzzi’s wind tunnel (used to test race bike fairings in the 1950s). Also notable was the change to a rectangular headlight and fairing-incorporated indicators, as well as a lower half-fairing that wrapped around the exposed cylinder barrels but covered the carburettor intakes – perhaps to quieten them. A new seat was added, and the gauge cluster was modernised.

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On the mechanical side front suspension became air-assisted, the Brembo callipers were moved to the back of the forks and the cylinder bores were coated with Nigusil. Short for ‘Nickel-Guzzi-Silicon’, this was Moto Guzzi’s patented nickel-silicon alloy that was applied to act as a better surface than chrome and enabled the use of lighter pistons and rings with closer tolerances.

Le Mans II enjoyed a five-year run before it was phased out for the 850 Le Mans III, which was more than just a facelift. The 80 or so adjustments included changes to cylinder heads and barrels, the pushrods being moved outwards in preparation for a later increase in bore size, and changes to carb and exhaust designs resulting in more power and more torque. Minor modifications were made to the rear suspension and to the front forks, with provision of linked air-assisted damping. In the styling department it was back to the wind tunnel and the result was a smaller, even more angular fairing and the dumping of the lower unit as seen on the II. The gauges kept up with fashion, dominated by a large white Veglia tacho and 1980s carlike warning lights. In response to some perceived quality gripes the tubular frame was painted in a thicker and glossier finish.

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Le Mans III sold well, contributing brilliantly towards making the Le Mans series the most popular and commercially successful Moto Guzzi range. The tag didn’t end there; the firm continued using it for its 1000cc sports bike that sold from 1986 through to 1993.

So did Charley have an early bikini fairing Le Mans or a II or III? Hard to tell as you can bet he customised it after scribbling it down Main Road in Fishers Hill, did some sort of lightening for the Pure & Cool Roadhouse dices and cut the effective standard silencer off with a hacksaw – just to let the world know he was around.

* Thanks to www.sportsandgtclassics.com for supplying the pictured motorbikes.

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