Our man Yossef is at it again. This time, our protagonist plops himself aboard a trio of Moto Guzzis – the 850 Griso, Breva and lastly, the California. The year is 2006, Guzzi’s parent company, Piaggio, had just acquired the Aprilia brand and many, including Yossef, wondered what impact that would have on the future of Moto Guzzi. As we know today, the two brands coexist just fine, and this 2006 launch of a slew of Guzzi models, including the then-new Griso and Breva, reaffirmed Guzzi’s place in Yossef’s mind as well. Read on to see what he thought of the three bikes, and the unique transverse V-Twins in each of them.
Bigger isn’t always better. Back in them olden days, many preferred the 750cc Commando over the 850 and Triumph’s 650cc Bonnie was often regarded as sweeter than the 750; just ask any old-timer.
When it comes to big twins, the biggest twins might have the edge in sheer oomph, but smaller big twins are often smoother, freer- revving and all-around nicer. Even nowadays the 883 Sporty still has its place under the sun and plenty of followers, no? Don’t forget that BMW has been offering 850cc versions of many 1150cc models. Besides the more common R850R roadster, R850 G/Ss and 850cc RTs have left the factory gates in the near past.
It’s time then for Moto Guzzi to take their place on the Small-Big-Twin bandwagon. Almost twenty years after the last 850 left the factory in Mandello, the historic 850 displacement is back in Guzzi’s catalog. Heck, if it worked for H-D and BMW, it can’t hurt M-G, right?
This 850cc mill arrives at an interesting time. After Aprilia’s acquisition by Piaggio, many doubted the intentions of big boss Signore Colannino regarding the Guzzi operation (which belonged to Aprilia). But after the successful launching of the Breva and Griso last year, some things are becoming clear: first, Colannino might not be a hard core biker at heart but he is no De-Tomasso style crook either. Secondly, with some tender loving care and injections of money, the Guzzi factory has got the potential to pull buyers back, as sales of the Breva and Griso are already proving.
Therefore, I sat to wait for the new Norge 1200’s launch but what I found in my mailbox the other day was an invite for the 2006 launch of umpteen new models. Hard bags this, soft bags that; it seemed at first an invite to see all the new accessorizing options for Nevadas, Californias and such but buried in the long list were the magic numbers: 850’s in Breva and Griso trim.
On to Mandello then.
Arriving too late for the speeches, I grab the press release and am happy to discover that these new 850’s are big-block rather than small-block based. To all those who are new to Guzziology, big block means engines based on the 72′ 750 Sport mill which gave birth to the old 850, 1000 and current 1100. The small block family, on the other hand, started in `77 as a 500 and appeared also as a 350, 650 and 750. So essentially these 850’s are shrunken 1100cc power units, with the reduction in displacement achieved by de-stroking the 1100 engine while maintaining the 92mm bore. A new crankshaft with a stroke of only 66mm rather 80mm means that Guzzi could keep the same cylinder heads, valve sizes etc. in order to obtain the smaller displacement without too much re-tooling.
Serious Guzzisti might notice that the 92mm X 66mm dimensions are quite different from the 83 X 87 bore/stroke of the old 850’s like my `81 LeMans III. I don my engineer hat, and with my old slide ruler arrive at the mind-boggling conclusion that this new engine is running a bore to stroke ratio of 1.4:1! That’s a hell of an undersquare motor, right there in R1 or ZX-10 territory. That said, 1150cc “airhead” BMWs with their 101 X 70.5 engine dimensions also have an extreme 1.4:1 bore to stroke ratio.
Although the main difference between the 850 Griso and its big 1100cc brother is internal, there are a few tell-tale signs that set the two bikes apart. In the 850 Griso, the low side-mounted oil cooler has been omitted, making the whole bike look leaner and cleaner. The frame is now painted in black (silver on the 1100), while the power/gearbox/swingarm unit is painted in a light shade of aluminum. The bright red body parts compliment these colors wonderfully and the overall visual impact is quite exquisite in my humble opinion.
Nevertheless, I am feeling a bit strange, sitting on top of this great-looking tool, a bit worried of what this 850cc mill is going to feel like. Luckily, the twisting roads around Mandello make me forget about bore and stroke dimensions. The quick and sporty handling manners I experienced on the 1100 version are all here, intact. Two or three corners into the ride and my confidence level is sky-high; just lean the thing into peg-scraping angles and smile.
