I Coulda Had a V-8.... so I Did

Jeff Gilbert's Magnificent Moto Guzzi Ottocilindri

story by Paul Garson, Created Mar. 30, 2005
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A couple weeks ago a TV crew from the UK's Discovery Channel flew into LAX from London to film segments for their program "The Top-10 of Motorcycles." Yes, everybody and thier brother has a Top-10 list and several documentaries have aired previously on one channel or another or on the pages of numerous bike mags.  However, it's the Brits turn now, and they came with their own Top-10 list. You might expect to find the usual suspects spotlighted...the Vincent Black Shadow, Ariel Square-Four, Ducati 750 Super Sport, the Brough-Superior SS100, the Honda CB750, the Triumph Bonneville...and rightly so, these bikes having earned their claim to fame by dint of design, performance, looks and that magical ingredient, "charisma". However, one motorcycle milestone that is rarely seen in other lists but was included among UK crew's must-haves, was another Italian exotic. No, not a Bimota, MV Agusta or Laverda, rather a Moto Guzzi. We're talking the Moto Guzzi V-8... rarer than dragon's teeth, as highly crafted as one of the Czar's famous Faberge eggs... and just as expensive. Maybe more.

...one motorcycle milestone that is rarely seen in other lists but was included among UK crew's must-haves, was another Italian exotic.

But they had found one, rather I had found one for their cameras. In the past, I've found other things of interest for the Brits, both cars and bikes, which ended up on English television, and we all know the BBC makes the world's best tube. In any case, they called me as they had seen a motorcycle history book I had written and figured I could rustle up some photogenic motorcycles for their program. For instance, did I know anything about the Moto Guzzi V-8? Well, I said, not that much, but I do know where one is, here in L.A. about ten minutes from my apartment. I think they dropped the phone. And so it came to pass that I brought the crew over to a small garage with big history, a space analogous to a neutron star so compacted is it with precious two wheeled metal, a dream come true garage that belongs to L.A.historian/restorer/collector/bonvivant Jeff Gilbert, a fellow who made his own top ten list something more than just wishful thinking. Through dint of very hard work and perseverance, he made it all come to pass. He now has his top ten... including the near mythical Guzzi V-8. How that came to pass, as they say, is another story. We'll delve into all that, but first a bit of background... the events that culminated into what turned out to be Moto Guzzi's last great grasp at greatness. 

The image of the Moto Guzzi, at least until recently, was of lumpy looking cruisers notable for their durability. For a while they were even the choice of mounts for the California Highway Patrol. In Europe, it's a different story altogether. Moto Guzzi literally put its native country on wheels, sold like hot pasta, and brought many a world championship home to its origins along beautiful Lake Como in northern Italy.

The backdrop was WWI, a world conflagration touted to end all conflagrations. In this first one, Italy was on the side of the good guys. Defending the country were two pilots Giorgi Parodi and Giovanni Ravelli who depended on a gifted mechanic named Carlo Guzzi to keep their aircraft mechanically fit. While his friends were flying, Guzzi's thoughts were more earthbound; he dreamed of the ultimate motorcycle. Ravelli, who also was a successful motorcycle racer, looked at Guzzi's designs, and gave them a thumbs up. Unfortunately, Ravelli would never ride on one of Carlo's dream machines. He would fall from the sky in combat.

Moto Guzzi literally put its native country on wheels, sold like hot pasta, and brought many a world championship home to its origins along beautiful Lake Como in northern Italy.

After hostilities abated in 1918, Guzzi and Parodi went to work building what they initially called the G&P motorcycle, obviously named after themselves. The now familiar eagle in flight logo was chosen in homage to their fallen comrade. Borrowing some lira from his deep-pockets dad, Parodi bankrolled the first prototypes. They were going where no Italians had gone before, since Italy basically produced no motorcycles plus had little if any export. However, G&P plugged on. Jeff jokes about his severely rare motorcycle. "I see myself in Starbucks nursing a double latte sitting at a small table with two other chairs. The chairs are empty. I'm waiting for the two other members for the annual meeting of the Replica Moto Guzzi V-8 Owners Club... and they never show up!"

Ten days before Christmas, Parodi and Guzzi unveiled a motorcycle they now called the Moto Guzzi and it was a totally new design and fairly advanced as they had mounted the 500cc engine horizontally in the frame, against the norm of the day, plus the flywheel was mounted outside of the crankcase instead of internally as was also the norm. Moto Guzzi wasnât interested in the norm.