The strange riding position with the low and forward bars is all about Power Cruising poise while the response from the frame, suspension, tires and brakes is pure supersport. There’s something subversive about this strange combination. The wide handlebars let you throw the 850 Griso into turns with ease, the high-ish footpegs give truckloads of cornering clearance, and even when at a low lean angle, the thing tracks very well.
The thing is that when the turn ends you usually gas it and accelerate. In the 1100cc version of the Griso I’ve already noticed the need to use high revs for what it is after all a big twin and this 850 version is requires even more RPMs. OK, knowing beforehand about the extreme bore to stroke ratio, I might have been a little conditioned. Remembering how torquey my old 850 LM III felt couldn’t have helped either but still, I feel the Griso 850 deserved a state of tune with more mid range pull as well as longer gearing. The new six-speed `box I’ve met on the 1100 Griso/Breva is really good but with the shorter gearing of the smaller engine I found myself having to dance on the gear lever more than I wanted to. During a break between photo shoots, I manage to clock a few miles on a fast flowing highway and discover that indeed, at 100 mph the engine is turning about 7000 rpm and it feels much too busy. Even a mild 85-mph cruise has the revs at a not-so-relaxed 5600 rpm. Going back to the dry numbers, with such a small gap between peak power and peak torque revs (7600 and 7000 rpm) you can indeed see that this short-stroke motor loves revs in a very non-Guzzi like manner. I understand the intention to milk good power from a smaller motor but I think that a milder state of tune would have suited this otherwise excellent Small-Big-Twin power cruiser much better.
After the so-so impressions I got from the 850 Griso, I wasn’t expecting much from the 850 Breva, but maybe just because of that I got a pleasant surprise. The 850 Griso is easy to spot from the 1100 version but there’s little to tell the 850 Breva from its 1100 brother. Other than a lighter silver shade for the mechanical parts, they are almost the same. This stealth approach works for the Breva 850’s benefit; call it intelligent understatement if you like. While parking the 850 Breva next to the 850 Griso it’s easy to see how the Breva indeed plays the good Boy Scout part while the Griso is the smooth-talking Italian stud.
Switch rides and the extreme difference in riding position hits you. After the canted forward/high footpeg stance of the Griso, the Breva feels downright enduro erect. It has lower pegs, a higher and closer handlebar, and a soft and accommodating saddle. Most of the difference between the Breva and Griso resides in the cycle side of things but as soon as you start rolling you discover that the Breva is just as user-friendly as the Griso and just as cooperative in the twisty bits.
Where the Breva really stands out from the 850 Griso is in the engine department. Crack the throttle open and judging by my seat-of-the-pants dyno, the 850cc mill in the Breva simply pulls harder and from lower down the rev range; there simply seems to be more torque available. Overall, the Breva feels like a much more complete do-it-all, a true roadster in the mold of old Guzzis and the newer BMW R1150R.
Later on I take the 850 Breva to a stretch of open road and notice that at 100 mph the revs showing are just 6500 rpm. Ah! See? Gearing is taller by eight percent and it does help the perceived torqueyness from the engine. The trouble is that when I asked a Guzzi road tester about the issue, he looked at me with disbelief and told me that the Breva and Griso are geared the same. How strange, that’s not what I felt or see but I could be wrong.
Whatever the gearing might be, I know what I felt and what I felt was that with the more relaxed riding experience of good-boy-Breva, I felt less of a need to wring the thing’s neck and that this is the case where indeed, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Just like the 1100cc big brother, the 850 Breva is one sweet, sweet ride. It’s extremely comfy, has plenty of room for the big guys, turns/brakes/absorbs/accelerates just fine, and is a worthy heir to the good old T3’s and T5’s of yore. Indeed, after spending more time on this extremely well balanced and well sorted 850 Breva, the frantic manners of the small Griso became even more notable. Hey Guzzi! Just give the little Griso some taller gearing and it’ll be fine.
To end my Guzzi fest I choose to place my sorry behind on a good old California saddle, in its oh-so-American “Vintage” version. If I recall right, I’ve ridden a California only once in my life. Now, MOfos might not know this but I am not a very big fan of cruisers, but as a true Guzzista, I must acknowledge the fact that the California has played a very important role in Moto Guzzi history and economic fate.