That first Guzzi was appropriated called "La Prima" and immediately went racing as the company believed firmly in the adage that competition improves the breed. It went well to say the least, the new machine winning the famous Targo Florio. The public was impressed. By 1923 there was a new overhead valve engine plus a production racer added to the standard model line. in 1924 that the young Italian company ventured into the big time, competing in the Grand Prix of Europe at Monza. The upstarts kicked butt...and swept the race with an astounding 1-2-3 finish.Guzzi would win the major Italian races of the era including the Giro dâItalia, but it was in 1924 that the young Italian company ventured into the big time, competing in the Grand Prix of Europe at Monza. The upstarts kicked butt, besting the established manufacturers and swept the race with an astounding 1-2-3 finish. Moto Guzzi was now on the map and sales reflected their accumulation of victories.

In the following years, further refinements and innovations came in fairly rapid succession including new OHV engines, rear suspension, improved springer front end, and improved braking (finally, a front brake). By 1934 Guzzi offered a range of 175, 250 and 500cc models including full touring machines. The next year they raised the ante once again, challenging the all-vanquishing Norton at the legendary Isle of Man TT, basically a course the British racer owned lock, stock and single barrel thanks to a phenomenal rider, Scotsman Jim Guthrie. Moto Guzzi went to a Brit for riding skills, one Stanley Woods. They gave him a new racer featuring a 120-degree V-twin with offset cranks firing at 180 degrees with bevel gears and shafts driving the SOHC, good enough for 44 hp at 7500 rpm and 112 mph, on equal standing with the Norton. It had an ace up its sleeve so to speak in that it incorporated a type of pivoted-fork rear suspension while the frontend was a springer, a design that had never won a Senior TT due to its handling deficiencies, or so was thought. Guzzi had done some tweaking in that department as well. It also came equipped with a massive twin-leading shoe front brake, a 4-speed gearbox, and alloy wheels, another innovation to cut down unsprung weight. 

While the Guzzi V-8 looked heavy, it tipped the scales at a svelte 320 lb., the heart of the beautiful beast being a water-cooled DOHC 90° V-8 with the relatively miniscule bore and stroke measurements of 44 x 41 mm. Eight 20 mm Del'Orto carbs fed the eight Lilliputian pistons while eight short, thin exhaust pipes were almost unnoticeable, until you heard the thing light up. When the dust had settled and the calculations determined, the wreath of victory went to Woods and Moto Guzzi, leaving Norton as they say, gobsmacked. Not only that, the Guzzi had smashed the track lap record. The next day Moto Guzzi was world famous.

Always looking for that winning edge, Guzzi began experimenting with supercharged engines including a 250cc bike that set a speed record of 132.2 mph, going on to win First and Second Place at the 1939 German Grand Prix. The Fuhrer was not happy that his DKW had not won, but Il Duce was his good buddy so he got over it. Unfortunately the war they sponsored ended not only several million lives, it also put a halt to motorcycle racing in Europe. But after WWII, Italy, like Germany, bounced back. Now fascist-free, each began producing world class motorcycles again. Motor Guzzi gave post-war Italians an assortment of wheels, from 65-500cc...scooters, three-wheeler trucks, roadster and production racers, and sales soon hit an all time export high. By the late 1950s, the singles were history, more modern V-Twins taking over. A new very light "space" frame also added to the company's racing successes which continued to mount. Much of the credit goes to the factory's brilliant lead designer Ing. Guilio Carcano. He would come up with an in-line four cylinder engine and added shaftdrive and water cooling, although it turned out to be unreliable and quickly terminated. But it was an example of Guzzi continually pushing the envelope.

Always looking for that winning edge, Guzzi began experimenting with supercharged engines including a 250cc bike that set a speed record of 132.2 mph.

Carcano left the envelope in the mailbox as snailmail when he made the quantum leap to designing what has rightly been touted as "the fastest road racing motorcycle the world has ever seen." Yes, we've finally reached the Moto Guzzi V-8.  First raced in 1956, the 500cc (yes, 8 tiny, jewel-like pistons) performance was kept more or less secret until 1957 when the data was released. While it looked heavy, it only tipped the scales at 320 lb., the heart of the beautiful beast being a water-cooled DOHC 90° V-8 with the relatively miniscule bore and stroke measurements of 44 x 41 mm. Eight 20 mm Del'Orto carbs fed the eight Lilliputian pistons while eight short, thin exhaust pipes that were almost unnoticeable until you heard the thing light up.