It was back in `67 when somebody in Mandello understood that to make it big in the American market, they’d better offer what Americans want: size, heft and luxurious looks. Way before the Big Four ever thought of making cruisers to go head on with H-D, Guzzi sent its Ambassadors, El Dorados, and later on the California to the US market. With their high handlebars, wide floorboards, engulfing fenders and big twin mills, the Guzzi cruisers brought much-needed foreign currency to Mandello. Later on, the Italian twins served in the famous LAPD [with the SFPD, too: watch Magnum Force(1973) to see Dirty Harry face down some Guzzi-mounted renegade vigilante cops. These early `70s Guzzis were remarkable for their ability to turn into Triumph scramblers in mid-air.- Editor], so unless you know about Guzzi’s long cruiser building history, these Italian customs might look a bit odd.
Odd they might be, but they sure know how to build a proper scoot down in Mandello and they can hustle like few cruisers can. Heading back to lunch at the Al-Verde Hotel, our group leader, a Guzzi test rider, simply twists the throttle and proceeds to attack the super fast sweepers leading back to Mandello at full speed…
That means never dropping to less than 110 mph… on a California “Vintage”. The rest of the journos on 850 Brevas and Grisos do their best to keep up with the guy through the fast dark tunnels but he’s putting a hell of a show. OK, the guy knows these roads like the back of his hand, but I can’t think of many cruisers that could hold such a pace without twitching.
Later on, when I get my chance to ride the Vintage, I can see where he’s getting his confidence. The riding position is plain funny. Perched low on the seat, the footboards place my shins next to the valve covers! On any other Guzzi it’s my knees that kiss the covers! Look at the pictures and see how funny my 6’4″ frame looks on the low Vintage.
Yet, two other things become clear within a couple of turns. First, the California’s frame is not all that different the one on my Le-Mans III and forms a hell of a rigid cage. Secondly, this thing’s suspension is far from being mushy and the bike settles down very well at high lean angles. Add to the above a very wide handlebar that supplies plenty of leverage and you’ll start to see why throwing the California into turns is such child’s play. OK, very tight hairpins are not its forte–it’s just too long– but on a typical mountain road like the one I am riding the Vintage feels like a very well-trained Elephant that knows how to dance gracefully without losing its poise. This Cali could teach many much newer cruisers a lesson or two about handling.
If there’s an area where the California does show its real vintage origins, it’s in the gearbox department. After sampling the smooth action of the new six-speed `boxes, the old 5 speed tranny shows its four decades of age with its “agricultural” shifting action. As if that wasn’t enough, up shifts are done with your heel on the rocking gear lever; just as well, because footboards mean that using the rear brake requires you to lift your foot up in the air. It sounds primitive, feels primitive and is simply a chore on narrow and twisty roads. On more flowing roads this becomes much less of an issue. Just don’t forget that this version is called “vintage” and as such, the vintage experience is all there, intact.
Back to the hardware. The California has received a host of internal mechanical updates from the revamped 1100cc engine of the Breva. The accessories that set the Vintage version apart are mainly decorative; stainless steel fenders, a huge 50’s Duo-Glide style shield, Classy hard luggage and extra running lights. The black and white paint scheme harkens back to the days of the T3 and T5 with their color-coordinated seat covers. As a non-expert on cruiser style all I can say is that the Vintage looks Cruiser enough for me without ever falling into being a Harley copycat. With its across-the-frame V-Twin mill, the California has its very own identity and there aren’t that many metric cruisers that can sustain such a claim.
So the California has its own special look but as I zoom in, I find some disturbing details. Too many plain steel sheet panels shut off unsightly gaps or cover up other components. Maybe a true cruiser guy wouldn’t even blink upon seeing these, maybe he’ll be happy; another piece that can be chromed or polished! Sorry, useless beautifying covers are just not my cup of tea.
Leaving cosmetics alone, the 90-degree mill has a lot going for it, like a distinct lack of vibration, (at least by narrow angle Big V-Twin standards) and good power thanks to its relative short stroke. 1100 cubic centimeters aren’t much in today’s cruiser world and next to a 1800 Honda VTX or 1450 H-D, the 1100 might lack in down-low pull. Yet in a comparative dyno run carried out by an Italian magazine, the 1100cc Goose’s 66 rwhp @ 6500 rpm trounced the 56 rwhp at 5500 rpm of a stock 1450 Harley. The Cali is strong, but it just delivers its power higher up the rev range than most other cruisers.
Couple this power with longish gearing, and the Vintage is more at home fast cruising rather than slow blatt-blatting along congested boulevards. Most non-American cruisers make me feel a bit uneasy while riding them, like I’d rather not be seen on one by anybody I know. I guess it’s an authenticity issue. Well, I have no such issues with the California and that in itself is quite remarkable.