The engine, basically a fine Swiss watch that roared, was mounted transversely in the swing-arm equipped/leading link frontend frame used by the factory on their racers since 1953. Massive drum brake anchors were developed to haul the bike down from its ferocious speeds. Those 1956 figures rated the engine's output at 62 hp at 12,000 rpm. Did someone say screamer! Don't let that whimpy sounding 62 lead you to some premature snickering when compared to today's mega-bikes. Remember we're talking a half century ago, and a bike that clocked 162 mph, albeit with the dolphin-style dustbin full fairing in place, hiding all that intricate beauty.

After dealing with a list of teething problems including a breakdown at Imola in April 1956, the V-8 was to face its trial by fire when it rolled up to the grid at the Spa-Francorchamps race course in Belgium, facing off against the likes of John Surtees on an MV as well as the best from Gilera and BMW. The V-8 was now pumped up to 75 hp and looking confident behind the full fairing was Australian Keith Campbell. Down went the flag and off into the record books went the Guzzi 8. 

Slicing through the competition, the V-8 repeatedly broke and rebroke the lap record, its top speed clocked at 178 mph on the Masta straight. A moment later, it was prematurely over. Gearbox failure brought the Guzzi limping back to the pits. It would its greatest hour and its last hour all in one. At the end of the season Guzzi, along with Mondial and Gilera, announced to a stunned public that they were retiring from racing. So in effect the Moto Guzzi V-8 was the company's last hurrah. And a fitting one too...as were the cheers given up by the half-million spectators who watched the event unfold. When all told, Moto Guzzi had achieved lasting fame, amassing during 1921-1957, a list of accolades that included 3,329 International Racing Victories, 124 World Speed Records and 14 World Championships.

At the end of the season Guzzi, along with Mondial and Gilera, announced to a stunned public that they were retiring from racing.

When Jeff first saw his Guzzi V-8, he says: "It was like opening up the back of a fine pocket watch and seeing the internal mechanism, all these wheels moving, some clockwise, some counterclockwise. I visualized all the intricacies of this jewel-like engine, the eight pistons, the eight connecting rods, the eight spark plugs, the sixteen valves and so on..."Ok, so how does Jeff Gilbert find himself the very happy owner of a V-8 almost 50 years after it went into Motor Guzzi mothballs? It all started three years ago in Las Vegas , but in this case what happened in Vegas didn't stay there. Jeff was in glittertown not to see Wayne Newton, the white tiger guys or the Back to Bare Burlesque Revue. He was in search of precious metal. And there was plenty of it at the annual bike auction. Like the high rollers who frequent the casinos and stay in the posh presidential suites for free, Jeff was in like company, other movers and shakers in the antique, vintage and classic motorcycle family had flocked to the auction looking for their own personal dream bike.

During the proceedings a friend introduces Jeff to this guy from Italy, from some place called Silea Treviso, somewhere near Venice. His name is Alessandro Altinier which should be a clue in itself. "I visualize all the intricacies of the jewel-like engine, the eight pistons... I see it going on in my mind. I consider it all industrial art. Is it art and an engineering feat all at the same time? I think so." Alessandro has brought a brochure he's made up illustrating a bunch of rare Moto Guzzi's he has up for sale. Jeff peruses the brochure, then says, "Got any V-8's?" There's a long pause as if Jeff's said some coded phrase. Later in the day, Alessandro then confides that he does indeed. In fact, he has access to an original Ottocilindri engine and adds that he can build a frame around it. Jeff is now interested, as he wanted an Italian multi-cylinder to fill out his collection of bikes that starts pre-1900 and stop at 1970, his personal cut-off point. As he says, "What's more representative of an Italian multi than the bike with the most cylinders...the Guzzi V-8? Plus I'm predisposed to race bikes. So I said I would be interested. He tells me that he was going to build five replicas based on the original motor, exact copies of the original factory bike. I believe his father also worked for Moto Guzzi and so had access to the factory to take measurements and so forth." 

Atelier asked for a deposit, not a steep one, and he went to work. Progress report and photos followed. As it turns out Jeff believes only four bikes were actually built, one going to Sammy Miller's museum in England while California collector Virgil Ewing took another while #4's whereabouts are unknown. Now the factory apparently produced a dozen engines and maybe put together six complete bikes, three iterations amongst them. Jeff believes the factory may have two complete V-8s and one engine in their collection. 

Getting to dollars and lire, there's also a matter of common sense, too. When asked why he would fork over a bunch of money for a bike he had not seen. Jeff says, "I have a gut feeling. I've done this viscerally for years. The deposit wasn't the end of the world if it didn't work Sean says: "What good is a beautifully routed breather hose, if it's never allowed to breathe?" out, but moreover it got me committed. The only downside was that by the time it came to pay the remainder of the bill, the dollar had waned against the Euro, and I ended up paying an additional 25 per cent over the original dollar amount. However, before I picked it up at the 2004 Las Vegas auction, I had been given responses by three trusted observers who saw it. Their evaluation was summed up in one word: Wow! "In fact they said people were literally drooling over it. My own response upon seeing it was like opening up the back of a fine pocket watch and seeing the internal mechanism, all these wheels moving, some clockwise, some counterclockwise. I visual all the intricacies of the jewel-like engine, the eight pistons, the eight connecting rods, the eight spark plugs, the sixteen valves and so on. I see it going on in my mind. I consider it all industrial art. Is it art and an engineering feat all at the same time? I think so."

Their evaluation was summed up in one word: Wow! "In fact they said people were literally drooling over it."

We comment that this bike has a dual personality, one with the aluminum dustbin fairing in place, one exposed, its labyrinthine structure nakedly in view. To which Jeff replies, "Both appearances appeal to me. The dustbin fairing itself has it own intricacy. When you look at the race bikes of the 1950s, they all had dustbin fairings until they banned them, I think in 1958. Even though they may have been powered by a single cylinder engine, the fairings had their own aesthetic of streamlining. Maybe it's also the fact that you have to peel off that fairing to see what lurks beneath." 

We then mentioned another idiosyncrasy of the V-8. While most motorcycles have a distinctive exhaust system that sets them off, pipes being a primal element, the Guzzi seems to have none or at best an atrophied set of tiny little pipes, peashooters as it were. Jeff explains, "This bike actually has nine pipes, eight for exhaust and one for water overflow from the cooling system. "You have to imagine you're dealing with eight separate 50cc motors. 50cc is very small, not much bigger than some model airplane motors. As far as the exhaust pipes, that's how you need to think about. It's not the mass, it's a matter scale. It's all about piston speed as I understand it. People wonder, how you can have a half-liter V-8? The answer is sitting right in front of you."

The question you're probably asking is "What's the price tag for this Italian multi replica?".

Let's say it adds up to multiples of six figures. (An even $300,000, according to the asking price for a used Guzzi V-8 replica at Bator International -Sean) When asked if it was worth it, Jeff says, "It's a love affair. It's nice to know you have something of value, but it's beyond that, it's a passion."

Jeff jokes about his severely rare motorcycle. "I see myself in Starbucks nursing a double latte sitting at a small table with two other chairs. The chairs are empty. I'm waiting for the two other members for the annual meeting of the Replica Moto Guzzi V-8 Owners Club... and they never show up."

NOTE: I had Paul ask Jeff if MO could start his V-8, so we could capture its magical essence on video (of course, I also offered to test ride it for him).   Sadly, it seems Mr. Gilbert has chosen not to ever start or ride this motorcycle. Though Jeff's V-8 will never sing its stirring V-8 song, MO's readers can still revel in the aural beauty by closing their eyes and listening to this 1956 trackside recording of an original 500cc Guzzi V-8. I think it sounds a lot like the early Cosworth DFV V-8 Formula One engines, though the DFV wouldn't even be invented for another decade!  Bravo Moto Guzzi!   -Sean

_______________ Spec Sheet __________________
1956 Moto Guzzi 500cc V-8 Racer
Manufacturer: Moto Guzzi; Mandello del Lario
Engine: 90° V-8, with two-shaft overhead geared distribution (498.7 cc); 8 20mm Del'Orto carbs; two batteries; two distributors; four contact breakers
Cooling: water
Transmission: 4-speed
Chassis: Double cradle, ocntinuous tubular
Tires: 19-inch front; 20-inch rear
Brakes: front - central drum, four shoes; rear-drum
Power: 75 hp at 12,000 rpm
Maximum Speed: over 175 mph

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